On 4 July, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh supremo Mohan Bhagwat seemingly reinterpreted Hindutva at the launch of Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed’s book, The Meeting of Minds: A Bridging Initiative. A month later, Bhagwat’s speech has continued to invite praises and analyses from the intelligentsia, particularly its Muslim segment. They have largely perceived Bhagwat’s speech as a harbinger of the RSS relinquishing or softening its traditional position of belligerence against Muslims, apart from blurring the distinction between religions born in India and those outside.
There were several headline-size sentences in Bhagwat’s 4 July speech. Some of these were: DNA of all Indians are the same, irrespective of religion. Those involved in lynching are against Hindutva. Don’t get trapped in the cycle of fear that Islam is in danger in India. We are in a democracy; there cannot be domination of Hindus. Discord cannot be a solution. Dialogue alone can be a solution. All citizens are Bharatiyas.
Most analysts have largely ignored two aspects of Bhagwat’s speech. One of these relates to his remark that “dialogue alone can be a solution” to the Hindu-Muslim discord. But it is also true that no dialogue can be meaningful unless the nature of the discord is dissected and understood.
In the RSS worldview, the genesis of the Hindu-Muslim discord lies in the advent of Muslim rule in India. Muslim rulers are accused of subjugating the Hindus, forcibly converting millions to Islam, and demolishing temples. These wounds from the past supposedly continue to throb today. The only way to heal the wounds of the past, the RSS believes, is to reclaim some of the holy Hindu sites allegedly appropriated by Muslims in the past.
This logic was inherent in the dispute over Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid, which was said to have been built at the spot where Lord Ram was born. This logic also underlies a Varanasi court’s order that the Archaeological Survey of India should survey the Gyanvapi Mosque compound to find whether it was an alteration or addition to “any other religious structure”, presumably the adjacent Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Then there is the demand to remove or shift the Shahi Eidgah mosque from the vicinity of the Krishna Janmasthan temple in Mathura.
These demands are as good as asking Muslims for reparations for the alleged misdeeds of rulers belonging to their community. The list of misdeeds of Muslims has grown over time—they are held solely responsible for the Partition and its violence, accused of faking love for Hindu girls and marrying them to carry out love jihad, and siring children to alter India’s demography. Their religion is said to incline them to violence and terrorism. The perfidy of Muslims is said to be most evident from their insistence to slaughter cows, in complete disregard for Hindu sentiments.
Hindu-Muslim differences have always been a feature of India’s socialscape. These were largely localised, episodic and often resolved through the intervention of political parties or civil society groups. But as the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party grew in strength over the last 30-40 years, they turned these differences into a perennial discord, for which the only solution, Bhagwat now believes, is dialogue.
The contemporary Hindu-Muslim discord is largely the making of the Sangh. The demons stoking the discord lurk in the RSS’s imagination, so to speak. The RSS on its own can lay these demons to rest. The RSS will not do so because of its fear of alienating its cadres. The RSS must also establish its ideological supremacy. And now, it has the power to pummel Muslims into accepting its demands.
But this method will entail a cost, both at home and abroad. It is so much better to have Muslims voluntarily accept the demands of the RSS. Bhagwat’s prescription of dialogue is a mechanism through which the weak can be persuaded to accept the unreasonable demands of the strong. The onus is on the potential victims to douse the fire of discord, which the RSS fanned, before it burns them.
The second aspect most analysts have ignored about Bhagwat’s speech is the platform from which he spoke. Khwaja’s book was launched in a programme organised by the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), which the RSS launched in 2002 for reaching out to Muslims. Yet the RSS is wary of describing the MRM as its affiliate. This is because of the divergence of opinion regarding the MRM in the Sangh, as Walter K Andersen and Sridhar D Damle note in their book, The RSS: A View to the Inside.
