The Meeting of Minds: A Bridging Initiative. This is the title of the book by Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed that Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, released in Ghaziabad on July 4 and delivered an important speech at the launch.

Ahmed is a dear friend of mine for many years. A devout practitioner of Islam, he has been actively promoting Hindu-Muslim dialogue since the time of PV Narasimha Rao was prime minister, when the Ayodhya dispute had sharply divided the two communities. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s premiership, we worked together to garner Muslim support for the Bharatiya Janata Party. He is now closely associated with the Rashtriya Muslim ManchMuslim Rashtriya Manch, an RSS-affiliated platform.

He and other members of a slowly expanding network of Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders have been holding meetings with senior RSS leaders on issues concerning the two communities, and also other issues of national importance.

The fact that Bhagwat, who heads an organisation widely believed to be anti-Muslim, not only released Ahmed’s book book but also praised his Bridging Initiative is significant. “Discord cannot be a solution,” the RSS chief said. “Dialogue alone can be a solution.” He also averred: “A person is not a Hindu if he says Muslims should not live in India…Those involved in mob lynching are against Hindutva.”

Widespread debate

His speech has triggered a widespread debate both among the supporters and critics of the RSS. Even those who have expressed appreciation for his statements — and they include many notable Muslim personalities — have voiced valid criticism: “Why was Bhagwat silent when so many cases of mob lynching of Muslims took place after Narendra Modi became the prime minister?” “Why don’t top RSS leaders speak out when those in the BJP and other outfits of the Sangh Parivar regularly spew venom against Islam and Muslims?”

The RSS cannot evade these questions. However, there is more to the book that the RSS chief released, and also more to what he spoke on the occasion, than has been examined by the media so far. Indeed, this can be seen as yet another attempt by Bhagwat to advance his agenda of glasnost or openness and perestroika, restructuring, within his organisation.

This characterisation is not mine. Rather, it is by Ram Madhav, who has had a long and close association with both the RSS and the BJP. “It is a glasnost moment for the Sangh,” Madhav wrote in The Indian Express in September 2018, soon after Bhagwat delivered a widely debated lecture series in New Delhi on the theme Bhavishya Ka Bharat (The Future of India – An RSS Perspective).

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Madhav wrote:

  “His three-day lecture series witnessed significant openness on the important ideological questions that the organisation has been identified with. As an insider, I am privy to the shift in the last decade or so since Bhagwat took over. He has finally spelt out this shift before the countrymen. This is not an easy transition. There is no doubt that Bhagwat has disarmed most critics through his Glasnost. But driving home the new thinking within the rank and file of the organisation, requires no less than a Perestroika. Bhagwat’s challenge lies in that. Bhagwat will lead the organisation for many more years to come. He commands enormous respect within the rank and file. With his clarity, candidness and determination he has the ability to lead the organisation in the direction he wants.”  

According to Madhav, Bhagwat was “emphatic” about his position on the Indian Constitution. “He even read out the entire Preamble and averred that the RSS has full respect for it, including the words Secularism and Socialism, inserted during the Emergency,” Madhav wrote.

He concluded his article with a bold assertion. “‘If not me, who? And if not now, when?’ retorted Gorbachev when asked about his reformist zeal. Bhagwat looked equally determined.”

Madhav’s claim about a “restructuring” of the Sangh’s core ideological beliefs has since been countered by other RSS insiders. This points to an internal churning in the Sangh. Every living organisation, irrespective of its founding ideology, must change with the changing times. Ideals, if they are noble, should not change. But ideas and ways of implementing them must undergo periodic reform when warranted by history. The luxury of remaining change-resistant is open only to those who do not mind becoming irrelevant. Any unbiased observer of the RSS, who listens to Bhagwat’s full speech, would know that he is trying to break new ground with the Indian Muslim community. This deserves to be welcomed.

