A week before the 65th Independence Day, Imran Chaudhry, a PhD student at the national capital's Jamia Millia Islamia university did something which would pit him against everyone in his neighbourhood in the walled city of old Delhi. Chaudhry got posters pasted on the walls of the labyrinthine lanes of the primarily minority-dominated area, informing locals that senior Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS) leader Indresh Kumar would be addressing a gathering in the area on August 15.
Retaliatory posters asking people to boycott the event appeared within hours. Chaudhry remembers the snide remarks of his acquaintances. "One of them commented that those who had been baying for the blood of the Muslim community were now coming here to address them," he says. To understand Chaudhry's motives, a senior neigbourhood cleric met him privately and chided him saying, "It's understandable if you prefer the BJP over other political parties; but the RSS?"
As the national co-convener of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM) - a social organisation floated by the RSS with more than 10,000 members across the country -
Chaudhry says he is now used to such jibes from members of his community. "Through the MRM, the RSS has extended an olive branch to the Muslim community. It's the duty of the Muslims to reciprocate and I am doing just that," says the 40-year-old. In December 2010, when Indresh Kumar's name was associated with the Mecca Masjid blast, Chaudhry was at the forefront of a demonstration at the capital's Jantar Mantar, defending the Sangh leader, who, he says, is like a father figure to him. "I couldn't back out when he needed us the most," he says.
The idea of the MRM, the Sangh's only body to reach out to Muslims, was conceptualised in December 2002 - 88 years after the RRS was born - when the late K Sudarshan, former RSS chief, addressed a gathering at the Chanakyapuri residence of Nafisa Hussain, then member of the National Commission for Women.
He had expressed concern that young Muslims were being targeted on terror charges across the globe and to an audience of approximately a dozen Muslims, a few of them BJP sympathizers, he said he knew the spirit of Islam did not propagate the ideology of Jihad as it was interpreted by terrorists.
"After the programme, we brainstormed on how to remove misconceptions about each others' religions and decided to form a social organisation called 'Mai (Mother) Hindustan' as all Indians are the children of Mother India," recalls 49-year-old Dr Tahir Hussain, professor of geography at Mekelle University, Ethiopia, and one of the founder members of the MRM. The organisation's name was later changed to Rashtriya Muslim Manch and finally to Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM).
The MRM now has a presence in 22 states.
Friends with benefits
MRM members do not follow the drill in sangh shakhas or wear the khaki half pants that are mandatory for all RSS members.
None of the MRM members would admit that propagating the RSS ideology of a Hindu Rashtra is on their agenda. "The idea is to bring the two communities together," says Hussain.
However, the RSS cannot be extricated from the MRM. From time to time, the organisation has spearheaded campaigns such as the one calling for a ban on cow slaughter to carry out the message of its parent body. Last October, Hussain, who is from Mewat district in Haryana, organised a panchayat of 12 villages there, to ban cow slaughter. "If it is about eating meat, we have other options such as chicken or mutton. If not eating beef can help us come closer to our Hindu brothers, what is wrong in it?" he asks.
Like most MRM members who overtly displayed their affiliation to the RSS, Hussain believes he faces some ostracism. A book entitled 'Environment, Ecology And Natural Resources' which he co-authored with wife Marry Tahir Hussain, as a research associate at Jamia Millia Islamia University, acknowledges the couple's gratitude to 'guruji' Indresh Kumar in the introduction. "I think this is the reason why I never got a permanent job at the university," Hussain says. "My point is that if you have any issues with something which I have done, discuss it with me. Why punish me like this?"
MRM members insist the minority community's suspicions of the RSS are misplaced. During his visit to the RRS camp in Bhopal in the holy month of Ramzan, Hussain was impressed that, every day, one of the pracharaks woke him up before dawn to eat (Sehri) before starting the day's fast. "They also held an iftaar gathering. They are very down-to-earth people. People ask me why RSS? I say why not RSS?" he says.
