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Moderate Muslims and militant Hindu nationalists are strange bedfellows at the best of times, particularly when they come together to reshape Hindu-Muslim relations in troubled India.
Yet, that is what Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seek to achieve.
Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society group in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state and democracy, is everything the RSS, a notorious Hindu nationalist movement widely viewed as the catalyst of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in India, is not.
What makes the endeavour even more remarkable is that the two groups have strikingly different visions of what Hindu-Muslim reconciliation should entail.
For Nahdlatul Ulama, engagement with the RSS is part of a bold and risky strategy to persuade faith groups, including Muslims, to confront their troubled, often violent, histories and problematic tenants of their religions that reject pluralism and advocate supremacy.
“Nahdlatul Ulama believes that the only way to overcome entrenched historical grievances and promote peaceful co-existence is to engage all parties and refuse to indulge in the sentiment of enmity and hatred based upon a claim of unique communal victimhood,” the group said in a statement in September explaining its engagement with RSS.
For the RSS, engagement is about redressing historical grievances dating to centuries of Muslim invasions and rule, defending Hindus against perceived contemporary Muslim threats, and ensuring that India is a Hindu rather than a non-discriminatory multi-religious state.
A 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship law suggested how the RSS defines a Hindu state. The amendment extends the right to apply for citizenship to members of religious minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians but not Muslims — fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, an Indian Muslim author and intellectual who maintains close ties with the RSS, insisted in an interview with the author that RSS ideology views Indians, irrespective of their religion, culturally as Hindus.
“They say that Hindu doesn’t have a religious connotation, Hindu being all those people living in this part of the world, they are culturally…Hindus… The religion is Santana Dharma or Eternal Faith (the Hindu reference to Hinduism). Hindu is the cultural identity… That is the middle ground,” Mr. Iftikhar said.
In 2021, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat launched a widely acclaimed book authored by Mr. Iftikhar that argued in favour of Hindu-Muslim togetherness and harmony.
Nahdlatul Ulama and the RSS’ different visions have consequences for strategy. Although the RSS’ Indonesian engagement is with a movement led by clerics, in India, it tends to interact with secular Muslims who have no authority to reform Islamic jurisprudence rather than religious scholars.
Even so, Mr. Iftikhar said numerous Indian Muslim religious leaders of all stripes were in touch with the RSS, although many of them did so privately.
These include leaders of Deobandism, a revivalist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim movement, which counts some 20 per cent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims among its followers.
Deobandism emerged in the mid-19th century around Darul Uloom Madrassa, a religious seminary in Deoband in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to preserve Islamic teachings under British colonial rule.
“The difficulty is that contrary to the RSS, Muslim authorities in India do not have a strategy. Theologically, they have not accepted India’s existence but, for political reasons, do not challenge it. It’s an attitude they have yet to abandon,” said an analyst of Indian Islam.
In a separate interview on an Indian Muslim television channel, Mr. Iftikhar argued that the Muslim community had failed to address its differences with the RSS.
“The community has avoided any discussion or debate on that. It has always taken refuge behind others, whereas the challenge was ours. The response should have been from us, and we should have tackled those issues. The issues are challenges that India as a country and we as Indians…as one single nation, are facing. It is not a Hindu challenge; it is not a Muslim challenge,” Mr. Iftikhar said.
In a chapter that he contributed to an edited volume on the politics of hate in South Asia, Indian Islam scholar A. Faizur Rehman seemed to spell out Mr. Iftikhar’s castigation of the Indian Muslim leadership and align himself with Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for reform of Islamic law.
Mr. Rehman took the Muslim community to task for not countering their own ultra-conservatives and militants on multiple issues, such as the defense of relations with non-Muslims, the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Muslim lands, and draconic blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan.
“If the Muslim community fails to question and stop these fanatics, it would be unwittingly contributing to Islamophobia,” Mr. Rehman said.
Mr. Rehman argued that Muslims needed to clarify their beliefs by stating that India is not part of the Muslim notion of an abode of war and, like Nahdlatul Ulama, declare that the concept of the kafir or infidel does not apply to non-Muslims.
A gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama clerics ruled in 2019 that the concept of the kafir was no longer legally valid.
Mr. Rehman contended that Muslims should discard the concept of dawah or proselytisation “as a tool of supremacism” and abolish apostasy and blasphemy as capital crimes under Islamic law.
“In short, what is needed…is a radical rethink of Muslim theology,” the scholar said.
