The new sangh is posing as more accommodative at a time when the new Hindu is growing more assertive.
In what must be considered a rare occurrence, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, was at the centre of media attention in Delhi for three days in September, delivering headline-worthy statements each day.
Without getting into details on any of the subjects he spoke on, here is a quick summation of what Bhagwat said: the sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he claimed, were different and they do not always see eye-to-eye on issues; the Congress is not necessarily the sangh’s enemy, and the BJP’s stated goal of a Congress-mukt Bharat is not the sangh’s; Muslims are very much a part of the RSS’s idea of a Hindu rashtra; and, most important, there are parts of the Golwalkar heritage that the sangh no longer finds useful. Bhagwat did not use these precise words, but this would be a commonsense summation of what he conveyed.
Now, you can be cynical and say that a leopard cannot change its spots that easily. If the sangh is today moving towards greater inclusion by talking about Muslims and expunging those parts of the Golwalkar hypotheses that suggested that Muslims were the natural enemies of Hindus, this must be sheer political expediency, driven by the possibility that there may not be a friendly government in power in 2019. But it makes no sense to junk this new sangh purely because this wasn’t the image we had of it in the past. In fact, critics who think the RSS will always be anti-Muslim are essentially reductionist in their views. The sangh has its own way of reaching out, and even if the minorities are hesitant, the problem may be as much on their side as the sangh’s.
The irony in the sangh’s new accommodativeness is that it comes at a time when many more Hindus are becoming bolder about their identity assertions. For many of today’s born-again, educated Hindus, the sangh is more namby-pamby than they would like it to be. The sangh, for example, is not at the forefront of core Hindu demands for fairness in institutional treatment, whether it is about demanding amendments to articles 25-30, which give minorities special protections, or the Right to Education Act, which has become an albatross around the necks of majority-run institutions, or the move to reclaim temples from government control. In fact, most members of the sangh represent a quaint form of cultural nationalism that is quite at odds with the rising tide of growing Hindu assertion. Many top RSS leaders are either agnostic or are not religious in the traditional sense of the term. The sangh draws its Hindu nationalist credo from a non-religious, Savarkarite perspective, even though it was never as radical as the man himself. It was wrongly blamed for the murder of the Mahatma Gandhi, when the sangh’s Hindutva was never as radical as Godse’s.
Put simply, the sangh is a unique Hindu organisation that focuses on identity issues, but without close linkage to the core issues that concern both traditional Hindus and today’s emerging groups of educated Hindus, who are not ashamed to flaunt their identities. Its “secular” critics would like to paint it like some kind of sinister organisation plotting against Muslims, but the reality is that the sangh has been quite moderate on the key issues that really agitate politically-minded Hindus, including the ethnic cleansing of Pandits from Kashmir Valley and Bangladesh, reclaiming temples, etc. “Secular” critics also like to paint the BJP as some kind of pawn of the sangh, but there is no evidence of the party kowtowing to the latter. Under Narendra Modi, there has been a subtle shift in official attitudes towards old sangh issues like the uniform civil code, with the Law Commission having been asked to look at the issue. The government has also shifted its stand on issues like the Haj subsidy, triple talaq, nikah halala and, possibly, polygamy, but all these changes seem to have emerged from the BJP’s own understanding of its political priorities, and not the RSS’s agenda. Bhagwat was certainly right to claim that the RSS does not influence the government too much beyond occasionally comparing notes and voicing concerns.
What seems to have happened is that the sangh, through an internal process of understanding the world, has come to its own conclusions about aligning its objectives with that of the emerging Hindu and centrist consensus, where overt anti-minoritarianism is not required any more. It is also possible that the organisation wants to shed its isolation from the mainstream, after being abused and denigrated continuously by the “secular” mainstream in the country after 1947. Whether Bhagwat’s re-articulation of what the sangh now stands for is accepted by the half a million swayamsevaks who attend it shakas or not is another matter; what is important is that this articulation is significant and key to the mainstreaming of the sangh in Indian cultural consciousness.
Swapan Dasgupta, writing in The Times of India, had this to say: “Bhagwat has, in effect, tried to convert Hindu nationalism from being a contested ideological preoccupation to becoming India’s new common sense. Depending on how the message is digested by the RSS, BJP and society, India could well be on the cusp of defining an enlightened Hindu consensus.”
That is one way of looking at it; but it is equally possible that the sangh has noticed the rise of a new intellectual class among Hindus, who see Hindutva quite differently from the sangh, and are building the case for a stronger articulation of Hindu demands. It is no longer alone in its advocacy of Hindu causes. Barely days after Bhagwat finished talking about the sangh’s reformulated views, another group of Hindus – academics, religious leaders, authors, journalists, and public intellectuals – met in Delhi to formulate a new consensus on Hindu demands for equal treatment under the law, whether it is autonomy for religious and educational institutions, or foreign funding of conversions.
The RSS has usually shied away from associating itself with intellectuals, believing them to be fickle people obsessed with their own egos. In a sense it may have been right; but the new Hindu of the twenty-first century is shedding her old ambivalence towards her heritage and identity. Hindu intellectuals have developed their own sense of what needs articulation and how, and the RSS would do well to be part of this new consciousness.
However, one thing is clear: at a time when no one was willing to take up the Hindu cause, the sangh took it up, and despite earning nothing but brickbats for its efforts, it kept the bhagwa flying. For that, all Hindus owe is some debt of gratitude.