In the dingy lanes of Gali Naal Bandan in Kashmiri gate, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, lives Mohammad Afzal. Describing himself as a “Hindu Musalman”, Afzal said proudly of himself, “Humara DNA Hindustani DNA hai.” (“I’m a Hindu Muslim. Our DNA is Hindustani DNA.”)
Afzal is one of the founding members and the National Convenor of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, a group that is affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and according to Afzal, has the support of 10 lakh Indian Muslims. Founded as Rashtravadi Muslim Andolan-Ek Nayi Raah on 24 December 2002, the organisation was renamed the Muslim Rashtriya Manch in 2005. Afzal has held the post of National Convenor since 2006.
As a long-standing BJP supporter, Afzal says he’s been voting for the party ever since he was issued the voter’s id in the 1980s. Even in the heyday of the Ram Mandir movement, he supported the party’s stance and continues to root for building the contentious temple in Ayodhya. “Humara Babur, Ghazni sabse koi lena dena nahin hai,” said Afzal. “Hum toh Ram ko maanne wale hain.” (“We have nothing to do with Babur and Ghazni. We are among the ones who follow Ram.”)
Loyalty to the RSS ideology is a family affair for the Afzals. Afzal’s wife, Shahnaz, is the head of the women’s affair of the MRM. Their youngest son Zoaib also completed his schooling from Kendriya Vidyapith School in Jaipur, which is also affiliated to the RSS.
Shahnaz is of the belief that the population of Muslims in India is rising and this is a serious concern. (According the census, the growth rate of the Muslim population is actually in decline.) To this end, she advises Muslim women to give birth to fewer children. Shahnaz says it is a conspiracy by some men in the community to give birth to many children so that the wife is occupied with children and never leaves home. She said that an estimated 25-30 per cent of married Muslim men behave like this. Shahnaz also believes that there should be one Uniform Civil Code for both Hindus and Muslims.
Image: Afzals. The family which proudly calls itself as “nationalist Muslim” in their living room. Guess who the man is in the calendar. Mohammad and Shahnaz Afzal with their son Zoaib.
Associating with RSS and living by Hindu nationalist ethics hasn’t been easy for the Afzals. They had to face social boycott in the initial years after forming the MRM. In the Muslim-dominated neighbourhood they live in and also from their relatives. Despite this, Afzal and his family did not leave the community. Today, he says, everyone gets along and if anyone in the neighbourhood was asked about the Afzals, they would only have positive things to say.
That the Afzals’ espousal of Hindu nationalism would be a bitter pill for their predominantly-Muslim neighbourhood to swallow is easy to imagine if you’re familiar with the central tenets of RSS. Seminal RSS texts, like Bunch of Thoughts by the former Sarsanghchalak (“supreme leader”) MS Golwalkar, depict Muslims as the biggest internal threat to India. Golwalkar considered Muslims to be a “bigger menace” to national security than aggressors from “outside.”
Despite Golwalkar’s Islamophobia, Afzal is full of respect for the RSS leader. “Golwalkar bohot lambe samay se RSS mein the aur unhone bohot sewa ki,” said Afzal. “Golwalkar Ji ne kyun kaha aisa? Humi (Muslims) logon ne toh Pakistan banaya,” said Afzal. (“Golwalkar served RSS for many years and did a lot of good work. Why did Golwalkar say such things? Because we Muslims are the ones who made Pakistan.”)
When asked about more recent instances of communal tension, Afzal is more circumspect. For instance, he does condemn the Gujarat riots of 2002, but he explains them as a reaction to the train burning in Godhra, in which more than 50 kar sevaks (volunteers for building Ram Temple) were killed. He said, “Godhra mein train ke andar agar deshdrohiyon ne aag naa jalaya hota toh Gujarat nahin hota. Woh action ka reaction tha. Woh action kisne kiya uspar koi charcha nahin.” (“If traitors hadn’t set fire to the train in Godhra, then Gujarat riots wouldn’t have happened. No one talks about who did that.”)
Afzal has visited Gujarat few times after 2002 and is full of praise for Narendra Modi’s work in the state after the riots. He doesn’t believe the former chief minister is to blame for them and pointed out that if Modi really wanted to, he could have easily made the condition far worse for the Muslims in his state after the riots. Afzal also added that after 2002, no Muslim was killed in any other riot in Gujarat.
In a similar vein, Afzal condemned the lynching in Dadri, saying no one had the right to take law into their own hands. However, he does believe that sale and consumption of beef should be prohibited as it is considered holy by Hindus. Afzal said that the Prophet Muhammad advised Muslims to drink cow’s milk and to not eat cows. According to Afzal, the Prophet said the meat of the cow is heavily contaminated with poisonous substances, which are present in the grass that it consumes. He said that the specialty of the cow is that the poison remains in the “gosht” or the meat while the cow’s milk is entirely purified.
For more than 13 years now the MRM is trying to provide an alternative to the notion that the RSS stands opposed to Muslims in India. Backed by the RSS, the MRM has, according to its website, ushered in a new “era among the Indian Muslims.” The organisation has its presence in 25 states and has 10,000 active Karyakartas, or workers. It’s involved in volunteering work, like the RSS, and much of MRM’s campaigning is on ideological grounds. Earlier this year, MRM tried to convince Muslim religious leaders to hoist the national flag from madrasas on Republic Day. A report in the Indian Express states that in September 2015, MRM took part in felicitating Muslims in Uttar Pradesh who owned and reared cows.
By and large though, MRM has remained under the radar of mainstream media. Is it time we started paying attention to it?