By Ashima Makhija
In July 2016, a day before Muslims across the nation rejoiced amidst the celebrations of Eid, the women’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) criticised Islam, going so far as to say that, “Islam is not a religion, it’s a political aggression”. Now, in a significant departure from the past, RSS has invited an eminent Muslim homoeopath, Munawar Yusuf, as its chief guest for the Dussera function and the Shastra Pujan ceremony in Nagpur.
Muslim outreach program
RSS is broadly viewed as the epicentre of the hurricane of Hindutva that has submerged the country. However, in the last few months, RSS has initiated one of its most far-reaching programs that could lead to a paradigm change, not only in the image and the internal dynamics of the RSS but also in the current political scenario of the nation. Yusuf’s invitation is in tandem with the organisation’s minority outreach program by which it is establishing a more inclusive and ‘all-embracing’ image for itself. The outreach to minorities would get further bolstered on Dussera, when the RSS mega function addressed by Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, will have a Dalit religious leader Nirmal Das Maharaj as its Chief Guest.
The Dussera function is significant in the yearly calendar of RSS. It was established on Vijay Dashami, in 1925, by KB Hedgewar, the founding Sarsanghachalak of the RSS. The decision to invite Munawar Yusuf is a noteworthy step in its efforts to secure acceptance among Muslims. Dilip Deodhar, long-time RSS observer and a former functionary, contended that getting a Muslim dignitary to address Bal Swayamsevaks is extremely significant for breaking stereotypes of Hindu children about religious minorities.
It is clear that the main group the saffron-clad RSS is targeting in its program is the Muslim community. A little over a year ago, their women’s wing was having trouble accepting Islam as a religion, but now, they are taking up various initiatives to build bridges between their organisation, which has been a traditional proponent of Hindu interests, and the Muslim minority in the country. The Raksha Bandhan festivities have also become a significant platform for the RSS to build its inclusive brand. In 2015, Indresh Kumar, the spearhead of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), an RSS affiliated organisation, made a public show of Muslim women tying rakhis on their Hindu ‘brothers’. Since then, the MRM has been organising the event every year, where Muslim girls tie rakhis on Hindu boys and vice versa.
Has religion never been a criterion?
“Religion is not the criterion for inviting guests. Yusuf is famous in his locality for service to the poor and is fondly called Dr Munna. Moreover, for RSS, everyone who reveres the country as his mother is a Hindu, no matter what their faith may be. The selection is made on inputs provided by the grassroots workers,” said a city-level RSS leader. Although religion has apparently never been a criterion for RSS, it conveniently views all those who serve the country as Hindus.
Munawar Yusuf is a low profile man and runs his practice at Shanti Nagar. It is a locality dominated by the Shia sect, which the Sangh Parivar shares better relations with, out of the two Muslim sects. As a politically neutral Muslim, Yusuf serves the purpose of minority appeasement, without causing any noticeable disturbance to the Hindu vote bank.
Along similar lines, the Dalit saint’s invitation is indicative of the organisation shunning its belief in the caste system. Sameer Gautam, RSS Nagar Prachar Pramukh or PRO, said, “He is a sant (saint), and it is part of Indian culture to respect such people. Things like caste are no consideration while deciding the chief guest.” All these programs and stances are helping RSS and other saffron organisations of the country to find support in the diverse pockets of the Indian society.
Just a political compulsion?
The Sangh Parivar, whose roots can be traced to the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, had evolved into a formidable force by the late 1990s. As political parties like BJP, and political organisations and forums like the RSS were transforming into mainstream organisations, it became a political compulsion for them to shed their ‘Hindu-only’ image. This political compulsion led to the creation of the MRM in December 2002, months after the Gujarat riots. MRM is the Muslim outreach outfit of RSS. The same compulsion is now leading to several programs and campaigns that amass support for these saffron institutes in communities other than the majority Hindu community. Extending a hand of ‘overt’ friendship to Muslims is a sign of growing political compulsion of the Sangh Parivar. It shows that it is imperative for the Sangh Parivar to be socially inclusive, at least in theory.
By generating support in the minority communities of India, RSS can acquire a more representative character. This will help amass greater support, not only for the RSS but also for other political parties which draw their wisdom from the wells of its ideology. Irrespective of whether this is a genuine attempt at becoming a more progressive and inclusive organisation, or simply an overdue political compulsion, it will definitely have a wide-ranging impact on the dynamics of Indian polity.
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