Need of the hour

Does contemporary India need “bridge-building” to facilitate a “meeting of minds” between Hindus and Muslims? The answer, obvious to all right-thinking people, is best expressed in an ancient Sanskrit saying:

Setubandhanam sarvaranjanam
May bridges be built to secure welfare and happiness of all
Setubandhanam margasaadhanam
May bridges be built to create new roads and blaze new trails
Setubandhanam snehakaranam
May bridges be built to enhance friendship and goodwill among nations and peoples
Setubandhanam vihita-taaranam
May bridges be built to salvage what is helpful to humanity and is ordained by law.

Obviously, for bridges between Hindus and Muslims to serve the above lofty purposes, they have to be built on the solid foundation of truth and sincerity, and on the pillars of mutual trust, respect and willingness to listen to the other side with an open mind. This is where we see troubling inadequacies in the approaches of both the RSS and the influential Muslim leadership in India.

To know what is both right and wrong in the two approaches, a certain historical context-setting is necessary. Relations between Hindus and Muslims in India – not only in post-1947 India but also in Civilisational India – have exhibited two contradictory strands. There has been peaceful coexistence, social integration and an osmosis of customs and cultures leading to amazing syncretism. But there has also been separation, often escalating into hostility, which in turn has led to conflicts and a violent division. The blood-soaked Partition of India in 1947 is both an example from the past and a warning for the future.

Those who desire peaceful and harmonious Hindu-Muslim relations within today’s India, and also between India and her Muslim-majority neighbours, should not make the mistake of looking only at one of these two contradictory strands. If we focus only on antagonism, we remain unaware of the larger and more fundamental truth about coexistence made possible by numerous historically evolved common bonds. If we focus only on amity, we render ourselves incapable of addressing the harsh realities of communal tension and strife in India as well as elsewhere in the South Asian subcontinent.

RSS workers perform yoga in Guwahati in January, 2018. Credit: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

MG Vaidya, the vocal ideologue of the RSS, shared with me an interesting perspective on this matter. (He passed away in December last year at the ripe old age of 97. His son Manmohan Vaidya is the joint general secretary of the RSS.) “Had the British not come to rule India, Hindu-Muslim integration would have continued without disruption,” he said when I once met him in his modest home in Nagpur. “India’s Partition would not have taken place, and both communities would have prospered.”

The wheels of history cannot be turned back. The British came, conquered and ruled India for nearly 200 years. Hence, it is somewhat speculative to discuss what India’s destiny would have been without the tragedy caused by the foreign rule. Nevertheless, such speculation is also educative for two reasons.

First, although several invaders came to India in ancient and medieval times (medieval invaders were all Muslim), their rule did not remain foreign. Unlike the British, they ruled from India and not from afar. Also, unlike the British, they stayed back in India (with the exception of Nader Shah, who plundered Delhi and killed thousands of its residents in 1739). Hence their races were absorbed by India’s socio-cultural soil with the passage of time.

Second, because medieval Muslim dynasties were integrated into the Indian society, Hindu and Muslim rulers unitedly fought against the first ever truly “foreign rule” of the British in 1857. The most inspiring account of Hindu-Muslim unity in this First Indian War of Independence has been written by none other than VD Savarkar, who, sadly, became a votary of Muslim-hating Hindutva and the toxic “two-nation” theory in his later years.

Intriguing question

On page 14 of Ahmed’s book, we encounter an intriguing question: “Why is it that India, in spite of hundreds of years of Muslim rule, again rallied around the last Muslim ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to fight the British in 1857?” Many activists and supporters of the Sangh Parivar (the large ideological family of the RSS, of which the Bharatiya Janata Party is its political arm) will try to evade this inconvenient question.

This is because of their firm belief that Islam is an alien religion and that the Mughal rule was foreign. (Remember Narendra Modi’s speech in Parliament in June 2014 bemoaning “1,200 years of servitude”? ) According to them, Hindus are by default patriotic whereas the patriotism of Muslims is acceptable only when overtly demonstrated.

