RSS cadets perform a drill during Vijaya Dashmi. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Malini Bhattacharjee’s review of the RSS idea of service is bold, but at times falls into the ‘secular’ trap of bias and misrepresentation.

    In order to understand concepts such as ‘Seva’, one needs to read Indic greats like Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Gandhi and Dharampal, rather than look at the phenomenon of humbling with a stiff upper lip.

Malini Bhattacharjee, ‘Disaster Relief and the RSS’, Sage, 2019, pages 238, Rs 850

The rain had been lashing for quite a few days. I do not exactly remember the year. I was around 12 or 13. A few youths in khaki shorts were talking in the veranda of our house. They were asking my father and mother to prepare a week’s food for two additional persons — breakfast, lunch and dinner, the same food we prepare for us, and then pack them.

My mother, however, prepared five packets each of lunch and dinner, and two packets of breakfast. We all packed them into banana leaf bundles. All the houses in our street had been similarly requested by those ‘Annas’. They would all be promptly collected punctually. In the case of our house, both breakfast and lunch would be collected in the morning. In the evening, a dinner bundle would be collected. Some hundred people including women and children, had been rendered homeless in the remote villages of our district by heavy rains and they were housed in a marriage hall and some in hospitals. The food for them would come from every house that these boys in khaki shorts visited.

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Later, when I was 14, as I started attending the shakas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), I understood one of the cornerstones of the ‘Seva’ approach of the Sangh: there is no charity involved and that the affected people are part of the larger family of the nation and, hence, families will come forward to take care of them as their own kith and kin – the Sangh only coordinates.

Now, 35 years have passed since the hazy memories of those rainy days. Right in front of me is a book whose author in the conclusion of the book says:

‘I see this book as the first step towards developing an intellectual project that helps us understand better the reasons for the popularity of Hindutva in contemporary India.’
(p.195)

The book ‘Disaster Relief and the RSS’ (Sage, 2019) is true to the promise. With data collected meticulously from various sources, both from the RSS and its various organisations as well as from sources heavily critical of the Sangh, the author, Malini Bhattacharjee, assistant professor at Azim Premji University, has dared to go where not many academics have ventured before.

The book studies the Seva of the Sangh, particularly when calamities strike the nation, natural or man-made. In the book, there runs an inherent conflict, a tension, which our academics have to undergo when they study Hindu institutions sincerely. The tension is inevitable. The tools and framework for analysis she has learned and internalised are from ‘authorities’ like Ramachandra Guha, Romila Thapar, Christopher Jafferlot, Achut Yagnik and Angana Chatterjee, to mention a few.

The cover of the book.  The cover of the book. 

Though they are presented as ‘neutral’ academic authorities, each of them have deep prejudice not just against the RSS but also against the innate value of Indian culture itself. So, in early Hindu history, tracing the act of giving, on the authority of Romila Thapar, she states that while ‘seva became popular mostly during the Bhakti movement in the medieval times, its closest predecessor may be traced to the ancient Hindu institution of Dana’ which in turn was ‘the giving gifts to priests and Brahmanas with elaborate itemization of the objects...’ and hence ‘Dana was not made in the spirit of charity but as a symbol of success and investment for future returns’ (p.57 & p.58).

Here, Thapar is demonstrably wrong. Rig Veda itself makes it an obligation on the part of the rich to share their wealth with the needy. The verses singing about generosity 'dhanaannadanaprasamsaa' (Rig Veda X.117.943) makes sharing of food and by extension all wealth, a duty, an obligation, not just charity and it also makes hoarding a punishable sin.

Later, producing food in plenty and sharing it are decreed as vows binding humanity. Epics and Puranas again and again stress the importance of giving food to the needy. Jitendra Bajaj and M D Srinivas have shown how production and sharing of food for all, or securing food security of the society through various institutional means had an unbroken continuity till the recent times.

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So here, the author actually misses an opportunity to see the Seva tradition of the RSS as the continuation of this vast tradition. But the failure is not hers personally; it is the very academic ecosystem which is simply not equipped to study the Sangh’s concept of Seva.

