The RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. Tranquebar. Rs 598. 449 Pages.
At the outset, let me say the book The RSS Icons of the Indian Right is a ‘delightful’ read. If there is one book that you have to read to understand how the establishment media plays the conjurer’s trick to negatively stereotype the so-called ‘Hindu Right’ or more correctly, ‘Hindutva’, then your journey ends here. The book features 11 leaders — starting from Keshav Baliram Hedgewar to Bal Thackeray with the only woman leader being Vijaya Raje Scindia.
The book takes extraordinary care to present itself as neutral, and for a lay reader, it even may look sympathetic, patronisingly sympathetic, to the ‘right wing’. But it leaves the readers with the feeling that the ‘Indian Right’ is a movement spearheaded by deeply flawed, deficient individuals, who are obsessively attached to their mothers, are averse to women and the feminine body, harbour hatred for Muslims who they think are threateningly virile, and are essentially anti-modern and anti-democratic.
In his ‘author’s note’ Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay thanks Dilip Deodhar, who has gained popularity in the media for being a long-time ‘RSS observer’. Incidentally, this observer predicted that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi and the RSS were going to make a big push for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya before the 2019 elections — which was proven wrong.
Primarily, Deodhar, and then Sanjeev Kelkar (Lost Years of the RSS, 2011) seem to be Mukhopadhyay’s major ‘inside’ sources. In fact, he thanks Deodhar for introducing him to many Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionaries, who have to remain anonymous because, he adds ominously, they are still in the RSS. He even has recorded conversations with them, though no one knows if the recordings were done with their consent or not. If the conversations were recorded with their permission, then there should be no problem in revealing their names, otherwise the author comes out as unethical.
Delving deeper into the book, let us take a few instances of how the Hindutva leaders are portrayed.
Dr Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, belonged to a circle of revolutionaries during his student days at National Medical College, Calcutta. The repressive Bengal Medical Act 1914 effectively debarred those who had studied Indian systems of medicine from using the title ‘doctor’ even if they had passed ‘Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery’ (LCM). Dr Hedgewar organised protests against this with the help of the Indian media. The way Mukhopadhyay describes this agitation is interesting:
It is the style of Mukhopadhyay to place within single inverted quotes whatever he does not conceptually agree with. For example, when writing about the reconversion of Hindus forcibly converted to Islam during the Moplah pogroms, he terms shuddhi as conversion of ‘Muslims (who were ‘originally’ Hindus)’.
Now contrast the above paragraph with a passage dealing with the same episode from a more properly referenced biography of Dr Hedgewar:
Note that the agitations were conducted in real venues and in real time. Also note that it was Dr Hedgewar, who created through the pro-Swaraj press the atmosphere needed for agitation. In fact, he actually tapped into or added strength to a larger movement of native physicians protesting against the non-recognition of traditional knowledge system by the ruling colonial authorities.
In any other leader’s context, this would be treated as a great strategy and a precursor to the concept of supporting traditional knowledge systems, which would later emerge as an important component in the worldview of not only the BJP but also ecologists and ethno-botanists worldwide. But, when it is Dr Hedgewar, the need is to portray him in as many negative shades as possible.
As expected, the author does not hesitate to say that Dr B S Moonje was influenced by Fascist organisations during his visit to Italy. In fact, Dr Moonje visited not only Italy but also France and England, where he underwent military training that was being given to the youth. He wanted to counter the discriminatory ‘martial castes/tribes’ system of classification used by the British in India by citing the examples of military training being given to students from all walks of life.
When it comes to M S Golwalkar, again the usual calumny (based on We or Our Nationhood Defined) is repeated. Mukhopadhyay delves deep into the authorship controversy between G D Savarkar and Golwalkar. Of course, a book on the RSS and Hindutva ritualistically demands the reproduction of those most misquoted passages from We or Our Nationhood Defined, and Mukhopadhyay duly quotes them with the endorsement of comrade Sitaram Yechury, no less.
One would expect that a book in 2019, purporting to be an in-depth presentation of the sangh, to at least critically analyse another work that places the sangh in its proper historical context. This would be the Indologist, Dr Koenraad Elst’s essay “Disowning Golwalkar’s We” in Return of the Swastika (2007, pp.230-59). Not that the writer does not know. There is a reference to Dr Elst when he points out the intemperate language of the original version. But then it is comrade Yechury, who has the last word.
