Can you be a devout Muslim and a proud swayamsevak?
The recently held election for Uttar Pradesh state Assembly was an eye-opener for many. Contrary to popular belief, many Muslims voted for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party was helped in a large part by the cadres of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), many of whom are Muslims, Christians and Sikhs with several years of association with the Sangh Parivar.
This begged the obvious questions — what brings the minorities to the RSS? Why do they join the organisation, which many consider to be the antithesis of secular politics in India? What are their backgrounds? Is there something more to Hindu Nationalism than Hindutva, as perceived by many? And do religious and sexual minorities have an equal space in India’s most powerful socio-cultural organisation with unmatched political influence?
To get answers to some of these questions, News18 spoke to several Muslims, Christians and Sikhs who work for the Sangh. The interviewees are from across the country and from all hues of the social spectrum — from surgeons to farmers, academics to businessmen.
While some minority members, like Lucknow’s Shabana Azmi, who likes to keep her association with RSS to herself, others, like Faiz Khan, publicly sing bhajans in praise of cows.
All these interviewees are devout practitioners of their own faith but have no compunction in attending shakhas or singing Hindu prayers. Interestingly, all the interviewees are in favour of Ram Mandir, but many disagree with the idea of a Uniform Civil Code or abolition of triple talaaq.
While some joined the RSS because of their family’s association with one of its 25-plus affiliated organisations, many were inspired by the speeches of senior Sangh leaders.
The profiles of these people reveal a lot about the organisation’s influence, which seems to be far greater than what is usually admitted by its detractors.
Gulrej Sheikh, 34, dental surgeon, Ujjain
Sheikh, who joined RSS eight years ago, comes from a family of doctors. His father and two brothers are general surgeon, his wife is a general physician and sister a gynecologist.
This mild mannered doctor becomes combative as soon as the issue of Ram Mandir is broached. “Why do you say that RSS demolished Babri Masjid? Was it proved in the court of law? I was not there when the mosque was demolished. Let’s forget the past and live in the present.”
And the “present”, according to Sheikh, cannot be conceived of without a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. “In the interest of the country, Muslims should allow Ram Temple to be built on the disputed site and take it from me that RSS will facilitate construction of the grandest mosque on the other side of the Sarayu.”
Sheikh was introduced to the RSS by his father, a member of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, tribal wing of the Sangh.
“Whoever thinks about the country with an open mind cannot but get attracted to the RSS. I am not a special case. Ancestors of all Muslims in India were Hindus… it was Ram, not Babur. Just as all Europeans are Caucasians and all Africans are Black. When we realise this fact, we will all work for the betterment of the country.”
I break my (Ramzan) fast at the Shakha, let there be no doubt about it.
— Gulrej Sheikh
Any downsides of working with RSS? “I get a lot of criticism from within the community. A lot of people say that I have been paid. But youngsters support me because they see the opportunity of serving the country in this.”
Sheikh is Ujjain district in-charge of Rashtriya Muslim Manch (RMM), Muslim wing of the RSS, and claims to have brought scores of minority members in the Sangh fold. “I tell all Muslims that our community has suffered a lot due to the policy of appeasement and that we should unite with the RSS and demand equal opportunities instead of reservation.”
None of this stops Sheikh from being a devout Muslim. “I am a practicing Muslim and keep fast during Ramzan. I break my fast at the Shakha, let there be no doubt about it.”
Shabana Azmi, 38, teacher, Lucknow
Many friends and relatives don’t know that Shabana, a teacher of Arabic studies, joined RSS about a year ago. She is shy, but not apologetic, about her association with the Sangh.
“It was a hush-hush affair. There was a lot of criticism from my family about it. Some close friends to whom I revealed my association with the Sangh, mocked me. But I told them to first get educated about their religion and the Prophet’s life.”
Shabana joined Sangh after listening to a speech by the head of Awadh region of Rashtriya Muslim Manch. It was at an Urdu promotion event in Lucknow where she met Mahiraj Dhiraj Singh. “A simple man, clad in dhoti kurta, he spoke about the life and times of Prophet Mohammad. I hadn’t heard anyone, not even people from my own community, speak so eloquently about Islam. I was immediately impressed. As a practicing Muslim he had a huge impact on me.”
If you speak to Muslims in person, you will find a huge support for Ram Mandir.
— Shabana Azmi
She also witnessed RSS’s social work. “An Ajmer-bound bus from Lucknow had met with an accident. Swayamsevaks were the first to reach the spot. That’s the day I decided to join them to uplift the minorities in the country.”
In just about a year, Azmi has been made Singh’s deputy. She is now the coordinator of RMM for the Awadh region. That’s because she has got many Muslim and Christian women enrolled in the Sangh.
Azmi thinks the controversy over Ram Temple is totally unnecessary. “Muslims have never objected to Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Only some with vested interests have been creating noise about it. If you speak to Muslims in person, you will find a huge support for the Mandir.”
