Former Delhi Lt Governor Najeeb Jung, who was among the five Muslim intellectuals who met Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat last month in Delhi, tells The Indian Express that the Sangh chief feels “a complete need for reconciliation” between Hindus and Muslims is imperative for India’s progress. Jung talks about how this reconciliation will happen, why he is “looking for a way forward rather than looking back at history”, and the concerns raised by the Gyanvapi and Mathura issues.
What prompted this initiative?
The fact is there is an enormous need for reconciliation and rapprochement now. You cannot have a country like India with concerns of bad intra-communal relations. Not with the minorities going up to like almost 20 per cent (including Christians and Sikhs). What I am saying is obvious to all right-thinking Indians and the Sangh is the largest organisation that has huge command over non-Muslims in India. Therefore, it was a good starting point to talk to the chief of the Sangh and put out our concerns, hear his concerns, and take the matter forward on how we can come across a rapprochement and improve relations between communities. I requested time and he was gracious to grant us time and we sat with him for a long, long time. These are early times. We are not meeting in secrecy as people are saying but the subject of discussion must be respected because these are not supposed to be in the public domain since these are early times. We are discussing a lot of issues.
When you say you are discussing, does that mean you have had several rounds of meetings so far?
This was the first meeting. I had actually met the sarsanghchalak (Bhagwat) two years ago but I did not take that conversation forward because of the limitations of Covid-19. Therefore, we thought this was the right time to go ahead. We had a free-and-frank discussion on all kinds of things. It was a freewheeling discussion. I think that he and the senior hierarchy of the Sangh are on the same page as us that we need reconciliation and rapprochement, that this cannot be allowed to continue and so steps should be taken to improve relations.
That’s the feeling you came out with after the meeting?
Not just feeling, we came out with these words from the sarsanghchalak that there is a complete need for reconciliation. He endorses this view.
How will that reconciliation happen?
Like I said, these are early days. We are going to have meetings across the country. We will meet many people. We will meet journalists, intellectuals, Muslim clerics, Hindus, and Christian padres and then be able to establish a common meeting ground. And then there are issues that stand out irritating the others. And those issues have to be ironed out and each other’s point of view has to be explained and understood. That’s the way forward.
On Thursday, we saw the RSS chief visiting mosques and madrasas in Delhi. Was this something that was discussed in the meeting?
No. But this only gives strength to my argument that he agrees with the way forward.
Did you also ask him to convey your message to the government?
No, we are capable of conveying our own views to the ruling party. He has an organisation to manage, he has a large following to manage. He will talk to his followers and he may talk to the government, that’s his choice. And we may talk to the government, that’s our choice
Many view the RSS as a force that is antithetical to the spirit of pluralism, inclusiveness and secular ethos. What is your message or how should they read your engagement with the organisation?
I am sending out no message. I am sending out that all Indians are one. And that any antipathy must come to an end. If the RSS has strong views about something, then there can also be Muslims and Christians who have strong views about something. We are here to iron out those differences. We are very small, humble people. We are not big politicians heading a political party. Our ambitions are also limited. We are going by our feeling that this is the right approach. We are putting behind us a lot of antipathy that we will carry. Why look at dark times, why not look at positive times ahead?
Many would argue that the RSS is responsible to a large extent for the atmosphere that you are saying needs to go.
That is not the message I got from Mr Bhagwat. He said as much as I am telling you. I am repeating his words that India has to go forward and that can happen when there is reconciliation, when all communities go hand in hand. That is the clear message he gave us. Not just a message, those were his words. History teaches us a lot of lessons and history also teaches us that we must look for a way forward, and to that end, I am looking for a way forward rather than looking back at history and criticising x,y, or z.
But do you believe that this message is percolating down to the RSS or BJP cadre?
If I did not feel that, then why would I be talking to them?
The Congress maintains that RSS represents politics of hate. Recently, the party put out a tweet showing the RSS uniform on fire. What is your take on that?
I am no politician. Political parties can take any stand. The Left can take a stand, the right can take a stand, the Congress is welcome to take a stand. I am nobody to comment on their methodology. This is a humble effort from some common citizens to attempt reconciliation and rapprochement between communities because we believe that is the only way forward for India to go ahead.
So, you feel that people in this country have hardened their positions?
Everyone seems to be hardening their positions. I don’t think that hardened positions help the situation. There has to be dialogue, which is the only way forward in the world. I am not the one who will close myself to dialogue.
What exactly are you expecting out of this engagement?
