In his recent lectures in New Delhi, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat used words that substantially qualified his utterances of the last few years. For instance, while addressing a Virat Hindu Sammelan in Kolkata to mark the golden jubilee of the VHP in December 2014, he had supported the ghar wapsi movement vigorously. He said, “We will bring back our brothers who have lost their way. They did not go on their own. They were robbed, tempted into leaving. Now the thief has been caught and the world knows my belongings are with the thief. I will retrieve my belongings, so why is this such a big issue?” In November 2017, addressing a three-day Dharam Sansad of Hindu religious leaders organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Udupi, Bhagwat spoke in the same vein. “On the Ramjanmabhoomi, the Ram Mandir alone will be built. Nothing else will be built. It will be built in the same form with the same stones and will be built by the same people who fought for it 20 to 25 years ago. This is not a populist announcement. It is an expression of our mind. This is a firm fact and is not going to change,’’ he said. However, last week, Bhagwat explained that the “Hindu Rashtra does not mean it has no place for Muslims. The day it is said that Muslims are unwanted here, the concept of Hindutva will cease to exist”.
There are two ways of reading Bhagwat’s statements. They may reflect a recognition of the religious and cultural diversity of India. Since Bhagwat also expressed his “respect” for the Indian Constitution, in which secularism is enshrined in the preamble and several articles, his definition of the Hindu Rashtra may indeed reflect his respect for the motto of the Republic, “unity in diversity”.
Another interpretation takes us to the meaning of “Hindutva”, a term coined by V D Savarkar. In Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, faith is not referred to as an identity marker in contrast to ethnicity (Savarkar uses the word “race”), territory, language and rituals (subsumed in the notion of “sanskriti”). “Hindutva”, therefore, refers to a national identity relying on four pillars and all nationals are requested to pay allegiance to India as their fatherland (pitrbhoomi) and sacred land (punyabhoomi).
Such a definition of the nation, prima facie, excludes the Christians and the Muslims because they are supposed to pay allegiance to their original sacred sites, Rome, Mecca, etc. The Hindu nationalists, since Savarkar, have reproached them for what they see as anti-national loyalties. Surprisingly, the Hindu nationalists do not criticise Indian Shias for asking Imams from Qom and Najaf to guide them through fatwas. In fact, Shias and Bohras are considered full-fledged nationals despite their Muslimness. As a result of their perception of Sunnis, many Hindu nationalists think that the former would never join the mainstream and that they are bound to live separately in ghettoes, remain invisible in the mainstream or leave the country.
But some Hindu nationalist ideologues have tried to incorporate them and the RSS has made some attempts in this direction. After spending months in jail with Jamaat-e-Islami activists during the Emergency, RSS leaders opened their organisation to non-Hindus. More recently, in 2002, a senior RSS leader, Indresh Kumar, initiated a Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), which — according to the organisation’s website — seeks to explore a third way, other than that advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and Hindu Mahasabha. For Kumar, there should be no “scope for confrontation” between Hindus and Muslims as they share the same ancestors (and therefore the same blood), the same motherland and the same culture. Interestingly, Walter Andersen and Sridhar Damle in The RSS: A View to the Inside explain that the MRM has not been accepted by the RSS as a Sangh Parivar affiliate. This is because some Hindu nationalists do not believe in any kind of “assimilation” of Muslims.
But what would assimilation mean for the MRM anyway? The first convention of the organisation in 2003 passed a resolution demanding a total ban of cow slaughter. Recently, Indresh Kumar went further and asked Muslims to stop eating beef to end the lynchings. The second national convention of the MRM in 2004 recommended the abolition of Article 370. Subsequently, the MRM also passed a resolution in favour of the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Kumar claims the Babri Masjid was “not a mosque but Islam ki tauheen (insult to Islam)” because it was built in the name of one individual.
The MRM, in fact, complies with the mainstays of Hindu nationalism and the anti-assimilationist school of thought to a large extent. Since Hindutva, being a national identity and a way of life, does not have anything to do with faith and spirituality, Muslims can continue to follow Islam. However, they will need to pay allegiance to symbols of identity that are regarded as Hindu (at least by the minorities) though the RSS deems them as national. It is in this context that the Sangh leaders use “Bharatiya” when connotations of the term, “Hindu” are to be avoided. It is, probably, in that sense that Bhagwat recently said “everyone living in India is a Hindu”.
Mainstreaming of the minorities, as per this perspective, does not mean recognition of diversity; after all, Muslims and Christians have been asked to change their diet and privatise their rituals, including offering prayers publicly or sacrificing goats for Id in their locality.
Therefore, Bhagwat’s recent speeches may be deemed a turning point only if they translate into a recognition of Islam, not only as a faith Muslims would be allowed to practice privately, along with the public observation of Bharatiya/Hindu traditions, but as one of the religions of India, on par with others, as indicated by the Constitution of 1950, a document that is neither anti-religion nor irreligious, but protects all creeds.
To some extent, the Indian brand of secularism enshrined in the Constitution accomodates the categories that Hindutva offers to the Muslims anyway. Indian Muslims have revered indeed India as a sacred land for centuries by worshiping local Sufi saints whose tombs have been their favourite pilgrimage centres. These, incidentally, are also places revered by Hindus as well. Sacredness, after all, knows no communal boundaries.