The backdoor engagement

SORTING IT OUT: Both sides have legitimate questions, but they can get answers to these only when they start talking without preconditions or standing on ceremony. File picture of members of a Muslim front and a right wing organisation at a demonstration in New Delhi over the Babri Masjid demolition. Photo: V.V. Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_Krishnan

I am currently reading a manuscript by an Indian academic which reads like a fairy tale of Hindu-Muslim relations, except that it is not a fairy tale but an important — albeit forgotten — slice of Indian history. It is the story of how Hindu and Muslim nationalists transcended their religious differences and came together to lead a joint fight against British colonial rule. Tragically though, in the end, it all went terribly wrong for the moderates in both communities, and its consequences still linger on, especially for Muslims.

Rise in sectarian rhetoric

Today, they are facing a resurgent Hindu Right not shy of flexing its muscles and this in turn has bolstered a hitherto waning Muslim Right. To those of us who lived through the particularly fraught phase of Hindu-Muslim relations in the 1970s and 1980s it often seems like the bad old days are back again, with communal violence returning to chronic trouble spots in Uttar Pradesh, and a noticeable rise in sectarian rhetoric across the political divide. Indeed, some see the current climate as the lowest point in the relationship between the two communities in recent times.

But amid this “politics of polarisation” — in the words of Rahul Gandhi — is there something going on backstage aimed at lowering the temperature? Is the Hindu militant tendency under pressure from young moderate elements to reconfigure its attitude towards Muslims?

Much to my surprise, I was recently approached by a senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader I had never met before. We met in London and had a good cat-and-mouse chase around the “whys” and “wherefores” of the deep mutual mistrust that lies at the heart of the Muslim-Sangh Parivar divide. Two things struck me: his readiness to engage in a rational, unemotional discussion on Muslim concerns and his studious avoidance of any attempt to point fingers at Muslims. Only once during our nearly hour-long meeting did he get excited: when he sharply questioned the idea of state-funded educational institutions being given minority status on the basis that they were founded by a minority faith group. A fixed quota for students from that faith group was fine but handing over a university or a college funded with taxpayers’ money to a religious community in the name of secularism was an absolute no-no.

For the rest, however, he made all the right conciliatory noises, going to the extent of expressing frustration with “hard liners on our own side” who apparently opposed any overtures towards Muslims. Interestingly, barely some days later, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, while addressing party activists, reportedly “cautioned’’ them against using “offensive” language while referring to other faiths and specifically told the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in the presence of Praveen Togadia, its most belligerent leading light, to observe “restraint” while celebrating its golden jubilee next month. This came against the backdrop of a series of provocative comments targeting Muslims by Sangh Parivar figures. Critics dismissed Mr. Bhagwat’s warning as a PR gimmick and a bid to protect Prime Minister Narendra Modi from embarrassment at the hands of the party’s loose cannons.

Engaging Muslims in dialogue

So what’s going on? The answer to this question depends on what one is looking for. Those searching for signs of a fundamental shift in the RSS/Bharatiya Janata Party’s Muslim policy will be disappointed. But what is not in doubt is that there is an emerging view propagated by younger and more cosmopolitan leaders/activists who favour engaging Muslims in a dialogue. To them this seems a good time to tap into Muslim disillusionment with the Congress and other secular parties. Also, being in power, the BJP is less under pressure to keep up its shrill “minority-ism” rhetoric than when in opposition.

Although the party is not engaged in any official initiative at this stage, individual members and front organisations have the leadership’s backing to explore channels of communication with Muslims in what some jokingly refer to as “back channel diplomacy.” India Foundation, a think tank run by senior RSS and BJP leader Ram Madhav, is organising a “workshop” involving liberal Muslim intellectuals in Goa in December as part of a conference on national and international issues. A cast of high-profile progressive Muslims will share a platform with BJP/RSS supporters and exchange views with them. It seems this is not a one-off but a part of a long-term process of engagement with Muslims. It is also claimed that the RSS has a regular minorities “outreach” programme but independent inquires show that those who run them have links with hard line ideologues.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to say how much support the so-called back channel diplomacy enjoys at the higher echelons of the RSS, though given the stature of my interlocutor it does not look like a low-level operation. But is the support strong and widespread enough to make a difference? Or is it confined only to a few good samaritans? The biggest worry remains the many voices in which the RSS and its extended family speaks — sometimes the same people blowing hot and cold simultaneously. Take its own top boss, Mr. Bhagwat: one day he lectures his cadres on showing respect to people of other faiths and then barely some days later he himself does the opposite — by loudly asserting Hindu supremacy and relegating other faith groups in India to mere appendages. Speaking at an event in Cuttack, he said everyone living in India, irrespective of their individual faith, was a Hindu first, arguing disingenuously that “if inhabitants of England are English, Germany are Germans and the U.S. are Americans, then why all inhabitants of Hindustan are not known as Hindu?” Does he need reminding that there is a perfectly good secular term to describe citizens of Hindustan? It’s Hindustani.

So which is the real Bhagwat? The one who recognises India’s cultural diversity and advocates respect for it? Or the one who wants to deny India’s pluralistic ethos and impose the idea of a homogenous “Hindu India”? Such doublespeak is typical of the RSS and the wider Sangh Parivar. And it poses problems for liberal Muslim advocates of reconciliation. Worse, it strengthens the Muslim Right which is able to say, “We told you so.”

Since I first wrote about my encounter with the RSS peacenik, I’ve been swamped with mails asking me how his claims squared with the Sangh Parivar’s role in stoking communal tension in Uttar Pradesh. The questions Muslims are asking are: “How can we trust them when they don’t trust us?” “Why do we have to prove our loyalty everyday?”

Likewise, the other side wishes to know what exactly Muslims want. “How exactly do they want us to reach out to them?” “They must spell out their wish list more clearly.” “It is not enough to talk vaguely about ‘dignity’ and ‘Islamophobia’ and it certainly doesn’t help to cast every critic of Muslims as ‘communal’.” Both sides have legitimate questions, but they can get answers to these only when they start talking without preconditions or standing on ceremony.

It is important to stress that any polarisation will ultimately hurt Muslims, more for the simple reason that they are in a minority. This doesn’t mean they must surrender, but tactically it is not a great idea to remain in a sulking mode.

It takes two to tango. And when the stakes are so high it shouldn’t really matter which side makes the first move. Go on, get on to the floor and see where it goes from there.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 11:28:17 PM |

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