The answer to this question lies in an undeniable fact of history – a fact alluded to by Vaidya’s afore-mentioned observation – that Hindu-Muslim integration in the pre-British era had progressed steadily throughout the reign of Mughals in the north and other Muslim dynasties such as the Adil Shahis in the south, despite periodic conflicts on religious and political matters.

This process of integration reached its apogee during Emperor Akbar’s rule, about which Jawaharlal Nehru writes in The Discovery of India: “It was in his [Akbar’s] reign that the cultural amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim in north India took a long step forward. Akbar himself was certainly as popular with the Hindus as with the Muslims. The Mughal dynasty became firmly established as India’s own.”

Bahadur Shah Zafar's enthroned. Credit: Ghulam Ali Khan (active 1817–55), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This explains why, when a common enemy sought to enslave both Hindus and Muslims, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a startling appeal in his proclamation, as quoted in Savarkar’s book: “Hindus and Mahomedans of India! Arise! Brethren, arise! Of all the gifts of God, the most gracious is that of Swaraj. Will the oppressive Demon who has robbed us of it by deceit be able to keep it away from us forever? No, no…God has inspired in the hearts of Hindus and Mahomedans the desire to turn the English out of our country.”

There are numerous other accounts highlighting the contribution of Muslims in India’s glorious uprising against the British in 1857. But I again refer to Savarkar, because he cannot be challenged by Hindutva supporters. He concludes his book with the following startling lines:

“Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was a poet. During the heat of the Revolution he composed a ghazal. Someone asked him:

Dumdumay mein dam nahin khair mango jaan ki
Ai Zafar thandi hui shamsheer Hindustan ki.
Now that, every moment you are becoming weaker, pray for your life [to the English]: for, Oh! Emperor, the Sword of India is now broken forever!

There is a tradition that the Emperor replied:
Ghazion mein bu rahegi jabtalak imaan ki
Tabto London tak chalegi teg Hindusthan ki.
As long as there remains the least trace of love of faith in the hearts of our heroes, so long the Sword of Hindustan shall be sharp, and one day shall flash even at the gates of London.

Vande mataram.”

Sword of Hindustan

Here, we should pause for a moment to explain the contextual meaning in this ghazal of “Ghazi” (literal meaning “Muslim warrior”) and “imaan” (literal meaning “faith”). This explanation is necessary because today’s ignorant Hindutva warriors will retort jumpily, “See, the Mughal ruler actually meant the ‘Sword of Islam’, when he mentioned the ‘Sword of Hindustan’!”

For their edification, we should again go back to Savarkar. The two words that appear repeatedly in his magnificent account of 1857 are “Swadharma” (honour of one’s religion) and “Swaraj (freedom of one’s nation). Indeed, these became the leitmotiv of the joint Hindu-Muslim uprising. Giving numerous examples of the heroism and martyrdom of both Hindus and Muslims, Savarkar writes:

  “Those who fulfilled their duty to their religion and to their country, those who lifted their swords for Swadharma and Swaraj and courted death…let their names be remembered, pronounced with reverence! …It was at their call that Mother India woke up from her deep sleep and ran forth to smite slavery down…Those who did not join them in the holy war, through indifference or hesitation, may their names never be remembered by their country. And, for those who actually joined the enemy and fought against their own countrymen, may their names be forever crushed! The Revolution of 1857 was a test to see how far India had come towards unity, independence and popular power.*”  

The asterisk on “popular power” in the above quote refers to a highly illuminating footnote, one that tells us about the fundamental multi-religious and multi-caste unity of India. In this footnote, Savarkar draws our attention to the following lines from A History of the Indian Mutiny (in three volumes) by George W Forrest, a British journalist and son of an army officer who fought in the war.

