Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Coronavirus Outbreak: Mohan Bhagwat’s words against stigmatisation and blaming of Muslims is timely; throws light on RSS philosophy

Mohan Bhagwat’s comments, where he alluded to Tablighi Jamaat attendees and said an entire community should not be vilified for the mistakes of a few, deserve greater scrutiny than a brief headline appearance. The statement, part of the RSS sarsanghchalak’s televised addressed on Sunday from Nagpur to mark the Hindu ceremony of Akshay Tritiya, comes at a significant time.
RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat. ANI

India is precariously perched in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. Any missteps at this stage could undo the stringent administrative effort and a nation’s collective resolve to tide over the crisis. It is easy to forget India’s unique challenge given the size and density of its population. India’s trajectory of positive cases is comparatively slow thanks to decisive and early implementation of non-pharmaceutical measures but even at this slower rate, the case count could reach 50,000 in eight days, according to latest estimates.

In a nation of 1.3 billion citizens, 50,000 may be a fraction but India lacks the resources and requisite public health infrastructure to control the scale of the pandemic once we reach stage three. Our best course of action, therefore, is to delay the transition from stage two to stage three and hope for the development of an effective line of cure or vaccination.

To achieve this objective, it is vital that India remains unified in its determination. The importance of collective action to break the contagion chain cannot be overstated. We find the pandemic has made ‘solidarity’ an essential tool in the armoury, not just an ideal to strive for.

When so much is riding on a diverse nation’s collective action, any schism that challenges national solidarity at such a sensitive time is a threat. And when that schism develops around communal faultlines in a nation that remains maimed by communal violence, the threat becomes greater.

The Tablighi Jamaat cluster outbreak presented India with one such challenge. It threatened to rip the spirit of collective resolve by highlighting the communal cleavage, and the explosion of cases caused by the ‘super spreaders’ resulted in Muslims at large in India facing stigma and blame for the surge in the outbreak.

What made matters complicated is that the allegation against Tablighi Jamaat event attendees (that included a number of foreigners) was not unfounded. The Markaz event in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area was a sad story of administrative oversight along with defiance, obstructionism and careless attitude on the part of the organisers.

By the first week of April, there were reports of more than 25,000 Jamaat preachers and their contacts getting quarantined across 15 states and Union health ministry claiming that the Markaz event had single-handedly brought down India’s doubling rate from 7.4 days to 4.1 days.

The pandemic affected the world at different levels. It has caused fear, anxiety and panic, ravaged global economies and rendered millions jobless, taken away their livelihoods, introduced uncertainty, triggered behavioural and social changes in a fundamental way. All this churning is taking place at a time when people have gone into self-imprisonment, trading their freedoms for safety and keeping their lives in suspended animation.

In India, the Tablighi Jamaat cluster outbreak caused considerable distress and anger. It didn’t help that some of the Tablighi members faced charges of indiscipline, misogynist, lurid behaviour and were accused of attacking frontline health workers. We witnessed polarised behaviour on social media where anti-Muslim trends started surfacing.

Soon enough, there were charges of Islamophobia, and foreign press went to town claiming Indian Muslims were “feeling targeted”, boycotted and subjected to religious hatred.

In this context, Bhagwat’s comments assume significance beyond mere virtue-signalling. When the RSS sarsanghchalak says: “All 130 crore Indians are our family. We are one... We should not blame the entire community for the mistakes of a few individuals. People who are more mature in both communities should come forward and start a dialogue to remove prejudices among people’s minds.” He sends a powerful message of solidarity and asks people to rise above sectarian divides.

Bhagwat didn’t say anything pathbreaking or new, but the weight of his words lies in the fact that the Sangh, today, is ideologically, culturally, sociologically and even politically the most dominant cultural organisation in India. It is ideologically ascendant, culturally embedded and remains sociologically relevant.

And the position that it enjoys today is the culmination of decades of working with people, staying connected and attaching itself intrinsically with every stratum of Indian society. For instance, to battle the current crisis, RSS through its different organisations have initiated a massive countrywide effort. As Bhagwat said during the recent address: “More than three lakh dedicated volunteers are working at more than 55,000 locations across the country. The RSS, through its network, distributed over 33 lakh ration kits and two crore food packets till April 24. We have to work for others without taking any credit…”.

