Hindu-Muslim dialogue progresses cautiously
James M. Dorsey
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India has been racked by Intercommunal violence, fueled by the rise of Hindu nationalism, represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by far India's most popular politician, and his ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, and Mr. Modi's, Hindu nationalist ideological cradle, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, which stands for National Volunteer Organization. Like Mr. Modi, various of his ministers and associates trace their roots to the RSS.
Many hold the RSS, a powerful grassroots organization with some six million members, responsible for the violence and explosion of anti-Muslim sentiment in India.
Even so most would agree that there may be no Hindu Muslim reconciliation without Muslim engagement with the RSS. So far. The RSS'S primary Muslim contact point has not been Indian Muslims, but Indonesia's Nahdlatul Ulama, the world's largest and arguably most moderate Muslim civil society movement.
Nevertheless, several Indian Muslims, including former government officials, military officers, journalists, and intellectuals have reached out to the RSS and held two rounds of talks, the first before the COVID 19 pandemic and the second mid last year.
Some Indian Muslims, concerned about ongoing attacks and discrimination, have been critical of the slow pace of the Indian Muslim dialogue with the RSS.
At the same time, the Indian Muslim and Nahdlatul Ulama dialogues appear to be running on separate tracks with no interconnectivity.
Even so, the dialogues take on added significance in an Indian and global environment of increasing polarization in which talking to adversaries is falling by the wayside.
Recently, RSS leader, Mohan Bhagwat appeared in a wide ranging interview to throw out olive branches while Mr. Modi called on members of his party to reach out to the Muslim community.
These gestures have yet to translate into an improvement on the ground for Indian Muslims.
To discuss all of this, I am joined by Najeeb Jung.
Najeeb is the perfect interlocutor, not only because he's one of the initiators of the Indian Muslim dialogue with the RSS, but also because he understands government, policy, and politics as a former senior Indian civil servant and lieutenant governor of Delhi, as well as an energy scholar and consultant.
Najeeb Jung, welcome to the show.
Najeeb Jung (04:15):
Thank you, James. Thank you.
James M. Dorsey (04:20):
Let's start off with the fact that the RSS is widely seen as a driving force of Hindu anti-Muslim sentiment in India. Why is dialogue necessary? What do you expect of the dialogue? What do you expected to produce and what has it produced so far?
Najeeb Jung (04:39):
Well, you said it that the RSS that started about a hundred years ago, in fact, exactly a hundred years ago, did have an anti-Muslim stand, but that essentially has gone by and the RSS has seen many ups and downs. So, let me stay with the contemporary times and not hark back on the past of the RSS.
We believe, or at least, we thought that engagement with the Sangh -- I am addressing the RSS as the Sangh -- was imperative because they do carry a voice with this government that, as you said, many of the members ministers in the government have been or are indeed are members of the Sangh, and therefore the Sangh does carry a great deal of influence. We also believe that minus dialogue things will never improve. I as an individual and my colleagues, who went to meet Mr. Bhagwat and his colleagues, are fully aware of the background.
We believe that these are turbulent times, and the only way forward is to enter into a dialogue with them. And insofar as our meetings with Mr. Bhagwat and his other Sangh leaders are concerned, we came away relatively heartened.
We think that the Sangh is looking for a change in approach. No less than Mr. Bhagwat himself told us that the Sangh in its highest echelons have had discussions and believe that Indian minorities are very much part of the Indian ethos.
He is clear in his mind that in the larger picture of India its minorities have a critical role to play in its future development and therefore, the highest echelons of the Sangh have debated and agreed that ways and means have to be thought of to take Muslims, Christians and others along. That's where we stand at the moment.
I'm aware of the criticism from a lot of my liberal friends, both from the Hindu side and the Muslim side, who believe that this is not the correct approach, that the RSS will not change, that we are indeed legitimizing them in a way.
My answer to them is that I have no alternative. I have to talk and insofar the question of legitimizing is concerned, they are already in government. So, they don't seek legitimacy from a motley group of five or six Muslims approaching them and trying this dialogue. So that's where we are at the moment.
James M. Dorsey (07:53):
Thank you. Let's come back to aspects of that in a second. It strikes me that you've met with the RSS twice, once before the pandemic, once six months ago. That pace doesn't convey a sense of urgency, even though many Indian Muslims have a sense that they are under attack and need an easing of tensions sooner rather than later.
Najeeb Jung (08:23):
No James, unfortunately the time lag was because of Covid. We met Mr. Bhagwat in 2019, August or maybe September, and he was very gracious. He said that we must continue this dialogue that I and my colleagues would be his guest in the RSS headquarters.