“Among the many lessons the Indian mutiny conveys to the historians, none is of greater importance than the warning that it is possible to have a Revolution in which Brahmins and Sudras, Hindus and Mahomedans, could be united against us, and that it is not safe to suppose that the peace and stability of our dominions, in any great measure, depends on the continent being inhabited by different religious systems; for they mutually understand and respect and take a part in each other’s modes and ways and doings. The mutiny reminds us that our dominions rest on thin crust ever likely to be rent by titanic fires of social changes and religious revolutions.” (italics mine)

A painting depicting the war of 1857. Credit: Granger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The following lessons emerge from this flashback to 1857.

One: Indian Muslims are not foreigners. Even though this truth is self-evident, its endorsement by Bhagwat (“the DNA of Hindus and Muslims is the same”) should silence the doubters in the Hindutva parivar.

Two: Hindus and Muslims fought together for India’s independence in 1857 and beyond. Furthermore, the fact that Hindus at the time were even willing to accept a Muslim ruler as India’s Emperor, so as to end the rule of the East India Company, testified to the evolution of common Indian nationalism.

Three: Not only Hindus and Muslims, but also “Brahmins and Sudras’ and all other castes and sub-castes within the Hindu society fought together for India’s independence in 1857 and beyond. Therefore, the popular Urdu poet Rahat Indori (who died of Covid in August last year) was spot on when he wrote:
“Sabhi ka khoon shamil hai yahan ki mitti mein /
kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai”
The soil of India contains the blood of all Indians.
India is not anyone’s ancestral property.

‘Tarana-e-Hind’

Was this Hindu-Muslim solidarity limited to 1857? Did it cease to exist in the subsequent journey towards 1947? No. Almost until a decade before Partition occurred, the Hindu and Muslim political streams, despite occasional mutual tensions, were running on either overlapping or parallel – but not on divergent – tracks. Examples abound. But let me refer to a compelling proof from another much-discussed recent speech by Bhagwat.

Speaking on May 15 on the need for Indians to adopt an approach of “positivity” in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, he said our nation and our civilisation have survived many crises and challenges in the past, and emerged triumphant. To illustrate this point, he took recourse to Allama Iqbal’s patriotic poem Tarana-e-Hind (Song of India), more famously known by its opening words ‘aare jahan se achcha Hindostan hamara.

The lines he recited from that poem were:

Yunan o Misr o Roma sab mit gaye jahan se
Ab tak magar hai baqi nam-o-nishan hamara
Kuch baat hai keh hasti mitati nahin hamari
Sadiyon raha hai dushman daur-e-zaman hamara

Greece, Egypt and Rome all vanished,
But our name and distinction remain untarnished.
There is something that saves us from extinction,
Even though the world has sent many enemies to us through ages.

That the RSS chief chose to quote from a Muslim poet – moreover, one who is regarded as the National Poet of Pakistan – to bolster India’s national spirit in the battle against Covid-19 was telling enough. But a little reflection would show that the Indian civilisation that has survived the vicissitudes of history is not an exclusively Hindu civilisation nor an exclusively Islamic civilisation, but one that is a rich synthesis of the two.

This fact negates the dogmatic claim of the RSS that India is a Hindu rashtra or Hindu nation, a claim Bhagwat unconvincingly repeated in his July 4 speech. It also exposes the falsehood that feeds the Hindutva propagandists’ hatred against Muslims.

No less important, it punctures the Islamist propaganda in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which seeks to distance the Muslim community from anything Hindu and tells Muslims that they belong to a superior religion and culture.

Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed at the launch of his book, 'The Meeting of Minds: A Bridging Initiative.'

Ahmed’s book (it is very poorly edited) does well to counter this Islamist and separatist propaganda. “The Hindu and Muslim communities have been peacefully living together for many centuries and shall be living so forever. Both have no other option. Our cultural and nationalist roots/routes are common and mutually binding…The divide begins when some Indian Muslims, instead of identifying themselves with their Indian roots, start finding their linkages with Arabs, Iranians, Afghans and Turks and take that as their first pride. The problem gets more acute and doubly complicated when a section of the majority community tries to target the Muslim community for the follies and atrocities committed by Muslim invaders and rulers by calling them ‘Babur or Ghazni ki Aulad’. We share no track with these invaders. Most Muslims, except for a negligible minority, believe that their ancestors and roots in this ancient land and civilisation are Hindu. Why then should anybody mix them up with those who came from outside as invaders?”