The important point is that Golwalkar did not praise Germany. In fact, he considers the racial spirit of Germany as ‘depredatory’ as against the Indian spirit which is filled with ‘serene majesty’. The misquote mischief indulged in here by the likes of Shamsul Islam of Delhi University to Yechury and Mukhopadhyay is in the wordplay: “Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races — the Jews” against our present knowledge of what Germany did to the Jews. Dr Elst points out after a thorough analysis of the historical context:
What is interesting here is that in the pre-Partition context, the Muslim League was using the Sudetenland model to demand Pakistan. Professor Beni Prasad, a historian, and definitely not a Hindutva supporter, in his seminal work on Hindu-Muslim relations pointed out that all the claims made by the Sudeten Germans “in 1936-38 found their counterpart in the resolutions of the Muslim League in 1939-41”. Even identical phrases were used.
Despite the fact that the book was stopped from being published after 1947 and it was not part of the widely used Bunch of Thoughts, the leftist academia and establishment media resurrected the book to attack the sangh. Soon, every academic work on sangh had to use these select lines from ‘We…’.
In 2006, the sangh officially announced that it did not accept the book. Despite all these facts, Mukhopadhyay claims not once, but twice, that the book is still important for the RSS: “…the book is regarded as seminal work by the RSS,” and then again in the next page, after quoting the controversial lines he says that it remains the “official line of the RSS and its affiliated organizations”.
With regard to the views of Mahatma Gandhi on the RSS, he elaborates them in two places. The first instance is when Gandhi visited an RSS camp in 1934. For this event, he reproduces an entire passage from Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags (Tapan Basu et al, Orient Blackswan, 1993). In both, 1993 and 2019, the authors, after stating that Gandhi was non-committal regarding the RSS in 1934, point out that a decade later in 1946, he was unequivocal in his condemnation of it. In both, it is emphasised that when a Congress leader praised the sangh for their dedicated work in a transit refugee camp, Gandhi cautioned him by comparing the sangh to the Nazis and Fascists. The original reference here is the work Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, compiled by Gandhi’s secretary, Pyarelal, published after Gandhi’s assassination (1956, Vol 2, pp 440).
However, in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, a chronological documentation of Gandhi’s writings, lectures and interactions, the picture we get is different. When reporting this speech that happened in September of 1947, when Gandhi himself spoke at the RSS rally, Mukhopadhyay becomes creatively economical with truth. He adds his own commentaries between selected quotes from Gandhi’s lecture. So, if Gandhi told the assembled RSS men how their guru had told him that sangh did not believe in aggression, Mukhopadhyay adds that it remains unsubstantiated if Gandhi “believed these assumptions”. And for this, the reference is The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and The Partition of India by Nandita Bhavani published in 2014.
In fact, volume 96 of Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi has a clear report and content of the related speeches of Gandhi: one — the speech at a prayer meeting on 12-9-1947 (pp 361-5) and the second the report of his speech at RSS rally on 16-9-1947, sourced in turn from report in Harijan dated 28-9-1947 and the subsequent question answer session reported by Pyarelal (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, pp 380-2).
In this prayer meeting, Gandhi spoke about the agony and pain of Hindus and Sikhs fleeing Lahore. He had also stated, “If the Hindus and the Sikhs say that they would take revenge on the local Muslims because the Hindus and the Sikhs in Pakistan are in trouble, they have been destroyed there and have fled leaving their property worth millions, it will be sheer barbarism”. He appealed “to the Muslims that they should open-heartedly declare that they belong to India and are loyal to the Union”. He wanted the Indian Muslims “to tell the Muslims in Pakistan who have become the enemies of the Hindus, not to go mad”. Such loyal Muslims nobody can touch, he said. Then, he went on:
“The Muslims wanted Pakistan and they have got it. Why are they fighting now and with whom are they fighting? Because they have taken Pakistan, do they want the whole of India too? That will never happen. Why are they killing the weak Hindus and the Sikhs?”
It was at the end of this speech that Gandhi spoke about his meeting with Golwalkar. Golwalkar had assured Gandhi that his organisation was not a violent one. All it wanted to do was to protect Hindustan to the best of its ability. It stood for peace. He had asked Gandhi to make his views public and clearly Gandhi had obliged him. There is no indication whatsoever in this that he did not trust the sangh.
More important was his speech at the RSS rally that happened four days after this prayer speech. Mukhopadhyay highlights that part of the speech in which Gandhi extolled the inclusiveness of Hinduism and spoke of an inclusive India, where Hindus and Muslims had to live together. These, Mukhopadhyay says, are “the not-so-subtle messages he sent out to the RSS regarding its worldview”.
