Muslim organisations are split over the recent meeting between RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and representatives of the community. While some have welcomed the chance at increased dialogue, calling it the need of the hour, others feel the meeting was no more than “optics”.
Last month, five eminent members of the Muslim community — former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi, former Lt Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung, RLD vice-president Shaheed Siddiqui, former AMU Vice Chancellor and Lt General (retd) Zameer Uddin Shah, and businessman Saeed Shervani – had met Bhagwat, where the two sides took up each other’s concerns and resolved to have periodic such meetings.
Last week, Bhagwat followed this up with a meeting with the Chief Imam of the All India Imam Organisation(AIIO), Umer Ilyasi, at a mosque. Ilyasi, who referred to Bhagwat as “rashtra pita” after the meeting, told The Indian Express that the talks hoped to create “communal harmony”.
Questioning these gestures, the executive member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), Qasim Rasool Ilyas, told The Indian Express that if Bhagwat and the RSS really wanted to reach out to the Muslim community, they would get in touch with organisations that actually have influence and following — such as the AIMPLB or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind or the Jamaat-e-Islami.
“Bhagwat has never got in touch with us or any of these organisations in the past 20 years,” Ilyas said.
He also questioned the issues raised at the meetings with the RSS. “All those who have met Bhagwat from the Muslim community have said that these meetings have been convivial. But the fact is that in the past eight years (of the Modi government), there have been hate speeches against Muslims in India, open calls for Muslim genocide, threats of rape against Mulsim women, as well as a controversy surrounding the hijab and issues around mosques like Gyanvapi. Bhagwat has never issued statements around these issues. Nor has the BJP-led government, to which the RSS is a mentor. The RSS has not instructed that these activities against the Muslim community stop, nor has it instructed the government to take any action. In that case, these goodwill meetings are just hollow gestures,” Ilyas said, adding: “Its (the RSS’s) silence is louder than its so-called outreach.”
Members across organisations also point out that Chief Imam Umer Ilyas, with whom Bhagwat met, has little standing within the Muslim community. One member said Ilyas was not even a recognised Islamic scholar. Another said he has always been “pro-government” so as to ensure perks and benefits for imams.
The AIIO claims to be “the largest Muslim organisation in India”, representing half-a-million imams across three lakh mosques in India.
A Muslim leader who did not want to be identified said: “When the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, the Muslim community across India that had always supported the Congress, boycotted the party. In order to bring the community back within its fold, then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao approached Ilyasi’s father Jamil Ahmed Ilyasi, who formed the AIIO. It was Jamil Ahmed who got the government to give salaries to imams. Otherwise these salaries were given by foundations and through donations. Ever since, the AIIO has always been close to the ruling party. They don’t hold a standing in the community.”
Umer Ilyas, in fact, has met Prime Minister Narendra Modi too on several occasions, after their first meeting in 2018, as well as Home Minister Amit Shah. He has shared the platform with movie star Amitabh Bachhan and met prominent Hindu spiritual leaders including Jagadish Vasudev (Sadhguru) and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Other leaders, however, feel that raising doubts about Ilyas’s credentials is missing the point, and that building bridges with the RSS is much-needed for a community that now feels constantly under attack.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind secretary Niaz Ahmed Farooqui said they “welcome Bhagwat’s initiative”. “The RSS should have reached out earlier. The RSS has a strong influence in the country; whether this influence is right or wrong is another matter. But we don’t believe that even the RSS wants the country to be divided, disunited.’’
Farooqui added that the Muslim community needs to focus on “real” issues. “One of our main concerns in recent times has been the backwardness of Muslims, and the lack of opportunities for the community, especially in terms of education and employment. The community is so distracted and occupied with other issues that it is not concentrating on what is important. Even if the meeting was simply symbolic, it was still a step forward,” he said.
Darul Uloom Deoband’s Arshad Madani, who is also the president of one of the two factions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, himself met Bhagwat three years ago. “These meetings have always taken place, there is nothing new,’’ he said, adding that his meeting with the RSS chief was also held in a “good atmosphere’’. Bhagwat has “nothing against Muslims”.
However, Madani refused to disclose the specifics of his meeting with Bhagwat.
Among the Muslim leaders who has been the most vocal against the recent RSS meeting is AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi. He called the five who met Bhagwat “Muslim elites’’ out of touch with reality.
Addressing some of the accusations against the five of them in an opinion piece in The Indian Express, Quraishi wrote: “Do we represent the community? Maybe not. Nobody has elected or selected us. But we are also the community. We have our perceptions and observations. It was our individual initiative. Are we elitist? Possibly… We are not illiterate. We are equally aware of the ground realities: Incidents of lynching; calls for genocide; rapes; economic boycott; questioning of voting rights, and discrimination in getting houses or jobs.”
Sources in the RSS say similar meetings are planned in the coming days. A source said: “The RSS has been reaching out to the Muslim community since 2002, so there is nothing new in that (that was the year, post the Gujarat riots, that the Muslim Rashtriya Manch was started by the RSS). What you are seeing now is the impact of 20 years of work. Of course, both the RSS and Muslim organisations feel the need for dialogue more now, which is why we are seeing increased meetings by the RSS chief. When problems arise, then dialogue is the only way to resolve them. Unless you meet, how can you resolve issues?”
About what had changed, the RSS source said: “The RSS now represents a large section of the Hindu society. Earlier, the Hindus were disorganised and disunited, unlike the Muslim community which was very organised. The priority for the RSS then was to organise the Hindus. Only after that could we hold meetings and conduct dialogues with other communities – only once we had sufficient strength.”