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Asia

Indian Muslims who support Hindu nationalism

While Hindu-Muslim tension is rising in India, some Muslims have joined the RSS, a hardline Hindu nationalist organization. They say they want to promote national stability in India and adapt to Hindu traditions.

Mohammad Afzal is an exception among India's Muslims when it comes to the issue of cow-slaughter, which is fully or partially banned in most Indian states.

"Hindus see the cow as their mother, so this is an important part of the culture in India.  A national ban can keep the peace," Afzal told DW. "It hurts Hindus, when Muslims slaughter cows," he said, arguing in favor of a national ban.

He also said that the population growth of Muslims in India should be controlled and Muslim boys should be taught not to seduce Hindu girls.

Afzal's views closely reflect those of the RSS, a hardline Hindu volunteer organization with which Indian Prime Minister Modi started his career and which claims to have over 5 million members in India. As the co-founder and national convener of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), a Muslim social organization patronized by the RSS, Afzal fully supports the Hindu-nationalist agenda.

While Hinduism considers the cow a holy animal and therefore prohibits the consumption of beef, Islam does not. This has led to a simmering tension between the two communities, especially after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP Hindu-nationalist party rose to national power in May 2014.

Instances of violence in the name of cow protection have since gone up. And in the majority of cases, the victims were Muslims, who at a population of around 200 million are a 15 percent minority in India. Many of the victims were not involved in cow slaughter, but rather in buffalo trade or were just rumored to have killed or eaten a cow.

Muslims should work with nationalists

India Protest against lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq (Reuters/S. Andrade)

Indian Hindus protest the killing of a Muslim Indian for allegedly killing a cow in 2016

While condemning violence against Muslims, Afzal argues that Muslims themselves should take responsibility for staying safe. He said that as minorities, Indian Muslims should "absolutely" adjust to Hindu culture. "My main goal is to protect our community," he said.

In one of the RSS's guiding texts, Muslims are described as one of India's largest internal security threats.

Afzal lives with his wife and three sons in a narrow, four-story house in the heart of Delhi's old city, a predominantly Muslim area. Just around the corner, a man with a beard and skull cap sells beef biryani, a traditional Muslim rice dish with buffalo meat, due to Delhi's cow slaughter ban.

Well-known in the area, Afzal has been a somewhat controversial figure since he joined the BJP in the early 90s. He continued to support the party even after 2002, when thousands of Muslims were killed in Hindu mob-violence in the state of Gujarat where Modi was Chief Minister at the time.

If anything, this made Afzal more convinced that Muslims should work together with the Hindu-nationalists for the betterment of their community.

"The other parties might speak of secularism, but what have they done for us?" he said, quoting statistics showing Muslims' relatively poor socio-economic status in India. In December 2002, MRM was founded in cooperation with the RSS and currently claims 10,000 active members.

Girish Juyal, one of the Hindu co-founders of MRM, said that national unity is more important than Muslim identity. He started out as an RSS worker in Jammu and Kashmir in the 90s

The state, bordering Pakistan and an eternal source of conflict between India and its neighbor, saw a rise in militancy of separatist Muslims at that time.

"In Kashmir I had come to realize that we should promote nationalism amongst the Muslims," he told DW while sipping on a cold coffee in one of central Delhi's upmarket cafés.

"Anything that assumes a different identity, even within the body, is like a cancer. We don't want anyone to identify as a Muslim. We want them to be Indian."

Read: How India's Muslims view the Kashmir dispute

Listen to audio 06:24

WorldLink: Cows under attack in India

Instilling patriotism

Juyal, now the national organizational convener of MRM, describes the MRM's annual calendar in detail. Functions are organized around most national festivals, from Republic Day in January to Independence Day in August and the Hindu festival Diwali at the end of the year. The national events are utilized to instill a "sense of patriotism" among Muslims, Juyal said. 

"The RSS uses the MRM just to advance their own agenda, to show opponents that they have Muslims on their side when they are criticized for anti-Muslim policies," Shoaib Khan, a social activist and former MRM member, told DW. He left the organization within one year after Modi won the 2014 elections.

"I was attracted by Modi's slogan, 'All Together, Development For All'," he said at his home in Joga Bai, a cluttered lower-middle class neighborhood in south Delhi. "MRM hardly does any development work on the ground. It is not really a priority of its leaders."

Khan also found it hard to rhyme his Muslim identity with the RSS vision of nationality. "We follow our own scriptures. Of course I can respect a Hindu's love for cows, but I cannot follow it to the same extent," he said, adding that MRM "hardly has any support" with this.

Read: Indian Muslims want an end to racial profiling

Muslim distrust

Even Mohammad Afzal's wife Shahnaz admits that the MRM is largely distrusted within the community. Although 10,000 members is a fairly big number it is still a tiny fraction of India's 200 million Muslims.

A teacher, Shahnaz leads the women's cell of the organization. "We are very backward in education," she told DW. The spectacled, unveiled woman wants to make Muslim women more aware of healthcare and family planning.

"We do our best to convince our peers that we can develop better if we work with the RSS, as a mass organization for Hindus. But it is hard. I grew up myself learning that they are our enemy."

But she is not the one to give up. Both Afzal and his wife are looking forward to the next calendar event -the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan on August 4. They plan to have Hindu and Muslim girls tie a thread around the wrists of Muslim and Hindu boys, respectively, giving a twist to the traditional practice among Hindu siblings from the same family.

"We used to celebrate festivals together irrespective of castes or religions," said Afzal. "Our program is intended to promote brotherhood."

Watch video 12:02

World Stories - Tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India

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