The recent decision of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, to visit a mosque and meet representatives of the largest minority community, Muslims, can be seen as the first step towards debate, dialogue and reconciliation, but many within the organisation believe that the sarsanghchalak is taking forward the legacy of his predecessors.
The steps taken by Bhagwat are not in isolation and must be seen in the context of the recent statements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During the national executive meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Hyderabad in July this year, the PM spoke about the welfare of pasmanda Muslims, the economically and socially marginalised section within the minority community. This is second major move by PM Modi in the last eight years to reach out to Muslims after criminalisation of instant triple talaq.
Bhagwat, along with some of the senior members of the RSS, including Krishna Gopal, Ram Lal and Indresh Kumar, visited the mosque-cum-residence of Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, the chief of All India Imam Organisation, on Thursday. The planning of this visit had started more than two years ago but got disrupted due to the outbreak of Covid and the subsequent lockdown. During the daylong visit, Bhagwat visited a mosque and madrasa to signal an effort towards holding a dialogue with the minority community.
“There have been several rounds of meetings between senior leaders of the RSS and Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi for more than two years. He has often invited many leaders of the RSS to his residence at Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Since he lives in a mosque, whoever goes to his residence also visits the mosques. Mohan Bhagwat was invited by Umer Ahmed Ilyasi to his residence and so the sarsanghchalak visited the mosque as well,” a senior leader said, recalling his own meeting with Ilyasi.
It is also no coincidence that Ilyasi’s father, Maulana Jameel Ilyasi, had good relations with former Sarsanghchalak KS Sudarshan. Senior leaders of the RSS point out that it was during the tenure of Sudarshan when the entire process of meeting with religious leaders of different communities was started and Bhagwat is taking forward the legacy.
Members of the RSS also say that if there is a comparison between the initiatives started by Sudarshan and the recent one by Bhagwat, the difference is that it is for the first time that a group of interlocutors or senior leaders of the RSS have been appointed to regularly hold dialogue with Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders.
“We want debate, dialogue and reconciliation. This is the beauty of democracy that people can talk. We may agree to disagree but at least we must sit together and talk,” the RSS leader quoted above said.
RSS leaders explained that while there is a belief that these initiatives are recent developments but that is not true. While all sarsanghchalaks have met religious leaders of different communities, the first initiative towards minority communities started under the leadership of Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, the third sarsanghchalak popularly known as Balasaheb Deoras, when he became RSS chief in 1973.
Under Deoras, another RSS leader, Dattopant Thengadi, had also started an organisation, Sarva Pant Samadhar Manch, which was involved in holding dialogue with different religious communities. Thengadi was also a founding member of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh.
Keeping aside the interpersonal relations of some of the sarsanghchalaks and Muslims religious leaders, Bhagwat has twice met intellectuals and religious leaders within the Muslim community in little over a month.
Before visiting the mosque, another meeting was held in New Delhi on Aug. 22, which was attended by Bhagwat, Krishna Gopal, who is the sah sarkaryavah of the RSS; former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi; former Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung; former Vice-Chancellor of AMU Lt General (retd) Zameer Uddin Shah; senior leader Shahid Siddiqui and businessman Saeed Shervani.
The group of Muslim intellectuals came together to form Alliance for Education and Economic Development of Underprivileged to work for education of girls and modernisation of madrasas.
“It was after the Nupur Sharma incident when the BJP spokesperson spoke against the Prophet, we realised that the atmosphere was toxic and there was a need for intervention either by Prime Minister Narendra Modi or RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. So we chose to write to the RSS Sarsanghchalak for a meeting,” said Shahid Siddiqui, former member of parliament and senior journalist.
While the meeting was cordial, the two sides realised that there were many misunderstandings between the two communities and a longer process of dialogue was needed to end these differences. Among the issues raised by RSS leaders in the meeting were the use of word kafir for non-Muslims, jihad and the issue of cow slaughter.
“Both Hindus and Muslims have certain reservations against each other and there is a need to change this. We may disagree on many issues but we are not opponents. We have to find solutions to most taxing issues in the interest of India’s social and economic development. We chose to meet leaders of the RSS first because it is a powerful organisation and it was important to reach a consensus with them first,” said Siddiqui.
Interestingly, the meeting between Bhagwat and Muslim religious leaders took place a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.
The union government faced pressure from several countries after a BJP spokesperson spoke against the Prophet. The BJP has suspended the spokesperson from the party. Among the countries that had launched a diplomatic offensive against India were the U.A.E., Qatar, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
The move by the RSS is also significant because the union government under PM Modi has been talking about welfare of the economically and socially weaker sections within the Muslims community. The initiative of the PM is also seen as a move to expand the social base of the party.
Modi has successfully managed to change the social and electoral base of the Bharatiya Janata Party and reaching out to Muslims is another step by the party to expand its social network.
“There is a need within the BJP to improve the image of the government among central Asian countries. The recent incident of the BJP spokesperson speaking against the Prophet has not helped the BJP and affected bilateral relations between countries,” said Sanjay Kumar, director at the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti.
Political analysts and experts also believe that these initiatives will help the RSS create a perception that it is reaching out Muslims and there has been no aggression against the minority community. With the upcoming elections in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP could try to secure votes of at least a section of Muslims in these states.
“We believe that BJP gets votes of around 25% Muslims in Gujarat. Wherever there is a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress, the BJP manages to get 15-17% votes of Muslims. But when there is a three-corner fight with the presence of a strong regional party, both the BJP and the Congress lose votes of Muslims,” Kumar explained.