What `The Men in the Tree, a documentary, reveals about the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.The Boy in the Branch
AS Kali, a young ex-swayamsewak (volunteer) from Nagpur, is asked `Who was Shivaji?' we see him straining with thought. His eyes reach into the recesses of his memory, trying desperately to dig up information on a name that seems dimly familiar. The film cuts to that moment eight years ago, when Kali, then a schoolgoing boy, is being told in his Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) shakha (branch) about Shivaji. The film cuts to his classroom in school where his teacher drones on in English about how Shivaji fought Muslim rulers on behalf of the oppressed Hindus. In the end, Kali is asked to answer a question by his teacher on what he has just heard. Clueless, Kali gets up and stares into space, pretending to think hard. Cut to the present, as the older Kali struggles hard yet again for that elusive answer. "I don't know," he says finally, "but I think he had something to do with the Shiv Sena."
Kali features in The Men in the Tree, a 98-minute documentary on the RSS by Lalit Vachani. If the title is a little confusing, that is because the film is a sequel to Boy in the Branch, a much shorter film made in 1992. The earlier film documented the activities of an RSS shakha in Nagpur, where the organisation has its headquarters. Vachani wanted to see how the RSS recruits and trains its young activists. The commentary tells us that he went to Nagpur expecting to see images of fascist indoctrination reminiscent of Nazi Germany. What he saw instead was so simple in its ingenuity that it was almost brilliant. Young boys came to the shakha and under the watchful eye of the shakha pramukh (branch leader), they played games. These games were the first step in an elaborate chain of RSS indoctrination. For instance, one game begins with the children shouting `Kashmir belongs to us!' Another, a name game, is interesting in how certain names from Indian history are included (Sardar Patel, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Rana Pratap, Gandhi, and so on), how some are excluded (Ashfaqullah Khan or Akbar), and how some names are juxtaposed with others (thus Gandhi would be followed by, say, Golwalkar). Through these games, the young boys acquire a sense of belonging to the collective of the RSS shakha even as their consciousness is systematically communalised. And it is through these games that the boys also acquire the other RSS traits: a sense of discipline, uncritical obedience and reverence of authority, and hatred of the enemy. The enemy as defined by the RSS, of course Muslims, Christians, Communists, whatever.
The crucial question obviously is how much of this indoctrination survives in the boys as they grow older. If we were to take Kali as a representative case, very little. Kali thinks that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was wrong, and he has a complete disregard for presumed historical rights and wrongs. Sadly, however, Kali is perhaps not the typical case. When Vachani returned to Nagpur in October 2000 to track down the boys who had formed the central characters of Boy in the Branch, he found that Kali attended the shakha for about two years, and then the shakha itself was wound up and he drifted away from Hindutva into the more benign occupation of running a small shop.
This was not the case with Sandeep, who sells ayurvedic medicines today, after having worked for six years as an RSS pracharak (full-time propagandist). Sandeep is charming, articulate and passionate in a quiet sort of way. His smile lights up his face. He never looks like someone who will go around murdering people and looting, unlike Shripad, who used to be the physical instructor in Kali's shakha. Shripad, a building contractor, looks like a goon, and talks like one. He tells us, eyes gleaming with pride and hatred, that he was among those who stood atop the dome of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 10 years earlier. Sandeep was not among those who razed the mosque to the ground. He was one of those, he tells us with his easy smile, who were manning the `base camp'. Different personalities, different styles; united, however, in a fierce allegiance to a fascist ideology.
Vachani also interviewed two former RSS members. Des Raj Goyal, author of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, talks in the film about his years in the RSS. The other `insider' testimony is provided by Purushottam Agarwal, who teaches at Jawarharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and who was a member of an RSS shakha in Gwalior for a couple of years as a child of 14. On several questions, their testimony is remarkably similar, though they were RSS members in different times and in different cities.
On the question of Gandhi, for instance, whatever it may claim in public, it is clear that the RSS has a seemingly dual, almost contradictory attitude. On the one hand they have a tremendous antipathy to the man. Thus Agarwal tells us that in his shakha they used to be told that if Gandhi is the Father of the Nation, he is the father of Pakistan, not India. On the other hand, though, there is also an attempt by the RSS to `co-opt' Gandhi. Thus, we see images of RSS comic books that show Gandhi saluting the RSS flag!
Yet, the duality of the RSS attitude towards Gandhi is clearly a front. Goyal recalls how in the late 1940s, as a young RSS activist, it was his duty to report Gandhi's speeches to his RSS bosses. But the young Goyal, relentlessly fed with abuse and slander for Gandhi, hated him so much that he listened to the speeches on the radio rather than seeing the man's face. The only day that he planned to go to Gandhi's prayer-meeting was on January 30, 1948, as there was the expectation that something big was going to happen. Just a few days earlier, a bomb had exploded at the venue of Gandhi's prayer meeting. When Goyal reached Birla House, he saw people running out of the gate. Gandhi had already been shot. Goyal was destined never to see the man's face.
