RSS Conclave: Attempt to put old Wine in a new Bottle?

This Conclave and the notion that RSS is changing has got wide attention from all quarters and created wild speculation but this is not the first time RSS has tried to portray change....

RSS Conclave: Attempt to put old Wine in a new Bottle?

Neha Dabhade

Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of RSS, addressed the three day conclave Bhavishya Bharat Ka: A RSS Perspective recently between 17th to 19th September, 2018. The RSS invited eminent citizens from all walks of life including opposition party leaders, actors, writers, industrialists etc in its attempt to reach out to them with RSS’ vision of India. At the Conclave, Mohan Bhagwat propounded certain ideas and views about RSS that seemed quite contrary to their age old stated positions and practices. Many scholars and writers have analyzed if this volte-face is a genuine change of heart or merely a public relation activity to repackage and present Hindutva ideas in a way acceptable and palatable to all in order to co-opt all the criticism and opposition. This article explores the core ideas of RSS and examines the ramifications of Bhagwat’s statements on these ideas and change thereof if any.

To begin with, let us look at some of the significant statements given by Bhagwat. Firstly he said that RSS respected the Indian Constitution as also the preamble of the Constitution. Secondly he surprised everyone by stating that Muslims were not unwanted in India and Hindutva is inclusive towards Muslims. Amongst the other things, Bhagwat expressed that RSS was not opposed to reservations and also it was not controlling BJP, the ruling party.

This Conclave and the notion that RSS is changing has got wide attention from all quarters and created wild speculation but this is not the first time RSS has tried to portray change. RSS has been steadily over the years diluting its ideas to meet the exigencies of the given time. It will be wrong to assume that it is stuck in the warp of time repeating its crude and fundamental ideas without taking into account the political and social necessities and contextualizing its ideas to remain relevant. With changing times and its own agenda, RSS has also publicly denounced some of its earlier stands in the past.

These changes can be understood by revisiting the positions of RSS in three different phases. The first phase is from the formation of RSS in 1925 to the independence of India from the British colonial rule. It is widely known in the public domain that the RSS was a Hindu elitist organization formed by the privileged upper caste males. Their raison d’etre was establishing of a Hindu Rashtra- an authoritarian hyper-nationalist nation with the hegemony of upper caste Hindu males. The ideas of RSS were opposed to the ideals of the freedom struggle namely those of inclusion, end of exploitation of the poor landless labourers and farmers, social equality in terms of caste and gender, Hindu- Muslim unity, liberty and fraternity as propounded by Nehru, Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and other leaders of the freedom struggle. The foundation of RSS was based on hatred and exclusion of Muslims, Christians and other minorities. As per Golwalkar, Muslims and Christians were internal threat to the nation and therefore enemy of the nation as enunciated in his Bunch of Thoughts. Similarly, Savarkar in more details explained the Hindus are the rightful citizens of India. According to him Hindu is who regards India as his ‘fatherland’ as well as his ‘holy land’. Savarkar held that the followers of ‘Vaidicism, Sanatanism, Jainism, Buddhism, Lingaitism, Sikhism, the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, the Dev Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj and such other religions of Hindusthani origin’, were Hindus and constituted ‘Hindudom’.  Savarkar opined that the Indian Muslims, Christians, Jews, Parsees were excluded from the right to claim themselves as Hindus, in spite of India being their ‘Fatherland’. Thus he implied they were second class citizens who will always be subordinate to the “Hindus” and have no privileges if they want to continue living in India. This was the cornerstone of Hindutva. Given such positions, RSS was not involved in the freedom struggle and in fact aligned itself with the British and the princely class as well as the zamindars to block any attempts at political or social reforms since they wanted to uphold the privileges and power of the upper castes.

The second phase of RSS is from after independence to 2014 when the BJP came to power at the centre. After the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 RSS was temporarily banned. This fettered some of its activities at least openly. Similar was the case during emergency when it was banned for the second time. In this phase, due to surveillance of the State and also not having political power to back its agenda, RSS was compelled to pursue its agenda in a covert and hidden manner. Thus given the prevalent public discourse and the exigency to keep itself relevant it had to reach out to larger sections of the society to broad base itself. This also explains the mushrooming of a number of affiliate organizations over the years like Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, Rashtra Sevika Samiti, Rashtriya Muslim Manch - taking in its fold a multitude of interests, sometimes conflicting and irreconcilable. It positioned itself from an organization of petty traders’ earlier opposing capitalists to now an organization of crony capitalists- and whatever other hues between these two ends in the range.