In New Delhi, the RSS unit has been distributing 1.3 lakh food packets every day including among transgenders and sex workers and have employed 4,500 cadres to carry out the task (with administrative approval).

Its Karnataka unit had pressed 8,404 volunteers into service to distribute 71,667 ration kits, 1,04,377 food packets and collect 721 units of blood from donors. The data is updated till 6 April. There is reportedly 52 kitchen running in Delhi alone.

Not just the pandemic, the organisation acts as first responders during any national crisis and executes its tasks on a mass scale. This makes the RSS more influential than any other organization in India and in terms of power, orders of magnitude stronger than its detractors.

An example of this unique power can be ascertained from the fact that — as professor Makarand R Paranjpe writes in The Print — “despite nearly a hundred years of negative propaganda and relentless battering”, RSS is “not only alive and well but in great spirits and fighting fit.” The RSS is “no longer ‘untouchable’. Instead, it had become one of India’s most significant organisations, playing a vital role in shaping the nation’s destiny.”

The RSS recognises that its strength lies in staying connected to the people, and it understands that any shift in collective mindset can only be done through conversation, engagement and persuasion over a long period of time. Calling ordinary people “bigots” for holding certain views will serve to only alienate them and harden their beliefs. The RSS understands the conservative moorings of Indian culture and the civilisational ethos in which it is rooted. This ethos runs across the length and breadth of the nation despite many cleavages of class, caste, community and ethnicity. The RSS coopts people, works with them, becomes a part of their daily lives and tries to bring systemic changes in thought through persuasion.

The goal of RSS has always been both macro and micro — unify the nation, strengthen its moral fibre and engineer India’s economic and spiritual revival by stressing on the character of the individual. The RSS believes in a Hindu Rashtra and works relentlessly towards its goal but this is not a project of religious supremacy. As Bhagwat had said in 2018 during a three-day outreach event in New Delhi: “Hindu Rashtra does not mean it has no place for Muslims. The day it is said that Muslims are unwanted here, the concept of Hindutva will cease to exist”.

This is where the organisation remains misunderstood, misconstrued and relentlessly vilified by the ‘liberal’ circle both in India and abroad. The RSS remains committed to its goal of ‘one nation’ and ‘one culture’ but the concept of Hindu Rashtra is not a monotheistic, supremacist attempt to degrade Muslims and turn them into second-class citizens. The ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is a cultural and a geographical construct that has room for all, and space for disagreements. As Bhagwat had said in the lecture, RSS respects “the sentiments of those who wish to be called “Bharatiya” and not Hindu.”

Importantly, this is not a recent shift in RSS ideology. If MS Golwalker, the successor to RSS founder KV Hedgewar, had a hardline approach towards religious minorities, the shift towards a more liberal view and expansion of RSS horizons occurred right after Golwalker, through the ‘Deoras doctrine’ propounded by Golwalker’s successor Madhukar Dattatreya, or Balasaheb Deoras.

Deoras stated: “We do believe in the one-culture and one-nation Hindu Rashtra. But our definition of Hindu is not limited to any particular kind of faith. Our definition of Hindu includes those who believe in the one-culture and one-nation theory of this country. They can all form part of the Hindu-Rashtra. So, by Hindu we do not mean any particular type of faith. We use the word Hindu in a broader sense.”

In 2002, then sarsanghchalak KS Sudarshan established the Muslim Rashtriya Manch to work for improved Hindu-Muslim relations. While Golwalker’s views on Muslims — which came at a particular time in the nation’s history — have been used as a convenient beating stick against the RSS, we must take note of Bhagwat’s recent comments where he stated clearly that Golwalker’s policy positions were “not eternal”.

“Things are said due to circumstances and in a particular context. Wo shashwat nahin hein (They are not eternal),” Bhagwat had said during the lecture in 2018.

Therefore, when Bhagwat warns against stigmatising and blaming Muslims over the “mistakes of a few”, he is not merely doubling down on the liberal nature of RSS philosophy and exposing vilification campaigns against the organization as that arising from insufficient understanding and prejudice, he is also laying down a charter of approach for the wider public. Since the RSS is the closest to an ecclesiastical command of sorts for Hindus — in an extremely loose sense of the term — any such attempt to mitigate ill-will between communities is likely to have a deeper impact. Bhagwat’s comments couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Byline: Sreemoy Talukdar.

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