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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 39-42 September 17 - October 8, 2022 - Bumper issue

For a dialogue of life | John Dayal

Friday 16 September 2022, by John Dayal

Dr S Y Qureshi, former Chief Election Commissioner, celebrated author of a celebrated book that explains with great clarity that the rate of growth of the Muslim population in India, is now on the downward trend as people, specially women, get more educated. The same has happened in the population of other communities.

It is only in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where social indicators are still in the red, that the size of the average family is higher than the national norm – for both Hindus and Muslims. Communities such as the Sikhs and Christians in these two massive states are all but invisible, and so not part of the calculus anyway.

The raw data is not being out here because this piece is not about comparative religious populations, but about dialogue, and about Dr Qureshi, a senior at college, and an old and dear friend, who was among five former top government bureaucrats or generals who met Mr Mohan Bhagwat, the supreme leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and his Delhi offices and raised a very opaque cloud of dust on just about who can meet an aggressive adversary, and what exactly can such a group then discuss with him.

It is not that the RSS is not dialoguing with religious minorities. They are, and almost on a continuous basis, presenting their point of view and working at others to collaborate with them. It is not Mr Bhagwat who carries on such a dialogue. He does receive senior ambassadors and people of the highest rnk at the Sangh’s headquarter at Nagpur.

Those who have met him in recent times, and made international headlines for doing so, have been the Ambassadors of Germany and of the United States of America. Of course, they did not meet him together. Each met him alone – barring that ubiquitous camera crew – and at different times.

Each later went to some length to explain that as diplomats and plenipotentiaries for their respective countries, such meetings were in the like of duty. They met government ministers and political dignitaries as much as they met scientists, journalists, famers and dairy keepers. A cross section of Indian society, so to say, to keep their finger on the pulse of the nation and give that information back to their governments for its records and future use. That is the core of diplomacy.

The one senior Indian to meet Mr. Bhagwat was retired President Pranab Mukherjee, who passed on not too long thereafter. Mr. Mukherjee’s visit made big headlines. He had been President of the country, nominated to the post by the then ruling party, the centurion Indian National Congress.

Mr Mukherjee did not explain very much why at near the end of his life, he had sought to not just go to the RSS Hq. but pay floral tributes to the memory of its founding fathers. It was their ideology of majoritarianism that he had fought all his life as a member of the Congress where he, a small college lecturer, had risen steadily to become a confidante of prime minister Indira Gandhi, her trouble shooter of sorts, but more than most, one of the most important members of her cabinet.

He was so important and senior that when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, for some complicated moments, he did think he would have been the natural political person to succeed her as Prime minister. As fate would have it, novice politician Rajiv Gandhi, her son, was sworn in as Prime minister, without the benefit of any other formalities such as a cabinet meeting. Mr Mukherjee would, for a while, leave the Congress, set up his own party, dissolve it after a few fruitless adventures, and then return to the Congress on his way up to the Presidency of the Indian Republic.

For all we know, Mr Mukherjee was making his peace with friends and foes, balancing the books much as he was wont to do in his long stints as the Union finance minister. There would be a philosophical logic to even, even a tinge of the spiritual.

In that meeting, the gain was almost entirely that of the RSS. The photo-opportunity was immense. The benefits of the “optics” of the occasion for all to see. Here was one of the most illustrious sons of the opposition accept an invitation and come to pay respects to Enemy Number One.

It remains unclear if the Five Muslim Gentlemen, as someone called the group, had sought the appointment or they had been invited. Looking at their collective ranks, it is clear, much thought had gone into the crossing of the five. Few better sons of the community who had risen to the very top, living examples of the opportunity Either India gives to all its sons and daughters irrespective of their station.

Th meeting was kept secret for about month, and the news was then leaked on the eve of the Union government’s crackdown on the Kerala based Popular Front of India, with its political, youth and student wings who are now deeply entrenched in major university towns including New Delhi. People are making much of this co-incidence. I am not.

Writing in the Indian express, Mr Qureshi says of the meeting, "Of course, we could sense that Bhagwat was speaking from a position of authority. But it was subtle and his demeanour was never overbearing — there was nothing that would make us uncomfortable. In his opening remarks, he emphasised three things: Hindutva is an inclusive concept in which all communities have equal room. The country can progress only when all communities are united, he added. In a very significant statement, he emphasised that the Indian Constitution is sacrosanct, and the entire country has to abide by it. He sought to dispel the fear that RSS is seeking to abandon the Constitution at the first opportunity. And, that Muslims will be disenfranchised.”

Nice words, but not new.

Almost exactly 22 years earlier, the then RSS supremo had met the head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, Archbishop Alan de Lastic. This was in the wake of the infamous burning alive of Australian leprosy mission worker Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons Timothy, in Maouharpur in Orissa on 22 January 1999 by Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh. Dara Singh, a go-rakshak, as he would be called in today’s political vocabulary, is still in jail, serving a life sentence for multiple murder and sundry ither heinous crimes.

And a few days before the gory crime, earlier, on Christmas eve of 1998, three dozen village churches had been burnt in the Dangs tribal district of Gujarat. Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had flown down to Ahwa, the district capital, for a personal inspection of the situation. He came back to Delhi and said there must be a national dialogue on conversions (to Christianity). This was long before the term Love Jehad was coined, and no one was hounding Muslim young men for marrying Hindu women.

Mr Kuppahalli Sudershan, the RSS chief of the time, sought an appointment to meet the CBCI officials at their headquarters. He came accompanied by his secretary, a younger Mr Narendra Modi. I was part of the small Christian delegation at the table with the archbishop. Mr Sudershan said his group was for harmony and peace, but they were opposed to conversions.

I can’t say Mr Sudershan was listening very hard when the archbishop and his associates explained there were no conversions by force or by fraud in a Hindu majority country, but people indeed have the Constitutional right to choose their faith. And if they chose not to have any faith, so be it.

The second point from the bishop that day was on the Dialogue of Life. Hindus and Christians, and Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Communists, lived a normal everyday life in towns and villages. They lived not in the sort of ghettos one has come to link with Lebanon, or now with Palestine where people live in villages walled in with stone and barbered wire. They lived in free air of India. Most wore the same dress as their neighbour, almost always spoke the same language their children went usually to the same government or private schools, barring those who went to the madrasa for religious learning, or the Sunday school at Church.

This dialogue of life was the haven that made India what it was. Despite the occasional riot and the fiery election speech, neighbour trusted neighbour. There was no need to look over the shoulder.

Dialogue, specially a return to that peaceful and continuing dialogue of life, is the substance of any conversation between friends, and with foes. Even if it does not win elections,

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