The biggest lesson in Sushma Swaraj’s OIC speech is for the BJP and the RSS

Sushma Swaraj’s speech at the recent OIC summit in Abu Dhabi struck a fine balance between emphasising the need to combat terrorism and clarifying that such a fight must not target a single community. But her party colleagues have continuously espoused views that are in direct opposition to her suggestions. Ministry of External Affairs
06 March, 2019

The external-affairs minister Sushma Swaraj recently received lavish praise for a speech she delivered at a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers on 1 March—a meeting of 57 nations with large Muslim populations—in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Offering India’s support to a concerted effort to tackle terrorism, Swaraj emphasised that such a fight should not be seen as a “confrontation against any religion.” It was clear from her speech that “any religion” stood for Islam, evident from her quotes from the Quran. She made a profound observation: “Just as Islam literally means peace, none of the 99 names of Allah means violence.” Citing a Quranic verse that states there should be “no compulsion in religion,” Swaraj said that every religion stands for “peace, compassion and brotherhood.”

Swaraj quoted Guru Nanak, the Rig Veda and Swami Vivekananda in the same breath, citing quotes that support harmony and diversity. Swaraj’s finely crafted speech identified the philosophical impulses of peace in the Quran. She articulated the Quranic conception that “nations and tribes” were created so that they “may know one another, not … despise one another.” She could not have employed a sharper philosophical scythe to cut through the mumbo-jumbo often employed by Islamic extremists and militants, and expose their ideological vacuity.

But the extremists’ shallow ideologies can also be alluring for the simplistic worldview they espouse—likely the reason that Swaraj proposed ideological measures to counter these. The measures included spreading the true meaning and mission of all religions; promoting respect for and between faiths; countering the language of hate with the “message of harmony”; advocating for moderation over extremism, and pluralism over exclusion; and inspiring youth to the path of service, than of destruction.

The praise that Swaraj received was well deserved. Her speech struck a fine balance between emphasising the need to combat terrorism and clarifying that such a fight must not target a single community. But in doing so, Swaraj unwittingly highlighted a second ideological chasm—the one between what she proposed and what the luminaries of her party and its ideological parent think of Islam and its followers. Countless times now, leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have publicly espoused views that are in direct opposition to Swaraj’s suggestions.

On 13 August 2014, for instance, the BJP’s Adityanath, who is now Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, participated in a fiery debate on secularism, in the Lok Sabha. “The issue for the discussion should be who is communal,” he said. “Communal is the one who says my God, my Prophet is the most superior. Only those who believe in him have the right to live.”

Adityanath was alluding to a pet theory perpetuated by the RSS, that centuries ago, when Muslim kings ruled large parts of the subcontinent, Hindus were forcefully proselytised by being given a choice between Islam and death. The RSS discounts all other factors that may have driven people to convert to Islam. Adityanath has built his political career spewing venom against Muslims—he was accused of fomenting hatred that encouraged communal violence in Gorakhpur in 2007, a charge that was dropped after he took over as chief minister.

In February 2018, a month or so before retiring from the Rajya Sabha, the BJP leader Vinay Katiyar weighed in on a debate regarding a proposal to enact a law to punish anyone dubbing a Muslim as Pakistani. Claiming that Muslims had “no business being in India,” Katiyar said, “They have partitioned the country on the basis of population. So why are they here? Muslims have been given their share. They should go to Bangladesh or Pakistan.” Katiyar’s remarks certainly belie Swaraj’s proposal at the OIC to advocate “pluralism over exclusion.”

Some Hindutvadi BJP leaders have claimed that since Islam privileges quam, or community, over all political units, the impulse of nationalism is weak among Muslims. The union minister Giriraj Singh harped upon this point during a 2017 lecture in Bhopal. “Slowly the concept of quamiyat, the manner in which nationalism is approached in Islam, is gaining momentum,” Singh claimed. “Quamiyat only talks about a particular community or section of society and not entire nation. I can bet the imagination of nationalism in Islam is equal to nought.”

Singh’s observation appears to stem from the postulates of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who was the second sarsanghchalak, or chief, of the RSS, and served between July 1940 and June 1973. In Bunch of Thoughts, a collection of his speeches and writings, Golwalkar asked: “How could they”—referring to Muslims and Christians—“become aliens just because they have changed their faith?”

