- The dialogue between Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat and some distinguished Muslim leaders last summer holds the promise of building bridges between the estranged and polarized religious communities.
Due to its material richness, and civilizational advancement, the Indian subcontinent has been a target for foreign invaders. Many of those invaders were driven out, while some assimilated into the intricately interwoven fabric of the Bharatiya (Indian) culture. Unfortunately, the most destructive invasions started in 711 AD with Muhammad ibn al-Qasim, an Umayyad Caliphate general who invaded Sindh. After this, a long list of invasions occurred which left severe destruction of the culture, places of learning, and worship in their path. No ancient Hindu temple is intact in the entire northern half of India.
This was accompanied by the mostly forced conversion of the native Hindu population to Islam. The long-term effect of this multigenerational trauma on the public psyche was very severe. Towards the end of British rule, people of the subcontinent were free to make their own decision for the future. But instead of focusing on individual freedom, socioeconomic upliftment, and regional security, Muslims demanded the partition of the subcontinent with the resultant genocide during the forced migration and the continued violence in Kashmir.
The effect still resonates in the relationship between the Hindus and the Muslims who chose to remain in India (the Muslim population increased from 9.4 percent in 1951 to 14,2% in 1991 according to www.factly. in).
During the pre-independence period, Mahatma Gandhi attempted to build bridges between Hindu-Muslim communities through actions such as supporting the Khilafat Movement to modifying the famous Hindu bhajan Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram (adding the phrase Ishwar Allah Tero Naam to the lyrics). Many other well-known and not so known attempts were done. These failed miserably with the separation of the Islamic countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh and a secular India. The politics of division originally begun by the Britishers and continued by subsequent Indian political parties resulted in the fracture of trust between the two communities that together are inheritors of the rich cultural heritage of the entire subcontinent.
With the clear understanding that reconciliation and a united way forward are essential for the continued development of the entire population of India, recently a group of five prominent Indian Muslims initiated a meeting and subsequently met with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat on Aug 22, 2022, at the RSS office in New Delhi. What struck out about this meeting was that it was not followed by a news conference or a press release. But somehow the information about this meeting reached the media and led to a series of press interviews of these participants individually and in groups.
This article is based on multiple video interviews and news articles about this meeting. All the statements attributed to the RSS Sar Sanghachalak (chief) are quoted by the Muslim participants (with minimal paraphrasing by this author. Sources are listed below). The Muslim participants of this discussion (henceforth addressed as visitors —since they visited the RSS office) were Najeeb Jung, former Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Shahid Siddiqui, Editor of Nayi Duniya and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), former Deputy Chief of Army Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Zameer Uddin Shah and hotelier Saeed Shervani.
The visitors reiterated that “we are not politicians with large followings nor have received a mandate from any organization to represent the Indian Muslims, but this meeting was a humble effort from some common citizens to attempt reconciliation and rapprochement between two communities because we believe, that is the only way forward for India to go ahead, which is the desire of any nation loving Indian.” They believed that since the RSS is the largest organization of Hindus in the world, it was a good starting point to talk to the RSS chief and put out their concerns, hear his concerns, and take the matter forward on how together they can try to improve relations between communities and take steps to ensure there is no polarization between Hindus and Muslims.
The visitors hoped that if they successfully opened a dialogue, they could convert this small initiative into a larger movement, in which the people who are now skeptical would join them.
One interviewer Karan Thapar blatantly misinterpreted Mohan Bhagwat’s quote, “Every Indian is a Hindu” by saying that this means that it does not include all the Indian minorities, the largest of which are Muslims. Dr. Jung promptly corrected him saying, “It includes Muslims. Per Bhagwatji Muslims are part of the larger family. Bhagwat redefined the word Hindu to mean Bharatiya (meaning ‘of Bharat,’ the ancient name of the Indian subcontinent). I am repeating his words that India has to go forward and that can happen when there is reconciliation and when all communities go hand in hand. That is the clear message he (Mohan Bhagwat) gave us. Not just a message, those were his words.”
He further elaborated, “According to Bhagwat, we accept Muslims in the larger fold of Vedic Dharma, you can practice what you want, how u want.”
Part of this discussion was the open airing of the top grievances in the minds of both communities.
