The slow, steady march of Hindutva in South India

From Kerala to Telangana, the RSS plays the long game. As it challenges the notion of a secular South, local parties struggle to respond effectively.

Published : Jul 06, 2024 16:29 IST - 8 MINS READ

Members of the RSS training before a rally at Korattur in Chennai in April 2023. 

Members of the RSS training before a rally at Korattur in Chennai in April 2023.  | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B.

Understanding south India in the past few decades has been guided by the imagined utopia of its political progressiveness. A comparison with north India withstanding, which is faulty considering how the regions are culturally very different, the argument still pits the north to be a better example of representative government, as the 1990s will show. A coalition of lowered castes steered by Ambedkarite ideology resulted in the first Dalit woman Chief Minister in the country, a feat none of the southern States can boast of yet. A similar feat was accomplished in 2024, when the BJP was ousted in five out of nine Lok Sabha seats in the Ayodhya region of Uttar Pradesh, the very site of the communal theatrics that defines the BJP today. If this has to be read as a rejection of the BJP and its communal politics, then it brings us to the crucial question of what the response of the south has been to the BJP’s methods, primary to which is keeping communal polarisation in the foreground and caste assimilation in the background.

While evaluating the electoral shifts in Telangana, placing Karnataka on a parallel track would be a good exercise.

Many believe the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been active in Karnataka for longer than in the other southern States to carry out its experimentation, but this is not completely true. The RSS has been trying to gain a foothold in all regions, a strategy envisioned by its founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. Although people associate Hedgewar with Maharashtra where he grew up, few know that he is actually a Telugu Brahmin. In the archives where one can find the instructions that he gave his cadre working on expanding the RSS, foremost is to learn the language of the region, which includes languages spoken in the south. The RSS workers were sent in all directions with the intention of gaining access to communities—especially the Brahmin communities—who would find quick common ground with the ideas espoused by the RSS founder.

Also Read | How fake news, propaganda, and big money power BJP’s Tamil Nadu strategy

In the case of Karnataka, one of the routes the RSS took was via the former Madras Presidency. An RSS worker by the name of Dadarao Parmarth was deputed there in the 1930s. Sanjeeva Kamath, a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin lawyer from coastal Karnataka who had moved to Madras, then approached him and suggested that the Sangh travel to coastal Karnataka, which eventually happened in 1940, where it is now an established force. By then, the leaders of the All India Hindu Mahasabha were making inflammatory speeches across the country, including in Karnataka and Kerala. They created a small space for anti-Muslim sentiment in advance, which the RSS tapped into. In Tamil Nadu, however, the primarily Brahmin locus of the RSS did not immediately catch on as the State was at the peak of its anti-Brahmin movement, with organisations ranging from the Justice Party to the Dravidar Kazhagam at work.

Playing the long game

But, for the RSS, building a presence has little to do with immediate gains as is evident from how it functions. The work it did from the 1940s onwards in certain pockets of the southern States peaked during the Emergency. Similarly, its consistent push towards instilling an anti-Muslim sentiment and appealing to numerically higher communities such as the Lingayats eventually helped it win Karnataka, something most people did not consider possible, considering Karnataka had been a Congress stronghold.

While decades of work went into Karnataka, Telangana has seen a far quicker shift towards Hindu nationalism. This might have many reasons; for one, sharing a border with Maharashtra through which the Hindutva influx has been constant. Likewise with Karnataka, from where tried-and-tested methods come in, from making loaded movies to using cultural symbols to polarise. One such symbol is Shivaji, whose statues are now found across northern Telangana, as detailed by the journalist Charan Theja. In his reports over the past few years, he has documented how RSS-affiliated organisations have been slowly garnering support from “aspirational landholding peasant BC communities like Munnuru Kapu, Yadav, Mudhiraj, Goud, and dominant castes like Reddy”.

In a town called Bodhan, a Shivaji statue was erected illegally in a public space by RSS- and Shiv Sena-affiliated organisations, which groups such as the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi opposed. Bodhan falls in Nizamabad district, which borders Maharashtra and has the second-highest population of Muslims in the State. As an aside, this is also Hedgewar’s native region, from where his family migrated to Maharashtra.

Meenakshi Lekhi, former Union Minister of State for External Affairs, at a rally in support of M.T. Ramesh, the BJP’s candidate in Kozhikode, on April 11.  