Golwalkar explained: “The mere fact of birth or nurture in a particular territory, without a corresponding mental pattern, can never give a person the status of a national in that land.” To elaborate upon his idea, Golwalkar narrates the tale of a lioness that brought a baby jackal to her cave and reared him on her milk, along with her own cubs. One day, the cubs and the jackal, straying away from the cave, came across an elephant. The cubs attacked the elephant, but the jackal skittered away to the lioness. “No doubt, you have grown here on my milk, but you cannot help your nature,” the lioness said.

“So also is the case with nations,” Golwalkar declared. Humans, like jackals, cannot help their nature. But a nation, unlike the jungle, cannot have jackals living in it, the RSS ideologue continued. To turn jackals into lions, Golwalkar argued, “The newcomers should bring about a total metamorphosis in their life-attitudes and take a rebirth, as it were, in that ancient lineage.”

The rebirth in the ancient lineage can happen only through the reconversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, he wrote. “It is our duty to call these our forlorn brothers, suffering under religious slavery for centuries, back to their ancestral home,” Golwalkar noted. “This is only a call and request to them to understand things properly and come back and identify themselves with their ancestral Hindu way of life in dress, customs … marriage ceremonies and funeral rites and such other things.”

Hindutva’s intellectual tradition clashes with Swaraj’s paean to Indian Muslims in her OIC speech, which celebrated the community for its “diverse culinary tastes, myriad choices of traditional attire … and strong cultural and linguistic heritage of the regions they loved and have lived for generations.” From Golwalkar and Hindutva’s perspective, their uniqueness deprives them of the mental allegiance to the nation. They must be assimilated into Hindu culture. It is this, clearly, that has inspired the idea of ghar wapsi, which demands that religious minorities return to the fold of Hinduism.

The alternative for the minorities, as Golwalkar contemplated in his 1939 book, We or Our Nationhood Defined, is to live as second-class citizens. He wrote, “… they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizens’ rights.”

In 2006, though, the RSS officially disowned We. According to a report from the time by the journalist and author Akshaya Mukul, the RSS ideologue and Delhi University lecturer Rakesh Sinha, who is now a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha, defended the decision. Sinha said that Golwalkar’s ideological journey “begins with his succession as sarsanghchalak of RSS”—in 1940, a year after the book was published—“and continued till 1973 when he died.” Nevertheless, what Golwalkar had said explicitly in We constitutes the essence of Bunch of Thoughts, albeit without spelling out the fate awaiting those who are opposed to assimilation.

It obviously needs more than disowning We to convince the followers of the Hindutva camp that the RSS no longer suspects the loyalty of religious minorities to India, or wishes to alter their behaviour. For instance, in June 2017, Indresh Kumar, the RSS leader who is the patron of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, went to Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia during the month of Ramzan and lectured the fasting students that they should not eat gosht because it is a source of many diseases. JMI students protested, prompting Kumar to clarify in an interview that he was referring to beef, and not mutton. In the same interview, Kumar claimed that the Quran bans cow-slaughter, and its lengthiest chapter, “Surah Al-Baqara,” talks of diseases resulting from consuming beef. None of Kumar’s claims are true. It is a matter of conjecture why Kumar would dissimulate, but his comments clearly indicate to Muslims that it is they who are to be blamed for being lynched in the name of the cow, a phenomenon that has seen a sharp spurt over the last five years.

Kumar is far from being the only one to hold Muslims responsible for their fate in India—Hindutva hotheads have accused Muslims in inter-faith relationships of practising “love jihad,” only to convert Hindu girls to Islam. At times, Muslims have been violently targeted. Interfaith marriage is perhaps one way to realise what Swaraj said in her OIC speech: “Faiths must speak to faiths; cultures must engage cultures; communities must build bridges, not erect walls.” But from revisiting history to demonising Muslim rulers, to renaming cities they established, to adopting the dog’s whistle to communally polarise the electorate before every assembly elections, the BJP-RSS combine has continuously erected walls, not built bridges between communities. It has opted for neither moderation nor pluralism.

Examples abound to show how this divisive ideology has bled into the attitudes of their followers. For instance, two days after the attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama, Zafarul Islam Khan, the chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission, wrote to the police commissioner of Delhi: “Hindutva crowds are taking out rallies in Muslim areas and in front of Muslim homes in mixed population areas, raising provocative slogans.” A news-portal reporter was witness to a handful of activists in a peaceful peace march in Delhi’s BK Dutt colony, shouting slogans “against Babar ke auladon”—a derisive shorthand for depicting Muslims as “descendants of Babur,” and by association, disrespectful of the Hindu religion. It would not be inaccurate then, to suggest that those who need to heed Swaraj’s words most are within her party. The external-affairs minister would do well to get them to walk her talk at the OIC summit.