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Putting Hindu nationalists on the spot

James M. Dorsey




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An Indian Supreme Court ruling coupled with calls by Indian Muslims for an end to sustained Islamophobic attacks on the world’s largest Muslim minority put Hindu nationalists on the spot.


The ruling and calls increase pressure to counter what amounts to a campaign against

Muslims on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government as well as his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological cradle, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, a five million-strong paramilitary group.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election rally. Photo: PTI


They also spotlight a dialogue between the RSS and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest, most moderate Muslim civil society movement.


Last month, the court described Indian states as “impotent” for failing to rein in hate speech across the country. Judges insisted that only by taking religion out of politics would India reduce inter-communal tensions.


“Every day, fringe elements are making speeches to vilify others, including on TV and at public forums. The problem arises when politicians are mixing politics with religion. The moment politics and religion are segregated, this will come to an end,” the judges said.

The statement justified the court’s refusal to drop contempt of court charges against the Maharashtra government for failing to act on police reports of hate speech incidents.


Indian media reported that there had been since November at least 50 rallies in Maharashtra calling for a boycott of Muslims in response to an alleged ‘love jihad,’ the purported luring by Muslim men of Hindu women into marriage so that they would convert to Islam, and a supposed 'land jihad' to control public spaces and government land for the construction of Muslim religious and residential structures.


At a 'Hindu Jan Aakrosh Morcha' rally in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, in February. Photo: indianexpress.com


The rallies are organised by a Hindu nationalist umbrella group, Sakal Hindu Samaj. Many of the group’s constituent parts are linked to RSS.


Mr. Modi’s BJP has officially distanced itself from the rallies, but party officials and parliamentarians attended and addressed many gatherings.


The RSS has not commented on the court ruling and the calls nor has a senior RSS figure who was asked for comment.


The court ruling coincided with a letter to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat from prominent Indian Muslims, led by former Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung. The letter decried the mounting anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. Photo: ET Bureau


Mr. Jung, who shared the letter with this writer, and his colleagues have engaged in a dialogue with the RSS.


“There is virtually no letup in the consistent barrage of hate speeches, calls for genocide and acts of violence against Muslims…. Most of this is in police presence, without any action, and even if there is action, it’s perfunctory and people are let off with ease,” the letter said.


Referring to the dialogue, Mr. Jung and his colleagues warned that “there is a sense of dismay and a question on the usefulness of our efforts… It is absolutely imperative that voices such as yours, as indeed from senior echelons of the Sangh (RSS), are heard loud and clear to condemn such acts.”


The RSS's reticence to condemn anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric shouldn’t come as a surprise given the movement has sent mixed signals.


In an interview in January, Mr. Bhagwat asserted that Hindus “have been at war for over a thousand years. “ Mr. Bhagwat suggested that “it is natural for those at war to be aggressive.”

To drive the point home, Mr. Bhagwat added that “this war is not against an outside enemy, but against an enemy within.”


At about the same time, a senior RSS official implicitly argued that the RSS, unlike Mr. Modi’s BJP, was not looking at its dialogue with Indian Muslims for electoral gains.


With elections scheduled for next year, the BJP is widely believed to see inter-communal tension and polarization as a way of winning votes.


“We are not looking for any electoral gains or any political benefit. We are not choosing any specific group of Muslims. We are reaching out to everyone... interested in a long-term solution. We all are working for a social civilisational solution to this age-old communal conflict,” the official said.


Liberal Indian Muslims note that they are doing their part to build bridges and address RSS concerns by calling for a pluralist approach to Islamic teachings.


They also garnered support from major Indian Muslim organisations for their dialogue with Hindu militants.


“The Muslim laity must shed its docility and challenge the ‘religious authorities’ to be open to Islam’s pluralistic teachings,” said A. Faizur Rahman, secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought, in an article in The Hindu in 2021.


The widening dichotomy between Mr. Modi’s BJP and the RSS has consequences that extend far beyond inter-communal relations in India.


It reflects the BJP’s failure since coming to power in 2014 to strike a balance between what scholar Rajesh Basrur describes as the “linkage between a state-centric and a civilization-centric worldview” rooted in Hindutva or Hindu nationalism.


Discussing Mr. Modi’s handling of foreign relations, Mr. Basrur suggested that “the BJP’s lack of a clear and distinct foreign policy might be traced to its foundational ideology of Hindutva (i.e., Hindu-ness), which underpins its approach to the world,” Mr. Basrur said.

The BJP’s failure has fuelled the divergence with the RSS.


The failure also complicated the government’s handling of its chairmanship of the Group of 20 or G20 which groups the world’s largest economies.


In the run-up to the G20 summit that this year is scheduled to be held in New Delhi in September, various engagement groups, including business, civil society, labour, science, women, and youth are likely to formulate recommendations for their political leaders.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo take part in the handover ceremony at the G20 Leaders' Summit, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2022. Photo: Reuters


Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court ruling and mounting Indian Muslim frustration that dialogue with Hindu nationalists is at best producing empty promises, the government is grappling with whether to include a religious engagement tack and if so, what Muslim group(s) it should choose as a partner.


Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and democracy, last year institutionalised religion as an official G20 engagement group with a summit of religious leaders in Bali in November. A Nahdlatul Ulama think tank manages the permanent secretariat of the Religion Forum 20 or R20.


A participant in the Bali R20, the RSS has sought to forge a partnership with Nahdlatul Ulama even though the Indonesian group sees Muslim religious reform as an incentive for other faiths, including Hinduism, to take a critical look at their potentially problematic tenets.


Nahdlatul Ulama's approach, including its R20 initiative, has allowed it to forge ties with major faith groups across the globe. These include some of the most influential Indian Hindu religious leaders.


Those relationships raise the significance of the RSS’s ties to Nahdlatul Ulama, independent of government attitudes.


Even so, the RSS’s failure to engage with Indian Muslims more proactively, acknowledge the Supreme Court ruling, and distance itself from anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence is likely to increasingly raise eyebrows about Nahdlatul Ulama’s willingness to engage.


In the ultimate analysis, the question for the RSS and powerful Hindu religious leaders is how long they can afford to seemingly endorse, at least tacitly, anti-Muslim sentiment and expect Muslims to engage rather than radicalize.


Nahdlatul Ulama sees engagement as a process that takes time to produce results. The problem is that amid the mounting anti-Muslim sentiment in the run-up to next year's elections, Indian Muslims feel time is a luxury they don’t have.


As a result, the question for Nahdlatul Ulama is at what point does it demand from the RSS as well as Hindu religious leaders that they either fish or cut bait.



Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and 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.


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