The BJP-RSS's Quest for the 'Acceptable Muslim'

The very fact that Mohan Bhagwat is concerned with who or what an acceptable Muslim looks like speaks volumes about whether the RSS has changed its position or just adapted to the times. 

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Karl Lueger was the mayor of Vienna between 1887 and 1910 and is credited with building much of the modern city.

A Catholic, Lueger openly used antisemitism in his political speeches. His antisemitism was of the homespun, flexible variety which in German has been also referred to as gemütlich (cosy, in a kind of familiar way). However, this garden-variety – often instrumental – prejudice did not prevent him from having Jewish friends. When he was questioned about this, Lueger replied, “I decide who is a Jew.”

Today, the quest for the ‘acceptable Muslim’ has driven political narratives across the world. For the past few years, this debate has animated and driven the strategies of various political parties in India.

Since coming to power in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological progenitor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have been active in moving from a position where all Muslims are seen as anathema to the Indian body politic, to a stand wherein certain kinds of Muslims are deemed to be more Indian because of their cultural practices.

Incidentally, these very practices are also the target of intra-sectarian polemics by other Muslims who see them as Hindu cultural accretions that must be purged in order to restore ‘authentic’ Islamic practice. Thus, ghar-wapsi, or reconversion to Hinduism aside, Shias and Sufis in particular have been singled out as being more acceptable Muslims because of their practices.

Additionally, ‘caste’ divisions within Muslims are now also used to advocate the position that the vast majority of Muslims are the descendants of indigenous converts. In other words, their ‘Indianness’ is established by the fact that their ancestors were Hindu. This change in policy from outright antagonism to selective engagement has been catalysed by international and, to some extent, domestic political exigencies.

Also read: When Rabbits Are Impressed by the ‘Simplicity’ of the Wolf

For the past 8 years, the BJP and RSS have been conducting an outreach program to try and create inroads in these communities. The RSS is part of this outreach through its affiliate, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM).

The MRM was founded by erstwhile RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan in order to change the image of the RSS as fundamentally antagonistic to Muslims and bring Muslims closer to Hindus. Since then, the BJP and RSS have been trying, at various junctures, to give the impression that they are engaging in and encouraging dialogue with certain Indian Muslims, including organising international Sufi conferences.

The most recent effort was a trip made by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to visit Umer Ahmed Ilyasi on the death anniversary of his father, Jameel Ilyasi, who famously visited Israel to meet Shimon Peres. Bhagwat was accompanied, amongst others, by Indresh Kumar, a senior functionary of the RSS and the current patron of the MRM.

Ilyasi Junior’s website says that he inherited the stewardship of the All India Imam Organisation which claims to be the “legitimate voice of the half a million Imams of India who happen to be the religious and spiritual guide of 210 million Indian Muslims.”

This private visit was covered by newspapers as part of the RSS’s public outreach to all Muslims. Two prominent newspapers carried headlines about the meeting, which read, ‘RSS chief meets imam body head in outreach to Muslims’ and ‘RSS chief Bhagwat visits mosque in Delhi, meets Muslim intellectuals.’

The second article refers to another meeting Bhagwat held with prominent Muslims, to which I shall return later.

Now, readers of both the Hindustan Times and the Times of India would be forgiven if they were to think, from these very vague headlines, that the outreach to Muslims is genuine and it is the Muslims that are constantly complaining of maltreatment. Essentially, the visit to a mosque and a madrassa to meet a ‘prominent’ Imam is good optics at a time when the international community is increasingly critical of growing religious intolerance in India.

It is also perhaps no coincidence that the timing of the meeting with Ilyasi as well as the release of the news regarding the dialogue with Muslim intellectuals took place at the same time as raids on leaders of the Popular Front of India (PFI) were being carried out all over the country. Importantly, the meeting with the Muslim intellectuals actually took place a month earlier. 

The meeting with the five prominent Muslims – S.Y. Quraishi, Najeeb Jung, Zameeruddin Shah, Saeed Shervani and Shahid Siddiqui – became a matter of controversy and consternation. Quraishi modestly described the five as a “motley” group of concerned and retired community members.

