Days before the Monsoon session of the Parliament is to begin on Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi has come under attack for a statement he reportedly made at a meeting with Muslim intellectuals and activists on July 11, as part of the Congress party’s outreach programme before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “Yes, Congress is a Muslim party,” Gandhi is claimed to have said, according to a report in the Urdu newspaper Inquilab.

According to AltNews, this is what the newspaper reported Gandhi as having said: “If BJP says that Congress is a party of Muslims, it is fine. Congress is a party of Muslims, because Muslims are weak and Congress always stands with the weak.”

Several Bharatiya Janata Party politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, used the Inquilab report to repeat their claim that Congress is an “anti-Hindu” party that aims to “appease minorities”.

Among the first BJP leaders to comment about the alleged remarks was party spokesman, Anil Balani. On July 12, he tweeted an image of the Inquilab report with that comment that Rahul Gandhi, a “janeu dhari” or thread-wearing Brahmin, had claimed that the Congress is a Muslim party.

On July 13, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed that the Congress wanted to fight the upcoming general elections on religious lines. “You can’t be janeu dhari at one point... Muslim-dhari at another...,” NDTV quoted her as saying. “This is playing with the people’s trust.”

Sitharaman claimed that if India experienced any religious disturbances before the elections, the Congress would be resposible for them.

Modi’s attack

Modi’s statement came next, on July 14. At an event to lay the foundation stone of the Purvanchal Expressway in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, the prime minister criticised the Congress for its position on the triple talaq bill and attacked Gandhi for his alleged remark, reported The Indian Express.

“I have read in newspapers that Congress naamdar [dynast] has said that the Congress is a party of Muslims,” Modi said. “This debate has been on for the last two days. I am not surprised because during the Manmohan Singh government, the prime minister himself that said that Muslims have the first claim on the country’s resources…”

The Manmohan Singh reference is itself based on a misreading of his comments from 2006, when Singh said that government schemes should be designed so that marginal groups benefit from them.

Over the weekend, the Congress dismissed the BJP’s claims about Rahul Gandhi’s comments and denied the remarks reported in the Urdu newspaper. Randeep Surjewala, the All India Congress Committee spokesperson, said that the Congress belongs to all Indians and that the BJP government was “on the path of lying”, reported The Hindu.

What was actually said

Several people present at the event have since added information to what was actually said.

The Inquilab journalist Mumtaz Alam Rizvi, who reported the meeting, added some context in an interview to ABP News. Rizvi said, “Rahul Gandhi raised different questions…including the Sachar committee. [Educationist] Ilyas Malik started the conversation and said that in 1947, when India was partitioned and Muslims started to leave, then Nehru, Gandhi and Azad stopped them by saying that this will be a secular country…”

He added, “Rahul Gandhi said that mine and my mother’s commitment is for Muslims to get justice and their rights. And if, we have made a mistake somewhere then we admit to it…”

The meeting was attended by a number of civil society members and Congress leaders. In a tweet, historian S Irfan Habib has said that “no such issue [as the one being raised by the BJP] came up at all”.

Fuzail Ahmed Ayyub, Supreme Court advocate who was at the meeting, told AltNews that the comments may have been a misreading of what Gandhi actually said. “The fact of the matter is that when an issue was raised before Congress President Shri Rahul Gandhi that how important Muslims are with regard to the policies/scheme of things of Congress Party,” he said. “In reply to this Congress President Shri Rahul Gandhi said that Muslims are as important to the Congress Party as other religions/sections of the society are and ​the Congress Party belongs to the Muslims as it belongs to every other Indian, nothing more, nothing less.”

Ghazala Jamil, assistant professor, Centre for Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, also refuted the alleged remarks made by Gandhi, AltNews reported.

“At the meeting Mr Gandhi clearly said that he saw Muslims as equal citizens – no more and no less,” she told the publicatio. “On Congress party, while acknowledging that it has made many mistakes, he asserted that it has traditionally been the glue that bound Indian communities and sections together. He assured those present that his party is keen to continue to play this role via accommodating concerns of all sections of Indian society. ​The attendees in the meeting appreciated this position and encouraged him to strongly uphold the values of justice and equality above everything else.”​

Writer and activist Farah Naqvi, who also attended the meeting, added additional criticism of the attacks in The Wire, “What precisely is the BJP’s argument? Are minority rights entirely off the agenda in democratic India today?”

“We spoke of the guarantees of the Constitution,” writes Naqvi. “We spoke of a whole range of secular issues that Muslims confront and share with many other marginal groups in India – education, employment, poverty, and the terrible effect of a poorly implemented GST and demonetisation on those in the unorganised sector. No promises were sought, and none were given.”