PTH is grateful to the author, Gorki Sahib, who is our seasoned commentator for this contribution which has been made on request.
The recent electoral victory of the right wing BJP under its dynamic but controversial leader Narendra Modi generated quite a bit of interest but also a little misgiving in the wider world about the person of the Indian PM and his ideological moorings; the RSS. To its detractors the RSS is India’s version of a typical fascist organization while to its supporters it remains an organization of selfless nationalists and idealists committed to restoring ancient India’s lost glory.
The actual RSS (and its family) is neither, though it carries little shades of both.
In order to understand the RSS, a bit of background is necessary. Founded in 1925, the RSS was the by product of Nationalism as an idea which was alien to India before the advent of European colonials. Prior to that peoples and tribes came to India, some raided and left, others settled down and over time became one of its hundreds of local communities. The Europeans were different; they came as masters, lording over locals but in the name of a nation state located far away. It was a new and extremely humiliating experience worldwide, felt not only in India but by colonial subjects everywhere; Africa, Middle East, Far East, China etc. While each society came up with its own unique model of resistance, a common theme was that the subjects everywhere became self aware as- nations themselves and organized on national themes to resist colonial rule.
The RSS arose in India out of this phenomena, from a similar defensive response to colonial humiliation. In this aspect it was similar to the other nationalistic organizations, like the congress for example. But unlike the congress leadership which from the beginning understood that the nature of India was different, made up as it was from a composite of myriad communities, ethnicities and faiths, the RSS from its inception became enamored with the idea of a nation state in the exact replica of the European framework.
The problem was obvious. European nations were smaller, more homogenous entities, tied through bonds of not only ethnicity but language, region, religion and cultures. Compared to that, India was and remains a virtual Tower of Babel; myriad ethnicities, faiths, languages, subcultures and what not. As if that is not enough, there was also the pervasive caste system; little closed republics with completely separate bloodlines, sub traditions etc. In hindsight it is now obvious that the RSS quest of trying to fit the Indian ground realities within the European framework was like trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Undaunted though, the RSS ideologues chose to invent a ‘nation’ that they wished they had rather than the one they saw all abound them. Thus they parred down the definition of nation as one made of predominantly Hindus, in which the others; minorities like the Christians but especially the Muslims, were indeed others; people of other ‘nations’ living within a Hindu Rashtra. In this they adopted entirely the ideology of the European fascists although to their credit the RSS never advocated mass expulsion or extermination; like the brutal final solution of their European fascists role models.
It is still this world view that drives the RSS today, along with its allied organizations, the BJP, the Bajrang Dal etc, the Sangh Parivar. It’s public image has softened over time but at its core the RSS advocates the same form of Hindu nationalism, which seeks to establish India as a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation), and rejects the notion of a composite Indian identity brought about by a synthesis of different cultures and faiths. The RSS claims to be inclusive of all those who are racially and culturally Hindu and places outside of the nation all those who adhere to and identify with a different faith or ethos, thus establishing the idea of a Hindu Rashtra as an exclusive one where minorities are, at best, second class citizens. This particular ideology is variously called an ideology of Hindu pride, Hindu patriotism, Hindu fundamentalism, Hindu revivalism, Hindu chauvinism, Hindu fascism or Hindutva, depending on who controls the definition. What is beyond doubt is the exclusionary and discriminatory nature of the ideology.
Though the idea of all Indians as cultural Hindus is more inclusive, it is still problematic and sometimes has unintended consequences. For example, not everyone likes to be labelled as Hindus, no matter how noble the intentions behind that label. Sikhs as a minority are particularly allergic to this characterization and the Sikh separatism of the 1980s was partly rooted in the fear of this label and the fear of being eventually absorbed within a sea of Hinduism. Even earlier, a Sikh scholar, Bhai Kahan Singh, wrote a forceful disclaimer addressing that fear, in a pamphlet ‘Hum Hindu Nahin’ (we are not Hindus). It was later published as a book that remains popular among the Sikh radicals even today.
The second problem is that it is hard to check the extension of any introvert ideology and it is then a small step from cultural pride to cultural chauvinism. Thus if Indianness/Hinduness is a matter of pride, it’s opposite must be a matter of shame. Thus the more enthusiastic votaries of this ideology oppose everything non Indian regardless of merit whether it is celebration of a Valentine day or it is harmless disco dancing or it is valuable Christian missionaries activity of running schools in tribal areas. Others have taken it an even more extreme step forward in this perverse logic; if good Hindu means to be rooted in the soil then more rooted you are, the better (more pure) it must be. Thus it is no accident that the extreme Right Wing Mumbaikar Sainiks started railing and agitating against the Biharis in Mumbai as outsiders; unMumbaikars.
It gives one a pause to consider how ironic it is that a project that was started with a stated aim of national integration seems at times to be at risk for ending in national disintegration.
It gets worse.
Hindutva ideologists tacitly endorse the use of mob violence (or threat of it) as a political tool. Till date, no one of consequence from the Hindu right has condemned, without reservation the anti Muslim mob violence in the aftermath of Ayodhya and Godhara. This is extremely short sighted, especially for those who claim to have dedicated their lives for the sake of the nation for every time such violence goes unchallenged, it weakens the Indian National project since that violence is committed contravening Indian laws and the Indian constitution.