Three years into the dialogue, the jury is still out on Nahdaltul Ulama’s interaction with RSS, which started as a cautious dialogue and has expanded into a degree of cooperation.
So far, the endeavour, embraced by moderate Indian Muslims and reformers, appears to have worked more in the RSS’ favour than that of Nahdlatul Ulama.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s credentials offer the RSS Muslim legitimisation.
The RSS has used the Muslim group’s push for reform of religious jurisprudence, the concept of a pluralistic Humanitarian Islam, and unequivocal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to tell India’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority, what their faith should look like.
To be fair, there may be no Hindu-Muslim reconciliation without the RSS, a five million-member-strong movement whose disciples constitute the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and government. The RSS is the ideological cradle of Mr. Modi, who has been a member since childhood.
In a rare recent interview published in Hindi and English by two RSS sister publications, Mr. Bhagwat, the group’s leader, discussed the movement’s strategy and objectives that frame engagement with Nahdlatul Ulama although he did not refer to the Indonesian Muslims.
Mr. Bhagwat’s statements offer reasons for both optimism and pessimism.
From a tactical point of view, Nahdlatul Ulama is likely to have taken note of Mr. Bhagwat’s acknowledgement that the RSS can no longer refuse accountability for what its associates in office do.
“People forget that swayamsevaks (RSS associates) have reached certain political positions through a political party. Sangh (RSS) continues to organise society for organisation’s sake. However, whatever swayamsevaks do in politics, Sangh is held accountable for it,” Mr. Bhagwat said.
“Even if we are not implicated directly by others, there is certainly some accountability, as ultimately it is in the Sangh where swayamsevaks are trained. Therefore, we are forced to think – what should be our relationship, which things we should pursue with due diligence,” Mr. Bhagwat added.
To be sure, Mr. Bhagwat was talking about the RSS’s relationship with the BJP and its current accountability rather than the historical responsibilities of the group and Hindus at large. He stressed that the RSS was concerned about “national policies, national interest, and Hindu interest,” not electoral politics.
By drawing a line between the RSS and the BJP, accepting the principle of accountability, and framing the groups’ political involvement, Mr. Bhagwat appeared to hint at a potential divergence between the movement and the party.
“The RSS thinks about the endgame. Bhagwat thinks about the future. He is not elected and does not have to worry about re-election. The BJP does. That’s why the BJP is more prone to polarisation. The RSS does not need polarization for electoral purposes,” said an analyst who closely follows the RSS and BJP.
Even so, Mr. Bhagwat did not shy away from polarizing language when he asserted that Hindus were engaged in a “1,000-year war.” Moreover, Mr. Bhagwat magnified the notion of war by insisting on the RSS’ majoritarian vision of India, or Hindustan in his words. as a Hindu rather than a multi-cultural nation.
The RSS leader defined the war as a fight against “foreign aggressions, foreign influences and foreign conspiracies” that seek to force others “to accept their path as it’s the only true path. And if you refuse to do so, you will have to choose between our mercy and death.”
Mr. Bhagwat made clear that he was referring to Muslim rather than Christian proselytisers by insisting that “Muslims should give up the mindset of superiority…(and) ‘we can’t live with others.’”
Mr. Bhagwat asserted, “foreign invaders are no longer, but foreign influences and conspiracies have continued. So, there is a war to defend Hindu society, Hindu Dharma (cosmic law), and Hindu culture.”
Drawing a contrast with Hinduism, Mr. Bhagwat asked rhetorically: “What is the Hindu worldview? Does a Hindu ever say that everyone should endorse his faith? This is not how we think. We want to present an example for others to see. We want to have (a) dialogue with everyone. Those who wish to improve will follow our example. If they do not, we do not intend to harm them.”
Mr. Bhagwat’s polarizing rhetoric notwithstanding, Nahdlatul Ulama sees common ground in the RSS’ rejection of what the Indonesian group describes as “obsolete and problematic elements within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny.”
Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative, nationalist organisation in its own right, hopes that its willingness to confront head-on intolerant and supremacist tenants of Islamic law will convince the RSS to develop a Hindu equivalent of Humanitarian Islam and take a critical look at Hindu theology, history, and anti-Muslim attitudes.
In an article entitled “What the media has misunderstood about Mohan Bhagwat’s interview,” Ram Madhav, an RSS executive committee member and associate of Mr. Modi, sought to finetune Mr. Bhagwat’s reference to war.
