The Pacification of Swami Aseemanand

How one non-violent Muslim changed the heart of the ideologue of Hindu bombers

Volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh make a formation at a national conference in Agra. KAMAL KISHORE / REUTERS
01 March, 2011

THE DOMINANT STEREOTYPE of the Muslim in India presents him as naturally aggressive. The Jihad movement led by Syed Ahmad Barelvi against the British in the early 19th century; Syed Ahmed Khan’s menacing overtone when he pointed out that Muslims knew how to fight to defend their interests; the Khilafat Movement and the Moplah riots; the 1946 Direct Action Day: all these episodes reinforced the image of a violent Muslim, which contrasted with a pacific—if not weak—Hindu.

This opposition crystallised under the aegis of Mahatma Gandhi who, in the context of the post-Khilafat Movement riots, declared that the Hindu “as a rule is a coward” and the Muslim “as a rule is a bully”. Gandhi’s ahimsa, which borrowed largely from the Bhagavad Gita, has been associated with Hinduism and its local cousin, Jainism. Certainly, there were Muslim satyagrahis from as early as the 1920s, when Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the “Frontier Gandhi”, started the Red Shirt movement in the North-West Frontier Province, but the identification of Hindus with non-violence and the Muslims with violence—something that had much to do with the opposition between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets—continued to prevail.

Last month, Swami Aseemanand’s confession initiated a reversal of the dominant stereotypes. The saffron-clad Sangh Parivar leader admitted that Hindu nationalists were responsible for six bomb blasts that killed more than 120 Muslims. While these attacks were ostensibly in response to Islamist bombs, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak Sunil Joshi, a key figure in this extremist group, had started to use explosives in 1999-2000 against Muslims—before the series of Islamist attacks, which begun in 2001.

Besides, if we are to believe his confession, Swami Aseemanand was responsible for selecting targets like the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad and the Ajmer Sharif dargah to ensure maximum casualties in order to avenge the Hindu victims of Islamist bombings. His “blast for blast” philosophy could not be more anti-Gandhian, since Gandhi had always said that the violent had to be converted to non-violence through love and compassion.

In Swami Aseemanand’s surprising confession, not only did he establish that the protagonists of violence were Hindus—including himself—but also that the man who changed his heart was a Muslim. Indeed, his confession has a fascinating preamble: “I am making the confession because when I was lodged in Chanchalguda District Jail Hyderabad, one of my co-inmates was Kaleem. During my interaction with Kaleem I came to know that Kaleem was previously arrested in the present case, ie, Mecca Masjid Bomb Blast Case and Kaleem had to spend a period of about one and half year in the jail in the present case. During my stay in the jail, Kaleem helped me a lot and used to serve me in the jail by bringing water, food, etc, for me. Due to good conduct of Kaleem, I was very much moved and my conscience asked me to do prayschit by making a confessional statement so that real culprits can be punished in the present case and no innocent had to suffer and therefore, I am making the confessional statement.”

The psychological inversion described here reflects the repair of the soul force referred to by Gandhi, who aspired to change the attitude of his opponents not by coercion or intimidation but by catalysing a deeper personal transformation. One may argue that Kaleem behaved the way he did because he could not resort to physical force anyway to make his rights respected. But India also largely adopted Gandhi’s ahimsa by default, because the country could not get rid of the British by taking arms, as Nehru admitted after independence: ahimsa was a more workable tactic to make the British feel guilty and persuade them to leave.

Those Muslims who think that bombings cannot bring any good but, on the contrary, result in additional discrimination and suffering, may turn to non-violence to reach the same objective—which is, simply put, security and perhaps some respect. Kaleem has become a sort of heroic figure in some Muslim quarters over the past few weeks. Syyed Mansoor Agha, former editor of Qaumi Awaz and general secretary of the Forum for Civil Rights, wrote in defence of Maulana Gulam Mohammad Vastanvi’s “words in praise for Modi”:

“We have no illusion about Narendra Modi. Nor should we have any. But, at the same time, we regard misconceiving the mercy and wisdom (of) Allah as tantamount to infidelity (kafir). As Muslims, we fervently believe that the springs of Allah’s mercy have not run dry. We have just witnessed how Allah has awakened the conscience of Swami Aseemanand. Even though Kaleem was well aware of his misdeeds, the manner he behaved with (the) Swami is a fine model to be emulated. We should beseech Allah for another Kaleem who can shake alive the conscience of Modi and his accomplices in the same way.”

To believe that compassionate Muslims can change Modi’s heart may be as utopian as Gandhi’s belief that he could change the heart of the pilot of an aircraft carrying a nuclear bomb. The first Gujarati Muslim who argued along these lines was probably JS Bandukwala, a professor at Gujarat’s Maharaja Sayajirao University who narrowly escaped a deadly attack in 2002 in Baroda. Seven years later, reviewing Harsh Mander’s book, Fear and Forgiveness, in Outlook, he wrote: “Forgiveness may also serve to awaken the conscience of Hindus, both in Gujarat and across the nation, to the enormous damage done to Hinduism by the tragedy of 2002.”

Non-violence can only be effective when the oppressor is not immune to guilt. The British, who had issued the Magna Carta and established the principle of Habeas corpus, and the last South African apartheid-era president, Frederik Willem de Klerk, who had inherited some principles from European humanism, were open to remorse. The Chinese government has never felt the same way with regard to the Dalai Lama, probably because they could justify their violence against the Tibetans by falling back on (ideological) “good” reasons.

What about India? Can the Hindu nationalists—or, for that matter, their non-militant coreligionists—be responsive to Islamic ahimsa if it becomes a dominant line of conduct? The RSS has good (ideological) reasons for fighting the Muslims. But does its politics of hatred preclude any and all respect for the Muslim culture—even its very existence? The future will tell.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.