While I am tempted, it would seem a bit insensitive to continue blogging about the two goats of Rifah-e-Aam Club today. It's Baqr Eid after all - most likely, if unfortunately, the last day of their lives. While there is a lot to be said about the Club, about Eid, and about the goats, I shall leave this to next week - and instead reflect on the possibilities and limits of having a dialogue with communalists.

In a surprise move about a week ago, Maulana Dr. Kalbe Sadiq, vice-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and highly respected Shia cleric in Lucknow, met with K S Sudarshan, former chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the elite ideology branch of the right-wing Hindutva movement. The Dainik Jagran, a prominent Hindi newspaper, summarized their half-hourly guftagu under the headline "country first, we later" as an "initiative to eliminate distance" between the BJP and Muslim Indians ahead of several state elections next year, including the one in Uttar Pradeh.1 According, to all available news reports, Sudarshan and Sadiq mainly discussed prospects for electoral reform, and later issued a joint statement in which they emphasized the need to vote for honest and capable candidates, no matter their religion or caste. Sadiq in particular also repeatedly made it clear that he wants to leave the past behind, and hopes to open a fresh chapter in Hindu-Muslim relations under the banner of patriotism.

Unsurprisingly, the news of this meeting made headlines for several days, especially in the vernacular press. Even today, a week later, its political implications attract a heated exchange of letters to the editor, including allegations against Sadiq of furthering fascism. The Urdu papers in particular remained rather critical, a stance which I also found most frequently in my own conversations with various important and not-so-important Lucknowi Muslims.

I must say, I too am a bit worried. Not about the intentions of Maulana Kalbe Sadiq or his attempts at honest dialogue - which, having met him and discussed the matter, seem genuine. Nor even about the intentions of Sudarshan - even though his are probably more doubtworthy. No, I am not worried about dialogue per se. Dialogue is necessary, for without it, nothing can happen: "this suggestion of a conversation might sound politically naive and impractical, yet, without undertaking a journey to the antagonistic `other', there is little hope."2

Yet what worries me is the "politically correct" - but in fact staunchly incorrect - tendency in most news reports to suggest that such a dialogue could ever be evenhanded. In my opinion, one should not forget the rather uneven political ground on which meetings such as those between Sudarshan and Sadiq take place. A close look at the news reports, for instance, particularly in the vernacular press, reveals that the initiative to bridge the communal divide is mostly the Maulana's effort - while virtually no substantial step is reported from Sudarshan's side. Meanwhile, even if Sudarshan offers little in terms of ideological compromise, the RSS (and with it the BJP and the whole Hindutva fold) will probably gain much more from this dialogue politically than the Maulana: a rather twisted deal.

In fact, the twists became visible in multiple ways just a day after the meeting - when the Maulana's "Unity college" observed its annual felicitation ceremony. While the function's chief guest - Union Minister for Law, Justice, and Minority Affairs Salman Khurshid - expressely backed Sadiq and stated that nobody should take offence if dialogue takes place, and that dialogue could never further fascism, the private lunch afterwards was nonetheless frequently interrupted by phone calls during which the Maulana was forced again and again to justify his position - to journalists, to fellow members of AIMPLB, and to the general public. And while the National Anthem belongs into any college function in India, the refrain of another song performed by the college choir would probably not have taken this form elsewhere. With much passion, the pupils were singing: "Oh India, oh India, we all belong to you - we take pride in the best, but the best of the best, the very very best, is to know that we are Indians too". Why does that need emphasis? For one reason: because the ground for Muslim Indians is twisted, tilted and at times shaking.

Let me reiterate that this is however no reason whatsoever to abandon attempts to open dialogue - which remains the only viable option. But one should take care not to forget the terms on which such dialogue happens. As Carrie Heitmeyer aptly put in in her work on Gujarat: "the project of sustaining communal coexistence, although nominally espoused by a majority of [people], is one which inevitably falls much more heavily on the shoulders of [...] Muslims, given the wider political context in which ultimately it is their livelihoods, lives and well-being which remain most at stake."3 This insight is missing from much of the reporting - and that is what worries me.

  • 1. the original article can be found here; for English reports, look here and there
  • 2. Sharma, J. (2006). Hindutva. New Delhi: Penguin.
  • 3. Heitmeyer, C. (2009). There is peace here. Journal of South Asian Development, 4(1), 103–120.