However, Mukhopadhyay leaves out one important aspect here. The report in Harijan says:
Then Gandhiji warned the cadre that “in order to be truly useful, self-sacrifice had to be combined with purity of motive and true knowledge” and that “sacrifice without these two had been known to prove ruinous to society”. He further stated in the course of his speech that sangh was a well-organised, well-disciplined body. Its strength could be used in the interest of India or against it. He was unsure about the allegations made against the sangh and thought that the cadre should “show by their uniform behaviour that the allegations were baseless”.
One would have definitely expected an objective scholar of the sangh even from a critical perspective to point out the observation that impressed Gandhi — the absence of untouchability in its camp. But when ideological vested interests take precedence over pursuit of knowledge what we have is distorted truth and propaganda.
Thus, throughout the book one can go on pointing out subtle manipulations, clever distortions, selective presentation of facts and then of course, the writer’s own prejudices.
For example, when talking about the founders of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Swami Chinmayananda, one of the founders, is described by our author thus — “a Keralite journalist-turned-guru who was later touted to be the first ‘exporter’ of Yoga to the West”. So much prejudice and ignorance in one sentence. Chinamayananda left his studies to join the freedom movement, was jailed, and then after finishing his studies, joined National Herald. In 1949, he left for his spiritual quest. Chinmayananda was known for his lectures on Advaitic Vedanta and not as an ‘exporter’ of yoga as claimed. But note the words ‘touted as’ and note the enclosing of ‘exporter’ within the inverted commas. Mukhopadyay uses every possible opportunity he thinks he has to prejudice the reader but alas, it is his own ignorance that fails him.
Going through the book, one fails to find any mention or even a critical analysis of the RSS’ help to government during the Chinese aggression. During the 1962 conflict, Golwalkar ceased all criticisms of Jawaharlal Nehru in the sangh and Jan Sangh circles — which created much friction among some eminent Hindutva intellectuals. Golwalkar quoted Mahabharata, “Wayam Panchatikam Shatam” (We are a hundred and a five). This made Nehru government invite the RSS for the Republic Day parade in 1963. This was an important step in the RSS gaining goodwill in the society, after they were made to carry the Mahatma Gandhi assassination label. Mukhopadyay simply leaves this out, and it doesn’t end there.
When discussing the manifestly progressive ideas of Balasaheb Deoras, the third head of the RSS, he states: “In sharp contrast to Deoras’ view of removing caste discrimination in Hindu society, his predecessor M.S. Golwalkar had remained unconcerned about it throughout his tenure as sarsanghachalak”.
What is the truth? His reference sources on Golwalkar show that Mukhopadhyay had made an exhaustive use of the biography of Golwalkar by C P Bhishikar. He had made more than 26 references to this book. In this very book, we find that Golwalkar lauds Dr B R Ambedkar as the fulfillment of Vivekananda’s vision of “the razor-like intelligence of a Shri Sankaracharya and the limitless compassion of a Bhagwan Buddha” and points out that Dr Ambedkar “quite pungently though in the political and social context” had done what Vivekananda also did, which was “condemned the atrocious practices associated with untouchability and called for the building up of a harmonious society”. He wrote, “our nation is deeply indebted to Dr. Ambedkar, and it is difficult to discharge this debt” and lauded the Buddhist principles of “equality and compassion” as necessary “for the good of the nation as also of mankind”.
It did not stop with a laudatory essay on Dr Ambedkar. His name was included in the morning prayer of the RSS as well. More importantly, it was the impetus given by Dr Ambedkar through Dattopant Thengadi that Golwalkar attained “the happiest moment of his life”. And yet, we find all this curiously missing in Mukhopadyay’s narrative. Dr Ambedkar had told young Thengadi that though the RSS was against untouchability with the religious authorities like Shankaracharyas endorsing it, the RSS would be powerless to change the Hindu society. Thengadi had reported this to Golwalkar. Soon, Golwalkar would take up an extraordinary endeavour, which his close colleagues later reminisced as the happiest moment in the 33 years of him being the RSS head.
In 1969, at Udupi, Golwalkar brought the traditional Hindu spiritual leaders, including the Shankaracharyas, together on the dais of the VHP. The session itself was presided over not by any seer but by a retired India Administrative Services officer, R Bharaniah, who belonged to the Scheduled Castes community. He passed the resolution which appealed to all Hindus to abandon untouchability and caste discrimination, and declared that they have no scriptural sanction in Hinduism. All the Hindu seers present raised their hands and endorsed the resolution. C P Bhishikar states that it was the passing of this “resolution unanimously and supported by all the four Jagadguru Shankaracharyas, declaring that there was no justification for untouchability or any kind of high or low” which was considered as the happiest moment in the life of Golwalkar. And Mukhopadyay, who uses this very book as a major reference source on Golwalkar, not only does not mention this crucial event but states that Golwalkar was not concerned about the problems of caste and untouchability.