The 38-year-old teacher wants polygamy and triple talaaq to be abolished. “Triple talaq and polygamy are against the holy Quran. The clerics who support these practices are uninformed about their own religion. How can a married man think of marrying someone else? My Islam stands for equality.”
GS Gill, 52, additional advocate general, Jaipur
Gill, who is now the national president of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, the Sikh wing of RSS, used to be a ‘Leftist’ because of his work for labour rights. ‘Dissatisfied’ with the working style of the Left groups, he joined Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), workers’ union of the RSS.
Gill says he was inspired to join BMS after listening to a speech by RSS ideologue Dattopant Thengadi, who not only founded BMS but also Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, prominent arms of RSS which work for promotion of domestic economy and farmer rights, respectively.
A senior lawyer, Gill wrote the constitution of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat after seeing the “manner in which the Sangh maintained close relations between Hindus and Sikhs” during the tense period after Operation Blue Star in 1984.
Mandir wahi banana chahiye. Ram Bharat ke nayak hain.
— GS Gill
He goes to shakhas with his son, though not regularly. The initial phase of his association with RSS caused some heartburn among his community members. “The NRI Sikhs and others who were not in Punjab used to call me the RSS man (like an outsider). But that has changed now. Community members know that if any help is required, I will be there.”
There is no doubt in Gill’s mind when it comes to Ram Mandir. “Mandir wahi banana chahiye. Ram Bharat ke nayak hain. It is a question of faith. (Ram temple should be built right where the Babri Masjid was demolished. Ram is the national hero.)”
However, this constitutionalist doesn’t support Uniform Civil Code and believes that each religion should have its own laws of inheritance and marriage. He is “obviously” against triple talaaq and polygamy.
Faiz Khan, 38, former professor, Raipur
Khan’s association with the Sangh is perhaps the least surprising thing about him. A fulltime cow devotee, he sings bhajans on the ‘holy cow’. Starting June 24, he will walk down from Laddakh to Kanyakumari, about 3,000 kilometres, to “create awareness” about the virtues of cow.
The former political science lecturer says he doesn’t hold an official pracharak rank in the RSS but does all that he can to promote the organisation. Apart from spending most of his time travelling across the country to promote RSS, Khan has taken a vow to remain a bachelor.
Dhamkiyaan aati hain ki Hinduon se mil gaye ho, Islam ke khilaaf jaa rahe ho…
— Faiz Khan
“I do three to nine days long gau gaatha programs in which I sing mythological tales on cow from Gita and Puranas. Most of the verses are in Awadhi and Sanskrit. People used to, and still do, get irritated by presence of a Muslim on a stage presenting a gau gaatha, but after listening to me for 5 minutes, everyone’s doubts melt away.”
As a practicing Muslim, Khan keeps fast for all 30 days of Ramzan, but has no problem with the fact that Sangh Parivar leaders led the karsevaks who demolished Babri Mosque in 1992. “Absolutely not. Flow tha, ho gaya (It was a flow of anger in which Babri Masjid got washed away). RSS has never destroyed any place of worship.”
Khan says Ram Mandir should be built on the disputed site because Ram is not only the “symbol of Indian civilisation” but also the “ancestor of all Indians, including Muslims”.
Khan says practices such as triple talaaq are a “blot of shame” on the whole community. “There has been a policy of appeasement with Muslims since Independence, which needs to be corrected. Some people are trying to create a wedge by making the Muslims feel insecure. This is the work of select media houses. Among the thousands of Muslims in RSS, there is no doubt about the intentions of the Sangh.”
Zakir Mansoori, 37, businessman, Barwani, Madhya Pradesh
The 36-year-old dealer of spare auto parts was never uninitiated to the Sangh. His mother, former BJP councilor in Barwani, had close links with Sangh leaders.
He studied in Saraswati Shishu Mandir and started attending Shakhas early on. By 2004-05, he had completed a two-year course on RSS ideology. As district head of RSS, he oversees all shakhas in region while trying to start new ones.
But his community remains unimpressed. “Whenever we do something good, there are adverse reactions to it. My Muslim community members, who oppose me, are living in denial. I have been brought up with Brahmin families and I know how kind and considerate they are.”
A Shia Muslim, Mansoori offers daily namaaz but doesn’t attend the Muharram processions. “It is totally unruly. I am against it.”
There is no need to eat meat.
— Zakir Mansoori
On Ram Temple, he says, “A true Muslim can offer prayers even in a jungle. He doesn’t need Babri. But Ram Lalla’s place is in Ram Mandir. It is the holy place for Hindus. There is no doubt that Ram Mandir should be built there.”
He goes a step ahead and proposes that Indian Muslims should turn vegetarians to avoid hurting sentiments of Hindus. “In ancient times, there was a paucity of food. We couldn’t farm. But now that we can, there is no need to eat meat.” Mansoori also supports Uniform Civil Code and says there should be one law applicable to all citizens.