Every time mob ‘justice’ is sanctioned it creates a potential explosive force that can anytime be hijacked by demagogues for even more narrow goals. The end result is that state power shrinks in front of street thugs. These consequences are already becoming obvious.
You don’t like a certain movie director or actor; no problem, organize a group of ‘citizens’ with hurt feelings, break some cinema chairs, the movie will be banned. If you don’t like paying for a toll at the toll booth; again no problem, attack the poor booth vendors, burn a few buses, get a mob going and the state will be cowed down and ‘reconsider’ the toll tax.
The new Right wing never tire of flashing their nationalistic credentials yet at times their commitment to the nation seems secondary to their political affiliations. For example, Apologists never tire of saying that Modi was never found guilty for the Gujarat riots yet they ignore or are ignorant of the fact that absence of the proof is not the same as a proof of absence of guilt.
It is not enough that Modi has not been found guilty in the court of law of any direct wrong doing. It was under his watch that the power of the state was challenged; officers of the state stood by, as men, women and children; Indian children; were butchered in broad daylight; on Indian soil.
If that is not an assault on India then I don’t know what is.
The right Wing rejoiced when one Kasab was hanged; as he rightly should have been, yet hundreds of Kasabs still roam the streets and corridors of power in Gujarat; and the same patriots remain oblivious to that. It is this moral and judgemental lapse on the part of the Right wing, more than any terrorist from abroad or the Nuclear weapons in Pakistan’s or China’s arsenals that threatens to tear our national project apart.
On the other hand, all is not as bleak as some commentators pessimistically believe. India is indeed a composite culture that is inherently tolerant and not conducive to extreme ideologies in the long run. The RSS ideology has mellowed down and will continue to mellow as it discovers the burden of governance of a large and diverse country that is India.
I for one believe that even if it comes to be a close call, the civic Republic of India will survive because in the last sixty five odd years, secularism and civic citizenship has taken a root in India. No Hindu Right wing leader or ideologue has called for outright rejection of secularism as has happened in multiple nations in the Islamic world. At the most, the Right wing has called for substituting secularism for the ‘pseudo secularism’ of the Left which is a code word for its stand on three things:
1. The Universal civil code, 2. Article 370 and 3. Ayodhya.
The current BJP govt. has so far remained relatively quiet on all three but seeks to upturn the Muslim personal law; raise a debate on article 370 and has quietly acknowledge the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction on Ayodhya.
If it stays on that course, it would be a step forward for all concerned for in each instance it would be accepting constitutional methods over mob rule. OTOH if it rejects constitutional methods (and for its own sake I hope it does not) it will still not succeed but then would more likely self destruct, for it will then face a united might of the media, the judiciary and the entire center left opposition, a formidable combination. It will not be able to govern and will lose big in the next few election cycles. I suspect Modi and the RSS leadership knows that so they will not rock the boat.
There is a threat though and it is elsewhere and more insidious; that of benign neglect of the minorities, especially the Muslims. It doesn’t take a Sachar commission to conclude that Indian Muslims are a neglected and a vulnerable minority. As a group they are more poor, less educated and under represented everywhere than the rest. They live in ghettoes in many towns and often refused accommodation in upper class neighborhoods. The congress paid them lip service; and used them for sixty five years as a reliable vote bank. The fear is that the BJP and the RSS will not even bother with the lip service part and will try to sabotage and intimidate the community whenever it can.
One does not always have to resort to violence to cow down a vulnerable minority; only threat of violence often suffices. I still remember one particularly poignant bit of news that still brings a lump to my throat. Several years ago a newspaper carried a picture of a poor Muslim neighborhood of slum dwellings all prominently displaying an Indian tricolor. It seemed patriotic and heart warming enough till one realized that it was during an ongoing India Pakistan cricket series and it dawned on me (and pointed out by the newspaper) that the flags were put up to dispel any doubt whom the residents were rooting for lest mobs of nationalistic fans assumed otherwise and attacked the poor dwellers. For me, at that instance that picture signified how incomplete freedom was, for some in India.
The Sangh Parivar and the RSS today stands at a pinnacle of glory in India with its chosen apparatchik in the PMs chair with a clear parliamentary majority. How their leader chooses to govern a India will determine his and his party’s place in history.
Narendra Modi touched many hearts, including mine when he likened his service to the nation as a service to his mother during his maiden speech in the parliament. I hope that he and his supporters realize that their mother India has many, many more sons besides them.
Nehru once quoted Ashoka’s inscription at Sarnath in which Emperor Ashoka claimed to consider all his subjects as his children and their welfare as his duty. He then compared the inscription to similar sentiments expressed by Emperor Akbar in his biography. Nehru then marveled how two Emperors, one a Buddhist and another a Muslim, unknown to each other and separated by seventeen centuries could have expressed thoughts so similar. He then poetically conjectured that it was perhaps the voice of mother India herself who was speaking of tolerance and welfare through the mouths of ‘two of its greatest sons’.
Narendra Bhai Modi of the RSS Parivar now sits in the same role, as a leader of all Indians. If he and his supporters choose to speak and act in the spirit of the same Mother India, they may also go down in history as India’s great sons.
If they fail, either out of pettiness or pique, they may well put the entire Indian National project into question..