Hindu issues (per Mohan Bhagwat):
- Hindus feel aggrieved when a large number of Muslims call them Kaffirs (non-believers). The Muslims are not accepting of Hindus. Dr. Jung said that he replied to Bhagwat, “the Muslims and Christians have to accept that there are many paths that lead to God. Quran is misinterpreted a lot. Quran says your path is yours and mine is mine. Most Muslims and even clerics accept that calling Hindus Kaffirs is wrong. Koran says there is no compulsion in religion.”
- Bhagwat is asking Muslims to voluntarily stop eating beef because it is very sensitive to Hindus. In response to this, Dr. Jung felt that 90% of Muslims will agree to this request since if you want to live in peace, keeping from hurting the Hindu sentiment is essential.
Muslim issues (per visitors):
- Muslims don’t like being called ‘Jihadis,’ ‘Pakistani,’ or ‘Babur ki Aulad’ (progeny of Babur). Muslims are accused of love jihad. Indian Muslims don’t want to keep needing to prove their patriotism.
- Muslims are believed to be increasing their population to overcome Hindus in numbers by polygamy and not participating in family planning endeavors.
- Muslims feel insecure and are being made to pay a price for mistakes of the past.
One interviewer repeatedly asked the visitors, “Is this a man (Mohan Bhagwat) whose sincerity you trust.”
“Yes,” was the visitor’s unequivocal reply. “Within one month after our meeting, he visited a mosque and a madrassa, which means he kept up the spirit of our meeting.” Since July, Mohan Bhagwat also met with different Muslim groups one in Ghaziabad and one in Mumbai.
The visitors quoted Mohan Bhagwat multiple times.
- “I will make my effort, and it will take time to percolate.”
- “At the highest level of RSS, we have discussed this issue.”
- “Twenty percent is not a minority. They (Muslims) have to be part of the growth process.”
- “Hindutva does not exclude Muslims.”
- “India cannot exist without Muslims.”
- “We cannot conceive of India progressing without its Muslims.”
- “Everything will be done according to the constitution of India.”
They further added that Mohan Bhagwat will appoint four RSS leaders to continue the talks. The visitors sincerely believed that if any hard-headed Hindu organization makes statements like calling for the genocide of Muslims, he (Bhagwat) will oppose that.
One of the interviewers asked about the nay-sayers who expressed that meetings such as these give legitimacy to RSS, and whether RSS is using this meeting for its PR purpose only. The visitors replied, “RSS has the support of at least half the Hindu population. Not only party workers in the ruling BJP but many in opposition parties also support RSS. An RSS volunteer is the Prime Minister of India and so are Chief Ministers of many states. Why do you think they need our credibility? Even if they are doing this for their image, it is good for everybody.” To the detractor who called them elitists, the visitors replied, “We are not fools. We live in public.”
“Open dialogue is the only way forward. No other country cares about Muslims. In Burma, in China, Muslim genocide is rampant. Pakistani is wagging its tail in front of China. No Arab nation is opposing China about its treatment of Muslims.”
The visitors mentioned that of the telephone calls they received, 90 percent of Muslims and non-Muslims supported this initiative. “There is overwhelming support in India for the idea of reconciliation. This is the time that the idea must come to fruition. We must engage, not only with RSS but also with the Jamat-e-Islami, the ulema of Deoband school”.
Per the visitors, planning for subsequent meetings is being made in which other issues like the issue of CAA and NRC will be brought up.
Watching the interviews filled me with hope. Am I being too naïve? The history of more than a thousand years suggests that the difficulties are seemingly unsurmountable. But a thousand years is a small period of time for inhabitants of Bharatvarsha (Indian subcontinent). Our ancient scripture Isha Upanishad says, “A wise man beholds all beings in the self and the self in all beings; therefore, he does not hate anyone”.
Hopefully, all of us will internalize this eternal wisdom, and not let differences in ways of worship alienate us from our true divine nature.
(Top photo, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, inset, visits a mosque in Delhi in September)
Mandar Pattekar is a radiologist by profession. His service interest is in the education of children in underserved urban areas of America as well as improving urban food deserts. He likes to share the universally applicable Hindu Dharma principles with interested people.