CI Isaac, 65, retired professor, Kottayam, Kerala
The 65-year-old retired professor of history from Kottayam’s CMS College doesn’t see any conflict between being a Christian and an RSS leader. Isaac joined ABVP in 1975 and shakhas are as much a part of his routine as the Sunday mass at the neighbourhood church.
“I was attracted to their commitment to national and social interest. I realised that they are more secular than those who claim to be secular. On one of the Sundays, an RSS man drove me to the Church for my prayers. My faith is not a problem for them.”
Isaac says his wife has also become an active member of the Sangh. The couple uses spare time and social events in the community to talk about RSS. “I tell them the values that RSS stands for. I tell them that there is no difference between Christianity and Hinduism — we believe in the oneness of god.”
Isaac feels that Ayodhya is the Mecca of Hindus and therefore strongly believes in construction of Ram Temple at the site, “Hindus cannot be denied their holy site.”
I don’t like it when we are called minorities. We are all Indians.
— CI Isaac
Uniform Civil Code should be implemented in India, Isaac says, to guarantee “gender justice.”
When asked about condition of minorities in today’s India, Isaac says, “I don’t like it when we are called minorities. We are all Indians. Why to create the divide of minority and majority. Rights are important and they should be ensured to all. At the same time, the nation brings us together and that is what matters.”
Isaac has been long enough in the RSS to know that he may never be appointed in any of the top positions in the organisation. But he hopes that “in 30 years there will be a Sarsanghchalak, the RSS supremo, from another community, someone who believes in Bharat Mata.”
Mohammad Afzal, 56, businessman, Delhi
Afzal is not the only RSS member in his house. He is married to Shabana Afzal, a member of Rashtra Sevika Samiti, women’s wing of the Sangh. They have three children and live in Delhi’s Kashmere Gate area.
For Afzal, the tilt towards RSS began in 1960s when he heard a school teacher talk about the virtues of nationalism. He joined the Jan Sangh in 1978 after hearing a rousing speech by Sikander Bakht. When Indresh Kumar, the head of Muslim Rashtriya Manch, visited his locality, Afzal decided to become a swayamsevak.
To Afzal, there is no conflict between offering namaz at a masjid and prayers at RSS shakhas. He does both. However, his children haven’t warmed up to the idea of joining shakhas yet.
Afzal says he is facing hostility from community members for his association with the RSS. “I keep telling people that you should not be afraid of Hindutva or Hinduism because these are names for tehzeeb and sanskriti. I inspire Muslims to become active members in the task of nation building.”
Muslims aren’t a minority in India because they haven’t migrated from outside.
— Mohammad Afzal
Afzal thinks Ram Mandir should be built at the disputed site in Ayodhya because it is, “a matter of belief for Hindus. Muslims should understand that it was not a very important religious site for them.”
He supports the Uniform Civil Code and says “Muslims aren’t a minority in India because they haven’t migrated from outside”. Afzal also believes that equal opportunity, not reservation, is the way forward for Indian Muslims.
Inayat Qureishi, 55, farmer, Indore
Qureishi speaks in poetic Hindi while recounting the day when the fifth Sarsanghchalak, KS Sudarshan, visited his house.
“It was an unforgettable moment when Sudarshanji visited our house in 2006. It was as if an elder from our own family had visited us after a long time. He ate food made in our kitchen and gave cooking tips to women in our family. These are the ethos of RSS and this is why I am a proud member of it.”
Qureishi’s father, who had worked with the RSS for over 50 years, introduced him to the organisation. And Inayat has, in his turn, ensured that his son since the age of 15 has been attending the shakhas for the last eight years.
At the same time, most of the members of the Qureishi family are Hajis, i.e., they’ve done their pilgrimage to Mecca. Inayat Qureishi also happens to have served in the advisory board of the local mosque committee.
“There is nothing in Quran or Hadith that prevents us from attending shakhas. We know our religious texts very well. We offer prayer five times a day. And I know how much respect RSS has given us.”
And it is because of his scholarship over the religious texts, Qureishi says, that he knows that a mosque can never be built on the disputed site in Ayodhya. “Islam forbids Muslims to build a mosque on any site where there is a religious dispute. This whole dispute has been going on because of internal politics. If the Muslim religious leaders actually know their religion, the dispute could be over in two minutes.”
There is nothing in Quran or Hadith that prevents us from attending shakhas.
— Inayat Qureishih
On the question of triple talaaq, Qureishi doesn’t think there is any need to change the Islamic jurisprudence laws. “The triple talaaq rule has been abused by people. Generally, there is no provision in Quran that allows a man an instant triple talaaq. But still I would say that there is no need to impose a universal law. It will be unnecessary interference.”