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Deoras to Bhagwat: The evolution of RSS view on Muslims over the last 70 years

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Mohan Bhagwat has said Muslims are ‘us’, now RSS must move to arrest violence against them.

At the September 17-19 RSS “seminar” in New Delhi regarding its perspective on India’s future, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that “everyone who lives in India is Hindu by identity, nationality”. He claimed that “Hindu Rashtra does not mean there is no place for Muslims.  If we do not accept Muslims, it is not Hindutva”. While on a trip to the northeast in December last year, he made the same argument that Muslims living in India are Hindu.

This is not a new claim, but hit the headlines as this seminar was aimed at showcasing the RSS’ views on major issues, one of which is its approach to India’s large Muslim community. This statement is another example of the evolution of the RSS thinking on Muslims.

Also read: RSS is changing, has greater self-confidence, more transparency and diversity

In the first few decades following the British decision to partition India in 1947 to create a Muslim-majority Pakistan, the RSS tended to view Muslims sceptically as a potential fifth column. Perhaps, the most significant factor in changing this perception was the involvement of Muslims along with the RSS members (and others) in the pro-democracy movement to oppose Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 State of Emergency.

Several RSS leaders arrested at the time shared jail time with Muslims who were also arrested. This interaction within the prison had perhaps its greatest influence on then-RSS chief, Madhukar D. Deoras. Deoras in the late 1970s opened the RSS to Muslim participation in its daily programmes.

Even earlier, Muslims had joined many of its major affiliated organisations, like its labour front, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which established a unit to involve in issues affecting the Muslim community. Of the dozens of these affiliates, all but one accept Muslims. The lone exception is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which works with the Hindu ecclesiastical establishment and had often issued inflammatory statements against Islam and Muslims.  It is an open secret that the RSS helped in pushing out Pravin Togadia, its long-time international working president, and replacing him with a moderate figure. Togadia undermined the RSS effort to portray itself as moderate.

Also read: Are Indian Muslims more religious than other communities?

In 2002, a subsequent RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan, established the Muslim Rashtriya Manch to work for improved Hindu-Muslim relations. At about this time, some RSS senior figures began to state publicly that Muslims in India are Hindu. By this, they used the term Hindu as a cultural factor that defined nationality. They also argued that the vast majority of Muslims descended from Hindu converts and are thus similar ethnically to their neighbours who call themselves Hindu.

Despite this greater openness regarding Muslims, many RSS members are still sceptical of the patriotism of Muslims and still look at Muslims as the “other”. Beyond this, most RSS members (as well as others) oppose proposals to enable Muslims to receive equal opportunity benefits from the state set aside for the historically disadvantaged, even though Muslims are among the poorest and least educated sections of the Indian population. Only a handful of Muslims have been nominated to contest parliamentary seats in 2014 by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political affiliate of the RSS – and all of them lost. Only about 10 per cent of Muslim voters cast their ballots for the BJP in the parliamentary elections.

Also read: The Muslims voting for the BJP are richer, more educated and conservative

Many observers consider the Modi government both slow in condemning the killing of Muslims who are suspected of being involved in the slaughter of cows and reluctant to create tough measures to curb such violence.

The three-day “seminar” was aimed at the RSS family of organisations and the external world. To the family, the message on Muslims seems to be about keeping a tighter rein on anti-Muslim and violence connected with issues such as beef. His clear message was that Muslims are “us”. He came close to arguing that Islam is just another religious sect and India has hundreds of such sects, which are loosely referred to as Hindu.

To the outside world, his message was clearly to present a moderate face of the RSS on several issues, perhaps most prominently regarding Muslims. The invitation to a prominent Bohra Shia leader to give the keynote speech at the 2017 Shastra Puja ceremony at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur is another example of the RSS effort to portray Muslims as “us”. The issue now is for the usually cautious RSS to take a more proactive stance on the issue of violence regarding Muslims.

Walter K. Andersen is a faculty of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. He is one of the authors of a new book titled “The RSS: A View to the Inside”.

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  1. A hopeful evolution, which needs to be nudged along. A great pity that the BJP’s Muslim candidates are losing. No party can afford to give away tickets, for each seat counts. The spate of lynchings are an aberration that needs to be swiftly stamped out. Some simple gestures, like Iftaar parties, would help. The natural party of governance and India’s largest minority need to make more space for each other in their hearts.

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