Mohan Bhagwat’s Muslim outreach and the logic of engagement
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent address to the Muslims struck a welcome note, through a reaffirmation of the first principles of the Indian Constitution — faith equality, inclusiveness and accommodation. He also laid out a common ground for Hindu-Muslim unity based on three fundamentals common to Hindus and Muslims of India — motherland, tradition and ancestors.
Bhagwat’s speech was an attempt to allay fears on two emerging narratives — that “Islam is in danger in India” and that the “Sangh is against minorities”. If misguided followers take heed from their leader, it will be much easier to allay such apprehensions.
Before Bhagwat, RSS joint general secretary, Krishna Gopal, remarked that Indian Muslims, with a population of over 160 million, have nothing to fear, while highlighting that other minority communities, with much smaller numbers, feel secure in India.
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Why is there a debate on Muslims being “afraid” in the first place? For Indian Muslims, this question perhaps merits another question — is the idea of minority and majority a mere quantification of numbers?
Throughout history, Muslims in India have never been in a majority. But their political power has been incredibly disproportionate to their numerical limitations. For instance, in British colonial Hyderabad, Muslim population was roughly 12%. But Muslims did not consider themselves a minority as long as political power manifested in empowerment through affirmative action in employment, bureaucracy and other instruments of the State.
In a Constitutional democracy driven by good governance and individual freedom, minority and majority should not be an estimation of numbers, rather an estimation of empowerment. In sync with this thinking, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the Muslim community at the centenary celebrations of AMU last year, chose the variables of empowerment — female education, economic self-reliance, employment and entrepreneurship.
Indian Muslims realise the value of peaceful coexistence and composite culture. They understand that division of national boundaries on the grounds of religion has no sanction in Islam, which is a value system for shaping the soul, and not a tool of political empowerment. Pakistan’s dependence on Islam as a basis for national unity could not come to its rescue and save it from division in 1971. Even in the Arab world, a common language, civilisation and religion among its inhabitants could not create “national unity”.
The founding fathers of the Constitution were aware that India’s distinctive identity lies in a paradox — while no nation seems to be as truly made, geographically, for unity as India, it also has as much potential for disunity. And in between the poles of unity and disunity lie pitfalls — misinterpreted history, Partition, and foreign rule. The solution in negotiating the pitfalls lie in ideals of unity in diversity, religious tolerance, and composite culture.
Bhagwat emphasised the importance of dialogue in promoting national unity. Interestingly, he played down the role of politics in fostering unity, and suggested that politics can be inimical in this. “There are some works that politics can’t do... Politics can’t become a tool to unite people but can become a weapon to distort unity.”
The first criticism, questioning the sincerity of his remarks, came from the political class, with Asaduddin Owaisi attributing “Hindutva thinking” as the reason for atrocities against Muslims. A notable reciprocation of Bhagwat’s olive branch of engagement with Muslims came from the Aligarh Muslim University Vice-Chancellor, Tariq Mansoor, who not only urged the Muslims to reciprocate, but also suggested that AMU be a platform for this engagement.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, 19th-century social reformer and AMU founder, in his quest for a “Muslim” university in colonial India, exemplified the value of working on an agenda of reform in which “political exigencies should not be impeded by emotional idealism”. Whether Muslims choose “emotional idealism” or “exigency of engagement” will have a bearing on their fortunes.
Mohammad Nasir is an assistant professor of law at Aligarh Muslim University
The views expressed are personal
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