A new book on the RSS by American scholars is a refreshing, yet not absolutely correct, portrayal of the sangh.
But it certainly does not fall in the category of leftist-liberal-academic gibberish published thus far.
What distinguishes Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle from the rest of the academic watchers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS ) is that they have gone for the original sources, field work, empirical data, and ideologically, have no vested interests while presenting their study. They are driven by a need to understand the RSS and hence keep away from blinkers, positive or negative. The picture that emerges of the RSS seems to be one radically different from the stereotype ‘Hindu nationalism’ studies that roll off the campus-media cottage industry.
The present book The RSS: A View to the Inside can be considered an update to The Brotherhood in Saffron (1987) by the same authors. The earlier book itself provides some interesting insights into the nature of the RSS that most left-wing academics have intentionally left out. In their ‘conclusion’ of the 1987 study, Andersen & Damle made the following observation:
Hedgewar incorporated into the RSS a training process which came to be called character building, stressing discipline, work and commitment. The process is based on the Hindu conception that disciplined training under an enlightened teacher results in an introspective recognition of truth. The truth was a secularized version of Advaita Vedanta; it took the metaphysical position that all men are basically one and applied it to Hindu society. ... In the face of orthodox resistance, he found justification in Indian history and culture for modern technology, scientific knowledge, and economic development. The RSS was conceived of as a school that would teach this new truth.
This observation made three decades ago is still very relevant. Many of the criticisms of the RSS in traditional Hindu circles, which have become more and more vociferous in the internet circles particularly among the ‘traditional Vedanta’ groups, arise because of the inability to grasp this fundamental truth about the sangh.
They often ascribe their ‘ignorance of shastras’ to the sangh, a point where they unconsciously and slyly align themselves with the Shashi Tharoor-type critique of the Hindutva. Often this criticism is camouflaged with Goel-Elst school of sangh criticism, which in turn stems from some bitter experience Sitaram Goel (Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst’s illustrious mentor and intellectual giant), had with the sangh.
In both these criticisms of the sangh, there is a strong element of elitism and often a substantial inability to understand the ground social reality of India, which Dr B R Ambedkar hinted at when he said Hindus are only a communal majority and not a political majority in India.
Sangh itself, mostly, does not take a confrontationist position towards the Hindu orthodoxy, except in extreme cases like the phenomenon of untouchability. Its approach is dialogue. And it has attained impressive successes in this like in the case of the Kanchi seer.
While the older and the most revered head of the Kanchi Sankara Mutt stridently opposed the entry of the Scheduled Caste (SC) community into major Hindu temples, his junior Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, who more frequently interacted with the sangh, was roped in by sangh-affiliated institutions, to issue certificates for Hindus of all castes, who had obtained training to become priests in temples.
It is indeed impressive that Andersen & Damle have captured this fundamental core of the sangh, which has often eluded both its critics and peripheral supporters.
Naturally, the latest book excites every political and social observer of India who would be curious to know what the duo have to say this time - a time when the RSS has been afflicted with a lot of negative media-academic publicity, and especially with RSS men holding political power in both central and many state governments in India. In this study, the authors concentrate mainly on “how the rapid expansion of the RSS and its affiliates over the past twenty five years has affected the ways in which it operates and presents itself to the nation”.
In their previous work, Andersen & Damle have studied the phenomenon of RSS 'loaning out' its fulltime workers (pracharaks) to the affiliate organisations. They observed:
Many of the pracharaks are loaned to the affiliates of the RSS. The pracharaks “on loan” have a dual loyalty — one to the RSS and the other to the affiliated organisation. Almost all pracharaks whom we interviewed stated that their primary loyalty was to the RSS, though they were careful to note that the RSS did not dictate policy to them. Should an affiliate develop on a separate path from the RSS, all insisted that they would immediately leave it. The pracharaks retain a close working relationship with the RSS organisation in whatever area they are assigned.(Andersen & Damle, 1987, p.87)
Now three decades after and with the ‘affiliate’ or ‘parivar’ organisations having become vast networks themselves with sometimes conflicting interests, they revisit the same phenomenon with another question.
So what keeps the Sangh Parivar from disintegrating altogether, given the wide range of often-competing interests that it hosts? The key element, in our view, is the sanghathan mantri system: the 6,000 trained RSS pracharaks who occupy the top management positions (organizing secretary, general secretary, and joint general secretary) in the RSS proper as well as in virtually all the affiliates. … Besides the ideology binding the office-bearers of the ‘family’ together, there are several structural elements that also serve to unite these often-disparate factions. … Finally, and importantly, each of the affiliates operates autonomously, and the RSS usually asserts itself only when there is a power vacuum (as in the BJP after the 2009 Parliamentary losses) or to mediate differences within or among the affiliates. Even this is a relative rare occurrence – the Parivar operates by consensus precisely to avoid the kind of destructive factionalism that has ruined so many of its non-RSS peers and competitors.(Andersen & Damle, 2018, pp. 40-1)
The authors discuss, in 256 pages and 15 chapters of main text, 27 pages of nine appendixes and 121 pages of notes and references, the various affiliates including the Muslim wing of the sangh and the current rebellion witnessed in Goa and Bihar elections.