This brings up the tricky question of Gandhi's assassination. The RSS was banned for a while after the event, even though the organisation itself claimed, as it does to date, that it had nothing to do with the act. Nathuram Godse was technically not a member of the RSS when he killed Gandhi. But he was a follower of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the ideological guru of the entire Hindutva brigade, including the RSS. In the film, Goyal says that while the RSS did not kill Gandhi, the work of Hindutva organisations created the ideological environment which made a Godse possible. Even so, Goyal considers the killing of Gandhi as the first step towards the creation of the Hindu Rashtra. The statement is significant. He does not single out the demolition of the Babri Masjid as the first step.
What this tells us is that the Hindutva forces work with the truly long run in mind. For instance, the RSS was quite happy even to dissolve the precursor of the BJP, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, when it was given the opportunity by Jayaprakash Narayan to enter the national political mainstream as part of the Janata Party. So the electoral or other fortunes of the BJP do not per se form the main concern of the RSS. The RSS project is about something much larger: the reshaping of the whole of Indian society along authoritarian, majoritarian lines. This would entail the dismantling of the very democratic set-up that has enabled the BJP to come to power in the first place. That is the real meaning of the Hindu Rashtra. The term Hindu Rashtra came into mainstream political consciousness relatively recently. In particular, Gujarat is being described, quite correctly, as the laboratory of the future Hindu Rashtra. Yet, the term itself is of course much older, and the point that Des Raj Goyal makes in the film is that Gandhi's killing, way back in 1948, was the first concrete step in that direction.
How the electoral performance of the BJP is only one amongst many concerns of the RSS, but certainly not the central one, is brought out by Sandeep when he is asked about the strength of the RSS. The shakha and the Parivar (family), he says without hesitation. The more the number of shakhas, the more the influence of the RSS over individual minds. And the more the different member-organisations of the Parivar grow, the more the areas where the RSS has an influence. And in mentioning the members of the Parivar, Sandeep is quite clear that the BJP is only one among them.
THIS is precisely what makes the film a frightening one. The RSS has a very long memory, and it works with the truly long run in view. And that is the reason why it targets, most of all, the young. The current Sarsanghachalak of the RSS, K.S. Sudarshan, told Vachani in 1992 that the RSS inducted children into the shakha because it was at that impressionable age that one could make a real difference to the child's life and leave him with ideas that he would carry around for the rest of his life. Sandeep is no longer a pracharak, he is a harmless looking seller of ayurvedic medicines; Shripad is no longer a physical instructor in the shakha, he is a not-so-harmless-looking building contractor; both, however, are Hindutva bigots for life. And though the film itself does not say this, it is quite clear that all communalism Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, whatever targets the minds of the young. The ingenuity of the RSS is that it does so by involving the child in play and recreation apart, of course, from running its own schools and educational establishments. And as the film shows, it also produces pop-history through its comic books, which are tremendously fascinating for young minds.
The strength of Vachani's film is that it lets the RSS do the talking and expose itself. Thus, for instance, Sandeep tells us how we have heard so far only the distorted, Marxist notion of history and therefore are not aware that Akbar was actually a lascivious man who did many unmentionable things with Hindu women at the Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Even more priceless is the footage Vachani has of RSS activists going on a house-to-house campaign in New Delhi, explaining what the organisation is all about. As a man opens the door of his house, the RSS activist begins: "We are from the RSS. We do not kill Muslims and Marxists". With footage like this, who needs commentary?
THE real lesson the film has, however, is that it underlines the stress the RSS places on organisation and discipline. Both Sandeep and Shirpad candidly share on camera their respective roles in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. What comes out clearly is the sheer level of organisation that went into staging that massive fascist spectacle. It was all neatly orchestrated and carefully calibrated. Everyone knew exactly what to do. The argument that the demolition was the `spontaneous' result of the mob going `out of hand' is rubbished by the testimonies by these two RSS activists in the film.
To quote Sandeep, `micro-level planning' went into the operation: kar sevaks went to Ayodhya in groups of five, each group had a leader, each group was given precise tasks on the fateful day. There was just no question of spontaneity. In the RSS scheme of things, organisation is as important as ideology. Clearly, the RSS understands that social change is only possible if led by an organised force. There is a lesson here for secular forces: organise, or perish.
It is for this reason that towards the end, the film is a little weak. After having underlined throughout how the RSS organises, claiming then, as both Agarwal and Goyal do, that it is basically a self-limiting phenomenon, that the essentially tolerant Hinduism of the masses or Gandhi's Hinduism for that matter will eventually assert itself is rather simplistic. Vachani's commentary tells us that the growth of RSS shakhas has reached a plateau. This is a claim that is virtually impossible to verify, given that the RSS has never made its membership records public. But even if it is true, clearly the RSS' influence in various fields is growing, and it has been able to infiltrate many areas of public life and the state apparatus. Gujarat, again, alerts us to the danger. Not only have the multitude of RSS fronts and maybe the RSS itself as well in the State registered a growth. It has also been able to win over sections of Dalits and Adivasis as its foot soldiers. What will defeat the RSS, as Gujarat clearly shows us, is not appeals to a tolerant religion, but an engagement with fascist ideology by a solid organisation that can resist and roll back the increasingly ferocious attack of Hindutva on our society, culture, and politics.
Vachani's film ends on a note of perhaps a little exaggerated hope. But this is a minor blemish in a film that is otherwise engrossing, disturbing and challenging, a must-see for all those fighting Hindutva fascism.
Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with the Jana Natya Manch and works as editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi.