For the ‘Reformed’ RSS and Bhagwat, Muslims Are Indians Only If They’re Hindus

Mohan Bhagwat’s recent comments are aimed at showing that the RSS has changed. But that’s far from the truth.

5 min read

A headline on Tuesday, September 7, was bemusing. Reading a report with the header “Sensible Muslim leaders must oppose extremism: Mohan Bhagwat” triggered this sense.

The text cited details of a speech delivered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, a day earlier at a lavish hotel in Mumbai — presumably the only venue where the ‘sensible’ gather.

Several questions were a natural upshot of these words, undoubtedly a sagely advice. To begin with, why should the onus of countering extremism only lie at the door of Muslims? Should not people of other communities, most importantly the majority Hindu community, be asked by the head of the RSS to raise their voice against violent, or even not so aggressive, behaviour against a community or the state? After all, the organisation is self-avowedly committed to strengthening Hindu society and the nation. Wouldn’t these two be reinforced if everyone in the majority community decided to refrain from taking recourse to such action?


The ‘Good’ Muslims vs the ‘Bad’ Ones

And importantly, why must only “sensible Muslims” be asked to resist anti-democratic and disruptive actions and not the other sections? Does this mean that Bhagwat can only communicate with level-headed Muslims? If so, then who communicates with the others, the ‘not-so-composed’ members of the community?

Does this have anything to do with creating clear demarcation among Muslims between those who are “rational” and “committed” to nation-building and the lot that is “hot-headed” and “inherently disruptive”, the proverbial “good” Muslims and “bad” ones? Does such delineation among Muslims enable the RSS and its affiliates to mobilise their core constituency?

The RSS chief consistently referred to continued “acts of insanity committed by sections of the community”, against whom the “saner voices from among Muslims should speak against”. This re-articulates the RSS viewpoint that communal violence and acts of terrorism are solely committed by Muslims.

In any case, court cases against leaders who are part of the sangh parivar's ecosystem and were charged with terrorist violence have been almost completely dropped, because they were “framed” by the previous regime led by the Congress to give Hindus a “bad” name.

Historical Half-Truths

Bhagwat’s formulation is based on the premise that Hindu society is essentially peace-loving and inherently tolerant of other faiths, they merely have to consider themselves as Hindus. They can even “practise” other faiths while affixing the label of Hindus on themselves.

It is a different matter that all thinkers and leaders of the Hindu nationalistic credo, from VD Savarkar to Bhagwat himself, recognised untouchability as one of the biggest negatives of Hinduism and waged campaigns against it, and not with complete success for almost a century at least. Birth identity-based discrimination remains endemic to Hinduism, and the debate over caste enumeration proves this remains a reality in contemporary India. Despite this, the onus of civil and non-violent conduct is placed solely on Muslims.

This is not all. Bhagwat bases his comments on historical half-truths. He contended, “Islam came to Bharat with invaders. This is a historical fact, and it is necessary for this to be stated as such.” The intended message is unambiguous — contemporary Muslims are descendants of foreign aggressors.

It is not as if the RSS chief would not be aware that Muslim presence was registered at least by the ninth century in coastal Kerala, even if one does not wish to believe the oral tradition which dates the advent of Islam in that region to the Prophet’s own lifetime.

Islam did not arrive in this part of India on the backs of invaders, but was brought by Arab traders who married locally with the passage of time. They fathered a community of people, and in time, the Malayali Muslims got the name of Mappilas (Moplahs) and they continue being an integral part of the region’s narrative and tradition.

But this assertion of Bhagwat, that Islam and “invaders” have a symbiotic link, is based on the instinctive sense of Hindu nationalists, that north India (also parts of west and east) forms the “heart” of India.


Who Really is a Hindu for Bhagwat?

The RSS sarsanghchalak’s innate sense of Muslims in India does not include those from Kerala; they are drawn into contemporary discourse only when links to global Islamic extremism require to be established, as Ram Madhav recently did by claiming that Taliban-type mentality among Muslims in India is a century-old.

Bhagwat also said, “Hindus and Muslims in India share the same ancestry. In our view, the word Hindu means motherland, and the culture that we have inherited from ancient times. The term Hindu … denotes every person irrespective of their language, community or religion. Everyone is a Hindu, and it is in this context that we see every Indian citizen as a Hindu.”

On the face of it, Bhagwat’s statements, made several times previously, especially since September 2018, when he delivered hour-long lectures over three consecutive days for select members of the intelligentsia at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi, appear to be a “reach out” to Muslims.

Bhagwat’s repetitive efforts are presented as evidence that he and the RSS have “changed” and that it is no longer anti-Muslim because Bhagwat said in 2018 that Hindu Rashtra (or Hindutva) did not mean “Musalman nahi chahiye” (Hindu Rashtra does not mean that there should be no Muslims). “Aisa bilkul nahi hota. Jis din yeh kaha jaega ki yahan Muslim nahi chahiye, us din voh Hindutva nahi rahega" (The day it is said that there should be no Muslims, there will be no Hinduvata), he said.

However, there is a need to recognise the basic clarion call in his latest address — every citizen is a Hindu. Does a slogan similar to the ones used by the so-called fringe forces not resonate in Bhagwat's assertion? “Hindustan mein rahna hoga, to apne aap ko Hindu kehna hoga”? (If you wish to stay in India, you must call yourself Hindu).


Muslims Can Be Indians, Too. But Conditions Apply

Bhagwat is correct in saying that Muslims have no reason to fear anything in India as Hindus don’t hold enmity towards anyone. But the conditionality to reach that state of fearlessness is innate in the call to Muslims to abdicate their distinct identity and accept being Hindus.

The challenge is for Muslims to live without fear and heads held high as the Constitution enshrined. But this will be possible only if Hindus or their self-proclaimed representatives do not ask Muslims to subsume their identities into that of the majority community.

Earlier in July this year, at an event organised by the sangh-affiliate Muslim Rashtriya Manch, Bhagwat asked Muslims not to “get trapped in the cycle of fear that Islam is in danger in India”.

His address included comments like, “there can’t be a dominance of Hindus or Muslims. There can only be a dominance of Indians” and, “people who are lynching others are going against Hindutva”.

Recently, a Muslim man in Kanpur was beaten up and forced to shout Jai Shri Ram, the slogan which has evolved from being a war cry to a tool of subjugation. The RSS chief should address speeches like the ones he made in Mumbai, Ghaziabad and New Delhi to those who herd these mobs driven by hate and prejudice and eager to establish dominance.

Yet, these calls are repeatedly being given by the RSS chief with the objective of creating a mirage of a makeover, to give reason to uneasy backers from among Hindus to believe that the RSS has changed and left hatred for the Muslims in the past. This alteration is as cosmetic as any and is based on the Goebellian principle of an untruth becoming perceived as the truth when repeated in quick succession.

It is essential to refer to the past — distant as well as near — when assessing Bhagwat’s any single claim. Chronology samjhiye (understand the chronology), as was famously said in Parliament earlier this year.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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