A RECENT meeting between RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and five Muslim intellectuals addressed issues ranging from cow slaughter to the use of derogatory references, with the two sides resolving to meet periodically to continue dialogue on issues affecting both communities.
Scheduled for half-an-hour but stretching for 75 minutes, the meeting held at the RSS’s makeshift Delhi office, Udaseen Ashram, a month ago included Bhagwat and Sah Sarkaryavah Krishna Gopal of the Sangh and former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi; ex-Delhi Lt Governor Najeeb Jung; former AMU vice-chancellor and Lt Gen (retd) Zameer Uddin Shah; RLD leader Shahid Siddiqui; and businessman Saeed Shervani.
Quraishi and Siddiqui told The Indian Express that the talks were held in a very cordial atmosphere. “After the meeting, Bhagwat appointed four senior functionaries to keep in touch with the Muslim community on a regular basis. On our side, we are reaching out to Muslim intellectuals, journalists, writers and professionals to keep this dialogue with the RSS going,’’ Siddiqui said.
Quraishi, who initiated the dialogue, said: “He (Bhagwat) told us that people were unhappy about cow slaughter and words like kafir (used for non-Muslims). In response, we said that we are also concerned with that, and if someone is involved in cow slaughter, he must be punished under the law. We told him that kafir is used for non-believers in Arabic and this is not an issue which can’t be resolved… We told him that we also feel sad when any Indian Muslim is termed a Pakistani or jehadi.”
Quraishi said they also questioned the frequent vilification of Muslims, particularly the propaganda about their population and practice of polygamy, reinforcing negative stereotypes about the community.
Siddiqui, the RLD national vice-president, said they had first sought a meeting with the RSS when the Nupur Sharma incident took place (the BJP spokesperson spoke out against the Prophet, leading to her suspension from the party, and violence at several places). “We felt a toxic atmosphere had been created due to the incident, within the Muslim community as well. However, by the time we received a date for meeting Mohan Bhagwat, it was already a month since the Nupur Sharma incident, and it had died down quite a bit. So we discussed matters of communal disharmony between the two communities,” he told The Indian Express.
While RSS prachar pramukh Sunil Ambekar declined to comment on the meeting, a source in the Sangh said Bhagwat gives such appointments to whoever asks for them.
The Muslim representatives told Bhagwat that they wanted to keep in touch over such issues, and the RSS chief advised them to be in contact with Krishna Gopal, Indresh Kumar and Ramlal. While Indresh Kumar is the ‘marg darshak’ of the RSS’s Muslim Rashtriya Manch, founded in December 2002, ‘sampark pramukh’ Ramlal oversees the Sangh’s outreach programmes such as this.
Quraishi said they came away impressed. “We realised that he (Bhagwat) is a patient listener and lives very simply. We were much impressed with the fact that despite being so powerful, he lives in a very simple room with very simple furniture, etc.”
The former CEC said the talks were very cordial. “We discussed that 99 per cent of Indian Muslims have not come from the outside but got converted here. Bhagwat said while Hindus worship statues, Indian Muslims also pray at kabra (grave)… For the progress of the country, communal harmony is a must, we all agreed.”
Quraishi said that while they had not decided the next step, “we will be in touch”, and that they would also talk about what was discussed at the meeting with others.
Siddiqui said that in the vitiated atmosphere, “when even small issues spiral out of control”, it was essential to put across the voice of “the middle class and educated Muslim”. “We felt that we must relay our voice, build bridges with everyone, but in particular the RSS since they have a tremendous impact on public opinion, especially in North India.”
The RLD leader said that while both the leaders of the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, Arshad Madani and Mahmood Madani, have met with Bhagwat in the past, “really no Muslim organisation is regularly in touch with the RSS to raise concerns of the community”.
The five who met Bhagwat on behalf of the Muslim community had come together a year ago to launch an Alliance for Education and Economic Development of Underprivileged – an organisation that has been working in education, particularly on bringing madrasas into mainstream modern education.
Siddiqui said that when they met Bhagwat, the survey of madrasas ordered by Uttar Pradesh was not an issue. “So we did not raise it. However, since it is a field we work in, we did raise concerns about the perception regarding madrasas, and they told us that they did not have any issues with madrasas,” he said.
While various outfits of the Sangh keep raising issues seen as directed against Muslims, Bhagwat has made similar overtures towards the community before.
In September 2018, during a three-day lecture series at Delhi, Bhagwat said there could be no “Hindu Rashtra” without Muslims in India and that Hindutva encompasses fraternity and unity in diversity, and was “the basic thought of all communities residing in India”.
During the event, Bhagwat had also distanced himself from M S Golwalkar’s ‘Bunch of Thoughts’, which referred to Muslims “shatru (enemy)”. “As far as Bunch of Thoughts goes, every statement carries a context of time and circumstance… his enduring thoughts are in a popular edition in which we have removed all remarks that have a temporary context and retained those that will endure for ages. You won’t find the (Muslim-is-an-enemy) remark there,” he said.
However, the RSS annual report of 2022, released on March 15, talked of religious fanaticism growing in the guise of “Constitution and religious freedom”. It also talked of “elaborate plans” by “a particular community to enter the government machinery”, which was seen as a reference to minorities.
Months later, in his first remarks on the row over the Gyanvapi mosque, now part of a court hearing, Bhagwat questioned the need to “look for a Shivling in every mosque (har masjid mein Shivling kyun dekhna)” and said the RSS was not in favour of launching any other movement (andolan) on these issues.