He invited us the following June, but thanks to the pandemic our dialogue broke off and it was only last summer, I think May or June, when we saw things again getting out of hand because a lady from the BJP had made statements against the Prophet and his family and that had agitated a great deal of Muslims.
As you are aware, Muslims are extremely sensitive on the Prophet, Peace be upon Him, and we thought that that was the right time to reestablish contact with Mr. Bhagwat and continue our dialogue.
So, I was actually in the United States and I wrote to him that I want to come back with the same group and meet you. And he was very gracious and within a month we got time and this meeting went on for a long time and after that meeting also we have met his representative. So, the meetings are not limited just for twice, but indeed three times now.
James M. Dorsey (09:46):
RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat, has both condemned anti-Muslim violence and said excesses are understandable and inevitable in what he described as a war. At the bottom line, there seems to be not only a marginalization of Indian Muslims in today's society but also a rewriting of history in which Muslims are perceived as invaders rather than members of the community. In other words, how sincere is the RSS if it fails to wholeheartedly take steps, which it could do at no great cost?
Najeeb Jung (10:23):
James, we are very concerned about these attempts at rewriting history. What is gone is gone and there are conceptions and misconception of what indeed happened.
So, we can't deny what happened, but there are versions of history that the RSS believes and there are others who would continue to contest those beliefs.
So, we are concerned at this repeated attempt by the Sangh and others to try and change and rewrite history, particularly of the time since the Muslims came into India in 1000 AD until the time the British left.
So, both these time zones are involved. Having said that on the sincerity of the RSS to continue, I cannot say. That is really up to them, but what I can say is that my dialogue so far does not give me any apprehension that they are not serious.
They have their concerns, they have fairly serious concerns and they carry a lot of baggage, a historical baggage. Like we said, they are a hundred years old. They have been taught many things and they have come to believe many things right or wrong.
The time it'll take to change those beliefs or at least come to an understanding is unknown. I mean, I have friends who said that, well, you know, what has happened in two meetings? I would say to them: two meetings means nothing in an issue like this. It may take me 25 meetings, it may take me a year, it may take me three years. I can't say.
But the reason I'm progressing and I'm moving ahead is, I believe that in due time they will convince us because there are, let's understand that there are hardliners among Muslims and they stand out in your face.
There are historical reasons where Muslim majority countries are behaving in a way that is not acceptable for modern democracies.
So, there is a face of Islam that needs to modernize, that needs to change face, that needs to get away from its hard face, let me say.
And, you know, what we are seeing in the ISIS or the Taliban are not the best face to put up. And this is something that we in India see every day.
We hate the beheadings by ISIS, we hate the beheadings or behavior towards women in Afghanistan, but Muslims are often lumped with that image.
There is indeed growing Islamophobia in the world. And so to take you away from the RSS, let me say that we need to also have a fresh look at what Nahdlatul Ulama are doing, at concepts in Islam to bring a new modern face of Islam before the world.
The religion, what the Prophet says, rehaman rahim, there is rehman. He is beneficent, Alliah merciful and beneficent. I do not see Allah as angry, as carrying a sword and beheading people. He's a rehaman (a merciful).
So. that aspect of Islam has to be brought out and if I look back and I see the life of the Prophet, I truly believe that he was a great human being that walked the planet in his time, and nowhere had the Prophet talked of hatred.
He has always spoken of love. There are sufficient examples in his life when things were going against him and when people were against him that he talked of love, he talked of mercy, and that aspect of Islam is completely being forgotten and you only to remember maurauding hoards somewhere, and that's often quoted in movies. That's not Islam.
So, within India we have to look at both aspects. Muslims and Hindus have to understand the language of love, the language of the Buddha, the language of Gandhi. That has been my tradition.
So, we dislike, dislike the approach of the killing of Gandhi. Gandhi was our leader. He's the founder of our country, he's the father of the nation.
Someone should listen to the great speeches in the constituent assembly of our leaders. When they spoke, you know, this great debate these days in India on the uniform civil code. Now within the Congress Party, these secular leaders debated to Nehru that look on one side you talk of the Hindu code bill, why are you not talking of the reformed civil code? And at that time within the Congress Party they debated, and great leaders of the party, (inaudible) they spoke that we should have a responsible court. There were others like Acharia's wife and Nehru himself who said, be there a sensitive issue to Muslim, let's give them time. That is India. We give time, we are patient, we love each other. Unfortunately, there is an element amongst us both Hindus and Muslims that are taking the country (inaudible).