Another way the RSS pushed its agenda was by polarizing the communities through fear psychosis and communal violence. The RSS through its shakhas, literature, social outreach programs and having trained cadres in various institutions propagated the myth that minorities and especially the Muslims were “outsiders”, anti-national, beef eaters and terrorists. By popularizing the myth that the Muslim population in India is growing at a rapid rate, they created the fear that Muslim population will overtake the Hindu population and Hindus will be thus subjugated by the Muslims! Such fears vitiated the atmosphere to make it conducive to manufacture communal riots as pointed out by various enquiry commissions. RSS is indicted in many major riots in India. Violence was carried out by fronts like Bajrang Dal and other similar organizations which militarized youth mostly from poorer sections and lower castes giving them a sense of acceptance and identity within the Hindu fold. RSS was now a cultural organization pursuing a cultural agenda.

Politically too, RSS conceived India as a modern nation-state. In its conception, India is a homogeneous monolith with one language, one religion, one culture and one dominant identity, that of Hindu as indicated by Mohan Bhagwat. Though RSS emphasizes on “Hindu culture”, it doesn’t necessarily mean adherence to Hinduism or Hindu religion- the idea of Hindu culture is political. But it has reinvented some imagery of the religious symbols to fit the framework of nation-state and justify its hyper nationalism bordering jingoism. For example, in a religious narrative, Ram is famously viewed as maryadapurushottam and also always related with Sita, his wife. Thus, the popular epithet of “Jai Siya Ram” which includes the mention of Sita in the same breath as Ram. However in the politically narrative of RSS, Ram takes on a masculine warrior imagery replete with a bow and arrow signifying a militant state where men are bestowed with the duty to defend and protect the state. “Jai shri Ram” replaced “Jai Siya Ram” in the public discourse overtime. While economically and politically, RSS might have diluted its ideals, culturally it has been unyielding and uncompromising- its ultimate goal to have a cultural state in the form of Hindu Rashtra.

The third phase of RSS is where it is backed by political power in the form of BJP to which RSS is the ideological parent organization. In this phase, the RSS can openly pursue its agenda and legitimize its ideas. The Conclave should be seen in this light. It was an opportunity to reach out to the liberal who bitterly oppose the ideas of the RSS and economic right which though stands to benefit from the economic policies of the RSS; can’t acquiesce the bloodlust unleashed by the RSS in a systemic way which makes it so diabolic. In order to pursue the agenda of Hindu Rashtra, RSS has to have spread the cultural agenda which will prove as a fertile ground for the authoritarian state to take roots. Mr. Bhagwat was seen panning out this cultural agenda at the Conclave. And those ideas merely were reworded to sound liberal and acceptable to the larger sections to co-opt detraction.

In this phase, the core ideas that RSS will not give up as suggested by Bhagwat during the Conclave are the following:

Caste Hierarchy:

RSS essentially upholds and perpetuates the supremacy, power and privileges of Hindu upper caste males in India. This hegemony located on the axis of religion, caste and gender is the agenda to be achieved in the state. Though RSS has grudgingly conceded that untouchability is a wrong practice and finds no place in modern India, RSS has never criticized the caste system itself. In order to reduce the fissures in its envisaged ‘unified Hindu society’, the RSS goes to the extent of occasional inter-dining or praising Ambedkar but Ambedkar’s solution of total annihilation of caste is still not acceptable to RSS. The RSS on several occasions have demanded the observance of the Manusmriti and gone as far as saying that it should form the basis of laws in India. It is well known that the Manusmriti accorded the lowest and most inhumane status to the Dalits and prescribed harsh punishments for them.