So what is Seva in the Sangh worldview? Is it secular and modern or is it borrowing some parallel ‘post-modernist’ arguments to cover a sinister motive? The author oscillates between ‘the post-modernist’ critique of the likes of Ashis Nandy and the questionable speculation of Meera Nanda that the ‘decolonisation of Hindu mind’ project of ‘Hindutva ideologues’ necessitates ‘understanding science through Hindu categories’. The reading of the author herself is more insightful and closer to reality than both Ashis Nandy and Meera Nanda, in that, she substitutes ‘service’ for ‘science’ in the RSS worldview and states:

In arguing that seva is essentially an ‘indigenous’ institution, the RSS facilitates a huge ontological shift with regard to its perception as a superior form of (‘selfless’) giving, in the imagination of common people. It is an invocation of this capacious understanding of seva, which is set apart from ‘modern’, ‘Western’ ideas of philanthropy that contributes towards making it so attractive to contemporary donors and recipients.
(pp.82-3)

The book is in one way very refreshing. One can see umpteen works churned out by the academic cottage industry regurgitate the same quote of ‘Guruji’ Golwalkar from his 1939 book to establish the pro-Nazi nature of the Sangh, despite Belgian Indologist Dr. Elst exposing the fallacy of using that quote thoroughly. But what one does not see is the quote of the same Golwalkar on service. In a letter he wrote to a Sangh official, he strictly advocates never to discriminate on the basis of religion, caste or any such sectarianism. This book is, perhaps, the first academic book that presents this particular quote of Golwalkar:

In this service no distinction should be made between man and man. We have to serve all, be he a Christian or a Muslim or a human being of any other persuasion: for, calamities, distress and misfortunes make no such distinction, but afflict all alike.

The author gives the example highlighted in Sangh literature for such a non-discriminatory Seva – the rescue work done in the case of 1996 mid-air collision of Saudi airliner with a Kazakhstan airliner in which the victims were mainly Muslims and the RSS were the first to reach the spot and do rescue and relief operations including identification of the dead bodies for the relatives. The author also gives a stray incident of sectarianism exhibited by Swami Aseemanand in Andamans during the 2004 Tsunami. In the same 2004 Tsunami, this reviewer and his Ayurvedic doctor friend Dr S.Lenin (who comes from a pro-Marxist family) had personal experience of the Sangh serving the Christian fishermen affected by the calamity. The medical unit of Seva Bharathi headed by Dr Srinivasa Kannan who was the head of the Nagerkovil RSS, was one of the first to reach the coastal villages.

She then draws her own conclusion that ‘the provision of non-discriminatory seva is part of a strategic exercise’ to display ‘secular ethos’ by the Sangh ‘in order to gain popularity’. Had she stopped with that, this book would have been just another run-of- the-mill academic portrait of the RSS. But she continues and that changes everything:

‘However, … a deeper engagement with numerous swayamsevaks and volunteers of the RSS reveal that a large section of these people engage in Seva because they truly feel that they are doing good work to make a better society and a better nation.’ 
(pp. 84-5)

But just pages after Seva becomes, on the authority of Jafferlot, ‘social welfare strategy of the RSS’ (p.88) . So what does this strategy aim at? Hindu Rashtra of course. Malini Bhattacharjee taking as ‘neutral’ facts the prejudiced opinions against Sangh by select academics has constructed a binary:

Hedgewar was, perhaps, the first leader during this period to seriously shape the idea of Seva as a means for constructing the Hindu Rashtra. For Gandhi and the Indian National Congress largely, nationalism was essentially a civic idea and transcended language, religion, caste and gender barriers. In this sense, as Ramachandra Guha (2007) has persuasively argued, India was indeed an ‘unnatural nation’ , as there was no similar counterpart in the Western Europe where people of such wide diversities have come together to claim a nation. For Hedgewar, the imagination of the nation was diametrically opposite. Deeply inspired by Moonje, who was an admirer of Musoolini’s fascist military academies, Hedgewar was convinced that the physical and mental training of the swayamsevaks was the key to India’s military regeneration. Seva played a key role in this imagination.
(p.74)

The problem here is Dr Hedgewar never thought of ‘constructing the Hindu Rashtra’. He considered India as a Hindu nation. In fact, to him, nation itself had Hindu implied in it. Contrary to what Guha states, to both Gandhi and also Dr Ambedkar, India was a very natural one nation – predicated on her deep cultural unity. And that Moonje was influenced by fascist ideology, is an empirically falsified yet a living academic urban legend unleashed by Marzia Casolari.