One school of thought in the RSS says it makes no sense to reach out to Muslims through the MRM. This is because the “long history of Islam shows that communal and religious identity will always take precedence over national identity [for Muslims].” The RSS, therefore, should Hinduise Muslims. The method to achieve this goal is conversion, popularly known as ghar wapsi. This school of thought envisages an adversarial relationship between the RSS and Muslims.
The second school of thought says the RSS must form the MRM to represent its unique way of bringing Muslims into the national mainstream. Until the MRM’s formation, there were two dominant attitudes towards Muslims. These were the Congress’s policy of appeasing Muslims, and the extreme Hindu Right’s rejection of them as citizens as long as they followed their own religion.
In contrast to Hinduising Muslims or appeasing them, the MRM is to be the vehicle for Indianising Muslims. Andersen and Damle quote from MRM co-convenor Virag Pachpore’s article that defines the third way thus: “Muslim in India are [an] integral part of the Indian society and share ancestors, culture and motherland with the Hindus. The need is to make them realise this underlying current of unity in diversity….”
How are Muslims to realise the underlying current of unity in diversity? They can do so by accepting certain pet obsessions of the RSS. Thus, at its first convention in 2003, the MRM passed a resolution demanding a total ban on cow slaughter. This resolution was in response to certain states permitting the slaughter of cows above 14 years old or are ill or too old to work. In 2004, the MRM demanded the abrogation of Article 370. In 2012, the MRM presented a memorandum to the President of India, apparently signed by a million Muslims, to impose a total ban on cow slaughter.
The MRM, according to Andersen and Damle, also published a pamphlet claiming that neither the Prophet nor the Quran directs Muslims to engage in cow slaughter or consume beef. This claim was elaborated upon by Indresh Kumar, the RSS pracharak who is styled as the MRM’s patron, in a 2017 interview with Rediff.com. Kumar said the Quran’s longest chapter is titled Al-Baqara or The Cow, thereby signifying its sacredness; that Al Baqara talks about various diseases, that the Quran bans cow slaughter, and that there is a hadith (or saying of the Prophet) that the Prophet refused to eat beef when it was offered to him once.
Kumar is wrong on all counts. Al-Baqara does not talk of diseases. It is instead a medley of parables, stories of other prophets, and lays down principles for marriage, divorce, charity and usury. Each chapter in the Quran is named after a word occurring in it. The Quran has chapters titled The Ant, The Pen, The Spider, etc. None of these, as is also not the cow, is considered holy. The cow is mentioned twice in Al-Baqara, once in the context of sacrifice. This chapter (Verse 173) also lists out food prohibited to Muslims. Beef is not on the list.
The Quran does not prohibit the slaughter of cattle. Verse 71-72 of Chapter 36 says God created “cattle” so that people can use some of them to travel and some to “eat”. The Prophet is not recorded to have refused a beef dish. He had, though, desisted from eating the meat of monitor lizard, which is called goh in Hindi. It is possible Kumar confused goh for gau or cow, as a professor of theology at Aligarh Muslim University said might have been the case.
Or Kumar simply chose to spin a tale, RSS style.
As such, Kumar has shown a remarkable propensity to shoot his mouth. In January 2020, he said those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act were “misled by the devil”. A year earlier, Kumar said Naseeruddin Shah and Aamir Khan “may be good actors but they don’t deserve respect as they are traitors. They are like Mir Jafar and Jaichand.” In 2018, he said lynching will stop once “the sin of killing cows ends.” In 2017, when then Vice President Hamid Ansari spoke of a sense of insecurity among Muslims, Kumar suggested Ansari should “go and live in a country where he feels secure”.
The past of the RSS and the MRM’s agenda undercuts writer Sudheendra Kulkarni’s argument that Bhagwat’s 4 July speech is yet another attempt of his to “advance his agenda of glasnost or openness and perestroika, restructuring, within his organisation”. As for the Muslim intelligentsia, its welcoming of Bhagwat’s speech is flawed and seems an insult to all those who languish in jail for their opposition to the Sangh’s brand of majoritarian politics.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.