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Mohan Bhagwat's overture to Muslims

Bhagwat's Plea For Social Harmony Tries To Repackage The Hindutva Project As Accommodative And Tolerant Of Minorities

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On the same day that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Chief Mohan Bhagwat visited the office and a madrasa run by a self-styled 'leader' of Muslim clerics, five prominent Muslims, made public that they too had held a meeting with him a month earlier. Was Mohan Bhagwat serious about doing a makeover of RSS's anti-minority image? Or should one look beyond the media distraction at another event that occurred nearly simultaneously on September 22? Within hours of Bhagwat's visit, coordinated raids on the allegedly radical Islamist outfit, the Popular Front of India (PFI), were carried out by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Did the RSS Chief's actions have anything to do with a realisation that unreformed Hindutva could radicalise Muslim youth to a point where they could constitute a real threat to its proponents?

A pliant media has made much of the Muslim cleric effusively describing Bhagwat as Rashtrapita or "Father of the Nation". Much has also been made of the meeting of S Y Quraishi (former Chief Election Commissioner), Najeeb Jung (former Lt. Governor of Delhi), Lt. General (Retd) Zameer Uddin Shah (Former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University), Hotelier Saeed Sherwani and Urdu Journalist Shahid Siddiqui with Mohan Bhagwat. However, it is unclear why, if it was of such significance, did they wait for a month to go public?

Undoubtedly the sense of minority persecution has grown since the ascendency of the BJP to power in Delhi in 2014. Civil discrimination (e.g. Citizenship Amendment Act, threat of a National Register of Citizens), the lack of opportunities for political participation (the Modi government today does not have a single Muslim minister, and the BJP is reluctant to field Muslim candidates) and the unexpected and disproportionate use of force by the government to target the community (use of bulldozers by BJP state governments to demolish their properties) have created the context for Muslim youth to seek their own forums for political expression. Their political alienation has not been helped by the impunity with which Hindutva activists have been rampaging across the country, targeting the minority community for its food habits and dress, disallowing prayers in public places, setting loyalty tests for it and indulging in unbridled assaults.

These developments explain the phenomenal growth of the PFI from Kerala to a presence in 18 states. The PFI was formed to counter growing Hindu radicalism. It calls itself "a neo-social movement committed to empowering people to ensure justice, freedom and security." It has front organisations amongst students (Campus Front of India), women (National Women's Front), Imams (All India Imams' Council) and a political front called the Social Democratic Party of India, which has contested and won a few local body elections in Kerala and Karnataka. In many ways, the PFI seems to be the mirror image of the RSS in terms of how it trains cadre, organises mass fronts and weaponises religion for political ends.

The NIA and Enforcement Directorate raids on PFI have reportedly seized documents which show that prominent leaders of a particular community were on its "hit list". Some media reports have clarified that plans to target BJP and RSS workers have been recovered.

While the veracity of such claims is yet to be ascertained in a court of law, it is quite possible that intelligence reports about the radicalisation of Muslim youth targeting Hindutva leaders might have led to Bhagwat's recent overtures. It might be recalled that on June 7 this year, the Centre, based on intelligence assessment, decided to upgrade the security of the RSS Chief to the "Z-Plus" category and tasked the Special Security Group of the Central Industrial Security Force to provide him 24X7 protection.

The first signal that unbridled Hindutva's chickens were coming home to roost was the brutal beheading of a tailor, Kanhaiyalal Teli, in Udaipur. He paid with his life for supporting, on social media, the incendiary remarks about Prophet Mohammad and his wife Aisha made by a former official of the BJP.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur has now scolded mainstream media channels for the "polarising" narrative that "inflames anger". The same media houses were, till now, a force multiplier for communal polarisation. The judiciary, too, has woken up to the need to control hate speech in the media. Mohan Bhagwat, a few months ago, also advised against any further fuelling of temple-mosque, famously saying, "Why to look for a 'Shivling' (symbol of Lord Shiva) under every mosque?" Bhagwat has managed to find willing partners in a pliable small-time Imam and some retired grey eminences amongst the Muslims eager for a second-wind in public life.

A secondary motive might be to counter the message of the Congress' Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY). At a time when Rahul Gandhi's BJY seems to be eliciting an enthusiastic public response, Bhagwat's plea for "social harmony" tries to repackage the Hindutva project as accommodative and tolerant of minorities.

The RSS may also be under pressure to distance itself from Hindutva organisations which have recently been accused of communal riots in Leicester and Birmingham in the UK. Fraternal organisations of the RSS exist in a number of countries, with the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, for example, present in 156 countries with more than 32,000 branches. Bhagwat's overture will certainly aim to avert accusations that his organisation is exporting divisive Hindu communalism to the democracies of the West.