James M. Dorsey (16:00):
I want to come back to the issues within Islam in a second, but perhaps you can elaborate a little more on what the interest is of the RSS in having a dialogue beyond wanting to be seen, to engage in in a way that deflects criticism.
Najeeb Jung (16:20):
Let me put it this way. I think the place where India is today, it has never been before. Its economy is taking off. We are becoming the third largest economy in the world. People are prosperous and the sun in its wisdom realizes that for India to move ahead, we must all move ahead.
Whether it means a change in ideology, whether it means a RSS radical change or whether it means a no change, I can't say, but as of now I see a perceptible change in the voice of Mr. Bhagwat that there is an attempt to change.
Of course, there is a resistance to him also within his organization because he can't change radically all the radical elements in the Sangh. He has known battle he shall fight.
I would give him that space and be patient and believe in him that over time we hope to improve. Once relations start improving, once we get the monkey off our back, once the Hindu radicals and the Muslim radicals understand the message of peace and love, then the RSS or the Muslim organizations will change. That is my belief.
James M. Dorsey (17:42):
Sorry, let me pick up on that. Some analysts suggest that a dialogue with the RSS has a greater chance of success than with prime Minister Modi’s BJP party because the RSS as a grassroots movement has less interest in polarization than the BJP, particularly given the upcoming elections next year in India and the role that polarization plays in mobilizing voters. Would you agree with that analysis?
Najeeb Jung (18:17):
Yes. Look, winning par in India is an awfully difficult exercise. It is physically very demanding. It is financially extremely expensive and the BJP is not in the business of altruism. They're in the business of winning elections. They're in the business of running a government and winning as much power as possible.
Today they are the largest political party, in India at least, if not the world, at least certainly India. And in many parts of the world, I don't see any party as large as the BJP.
So, if they have to sustain themselves in war, then polarization is part of the game. We have seen this in successive elections that have taken place in the near past. And indeed, I anticipate greater attempts at polarization in coming elections say in the states like Karnataka and the national elections in 2024. So that's the reality we face. But that doesn't mean that communalism has come to stay. There are highs and lows in the tide of communal behavior and while we have seen a high, I anticipate that we will indeed see a low as time passes on.
James M. Dorsey (19:42):
Can you tell us a little bit about how other segments of the Indian Muslim community have responded to your dialogue and what could the community, particularly religious leaders and scholars do to support the dialogue?
Najeeb Jung (20:00):
James, this is very interesting. Oof the lots of WhatsApps and emails and letters that we have got, not only me but all my colleagues, we have, I would say easily 90% support from the Muslim masses as indeed the non-Muslims.
We have been criticized by a section of Muslims and a section of non-Muslims and I put them as very radical secular devils who believe in giving no quarter to any element of division that they see within the RSS.
But 90% have supported us. They said that there is no way, there's no reason why we should not continue because there is no other way ahead.
In terms of the Muslim clergy, we approached the Deobandi school, we approached the Nadwa school, we approached the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and we have universal support from all of them. It's indeed very pleasurable to see that no one has said, please do not dialogue.
James M. Dorsey (21:08):
Would that support go as far as them joining you in the dialogue?
Najeeb Jung (21:14):
In my last meeting that I had with senior members of the Sangh, in the very house that I'm sitting right now, there were four very senior people of the Sangh and we had about 15 from the Muslim side, which included the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the Jamiat-e-Islami, we had members from the Dargah Kshmir, we had professors, we had lawyers, and they all joined in this meeting.
James M. Dorsey (21:46):
Indian Muslims are not the only ones to engage with the RSS. So is Indonesia's Nahdlatul Ulama, the world's largest Muslim majority movement? Do Indian Muslims welcome engagement by non-Indian Muslims and are these different dialogues mutually reinforcing or competing with one another?
Najeeb Jung (22:07):
I think by and large the larger Muslim community is so poor and removed from these things that they are unaware of the efforts of the Nahdlatul Ulama other others. The Muslims in India are exceptionally poor. Post-partition, their economic and social status is today lesser or weaker than the Dalits (Untouchables), the weaker sections in India pre-partition. But the status of various studies have shown improved over time thanks to reservations and affirmative action by governments.
Unfortunately, in the case of Muslims, affirmative action over time has got to be accepted as appeasement.
So, any initiative by government to take affirmative action to Muslims is abhored by many people saying that, look, you are favoring Muslims. People are refusing to understand that Muslims are economically and financially extremely decimated. Tthey are living in ghettos. They're afraid of their lives. They seek protection from the administration and police which is often not fair towards them.
