Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat's recent speech in Nagpur was an important one as he spoke at length on Hindu-Muslim relations in India, especially the Gyanvapi Masjid issue.
Not surprisingly, his speech has received a polarised response with some calling it a call for "moderation" and others accusing him of "double standards."
We believe that there is a clear political rationale behind what the Sarsanghchalak said, but we'll come to that later in the piece.
First a brief summary of what Bhagwat actually said. The entire speech is over 30 minutes. We have chosen the important aspects and divided them into three themes:
1. His emphasis on diversity
2. Views on the Gyanvapi issue
3. Views on Hindu-Muslim relations
On Importance of Diversity
"Diversity is a part of unity, it is not separatism."
"To put forward India's message is the duty of all communities and faiths in India, those speaking different languages, residing in different states, having different cultures, even those who adopted faiths that are from outside India will find this message in their hearts."
"Indians have not waged war on anyone. We had such prosperity."
"See your own progress in the progress of everyone."
"We should have good relations among each other, take part in each others' good and bad times."RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
"If India had the power bigger countries have internationally, we would have stopped the Russia-Ukraine war. Our power is still growing. Countries that do have the power use big words but are driven by selfish interests."
"The need of the hour is to make Bharat a Vishwa Guru. But for that people within Bharat have to be united as Bharatiya".
"Bharat doesn't come in the way of any worship. It doesn't speak of one language, it respects all languages. Dharam should be separated from rituals."
On the Gyanvapi Dispute
"There is the Gyanvapi issue. Now, a history is there, we can't change it. This wasn't done by Hindus nor by the Muslims of today.
"Islam came from outside and came through invasion. To demoralise those who believed in Bharat's independence, places of worship were demolished by thousands."
"There was a Ram Janmabhoomi issue. We joined the movement despite our nature (of not taking part in such agitations) due to historical reasons and the circumstances of the time. We accomplished that task. We don't want to start another movement. But if issues are there, they will come up. Muslims shouldn't consider it against them, even Hindus shouldn't present it that way."RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
"There are some places of worship which are particularly important to Hindus. This is not against Muslims of today. Their ancestors were also Hindus....Hindus feel that this should be corrected."
"Matters should be resolved amicably through dialogue but if that doesn't happen, people can go to court. And everyone should accept the court's decision. The law of the land is supreme. That shouldn't be questioned."
"To come up with a new matter every day is also wrong. Why do we have to escalate a fight? Yes, the Gyanvapi issue is important for our faith. But why look for a shivling in every mosque? That's also a form of worship, ok it came from outside. But those who follow it are from here they don't have relations outside, they must also understand this."
"They (Muslims) may follow a form of worship that's from outside but they are descendants of Rishi munis, Rajas, and Kshatriyas. We have the same ancestors."
On Hindu-Muslim Relations
"Many Muslims fought with Hindus for the country - Ashfaqullah Khan, Ibrahim Khan Gardi. These are the role models for Muslims. They should also understand. India is our motherland."
"When Pakistan was formed, some people left. But these people didn't leave. This means that they might have thought that just because our form of worship is different, why should we leave Bharat? They should stay according to ethos of Bharat and not pursue the path of separatism. Entire Hindu society must also understand this. We have the same ancestors. They are our blood. If they want to come back, we should welcome them. If they don't, then fine. We have 33 crore gods, we can have a few more."
"For unity in society, we need to take care of the sensitivities of each other. We should avoid extremes. No one should make outlandish threats. Hindus rarely do it. Hindus have been very patient and sacrificed a great deal, even allowed the country to be divided. We keep saying we are all one, but there is always a question mark in their hearts."
"Anyone who makes extreme remarks should be called out."
"We must guard against people who are trying to create divisions on the basis of language, region and religion."
The Political Rationale Behind Mohan Bhagwat's Speech
First, on the Gyanvapi issue.
The emphasis on not wanting a "movement" on the Gyanvapi issue and stressing that joining the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was against RSS' "nature" is significant. This doesn't quite mean a change of heart, rather a change of political circumstances.
The Ram Janmabhoomi movement started when the BJP had just two seats in the Lok Sabha. It wasn't even the largest Opposition. Presently, the party has a majority on its own in the ower house and rules several states. The stand presently indicates a great deal of assuredness that the state and other institutions, maybe even the judiciary, may not go against the Hindu sentiment.
Bhagwat's speech also was a clever balancing between showing the Sangh's support for a temple on the Gyanvapi site but also emphasising that it should be done through amicable dialogue or through courts.
But, there's a bigger picture here.
There seems to be a slight fissure emerging within the Hindutva ecosystem. It is emerging due to tactical reasons, not any ideological differences on Hindu supremacy. It seems that the RSS is prioritising political and social stability and carrying out the Hindutva agenda through institutions. On the other hand, the Hindutva political and social domination over the past eight years has spawned a variety of actors who want to use vigilante means and even lumpenism to humiliate minorities and push the Hindutva agenda.
The RSS' message to vigilantes seems to be – "if it can be done through legal means, why use illegal means?"
The RSS seems to be wary of disorder that may arise due to the activities of such political actors and there may be fears that matters may spin out of control of BJP governments at the Centre and the state, as well as the RSS.
There is also an acute understanding that many people aligned themselves to the BJP and even the RSS for the sake of "strong leadership" and "political stability." The rising vigilantism could potentially alienate these sections. It may also upset corporates.
Having said that, one must reiterate that this is only a tactical division, not an ideological one. Bhagwat is operating on the same premise as rest of the Hindutva ecosystem in considering Muslims and Christians as people adhering to religions that "came from outside." So the "us" and "them" narrative was very much there.
Bhagwat's speech also reflected concerns that a federal formation could pose a challenge. Hence his emphasis on recognising India's linguistic diversity and warning against "those who may use language or region to divide."
Regarding Muslims, the tone was no doubt conciliatory but it would be inaccurate to consider this a major change in the RSS' position. It was, in fact, a reiteration of the Sangh's long held stand that Indian Muslims need to acknowledge they they have Hindu ancestry.
But Bhagwat's speech did seem to go against the narrative of "Hindus in danger" that is often pushed by elements in the Hindutva ecosystem.
However, the Sangh top brass has time and again adopted a more "moderate" stance even as other elements in the Hindutva ecosystem push an agenda of hatred towards minorities. The nature of the Sangh Parivar – in which there are no institutional linkages between different outfits – have always given the RSS plausible deniability in such cases, without denouncing anyone.
But sources in the Sangh do acknowledge that vigilantism does pose a threat to social stability. Bhagwat's emphasis on the "supremacy of the law of the land" and need for "avoiding extremes" does seem to indicate concerns that culture created by vigilantes and Dharam Sansads could make the Hindutva project spin out of the Sangh's control into the hands of much less organised entities.