The same tricks are used against Savarkar as well. In one instance, Mukhopadhyay claims on the authority of a Hindu-phobic academic, Lise McKean (1996) that Savarkar, after his return from Andaman, “completely excluded his wife from public life”. In 1930, Savarkar’s wife, Yamunabai (Mai), chaired a public meeting of women at the Vithal Mandir in Ratnagiri to propagate swadeshi, informs history enthusiast Ratnakar Sadasyula. It was attended by scheduled community women as well. In 1932, she took part in the inter-community dining of women organised in Ratnagiri, on the occasion of the visit of the Satyashodak leader Madhavrao Bagal. Apart from this, she also attended social functions in which she was honoured.
While McKean alleges in her book that Savarkar had blamed women for the premature outburst of 1857 rebellion and hence its subsequent failure, Mukhopadyay adds his own flourish:
“On the one hand, he praised women like Rani Lakshmibai, because of her valour and indomitable spirit. Yet, he blamed her and other women who participated in the First War of Independence for acting prematurely in Meerut, resulting in the failure of 1857”.
What Savarkar actually wrote is something completely different. The sequence of events in Meerut started on 9 May 1857, when 85 Indian soldiers were punished for refusing to use the new cartridges. They were handcuffed and sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment. The remaining sepoys already knew that there was a coordinated attack being planned for 31 May. However, the sight of their compatriots being handcuffed and humiliated infuriated them. Along with that came the taunting of women and children for not reacting.
“It is true that the spirited and patriotic women of the Meerut bazaars, who taunted the soldiers and goaded them on to release their comrades, have added one more honourable episode to our history. But the Meerut Sepoys, by their rising, unconsciously put their brethren in unforeseen confusion by warning the enemy beforehand!”
It takes a great deal of convoluted logic to project this as Savarkar blaming the women for the premature eruption of rebellion in Meerut. Rani Lakshmibai was unrelated to the early rebellion at Meerut. At least McKean had read what Savarkar wrote and distorted it. But it seems Mukhopadyay had simply repeated McKean adding his own distortion without reading the original.
In fact, Savarkar praises Lakshmibai and another woman he mentions, though not praising her as much, was Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh. In describing both their administrative capacities and vision, there is a consistency in the narrative of Savarkar. In the case of Rani Lakshmibai, he writes:
“So far so good; but once having shocked Sir Hugh Rose and disheartened him, woe betide him who listened not to the words of Ranee Lakshmi Bai! All other functions but the one great function of war must be stopped. But ... the intoxication of the Revolutionaries would make them blind to the necessity of keeping the army in complete readiness.”
With respect to Begum of Awadh, he writes:
“This Begum of Oudh, though not quite another Lakshmi Bai, was undoubtedly a great organiser, full of love of liberty and the spirit of daring. ...Though the Begum of Oudh was the chief authority in the palace, it seemed that even her able efforts could not succeed in uniting and concentrating the Revolutionaries, Rajas, and Maharajas; internal disorganisation and carelessness had rendered useless many fine opportunities of destroying the handful of the British army by a good determined charge. ... That the resolute, daring, and capable Begum still maintained, in spite of all these disorders, the whole administration intact is a sure indication of her unequalled grit.”
In other words, according to Savarkar, had the rebel soldiers and other leaders (mostly male) heeded the advice and acted in a disciplined manner as required by the Rani and Begum, the revolution would have succeeded.
That is exactly opposite to what Mukhopadyay had suggested.
To cut the long story short, this book is delightful because and only because it is a guide unto the mind and methodology of an establishment writer and to the extent to which he can distort facts to demonise Hindutva as deficient and deeply flawed. Though, in the end, the deep flaw and deficiency that get revealed is not in Hindutva but in the writer. The great Tamil poet, Subramanya Bharathi wrote, “an educated person indulging in deceit, alas oh alas, doomed is he”. When you finish the book the overwhelming feeling is similar to that conveyed in the lines of Bharathi. And yes, a last word of caution to those in the RSS, who allow people like Mukhopadhyay take recorded interviews. The RSS should develop protocols to make sure that they too have the recordings and their versions.
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