Unfortunately, the author makes this axiomatic, in her study. In reality, if there was one point where Gandhi, Savarkar and hence Dr Hedgewar, Dr Ambedkar and even Nehru converged, it was the oneness of the Indian nation through the deep cultural unity. Again, despite very serious differences, Gandhi and Savarkar converged with respect to fighting missionary conversion and they both agreed that tribal communities are Hindu. Further, the Seva or humanitarian worship as the service of the Virat as visualised and forcibly put forth by Swami Vivekananda and also by Mahatma Gandhi.

The problem is even more compounded for our researcher when she acknowledges that 'Hedgewar was attracted by Vivekananda’s idea of creating a trained cadre of nationalist sanyasis who would be dedicated towards rendering service for the poor and underprivileged sections of the society’ which ‘eventually led him to establish Shaka...’ (p.75). So that begs the question what is it?

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Was the approach of Dr Hedgewar to Seva predicated on the ‘fascist’ elements or Advaitic humanism of Swami Vivekananda? And both are mutually exclusive. Again, it is important here to emphasise that the author is honest. She does not present just select quotes and factoids and build a false stereotype which is what usually most academics studying the Sangh indulge in.

But the frameworks available to her are limited and as she prefers to stay in the theoretical comfort zone and dares to venture into the real time data the paradoxes multiply.

Her detailed study of the Sangh Seva following the natural disasters of Odisha Super Cyclone (1999) and during Gujarat earthquake (2001) provides the case in point.

In the case of Odisha, she investigates if the Sangh Seva discriminated or ignored non-Hindu communities through a ‘field visit undertaken in a Muslim-dominated village named Chaulia in Erasama block which was completely ravaged by the cyclone.’

Community members named UBSS (a Sangh Parivar organization) as one of the first agencies to have set up a community kitchen and also mentioned that it later undertook rehabilitation projects such as tilling the land and providing tools of livelihood to the villagers.
(p.124)

However, pages later, we meet none other than the discredited India-phobic Angana Chatterjee becoming the authority with respect to Saraswati Sisu Vidya Mandirs — the schools run by the Sangh whose ‘Asian Age’ 2003 article is used in an endorsing way. Chatterjee argues that the ‘affordability and their emphasis on imparting cultural values to children provide a congenial space for mobilizing young and impressionable minds into the ideology of Hindutva.’ (p.133).

So the author herself concludes that ‘expanding the educational apparatus after the Super Cyclone, keeping in mind future returns, therefore, was a political masterstroke on the part of the RSS.’ (pp.133-4).

And the interviews with school teachers presented centre around ‘Samskaras’ reinforcing the allegations made by Chatterjee.

Let us leave apart the relevant fact that Angana Chatterjee is a highly prejudiced Hindu-hating academic who was actively involved in attempts to stop the funding of Sangh Seva activities by NRIs through the IDRF.

What is important is the way these schools have delivered quality education in a very affordable manner through the dedication of the teachers who work for far less salary than government school teachers. Under the title ‘Sangh schools score high in Orissa’, The Indian Express report (01-July-2009) points out that Saraswati Shishu Vidya Mandirs (SVM) have produced 44 of the top 102 students in the state in the High School exams with 7 of the top 10 ranks from SVMs.

The report also speak of ‘over 11,000 Acharyas and Gurumas (teachers) in 739 SVMs across the state who live a no-frills life to teach 1.8 lakh students from kindergarten to Class XII for a pittance’.

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A 2010 report by Times of India (20 June) under the title Saraswati Vidya Mandir schools clean sweep toppers' list, mentions the maximum ranks in the top 10 list, including the top five in the state, going to students of SVM. The report goes on to point out that as many as 55 students of SVM in the best 100 list show a pass percentage of 98.58 as against 71.41 of government schools.

Even the state mass education minister, who is a non-BJP politician, admitted the better performance of SVM schools. According to a 2010 report, as many as 12,000 teachers teach across 793 SVM schools. In 2018, in the Jharsuguda district of the state alone, of the top 12 rank holders, four belonged to SVM schools including the district topper.