This, if you see in the background of lynchings or (inaudible) where you call for genocide et cetera, is very shaking up. It shakes up the community.
So, right now I don't think that they're aware of what's happening in the larger world. They are more concerned with their daily wherewithal and it's really incumbent on all of us to speak to them.
It's incumbent on the government of India to give them confidence. I said this to Mr. Bhagwat, and I'll make this appeal again, that Mr. Bhagwat and indeed Mr. Modi, both of them have to assure this community that 15% of India can't be left behind.
They can't be left with such lack of confidence and a sense of dismaying. We have to give them confidence, we have to do handholding. That's indeed our effort to get the RS to convince the government that, over time, that attitudes must change.
James M. Dorsey (24:38):
Is it conceivable that the RSS be more attentive to what a group like Nahdlatul Ulama says?
Najeeb Jung (24:53):
I didn't get that question. Can you repeat the question please?
James M. Dorsey (24:56):
Sure. The question is if it is conceivable that the RSS may be more attentive to what a group like Nahdlatul Ulama says than what a group of Indian, prominent Indian Muslims, but nevertheless individuals, puts forward.
Najeeb Jung (25:15):
No, these are two different things. I think the RSS is very sensitive to international opinion. Therefore, what happens in Indonesia, they would love to participate and anything that is putting forth a softer version of Islam would be welcome to the RSS.
Similarly, our dialogue with the RSS is, I think, should be adequately welcome because we also are educated sensible face of Indian Muslims. We are not aggressive. We do not follow any Wahhabi beliefs. We are against the hardcore face that the ISIS or others put up and we believe in the same concepts of Islam that are put forth by the Nahdlatul Ulama. So, I think that we'll be pretty well received.
James M. Dorsey (26:09):
In your mind, does Nahdlaltul Ulama have an advantage by virtue of the fact that it is engaged in reform of religious jurisprudence that are RSS sticking points, in contrast to other major including Indian Muslim organizations, institutions and authorities, by for example, declaring as obsolete the notion of non-Muslims or that non-Muslims are second class infidels and calling for the elimination of the concept of the calipihate. These reforms address major RSS concerns.
Najeeb Jung (26:46):
The concept of the caliphate in India is dead. We are aware of the three caliphs that have existed. I mean after the first caliphate of the four khalifas, that is Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. We know that, subsequent to that, there was a caliphate in Bagdad and there was a caliphate in Spain as indeed Cairo. Those are dead concepts.
When the caliphate finished in Turkey, there was a small movement in India called Khalafat movement, but that went nowhere.
So, historically, the Indian Muslims are not even aware of the larger concept of pan-Islamic atmovement or khalaf being established in the world for Muslims. That is a dead concept.
Any Indian who calls a Hindu kafir is unacceptable to a sensible Muslim.
A kafir by definition is a non-believer. We believe that Hindus are indeed believers. There are quotations in the Gita, in (inaudible) saying that we are all one, that there is one God, is exactly what Islam has said.
That is also what Hinduism says. And Islam, of course, goes on to accept the people of the book as the larger family, which are the Christians, the Sabians, and the Jews.
So, I think that the concept of reviving a caliphate doesn't even exist in the Indian Muslim mind.
The Indian Muslim is interested in living in peace and harmony. He is not interested in his nationalism being challenged. He has stayed behind in India, there are soldiers, there are civil servants, there are policemen. They will lay down this life for this country, any day.
And so, I think the time has come when Hindus and Muslims have to move along and remove misunderstandings. And that, James, is our effort with the RS. Tthey have misunderstandings vis-a-vis Muslims. Muslims have misunderstandings vis-a-vis Hindus. Those are the issues we need to remove in double quick time and that's our effort.
James M. Dorsey (29:19):
I guess the question is, which is basically the argument that Nahdlatul Ulama puts forward, is that to fundamentally erase any doubts and also resolve problems within Islam, for example extremism, as we've seen with jihadists like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, that to do so you actually need to change the religious jurisprudence in a sense. It's like the notion of slavery. There’s no Muslim today who endorses this notion of slavery, yet it is still part of Islamic jurisprudence and should be removed.
Najeeb Jung (30:06):
There’s no doubt that the Muslims need to debate on jurisprudence? Islam has a very old concept of ijma, which is dialogue. I'm afraid that since the ulama have taken hold over all these things, the debate has seized in the Muslim community and, unfortunately, historically in the last 20 years, Muslim community has not covered itself in glory, whether it is the Iranian state, whether it is post-Saddam, Iraq, Syria, and, of course, our friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention that the Saudis desperately need reforms.