Ahmed then makes a valid appeal: “If the majority Hindu community starts treating the Muslims of India as members of the same national family and start according them that feeling, the larger process of disengagement with fake roots would automatically gather speed. The first thing, as a remedial action, that both have to do is correction in their tongue and target management. The correction is a two-way process.”

None can deny that those indulging in anti-Muslim propaganda and violence have felt greatly emboldened after Modi became prime minister in 2014. Ahmed expresses the anguish of Indian Muslims on this count without mincing words. In the case of communal riots, Muslim property worth “thousands of crores of rupees is lost and destroyed”, and yet “proper FIRs are not registered”. Furthermore, a “majority of perpetrators and perpetuators of violence, looting and rape go scot free”. In contrast, Muslims “exercising their constitutional right to protest are severely penalised, killed in police firing, mass arrests made and personal recoveries fixed for the losses accrued to public property. Where is the fair play?”

Also: “Sustained campaign of demeaning Islam, Muslims and the Muslim society on TV channels, on one pretext or the other, is a deliberate attempt to hurt, harass and humiliate the community. The one-sided media bashing generates a counter sense of hostility and animosity. This has no stop! Are all evils in Muslims alone?”

Ten candid thoughts

Bhagwat in his speech did not respond to all these contents in the book. He nevertheless made some uncharacteristically candid points.

One: Accepting the fact about alienation (“alagaav”) and mistrust (“avishwas”) in the Muslim community, he said these have to be removed. But he also added, “Removing them does not mean hiding them. Realities should be understood as they are.”

Two: Bhagwat expressed appreciation for the book by saying it is “an honest appeal for unity”. He talked about the need for building a “well-organised society” in which people are united by feelings of fraternity (“aatmeeyata”). “When Hindus and Muslims feel that they are not thus united, both encounter troubles,” he said. “Confrontation harms both.”

An RSS rally in Ajmer in 2017. Credit: Himanshu Sharma/Reuters

Three: He said “minorities are a part of us”, they are “are our brothers”. There can be “no discrimination on the basis of one’s faith”. Using a telling analogy, he affirmed, “If Arya Samajis [who do not believe in idol worship] and temple-goers can both be part of us, how can we consider Muslims as foreigners? After all, they too are the children of Mother India. They are inheritors of our cultural heritage. Their ancestors are the same as ours. And their blood is the same as ours.”

Four: “We cannot restrict the faith (‘shraddha’) of any community. Doing so would be sin. And those who do so would have to atone for their sin. Realising this, we should understand each other and stand together on the side of truth, justice and national unity.”

Five: “Our nation is one, our society is one. People may have different faiths, and the diversity of faiths has never been disrespected in our country.” After saying this, Bhagwat made an unusually assertive statement: “The one who disrespects another’s faith has to go out. This is for sure.” (“Uske anaadar ka prachalan jo daalne jaayega, use baahar jaana padega. Yeh pakki baat hai.”)

Six: For gaining “cheap publicity”, a person may say something against minorities. “But this will be opposed by people belonging to the majority community itself”.

Seven: “Islam is not in danger in India. Our Constitution guarantees the existence of all faiths that came here.” Expressing appreciation for religious syncretism in India, Bhagwat made an interesting observation. “Many Hindus became followers of Muslim fakeers in India, just as many Muslims became the followers of Hindu saints. I know of many such cases in my own Vidarbha region.”

Eight: “When crimes such as mob lynching happen, the law should take its course. Justice should be delivered without any partiality.”

Nine: The RSS envisions an India in which there is neither “Hindu domination” (“varchasva) nor “Muslim domination” – rather, only national interest (“Rashtra hit”) should dominate.