So here you have a school system that provides, for decades, one of the most affordable and good educational services in terms of even the ‘secular’ State board syllabus through dedicated teachers who work for lesser than their governmental counterparts. And all one sees into it are ‘future returns’ and a ‘political masterstroke’?

In the case of Gujarat earthquake relief again, she acknowledges that Sangh has provided immediate and exemplary relief services. But this time, she allows without scrutiny the charges of sectarian discrimination against the Sangh. And the sources for these charges are clearly prejudiced against the Sangh — Kuldip Nayar (in an article in 2001), by a senior Congress party leader in 2012 and another report in the Islamist anti-Sangh magazine Milli Gazette. However, if one goes through the actual reports from mostly neutral sources, these allegations seem to be a well-calculated after-construction.

For example this is what an India Today report said about the relief work by the RSS:

On January 29, the residents of Nanireldi, a Muslim dominated village in Kutch virtually starving since the day of the quake were pleasantly surprised to see a batch of RSS and VHP workers land with foodgrain, clothes and medicines. Said Abha Ibrahimbhai: ‘I could never imagine that the RSS and VHP workers would come to our rescue.
‘Gujarat earthquake: Despite delayed government action, support of people brings hope’, ‘India Today’, 12-Feb-2001

The book also goes minutely into the Sangh disaster relief searching for data-points that would reinforce the prejudices against the Sangh. Though she has stated that the work of Seva Bharathi ’mostly focuses on ‘the eradication of untouchability, imbuing people with the spirit of service and unity and serving the economically needy and socially backward sectors...’ (p.94), pages later ‘to perpetuate religious and caste-based hierarchies’ become part of ‘traditionalist vision of Hindu nationalism’ and Sangh Seva workers distancing themselves between the OBC Ahir and ‘Dalit’ community quarrel becomes ‘strategy of non-interference in selective issues’ and that is part of ‘its conservative ideology of Hindutva’ (p.165). Now, this is more Christopher Jaffrelot than Malini Bhattacharjee.

Usually, the Sangh has its own organisation that works on these issues of social conflicts. At a time of disaster relief work, the Sangh organisation involved in that generally keeps its distance from such inter-community conflicts. At the same time, the author herself acknowledges that in the village where the Ahirs (the dominant OBC but pastoral community) owned land, they were allocated larger houses but where (as in Keshav Nagar) Seva Bharathi had complete freedom, they built uniform houses for all (p.160).

Yet the prejudices take over here completely. That with respect to this, she has not talked to Samajik Samarasata Manch (SSM) and yet concludes that Sangh Seva is aimed at ‘conservative Hindutva’. This is despite the fact that Sangh organisations and the leadership have supported SC priests in major Hindu temples, inter-caste marriages and even in conservative Haryana, the BJP government increasing financial support for inter-caste marriage couples.

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So, for the author to conclude that because Seva Bharati initially kept a distance with respect to the Ahir-SC inter-community conflict during disaster relief means keeping caste-hierarchies part of HIndutva is wrong empirically and holistically.

With all these inner tensions running in the book, still the author has to be congratulated for being honest in many of the pages. In a particularly telling passage, she does go beyond the lens of ‘agenda of co-opting lower castes within Hindutva fold’ (p.94) and ‘strategies’ and states:

Despite these political dimensions however there is a certain materiality to seva that goes beyond its political ramifications. The most remarkable thing to acknowledge here is that the RSS’s conceptualization of seva offers a resuscitation of an innate idiom, a common language, a common communicative structure, a common worldview that people (including performers and recipients of seva) instantly connect to because they recognize it as their own.
(p.107)

Perhaps, this should have been the conclusion or one can even say that this is the actual conclusion. Such originally Indic insights which come from her own ground work are bogged down by the weight of the academic baggage of prejudices against the Indic in general and the Hindu in particular.

The book shows that after 70 years of Independence, we have not developed our own tools and framework to study a phenomenon that is rooted in our own national self. If academics realise this deficiency and start studying Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi and Dharampal to develop their tools to study the Indic, then this book shall really serve a purpose in the search for truth and true understanding.

If not, this will only become yet another academic book to conceive convoluted ways to explain away Sangh Seva as mere ‘strategy’ and as agenda filled — a prejudiced, baseless fantasy of the academics.

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