RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's meeting with a group of Muslim intellectuals last month and the visit to a Delhi madrasa on Thursday have created headlines. "RSS Muslim Outreach," say the headlines. Many have rushed to heap praise and credit on Bhagwat for "reaching out" to Muslims, for "starting a dialogue", for trying to "bridge the divide".
Of course, when a Sangh chief meets some prominent Muslims or visits a mosque and a madrasa, it's quite an event. And it's loaded with symbolism. And who could disagree with the importance of symbolism and dialogue in a democracy?
But amid all the media hype and hoopla around these events, we must pause and talk substance, instead of just getting carried away by the symbolism.
RSS leaders have been meeting Muslim leaders and influencers periodically. The Sangh has a specific arm called "Rashtriya Muslim Manch" for the "Muslim outreach". The RSS chief had recently also met Maulana Arshad Madani of the Jamiat Ulema Hind, and another group of Muslims in Mumbai before that in 2019. Bhagwat also keeps making occasional conciliatory remarks. Recent is his advice to Hindus to "stop looking for a shivling under every mosque" in the context of the Gyanvapi mosque controversy. A very welcome statement indeed, and was taken as such.
But how much have all these periodic meeting, and occasional conciliatory comments mattered on ground?
A sarsanghchalak is no small deal. The RSS boss holds a lot of sway over the swamsevaks, the government, the social and religious bodies representing Hindus. His good words must translate into some concrete changes on the ground: in the attitudes of the RSS-BJP state governments, on its foot soldiers, on hundreds of its offshoots.
Have we seen that happening? Sadly, no.
Bhagwat visited the Delhi madrasa at a time when BJP governments in UP and Assam, which are full of Sangh functionaries, have been targeting madrasas in the most blatant manner. Will his visit send the needed signal to these state governments? Or will it remain a photo-op, headline event? During his interaction with the Delhi madrasa students, Bhagwat told them to study both Quran and Geeta. Will he welcome a Muslim cleric to one of his shakhas and advise swamsevaks or Saraswati Shishu Mandir students to also read the Quran and Bible along with the Bhagwad Geeta?
He also reportedly said at the madrasa, and at the meet with Muslim intellectuals, that work needs to be done to erase many misconceptions that Muslims have about Hindus. Have we ever seen the Sangh to work towards misconceptions and prejudices that common Hindus have towards Muslims?
Today, Muslims feel threatened and targeted under a regime that has many lifelong swamsevaks at the very top. Bhagwat also needs to relay the message of reconciliation and harmony down that lane. His followers, both online and on the ground, take immense pleasure in degrading, demonizing, and harming Muslims day in and day out. Sangh followers in various institutions aid and abet this targeting and daily humiliation. Bhagwat's buddies in the governments instigate the lynch mobs and celebrate the bloodbath.
The line of Bhagwat's arguments in both these meetings was to put Muslims in a corner and to paint them as a problem. That Muslims need to do X, Y, Z to become acceptable to the Hindu majority. And that's the basic RSS philosophy: that the Muslims must merge their identity into the larger Hindu identity, which, in Bhagwat's worldview, is also the sole Indian identity. The RSS doesn't celebrate diversity, it seeks uniformity through a convergence of all other identities into a Hindu cultural identity, which it parades as Indianess. And it cleverly shrouds its designs in jargon like "Hindus are inherently secular", "Hindus celebrate diversity", "all Indians are basically Hindus", etc, etc. Basically, all identities become subservient to the larger Hindu identity.
This so-called "outreach" also needs to be seen in the context of recent events, when the world has taken serious note of Hindutva excesses in India. Gulf countries breathed fire over the Prophet insult by BJP leaders, global media is recording the descent of Indian media into a hate machine with the active support of the government. India's spiral into rank majoritarianism is getting noticed and called out on the international stage. The hate fests in the name of Dharam Sansads have brought much disgrace to the great Indian democracy. And all this is happening in the name of Hinduism and open anti-Muslim hatred.
So, the soft touch, from the soft-spoken Bhagwat. It's welcome. To the five intellectuals, he said that the Dharam Sansad types are fringe and not under his control. Fair enough. But what stops Bhagwat from calling them out clearly and strongly if he doesn't identify with their vitriol? Aren't Muslim individuals and organizations expected to shout condemnation from their rooftops after every Muslim extremist act anywhere in the world? And Muslims do that. Why doesn't the RSS chief use his high office to request the Centre and state governments to crack down on such elements who are out to shred the very fabric of Indian society with impunity?
What is democracy if not a dialogue? But it has to be a dialogue in true sense and spirit. The Muslim groups sought a meeting with Bhagwat in the belief that he can bring about a real change in the social scene of this country and he responded.
It's a good symbolism, but the outreach has to start from here. And that will take some real courage, conviction on Bhagwat's part.
(Mohd Asim is a Senior Editor at NDTV 24X7)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.