Ten: The one point Bhagwat spoke with the highest emphasis and least ambiguity was this: “Politics cannot bring about unity in society. Politics divides people, it does not unite them.” Which is why, in order to bring about unity and harmony in society, persons with “good understanding and goodwill should work together, and work with enthusiasm and determination, for a long time”. “They should speak with a strong voice”. “The wounds are deep. Therefore, healing will take time, and people will take time to understand.”

Tellingly, Bhagwat did not utter a single word in defence or praise of the Modi government in his entire speech.

Politics of polarisation

Despite these positive points in Bhagwat’s speech, it had some glaring inadequacies. They show the limits to how much glasnost and perestroika he can introduce in his own organisation and within the RSS-BJP matrix. For example, he does not, because he cannot, muster the courage to comment on the most obvious truth about contemporary Indian politics – namely, that Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adiytanath (the other icons of Hindutva politics) are the very leaders whose politics and governance have created alienation, mistrust and insecurity among Indian Muslims. They are systematically invisibilising and disempowering Muslims in governance.

For example, there was not a single Muslim minister in Modi’s recent mega cabinet expansion, which shows the hollowness and hypocrisy of his promise of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas or progress for everyone. This does not mean the previous Congress governments were blameless. Many of the problems Muslims – and non-Muslims – face today are due to the unprincipled politics and bad governance by the Congress, for which it is now paying the price.

But in a discussion on the RSS, what concerns us is how its leadership is turning a blind eye to the BJP’s unscrupulous and divisive politics. Without communal polarisation and consolidation of a Hindu vote bank, the BJP cannot gain or retain power.

Moreover, the agenda of polarisation aimed at consolidation of the Hindu vote-bank requires deliberate furtherance of anti-Muslim violence, hatred, prejudice, suspicion and lies that further widen and deepen the gulf between the two communities. Much of this can be lessened, though not fully stopped, if the top leadership of the RSS musters the will to condemn such acts and take punitive action against those indulging in them.

Bhagwat and his colleagues have so far failed to do so. As a result, the RSS, which was once known for providing moral leadership to its swayamsevaks working in the political field, has been reduced to playing second fiddle to them. Modi has come to have a higher standing in the Sangh Parivar than the Sarsanghchalak. This can hardly instill confidence among Muslims and other minorities – and even among secular-minded Hindus – that Bhagwat is the kind of reformist leader who sees his own mission in terms of “If not me, who? And if not now, when?”

Time for soul-searching

Finally, this is also a time for the Muslim community in India to do some honest soul-searching. Its religious leaders and intellectuals should introspect about all the wrong turns in its history and also all the wrong acts committed and justified in the name of Islam. Such introspection will surely convince them that the answers to their problems lie in strengthening their faith in India’s Constitution, democracy and secularism, and also in strengthening their bonds of fraternity with Hindus. They should also raise their voice against the ill-treatment of Hindus, Christians and other minorities in Muslim-majority countries.

In so doing, this process of introspection, they will face a tough question: should they shun the path of dialogue with the RSS? Of course, not. The fact that the RSS has become the largest and most influential Hindu organisation cannot be ignored by either Muslims or Hindus who are opposed to the BJP’s toxic brand of politics. The avenues of conversation, even cooperation, with the RSS must be pursued and expanded for the overall good of the nation and humanity.

As mentioned earlier, for such “meeting of minds” to be productive, both sides must adhere to the spirit of openness – a willingness to listen, and to make the other side listen. Bhagwat is right when says: “The wounds are deep. Therefore, healing will take time.” Therefore, people of “good understanding and goodwill should work together, and work with enthusiasm and determination, for a long time”.

For all our legitimate criticisms about the RSS, we must not lose hope in bridge-building.

One last point: Bhagwat ji, when will you have a similar candid dialogue with the religious and social leaders of India’s Christian community?

Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at [email protected].