I expect if I do succeed, that if we convert this small initiative into a larger movement, people like you and others who are now questioning us come and join us. There is an Udru couplet — mai akele hi chala tha janaab e manzil, karvan banta gaya, log judte gaye. People will join us.
Going ahead, will your engagements be held in a structured form?
Yes, it is not hush-hush or behind closed doors. This is an initial attempt. We will be meeting larger groups of people. We have, in fact, already met some people. We will meet clerics. After all, a bulk of both communities follow clerics. We must convince the so-called neoliberals who think that talking to the RSS is incorrect.
You are referring to liberals?
Yes, the liberals of today will say why are you talking to the RSS? Why do you trust me? I will say, ‘Of course, I am going to talk to the RSS, my door is open.’ And I will talk to the right, to the Left, to priests and clerics and academics, and try to convince them that is the only way forward.
Will you also talk to political parties?
If need be, yes. I am not ruling out anything. Right now we have not engaged with any political party, we have no political backing at all. This is an effort of five individuals who thought that this is the starting point. We represent ourselves, we are concerned citizens. There is no political motive to this. We are not creating a political movement or a political party. We are not joining any political force.
In 2018, former President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters also sparked a debate. Many had criticised him saying the visit ended up legitimising the RSS worldview.
I am not concerned. Of the calls we have received, 80 per cent of Muslims and non-Muslims support this initiative. There is overwhelming support in India for the idea of reconciliation. This is the time that idea must come to fruition. I really believe that you cannot get away with saying that I don’t want to engage with x,y, or z when that x,y, and z are essential components for improving relations. President Mukherjee was a very wise man. He went there and you must understand he must have thought over very carefully about what he was doing. Perhaps, even in the back of his mind, the idea was to improve relations. We must engage, not only with the Sangh but also with the Jamat-e-Islami, the ulema of Deoband school. That is the way forward.
But why was the meeting kept under wraps?
It was not under wraps. Of course, we did not hold a press conference after the meeting. Why should we? We have had meetings with like-minded people. How do you think this thing leaked out to you? I have not reached out to you. Someone mentioned it and someone obviously is one of those he met with. There is a hush-hush thing about it but we are not tom-tomming.
What are Mohan Bhagwat’s concerns which he shared with you?
He did share his concerns. It would be premature for me to speak on what was discussed. The mutual agreement was that we will respect this for the time being till we find that the time is right. But we will be engaging with people on various issues.
In what form?
There will be meetings with like-minded and non-like-minded people across the spectrum. Because everyone has a point of view and from their perspective, their point of view is legitimate. So, if we feel that their point of view does not carry weight with us, we should convince them or they should convince us. It is a process of dialogue. It is not a process of confrontation or tu tu mai mai. This is a long haul. The history of poor communal relations goes back hundreds of years.
Why do you think we have reached a pass where there is a need for such a reconciliation?
India is on the forward move. I think that in the years to come we will find our place in the polity of nations in a prominent way. And, therefore, we must have peace in the nation. We have a neighbourhood that is relatively disturbed, and also a neighbourhood which is not very well-disposed towards us. So, I think that internal peace is absolutely essential in India. So, when we saw a vast array of instances, be it a spokesman of the ruling party making utterances that upset the others or the others going and taking a retaliatory measure on someone, I think the time has come that we talk sense. That is one reason we felt the need for an open dialogue.
In your dialogue with the Muslim community do you sense a feeling of alienation and anxiety?
I think Muslims are feeling the need for dialogue. I am convinced of that. I don’t think Muslims are feeling alienated, but I do think Muslims have a sense of hurt. That perhaps they are unfairly treated. If that is so, the government must address them.
You feel that is not correct? Are they not treated unfairly?
The perception is that obviously when you see something like the CAA, which leaves out the Muslim community, or if you see the repeated instances of bulldozing homes that belong to Muslims, then obviously there is a sense of great unease and that has to be addressed. It’s the government of the day that must address that.
With the Gyanvapi and Mathura issues surfacing, a new chapter is unfolding in the brand of politics that the Ram Mandir movement represented.
I think that Muslims are very concerned about it. Obviously, there is a large section of the Hindu population that is interested in Gyanvapi becoming a temple. And the same amount of Muslims are concerned that if you take it away then what happens to others? All those things need to be addressed around a table. Of course, Gyanvapi is now a court issue and that will be settled in the court, I guess. But there are other mosques, and there has to be a dialogue to settle all this.