The fifth chapter on Hindutva makes interesting reading. The authors point out that while the critics of the RSS use every opportunity (like twisting Bhagwat’s statement on reservation during the Bihar election), “to demonstrate that the parivar is fundamentally controlled by high-caste Hindus unconcerned about the social and economic well being of Dalits”, “at the ground level, the RSS has worked hard – and studies show it has had some success – to implement a wide range of social welfare activities among Dalits and tribals.” (2018, p.90)
That it has taken two US academics to bring out an authoritative work without ideological blinkers on an Indian organisation like the RSS is a sad reflection on Indian academics and media. Except for a very few works (Ratan Sharda 2018, Sanjeev Kelkar 2011 and M G Chitkara 2004) almost all ‘academic’ works centre around the 1939 out-of-context Golwalkar quote. Hence, in this refreshing and a comprehensive study, the fact that the characterisation of sangh by Andersen & Damle is still inherently Western, can be overlooked. In their 1987 book, they conceived the sangh as a pyramidal structure with the Shaka at the bottom (p.87). Here, after three decades, the book sees the sangh more mechanically like ‘organisational steel frame’ and ‘power vacuum’ than in organic terms.
The sangh’s organising principles, which elude the Western frameworks, are essentially Indic and more ecological than mechanical. For example, one of the sangh ideologues, K R Malkani, spoke as early as 1951 about ‘biotechnic order’ – showing an influence from the polymath and pioneering human ecologist Patrick Geddes, who in turn was highly influenced by Indic principles of social and habitat organisation as well as temple city planning.
The very term ‘shaka’ (branch) with the vast human networking suggests organising principles of the RSS that are radically different from the Western social movements. Hence, seeing the sangh approach as ‘civic religion practised by the Lutheran leadership in Scandinavian states’ though may be a good Western appropriation, does not do full justice to the deeper dimensions of the sangh worldview.
The sangh can be seen as the grand organism of Hinduness, adapting and reorganising constantly towards the fast-changing milieu. Andersen & Damle themselves point out such adaptations like the view of the RSS towards women’s issues. One should remember that not only is the woman affiliate of the RSS the first one to be formed, but it is the most independent of all the sangh affiliates. It is not subordinate but a parallel organisation. Further, it was founded by a widow – which in itself was a radical departure from orthodoxy those days in Maharashtra.
Now, sangh advocates gender equality in religious space (which even a substantial number of its own cadre are uncomfortable with) like, for instance, ‘noting favourably that women are now officiating as priests’. These changes again should be seen as an organic evolution and adaptation, unlike the leftist slogan-borrowing from the West.
Even Andersen & Damle are not immune to certain stereotypes despite their empirical studies shattering many stereotypes about the sangh. In the conclusion of the work, there is a passage where the authors quote Ashis Nandy and Donald Smith approvingly:
In his analysis of the interaction of Hinduism and Hindutva, Ashis Nandy in the early 1990s wrote perceptively that, ‘Hinduism and Hindutva now stand face to face, not yet ready to confront each other, but aware that the confrontation will have to come someday. … Golwalkar, the RSS sarsanghachalak at the time of Independence, also advised the founder of BJS to avoid a name that would give the party a sectarian orientation, and favoured the more inclusive Bharatiya in its name. Thus, as Donald Smith has pointed out in his discussion of the RSS, the BJS adopted an inclusive view of nationhood covering all groups loyal to India that was incompatible with a Hindu rashtra (nation).(Andersen & Damle, 2018,pp.247-8)
Ashis Nandy is a protestant social psychologist and Donald Smith was a theologian turned political scientist. Their axioms are that Hinduism is fundamentally caste-based and that Hindu rashtra is an exclusive concept, respectively. It would have been better had Andersen & Damle had taken a look at the way RSS looks at Hinduism. In the RSS Hindu narrative reinforced every day by the ‘Ekatmata Stotra’ of the morning prayer, they emphasise the social emancipation stream in the Hindu dharma and history. It has seers hailing from all sections of the Hindu society and two Islamic seers as well. The so-called inevitable war between Hindutva and Hinduism is only a myth, and like the fabled second coming or socialist utopia, shall always be in the imagined perpetual future speculated by a section of academia and media, not to mention politicians out on bail.
This binary of Hindutva versus Hinduism nevertheless, needs a deeper understanding of Hinduism. In this very book, Andersen & Damle make an important observation that the RSS camp rules require that all swayamsevaks irrespective of their ‘castes’, ‘to alternate between serving food to others and cleaning laterines (sic) - that aim to undermine notions of purity and pollution associated with various kinds of work in many layers of the Hindu caste hierarchy .’ (p.81)
One finds this model in the educational institutions of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda order - particularly in the schools of Swami Chidbavananda, where the residential school students are expected to work, alternating between toilet cleaning and serving food in dining halls and in the altar services of temples attached to the schools.
Chidbavananda was one of the first saints in Tamil Nadu to welcome the RSS and give his own schools to conduct their training camps. Gandhi tried the same experiment but it could not last long. One can trace these efforts to Sri Ramakrishna, who cleaned the night-soil of the scheduled community member and carried it on his head. Had Andersen & Damle connected this particular sangh exercise with their own wonderful insight that the principle underlying sangh is the ‘secularised version of Advaita Vedanta' then they could have seen that far from being at war with Hinduism, it is bringing to the social surface a deeper and more profound Hinduism.
All said, this book is so far the best book on the RSS as a phenomenon and a movement, and an honest approach to the workings of the sangh and even a more honest approach to understanding what animates sangh despite all the negative propaganda and hostile state attitude against it for most part of its existence.
The book explodes many myths built around the sangh by the Hindu-phobic academia-media sections with empirical evidence. Taken along with their 1987 work, this is a great contribution to an unprejudiced non-Hindu phobic academic understanding of the Hindu renaissance spearheaded by the RSS.