Meenakshi Lekhi, former Union Minister of State for External Affairs, at a rally in support of M.T. Ramesh, the BJP’s candidate in Kozhikode, on April 11.   | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

The modus operandi is to bank on what happens later: the opposition to the illegal structure is positioned by the RSS groups as anti-Hindu sentiment, thus in one go bringing about a commonality among backward castes that would otherwise not have come about easily. Charan has also detailed in his report that these Shivaji statues are invariably positioned diagonally adjacent to and bigger than Ambedkar statues. This is another way to bring about commonality since anti-Dalit sentiment is anyway organic among these groups. A similar template in Karnataka is to bring up Tipu Sultan’s name, which immediately pits you as pro- or anti-Muslim depending on the context.

Anybody following the RSS closely knows that anti-Muslim polarisation is not its only tactic. The RSS has been more active than most other parties in accumulating support from the largest to the smallest of the oppressed castes. In Telangana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been posturing with Madiga leaders such as Manda Krishna Madiga for years now even though what such support translates into for the community is yet to be seen.

  • The RSS has been steadily expanding its influence in South India, particularly in Karnataka and Telangana, using long-term strategies that include community outreach, cultural symbolism, and caste politics.
  • This expansion challenges the perception of South India as a bastion of secularism and progressive politics, with the BJP making significant electoral gains in recent years.
  • Local parties, including the Congress, have been struggling to effectively counter the RSS’s tactics, often remaining silent on communal polarisation or inadvertently playing into identity politics.

Slow-cook programmes

That the RSS has been on track with its slow-cook programmes is seen from the rise in the BJP’s vote share in Tamil Nadu and in the party’s win in Thrissur in Kerala. This calls into question what local parties in these States are doing. More importantly, the role of the Congress in the States it rules must be critically reviewed.

Also Read | How Dravidian politics offers a bulwark against the exclusionary politics of Hindutva

In Telangana, Dalits and tribal people seem to have voted en masse for the Congress, but in Chief Minister Revanth Reddy’s list of probable MP candidates from his State, the majority were from the Reddy community. This contradiction did not go unnoticed, especially among the OBC leaders of the BJP, who promptly relayed it as a point to be conveniently used at a later time. Revanth Reddy, a turncoat politician and former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (a student organisation affiliated to the RSS) leader, seems more intent on strengthening the Reddy lobby than addressing communal polarisation. Just days after the BJP won as many seats as the Congress in Telangana in the Lok Sabha election, he was seen performing a ritual with activists of the Desi Gau Vamsa Rakshana Samithi in Medak in west Telangana. The BJP won the Medak seat for the first time after the formation of Telangana, and the place saw unprecedented anti-Muslim mobilisation within weeks of the party’s win. A right-wing mob went on the rampage, attacking Muslim establishments and shops and even a hospital to which people had flocked after they were assaulted on the eve of Eid. Infact, the newly elected MP, the advocate Raghunandan Rao, has on many occasions legally represented BJP and Bajrang Dal cadre accused of inciting communal violence in Medak.

The curious case of Karnataka

In Karnataka, when the Ram Mandir mobilisation was at its height, many Congress leaders largely looked away. The end of that decade saw the BJP peak in Karnataka, mainly benefiting from the alliance with the Lok Shakti of Ramakrishna Hegde, whose core supporters were Lingayats. The very idea of an IT cell and what it can do to project a Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate was imagined in Bengaluru, now referred to as the “original cow-belt city” of India. It was here that Modi was first projected as a pro-development, tech-friendly, neoliberal politician, as opposed to his image of a genocide-enabler after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

Karnataka has since seen many smaller Hindutva programmes, some even going to the extent of targeting Muslim schoolgirls for covering their head with a hijab. This tactic has ensured that even when the Congress is in power, the polarising techniques of high-ranking BJP leaders remain constantly in the news, even displacing the news of a leader from a BJP-alliance party indulging in mass sexual assault.

Silence on communal polarisation will only serve the interests of the RSS in the long run, as the success of the BJP in two southern States has already shown. Whether this silence stems from ignorance or wanton indulgence remains a question. And whether the south is truly a bastion of secularism remains far from proven. 

Greeshma Kuthar is an independent journalist and lawyer from Tamil Nadu. Her primary focus is investigating the evolving methods of the far right in India. 

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