“The UNESCO Constitution begins with the statement that ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. Bhagwat’s emphasis was actually on removing that mindset of war. It is a historical fact that India has been subjected to various political and religious aggressions over millennia. That history has left an imprint, leading to occasional aggressive outbursts in sections of the society. Bhagwat was categorical that such aggression was uncalled for,” Mr. Madhav said.
“If there is a Hindu who thinks like that, he should discard it. A communist should also shed it”, Mr. Madhav quoted the RSS leader as saying.
In his interview, Mr. Bhagwat downplayed aggression by RSS members. “Since there is a war, people are likely to get overzealous. Although this is undesirable, yet provocative statements will be uttered,” the RSS leader said.
The dialogue with Nahdlatul Ulama did not stop the Indian group from accusing in its March 2022 annual report “a particular community” of seeking to “enter the government machinery” to further its ”malicious” agenda” as part of “a deep conspiracy.”
The report repeated allegations of imaginary Muslim jihads, such as the alleged forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.
“This challenge has a long history, but, of late, different newer ways of converting new groups are being adopted,” the report said.
Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar. discounts Hindu fears of a demographic threat to their majority status in India but acknowledges that deep-seated distrust dates to the 12th-century Muslim conquests.
“By the turn of the 20th century, a deep distrust developed between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims came to be seen as outsiders who had come to conquer and convert the original inhabitants of the subcontinent to Islam, “Mr. Rehman said.
Noting that Hindu distrust is rooted in the insistence of Muslim conquerors that India was Islamic territory, Mr. Rehman conceded that Hindu fears are fueled by “clerics and televangelists in India (who) continue to display their supremacist arrogance.”
Mr. Rehman points to ultra-conservative and militant clerics who forbid Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays and denounce the operation of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim lands.
Another Muslim reformer traces the roots of strained relations to Muslim invasions that started with the Umayyad conquest of Sindh in the 8th century.
“It all began with Muslims invading, slaughtering, enslaving Hindus, and burning their temples. Today, the demographic fear may be blown out of proportion. But how long would it take deer to overcome their fear of tigers if tigers became domesticated and tigers stopped killing deer? This is the way Hindus look at Muslims. The fear is still there that Muslims continue to believe that they should dominate and prey upon non-Muslims,” the reformer said.
For his part, Mr. Iftikhar, the Muslim intellectual, insisted in his interview with the author that Indian Muslims were as much victims of Muslim conquests as were Hindus.
“All the Muslims who ruled India in the last seven, eight centuries were either Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Uzbeks or Iraqis, not Indian Muslims… We have never ruled India… So why should I take it on myself when I was not part parcel of that history?… We belong to this land. We stayed here by choice. We are the citizens of this country. So why should we take the baggage of the foreign Muslim rulers?” Mr. Iftikhar asked.
The latent fear of Muslims, fuelled by perennial Indian-Pakistani tensions, enabled ideologues and politicians to weaponize demographic concerns in a population for which it is primarily a lingering prejudice rather than a living memory or a daily life challenge.
Moreover, the population figures speak for themselves. Muslims account for 200 million of India’s population of 1.4 billion. Demography, in the best of cases, is only a potential concern, if at all, if Indians look at South Asia as a whole. The subcontinent is home to three of the four largest Muslim populations that, alongside India, include Pakistan, with 231 million, and Bangladesh, with 169 million.
Even so, Mr. Bhagwat asserted in October that “population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored” because “population imbalances lead to changes in geographical boundaries.”
Countering Mr. Bhagwat, Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar, argues that “Hindu-Muslim mistrust in India today is based on imaginary fears. Both communities are not responsible for what their respective ancestors did. But they would be if they buy into the politically motivated propaganda that seeks to keep them divided.”
For his part, Mr. Iftikhar expressed support for Muslim dialogue with the RSS.
“If you keep a distance and detachment as your strategy, as your policy, then whatever opinions you form are stereotypes. Stereotypes are untested, untried so-called facts. If they become the source of opinion-making and opinion-building, then you can imagine that the argument will never have a logical base,” Mr. Iftikhar said.
The author went on to say that “the Muslim community should come forward and instead of putting conditions, raising doubts and making it an issue that do this and then it will happen, no, relations are not build up, understanding is never achieved as a goal when you put conditions. Engagement is the way forward, sit, talk, interact, exchange, put forward your viewpoint, listen to the other viewpoint.”
It’s an approach that Mr. Rehman and Nahdlatul Ulama embrace. For them, as well as for Mr. Iftekhar, the onus is on all parties. For Muslims, that means conceptual and judicial reform; for the RSS, it means defining accountability in word and deed.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.