Critics of the RSS have to grow up – just as the organisation itself has. The Sangh of 2018 isn’t the Sangh of Hedgewar and Golwalkar, and that’s becoming clear with the views being espoused by the RSS publicly.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s three-day event in Delhi (16-18 September), which the main opposition parties have dissed and shunned, will probably be seen as a turning point in the organisation’s history. In fact, 2018 is effectively the organisation’s coming out party, where it has chosen to walk into the sunshine for ordinary Indians to see it like it really is. What we see may well be less frightening that what its opponents have been telling us about it.
Three factors are at work here.
One, Bhagwat himself has been talking more, and his lieutenants even more so. This has made it possible for citizens to hear what the RSS claims to stand for without filters getting in the way. At the three-day Bharat ka Bhavishya event in Delhi, Bhagwat not only praised the Congress for its role in the freedom struggle, he also made it clear that RSS is not anti-Muslim. This message may be tough to believe right now, given the continuous demonisation of the Sangh as a sectarian outfit since 1948, but the very fact that Bhagwat boldly asserted that Muslims are very much a part of India makes a huge difference.
He went further and underlined that the RSS concept of Hindu Rashtra and Hindutva includes Muslims. He said: “Hum kehte hain ki hamara Hindu rashtra hai. Hindu rashtra hai iska matlab isme Mussalman nahi chahiye, aisa bilkul nahi hota. Jis din ye kaha jayega that yahan Muslim nahi chahiye, us din vo Hindutva nahin rahega. (We say that ours is a Hindu rashtra. Hindu rashtra does not mean we don’t want Muslims. If it is ever said that we don’t want Muslims, it won’t be Hindutva – i.e., that Hindutva won’t remain.”) The RSS has always been claiming that its Hindutva is defined civilisationally and culturally, and not in religious terms. Bhagwat’s explanation should allay fears on this score.
Two, the very fact that the entire opposition continued to boycott Bhagwat shows where intolerance really lies. You don’t have to be a Sangh aficionado to talk to it, just as you don’t have to be a supporter of Kashmiri separatism to talk to the Hurriyat or Pakistan. Talking to someone and support for what they stand for are two different things. The opposition, by its boycott and churlish rejection of the Sangh’s proposed handshake, has exposed itself. More than the RSS’s “othering” of the minorities, it is the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposition’s “othering” of the Sangh that is the truly polarising fact in today’s India. Clearly, non-BJP parties are worried that recognising the RSS as dialogue-worthy will debunk their scare-mongering about the Sangh.
Third, at least two books – one by an RSS insider, Ratan Sharda (RSS 360, read here), and another by an insider-outsider combo (Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle in RSS: A View to The Inside), have shattered the myth that the organisation is stuck in the post-partition, anti-Muslim mode that marked the Guru Golwalkarian era. Andersen asserts that the RSS is changing in response to current realities, and it is no longer as Brahmanical as it once was. He told Firstpost in an interview: “The RSS has an increasing number of pracharaks from other backward castes (OBC), some are Dalits and they are trying to appoint Muslims too. The organisation is now so much bigger and is in transformation and is no more the Brahmanical group that it was. However, it has a Brahmanical orientation, as Christophe Jaffrelot points out, which the RSS won’t give up easily.”
The organisation has been trying to give up its social conservatism, as was evident from its stand on section 377 and homosexuality. Two years before the Supreme Court struck down the section, Dattatreya Hosabale, the organisation’s joint general secretary who may become the chief some years down the line, made this observation: “I don't think homosexuality should be considered a criminal offence as long as it does not affect the lives of others in society. Sexual preferences are private and personal.” While he then backtracked a bit and said gay marriage was not on, the point to note is the gradual modernisation of the thought process.
For too long, the world’s largest non-governmental organisation has been seen as secretive, furtive, and even subversive in its approach to India. The organisation’s self-effacing nature and unwillingness to communicate compounded the problem by making its mere presence on the soil of the country conspiratorial. To make things worse, its supposed “othering” of Muslims and other minorities made it seem sectarian and, thus, unacceptable to middle-of-the-road citizens.
The reality was always somewhere in between. The Sangh was neither as sectarian as its opponents liked to paint it, nor as simple and nationalistic as its supporters would like to believe. In short, in contains within itself all the contradictions that characterise any human organisation.
The fact that it is now speaking coherently, and to the public at large, means that its opponents can no longer easily push it back into the cubbyhole of sectarianism. Quoting Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts and We, Our Nationhood Defined to show that the Sangh is “fascist” makes no sense today since the organisation has metamorphosed into something different from what it was earlier. The left may still revere mass murderers like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, but one can hardly call the Communist Party of India (Marxists) or Communist Party of India (though not the Maoists) as parties entirely in the Stalinist mould.
Year 2018 is one in which the Sangh has chosen to take its views directly to the public, over the heads of interpreters and misinterpreters. Its critics have to grow up – just as the organisation itself has. The Sangh of 2018 isn’t the Sangh of Hedgewar and Golwalkar.