The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has been endlessly castigated for allegedly being a bigoted, 'Hindu-supremacist' organisation dedicated to erasing India’s Muslims and Christians, has undergone an ideological reset that few people are willing to give it credit for.
It is branded as an extremist Right-wing group by 'secular liberals' even as many of India’s newly-minted advocates of Hindu Rashtra and Hindutva see it as a namby-pamby outfit which does not know whether it is coming or going.
So, the recent statement by its Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, that there are no higher or lower castes, and all are equal, will be dismissed by both its traditional critics and those advocating a more unapologetic espousal of Hindu causes and interests.
Bhagwat has been by The Indian Express as saying the following on caste: “Whatever the name, ability, and honour of a person, everybody is the same and there are no differences…”.
His strongest denunciation of varna-jati based hierarchies was this: “What some pandits say on the basis of shastras is a lie. We are misled by caste superiority and this illusion has to be set aside.”
The traditionalists among Hindus may be unhappy with this statement, but this must be seen in the context of Bhagwat’s other statements made over the last few years.
The RSS also initially welcomed the Supreme Court verdict of 2018 allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala shrine, but when it realised that there was huge support for tradition in Kerala, including among women devotees of Swami Ayyappa.
On another occasion, Bhagwat said the .
He has also refused to take a negative view of the Congress party, even though Narendra Modi has spoken about a “Congress-mukt Bharat”.
Bhagwat said that he wanted to join people, not to make the country mukt of anyone. He has also assured Muslims that , even though they must abandon supremacist ideas.
Everyone tends to view the Sangh from his or her own ideological lens, but consider also what else the Sangh is linked to apart from the political party that rules at the Centre and some states of India.
One Sangh front is the country’s largest trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which can hardly be branded as a Right-leaning organisation.
It also backs the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which focuses on defending Hindu religious rights and the retrieval of the three holiest shrines of Hindus that were destroyed by Muslim rulers (ie, Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura).
It has organisations focused on education and tribal welfare, and backs a reconversion agenda for lapsed or converted Hindus with its Ghar Wapsi programme. Another front champions Swadeshi, which Gandhi would have approved of.
So, how exactly should one see the evolved Sangh? The following are my personal opinions based on my readings about the Sangh, and an analysis of the Sangh’s recent statements.
In the past, the Sangh has often been difficult to read, especially given its quaint military-style drills and uniformed shakha attendance, but it is more readable now.
First, the Sangh can broadly be characterised as an umbrella organisation for the 'Hindu Left', a secularised version of Hindu culture minus much of its religious trappings and symbolism. This is what allows it to take a non-traditional view of varna and jati, and unite society.
Second, even while noting the above, paradoxically, it is also trying to bridge the ideological gap between Hindu traditionalists and modernists, as the shift in its positions over Sabarimala showed.
Its religious front, the VHP, is both traditionalist in some areas (it has links to many akharas and sants and seers), and anti-casteist ideologically, though this is not emphasised too much.
The fact that it has not taken a strong view on state control of temples suggests that it wants society to become less casteist before the transition to private administration happens.
Third, it is also reaching out to Muslims and Christians based on Hindu cultural unity, but obviously with minimal success so far.
That could change as the polity moves towards greater acceptance of both Hindu centrality to India and an accommodation of minority religions.
One may guess that the only two things about Islam and Christianity that the Sangh would ultimately oppose are their emphasis on conversions and extraterritorial loyalties. At least on the second, the Sangh can quote Babasaheb Ambedkar with conviction.
In short, the Sangh is seeking an inclusive Hindutva that unites both conservative and liberal Hindus, and it is this Right-Left conglomerate that could be best placed to reach out to the minorities.
Whether it will succeed or not depends on India’s deracinated Left-liberal caucus which will lose all its power if this happens.
An international lobby will also be seeking to repeatedly de-legitimise the Sangh in the name of opposing 'majoritarianism'.
Despite its evolution, the Sangh has its work cut out. But one cannot but admire its ability to maintain discipline and tenacity of purpose over the last century - something ordinary Hindus have not shown a great capacity for.
It is capable of becoming the broad tent that India needs to unite culturally into a civilisational state.
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