How credible is the ‘Muslim outreach’ of the RSS? What is Mohan Bhagwat up to?

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s words and deeds do not always match, which is why Mohan Bhagwat’s first visit to a mosque and a madrasa has generated more cynicism than hope

Representative image
Representative image

Zafar Agha

Reactions to RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s first visit to a mosque and madrasa in New Delhi this week have been mixed. The RSS chief, who took over from KS Sudarshan in 2009, had never visited a mosque before. The RSS, however, refused to attach any significance to the visit, claiming that the RSS chief regularly meets people from all walks of life and that the Sangh’s Muslim outreach is at least 20-years-old. Why then did it take 13 years at the helm for the RSS chief to visit a mosque and a madrasa?

RSS, undeniably, is yet to utter a word to condemn or denounce the lynching of Muslims, wants to deny them space to offer Friday prayers and calls for the economic boycott of Muslims and genocide; RSS has also been silent on the brazen remission of life-sentences awarded to the accused in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case; which is why the visit generated much more cynicism than hope.

Indresh Kumar, the RSS ‘leader’ who heads the Rashtriya Muslim Manch and has been at the forefront of the Sangh’s 'Muslim outreach', however, dismissed speculation that the Sangh was poised to become more inclusive.

There had been no change or dilution in the Sangh’s ideology, he told the media after the RSS chief’s well-publicised visit to the mosque and the madrasa. He also dismissed suggestions that the visit was prompted by the success of the ongoing 'Bharat Jodo Yatra'.

Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, the chief Imam of the All India Imam Organisation, claimed that the RSS chief had visited the mosque and the madrasa at his invitation. The elated Imam, in his exuberance, called Bhagwat the ‘Rashtrapita’, raising eyebrows.

The RSS chief’s meeting with five prominent Muslim intellectuals a month ago was also said to have been arranged at the initiative of the intellectuals themselves. The group of five included the former chief election commissioner S Y Qureshi, former Aligarh Muslim University vice chancellor Zameer Uddin Shah, editor and journalist Shahid Siddiqui, former Delhi Lt Governor Najeeb Jung and businessman Saeed Shervani.

To be fair, Bhagwat did assert in 2019 that stern action would be taken against RSS volunteers if they were found to be involved in the lynching of Muslims. Maulana Arshad Madani of the well-known seminary Darool Uloom had also welcomed Bhagwat’s statement last year that 'the DNA of both Hindus and Muslims in India were the same'. Since Jats, Rajputs and Gurjars, among others, were both Hindus and Muslims, he had said, Bhagwat was right about the DNA comment.

But such statements have failed to inspire much confidence because BJP-ruled states have bent over backwards to harass Muslims. Anti-NRC protestors were jailed, houses of Muslim protestors were demolished, in Assam Muslims continue to be persecuted as foreigners and in Karnataka Muslim girl students have been barred from wearing the hijab; and of course Muslims continue to be discriminated in recruitment and the RSS has done little to stop the calls for economic boycott of Muslims.

The hypocrisy of the RSS chief is also borne out by the fact that for the first time after Independence, the ruling party does not have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha to represent 15 per cent of the country’s population. There is no Muslim minister either in the Union cabinet.     

So, what is the RSS chief up to? Is he serious about changing the RSS worldview? RSS and its offshoots have made no bones about their conviction that Muslims must live as second-class citizens in a 'Hindu Rashtra'. Equality of Hindus and Muslims is not something that the RSS is known to have championed.

If RSS drops its anti-Muslim stance, it loses its raison d’etre. There could also be a revolt within the RSS and Bhagwat accused of compromising on the Sangh’s core beliefs.

There are other reasons to believe that Bhagwat’s visit to the mosque is much ado about nothing. Even as the RSS chief was visiting the mosque, the Attorney General of India was defending the ban on hijabs in schools and colleges of Karnataka in the Supreme Court.  The Yogi government in Uttar Pradesh continued with its contentious 'survey' of madrasas, attended by less than four per cent of Muslim school-going children; and BJP leaders made snide remarks at a photograph of Rahul Gandhi walking hand-in-hand with a little girl in a burqa.

BJP and Sangh supporters celebrated the lower court’s decision to hear petitions on the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and continued to suggest that the ‘liberation’ of Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura was next on their agenda.

It is, therefore, difficult to take the RSS chief’s tokenism seriously. The gesture, however, may well have been prompted by the compulsion of the Sangh to hold out an olive branch to the Islamic countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It is no secret that the VHP and the RSS have been expanding their footprint in these countries. But following the backlash at the profanities on TV uttered by BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma about the prophet, the gesture may have become necessary.

RSS has also been at the receiving end of international criticism for exporting communal hatred, bigotry, racism and caste hierarchies. The RSS 'outreach' can be seen as a damage-control measure in this light.

 It is possible that the Sangh is worried at the Frankenstein it has released. Even the BJP, of late, has been singing a different tune, with the Union information & broadcasting minister Anurag Singh Thakur waking up to TV channels promoting divisive ideology and the Supreme Court pulling up the media for turning a deaf ear to hate-speech.  

There may be some belated realisation in the ranks of the Sangh that things have gone too far; that there is now need to slow down and exercise some restraint, at least till the next General Election.

Or the 'outreach' could be part of the RSS and BJP’s design to sow confusion among the Muslims and divide Muslim votes. The consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of the Opposition is not quite what they look forward to.

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