Also read: What Mohan Bhagwat’s Visit To A Madrasa Tells Us About The RSS

A former election commissioner; a former lieutenant governor and former vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia; a retired general who is also the former vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University; a prominent businessman; and a politician cum newspaper editor can hardly be described as a motley crew. Details of the meeting remained hazy until Quraishi and Jung appeared on Karan Thapar’s show on The Wire and then the former wrote an op-ed for the Indian Express.

Here, it is important to point out that this kind of outreach by the RSS has taken place before, most notably in 2019 when Bhagwat met Maulana Arshad Madani, head of the Jamiat Ulama-e Hind, another apex body of Muslim scholars in India. However, the years following those meetings have been marked by two trends.

The first is what Hilal Ahmed calls ‘Hindutva constitutionalism.’ In other words, the BJP and RSS are legislating Hindutva into being by co-opting and using the constitution rather than trying to replace it.

Thus, since Jung’s last meeting with Bhagwat in 2019, the Babri Masjid judgment was pronounced, the Citizenship Amendment Bill was ratified and the intention to create a National Register of Citizens was declared.Of course, the reading down of Article 370 of the Constitution, the amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and the Triple Talaq bill had already been brought earlier that summer.

Most recently, the right to wear the hijab, the Gyanvapi mosque controversy and the announcement by various states to implement a Uniform Civil Code, all point to how Hindutva is being legislated into existence. 

The second trend is that the communal pot has been kept boiling by central, state and local BJP politicians because of its electoral benefits. The last two years have been witness to calls for the socio-economic boycott of Muslims and there have even been open calls for their rape and genocide. Clearly, even if there was engagement at a high level, members of the BJP still feel incentivised to use anti-Muslim rhetoric for electoral gain.

The five-member delegation did bring up the fact that Muslims are called jihadi and Pakistani, but Bhagwat lamented that the Muslim population is increasingly too rapidly, that Muslims don’t respect Hindu sentiments about the sacrality of the cow, and that they use the word kafir for Hindus. It speaks volumes that a figure in power still felt compelled to paint himself and the community that he claims to represent as victims while speaking from a clear position of power.

Importantly, none of the major issues, including, most importantly, the UCC and the CAA, seem to have been brought up in the conversation with Bhagwat, who incidentally gave a disclaimer that he had limited influence on the ground (see, the Thapar interview). In fact, Quraishi in his op-ed seems to have believed Bhagwat’s assertion that the ‘Constitution was sacrosanct’, despite the fact that it is precisely the Constitution and its attendant structures which are being used as tools for creating a Hindu Rashtra.

In this atmosphere, it is important to remember that the BJP and RSS will seek to create their version of a civil society amongst Muslims whom it will then treat as interlocutors. An organisation called the Indian Muslims for Progress and Reform (IMPAR) has already been doing the groundwork for this and some of the recent delegation members have participated in its various events.

As it happens, one of the founders of IMPAR was also a founding member of the Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh and is alleged to be close to powerful members of the BJP. Incidentally, IMPAR has been doing commendable relief work on the ground as well but its future credibility will depend on whether it is seen simply as a proxy. In its press statement on the Bhagwat visit, it welcomed the move while appealing to the prime minister to reign in communal forces. In other words, individuals and organisations that engage with the powers that be will need to avoid that infamous label which was applied to those Muslims who toed the Congress’ line: sarkari (official) Muslims.

Bhagwat’s statement in the meeting – and subsequently in Shillong – that all Indians are Hindus echoes in a sense what Lueger said in Vienna. The delegation resisted this labelling and instead, the term ‘Bhartiya Muslim’ was agreed upon.

The very fact that Bhagwat is concerned with who or what an acceptable Muslim looks like speaks volumes about whether the RSS has changed its position or just adapted to the times. 

Ali Khan Mahmudabad teaches at Ashoka University and regularly writes for the Urdu and English press. He is the author of Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950 (OUP). He is a member of the Samajwadi Party. Twitter @mahmudabad.