So, there is no doubt the larger question, and I think the Nahdlatul Ulama, and all of us will struggle, is how to bring about this larger reform and debate to look at Muslim fiqh, which is jurisprudence In the larger sense.
Rhe world today doesn't even have adequate number of Muslim scholarsm I'm afraid. Secular mind spread to look at all this, I think that we need to look at Islam in the context of modern times and for the world peace.
It is absolutely essential that 1 billion people look at the world with a prism of modernity and therefore to the extent that Islamic jurisprudence needs a fresh look, it should be very welcomed.
James M. Dorsey (31:42):
The RSS is also concerned about demography with Muslims accounting for only 200 million of India's population of 1.4 billion. The demographic fear seems exaggerated if not artificially constructed.
That's a different ballgame, if one looks at South Asia as a whole and particularly India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Then the ratio suddenly becomes six to 700 million Muslims versus 1.2 billion non-Muslims.
To what degree is are the demographic fears driven by the fact that the RSS thinks in regional terms with its civilization's concept of Akhand Bharat, a concept of a greater India that would stretch from Afghanistan to Myanmar encompassing Pakistan as well as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives?
Najeeb Jung (32:38):
Well, I think the idea of this Muslim demographic outburst is nonsense, and people understand this. There have been enough studies done, including by one of colleagues who went and met Mr. Bhagwat with me, who has done actually a mathematical calculation done by a leading mathematician in Delhi that the Muslims even in next 50 years can never, never match up to Hindu population. That's impossible.
And I think in the heart of hearts, everyone realizes the rate of growth of Muslims vis-a-vis Hindus and Christians, there's marginal point here, point there. So, it's nothing. I of course think that the concept of the larger Hindu rajtu or what we call Akhand Bharat is something which the RSS had dreamt of. They have often spoken, but I would imagine, and I can't say for a fact, but I would imagine that in their heart of hearts they know that it's easy to talk and it's easy to write about what's not going to happen.
James M. Dorsey (33:47):
You have said that there are issues that are easy to resolve with the RSS and issues that are more difficult, which issues are easy and which are more difficult?
Najeeb Jung (33:59):
Some issues raised by the RSS are very easy to resolve because I think they were actually more or less non-issues in the present context.
One concern that they have is that they're called kafirs by Muslims and we explain to them that this is not done by sensible Muslims. Of the 14% in India, not even 13.9% would call Hindus kafirs. Hindus are our brothers.
Kafir, by definition, is a non-believer, and indeed the Hindu to us is absolutely a believer. This reference to being believers comes from the Gita, from sermons from Sri Shankaracharya, belief in one God.
And so, there is no question of the Hindu being a kafir. If someone calls him a kafir, it's a sign of being illiterate, a fool, and unacceptable to larger Muslim community. That's one.
They are very sensitive on the issue of cow slaughter and we explain to them because, and rightly so, because the cow is a very, very holy animal to all of us in India. She is a symbol of love. She's a symbol of motherhood. She gives us milk, and therefore if there is any issue on cow slaughter, if a rogue does do cow slaughter, then it's a rogue element not sanctioned by the larger community. It has to be dealt under law.
Cow slaughter is illegal in India except in some states where customs still allow them to slaughter a cow. And that indeed has been accepted by the government of India. But in the larger context of India, we do not accept cow slaughter.
The most sensitive issue, I think, which will lead very laboured dialogue, is the question of mosques because the larger Hindu community does believe that the Muslims destroyed a large number of mosques and they should be given back, and Muslims really would resist that.
Now, that would require a lot of debate and dialogue and understanding.
From the Muslim side, there's a big concern. There have been lynchings, there have been <inaudible> calling for genocide. There are leaders within the party who has spoken language that is not entirely, shall I say, parliamentary, those have to be curtailed.
So, these are the smaller issues. The larger issue, like I said will be just one or two. And over time, I think with dialogue and consistent dialogue and understanding, we'll be able to come, we'll be able to overcome them. That changes exactly the idea where why we entered into the dialogue.
We are aware, fully aware that there are smaller issues, and we are fully aware that there'll be much larger issues and it's only through dialogue and understanding that Muslims on both sides, including the hardcore on both sides. Look, it's very easy for me and you to come to an understanding, but there are radical elements and let's not deny that all communities have radical elements, perhaps the percentage of radical elements has enhanced over time, and that often comes with lack of education that comes from politicization and all that has to be resisted and fought tooth and nail by the sort of thinking society in India.
James M. Dorsey (37:50):
Lama's goal in its engage