RSS, given the opposition it faces on issues like cow vigilantism, Rohith Vemula and manual scavenging where Dalit politics is becoming more assertive and making electoral contestations more multi-pronged in favor of better representation to the Dalits, is attempting to subsume caste identities in a broader nationalistic and religious framework. This leaves the caste system itself unchallenged and undisturbed. While the culture of the upper caste with all its values will continue and remain dominant in the cultural state, Dalits will be imbibed with the narrative that they are a part of the Hindu fold. And it is to an extent necessary too because they have to collectively fend off the common enemy that is the Muslim. Upper castes as opposed to the Dalits have traditionally also been economically dominant given their hegemony and access to resources and powerful positions. The RSS in the cultural state wants to perpetuate the nexus of shetji-bhatji or of the upper caste (bhatji) and capitalists (shetji) in a more legitimate and sophisticated manner.

Gender inequality:

Equally vicious is the approach towards women. RSS and indeed Mohan Bhagwat have also laid emphasis on women’s roles as primarily that of wives and mothers. Some of its leaders call upon Hindu women to produce four children for the nation and Mohan Bhagwat himself stated that wives can be disowned by their husbands if they don’t fulfill their duties as marriages are contracts! RSS has viewed women as inferior to men and devoid of any agency or choice. They are to reproduce children and value systems of Hindutva in the Hindu Rashtra. Thus killings over inter caste marriages and also women being victimized during incidents of moral policing which frowns upon her friendship or marriage with Muslim men are not surprising. While Mr. Bhagwat was claiming that women should be treated as goddesses and the country cannot progress without them, young women from Meerut were being beaten up by police for being in the company of Muslim youth or “choosing a Muslim partner”. This speaks volume on the views of RSS on women and their status in a Hindu Rashtra. 

Muslim question:

Though Mr. Bhagwat didn’t say anything new about Muslims not being unwanted in India as the Constitution gives them an equal right and status in India, this is a shift from what Golwalkar wrote in his Bunch of Thoughts. Upon pointing out this contradiction, Mr. Bhagwat claimed that RSS will only hold on to things that are relevant today from Golwalkar’s writings and revisit them. However, if carefully read, what Bhagwat actually states is that Muslims are wanted in India only so long as they toe the line of Hindutva and accept the supremacy of Hindu culture. If the Muslims accept their inferior status they can continue living in India as secured second class citizens with no privileges as Golwalkar propounded.

As juxtaposed with mere words, the actions of RSS give away the real intent. The RSS supports cow vigilantism and in spite of the several deaths of innocent citizens by “gaurakshaks” has still maintained that cow should be protected. Similarly, there is regular despicable condemnable violence against Muslim and Hindu youth who are in a relationship or suspected to be in relationship. This robs the youth of their agency and stigmatizes the Muslim youth in particular under the malicious campaign of “love jihad”. Mr. Bhagwat still maintained during the Conclave that construction of Ram Mandir at the disputed site “would end the tensions between the Muslims and Hindus”, in effect imposing this condition for peace and acceptance of Muslims in India. This clearly demonstrates that Mr. Bhagwat’s idea of diversity and inclusion is rather flawed. They come with riders and conditions to be part of India.

New found love for Diversity:

Further his idea that every one living in India is Hindu is deeply problematic and gives away his understanding of inclusiveness and other lofty ideals that constitute the Hindu Rashtra, the cultural state. India is rich with diversities in terms of religions, languages, ethnicity etc. Such statement of Mr. Bhagwat undermines and negates all this diversity by appropriating all identities under the umbrella “Hindu” identity. As so long as the minorities, Dalits, adivasis are ready to give up their false consciousness and accept this omnipresent and hegemonic identity they will find place in India. This again is the essence of the cultural state that RSS envisions and will not give up. To enforce this “Hindu culture” throughout the country without opposition, RSS requires the state institutions and machinery. This explains the steady but stark dismantling of the democratic institutions.

Thus the Conclave was an exercise to make people internalize this cultural agenda which privileges the upper caste Hindu male and homogenizes all identity as Hindu without challenging the existing structures of inequality and negates diversities which will ultimately facilitate acceptance of an authoritarian state. What the RSS had to do in a covert hidden manner for so many years when it didn’t have power, it can do it today in the plush Vigyan Bhavan and seek to legitimize its hate filled ideas with a liberal gloss.

(Secular Perspective October 1-15, 2018)

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism

Mumbai

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