Imran Chaudhry says everything he had read and heard about the Sangh Parivar's extreme ideology was proved wrong when he met its current head Mohan Bhagwat at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. "He hugged me. He never put any pressure on me to dress like a pracharak or to convert to Hinduism. And the perception is that these people will do shuddhi of the Muslim community," he says.
Not surprisingly, the minority community largely continues to believe the RSS is intrinsically an anti-Muslim body and that personal experiences such as Hussain's and Chaudhry's don't matter. "RSS promotes the ideology of a Hindu nation where individual religious choices do not matter. They want everyone to think like a Hindu nationalist. If a Muslim is propagating such an ideology, I would say he is a traitor," says Dr Jamal Ahmed, a physician in the walled city area.
The MRM's national executive body, comprising of 24 members, is in regular touch with the RSS' Delhi office and holds monthly meetings at a rented flat in Paharganj to chalk out its agenda. It is then conveyed to a working committee of 250 members which ensures its implementation through the cadre.
As in its social ideology, there is a strange dichotomy in the MRM's political beliefs. The larger feeling among members, something they stress on, is that this organisation has no political purpose. In an hour-long conversation, Mohammad Afzal, national convener, repeated five times that the role and responsibilities of its members were different from that of the BJP cadre and that while the MRM is a social organisation, the task of the BJP's minority cell involves mobilising minorities for the party.
In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, however, the lines look set to be blurred.
Afzal reveals the message his organisation would convey in the upcoming campaigns: "We have tried every so-called secular party. Why not try the BJP? We should stop treating the BJP as an untouchable party."
Towards this end, the MRM is conceptualising a two-month programme to be implemented on a war footing. Plans include conducting public meetings in more than 100 districts, holding three rallies covering around 20 states, and creating a network of sympathetic clerics at dargahs and seminaries.
"The Congress government ensured that Muslims do not progress; it did not bother about creating a leadership among the community; but it's always the BJP which is viewed as the enemy," says Afzal. On the Godhra riots, he gives the usual response that, in independent India, more riots have happened in Congress-ruled states than in the ones ruled by the BJP and cites the example of the killing of Sikhs in the 1984 riots in Delhi.
"Congress butchered the Sikhs, but the community did not leave the party. The result is for all of us to see. They remained part of the mainstream and we have a Sikh as the Prime Minister of the country today. Why should we leave the BJP because we have had Godhra?" he wonders.
Interestingly, not all members of the organisation are convinced about disseminating the political message. "If this is going to happen, I will register my opposition," says Mushir Khan, convener, Delhi chapter, MRM, when asked about his organisation's preparations for the 2014 polls.
Nizam Nizami, the chief priest at Dargah Nizamuddin in the capital is averse to discussing anything political. "The dargah is a place of peace," he says when you meet him in his office at the shrine. A hundred pictures of Nizami with political and non-political personalities forms a collage on the wall behind him. Though not an active member of the MRM, he is aware of its activities and believes it is a good initiative to bring the two communities together.
"Here, we get visitors from all sects and communities. Sufism talks about peace and harmony. I don't see anything wrong if an effort like this has been made," he says, referring to the MRM.
What about the RSS?
"All these wrong things that you hear about it, have been propagated by people with a small mentality," he says, as he leaves for evening prayers.
Does the MRM indicate an attitudinal shift among Indian Muslims? "Around 10,000 Muslims joining an organization affiliated to the RSS does not mean much. Even the Shiv Sena in Mumbai has Muslim shaakha pramukhs. If the Congress can use token Muslims, then the RSS can do it too," says sociologist Dipankar Gupta.
Seema Mustafa, political analyst and author of the book 'Azadi's Daughter- journey of a liberal Muslim', agrees. "We need to take it with a pinch of salt. Even if the MRM has these many members and they approach the minority community with a political message, the BJP is not the party for which the minorities in India will ever vote. It is diametrically opposite to the idea of a secular party," she says.
Whether the objective is to change the psyche of an average Indian Muslim towards the RSS or to sway the Muslim vote in favour of the BJP or both, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch clearly has a long way to go.