An agenda unmasked

Print edition : December 20, 2002

RSS's Tryst with Politics: From Hedgewar to Sudarshan by Pralay Kanungo, New Delhi, Manohar, 2002, pages 314, Rs.625.

THIS book examines the history of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh from its inception till contemporary times. With its policy of exclusion, the RSS has been directly associated with major assaults on the democratic and secular fabric of free India. Its expansion, besides being dramatic, has been clearly based on high levels of planning and organisation, which is rooted in its divisive politics. The expansion of the RSS has been accompanied by the growth of a number of organisations that have developed under its umbrella and have, at least apparently, many faces. Nevertheless, what is normally called the `Sangh Parivar' is actually one family that comes under the umbrella of the RSS. Consequently, by choosing to study the RSS the author focusses on the `brain' of all these Sangh Parivar outfits.

As observed by the author in the Introduction, the RSS is one of the most talked-about and controversial organisations in contemporary India. He sets out to examine the self-definition of the RSS, which has been repeated time and again that it is a cultural and not a political organisation. Discussing some of the controversies, the author mentions the various references to the RSS as a revivalist, fundamentalist, communal and fascist entity. Similarly, he touches upon areas such as Hindu nationalism and the motives and methods of the RSS. Besides offering an overview, the author discusses the way scholarship has negotiated with the RSS. From a `hidden' organisation to an organisation with a `hidden' agenda, the RSS today stands unmasked as never before.

The next chapter explores the origin and evolution of the RSS over the period between 1925 and 1973. The author reminds us of the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, which brought in "religion more pervasively and passionately into Indian politics". Kanungo argues that the reforms polarised competitive communal mobilisations such as the Shuddhi and Sangathan movements among Hindus, and the Tabligh and Tanzim movements among Muslims. The author discusses the politics of the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha (as well as Muslim bodies that preached anti-Hindu hatred among Muslims) in order to highlight the environment of hatred that formed the basis of the founding of the RSS in 1925. Although Punjab was a fertile ground since Hindus were in a minority there, areas areas such as C.P. and Berar which had a predominance of Maharastrian Brahmins were particularly receptive. Thus, its close association with Brahmins contradicted its political agenda of homogenising Hindus.

It is against this background that the author situates both Hedgewar and Golwalkar. Hedgewar, who founded the RSS, was a creature of the complexities of the C.P./Berar region. His association with the Congress as a Tilakite and through the Non-Cooperation Movement as well as the Hindu-Muslim riots that followed were major factors that shaped his political orientation. Significantly, from the beginning Hedgewar was more interested in Hindu mobilisation, with the idea of projecting the `Muslim' as the main enemy, rather than opposing colonialism. This is understandable given the influence of V.D. Savarakar and B.S. Moonje and the idea of Hindu Rashtra that the organisation hoped to establish. This also explains the initial reluctance of the RSS to participate in the Salt Satyagraha.

Kanungo depicts the initial years of the RSS its idea of catching young boys, establishing shakhas and `militarising' Hindus. The influence of the Maharastrian legacy was visible in the way Shivaji was incorporated into its mythology and in its mode of recruiting Brahmin boys. Between 1937 and 1940, even as Hindu-Muslim relations in northern India, including Kashmir, was deteriorating, the RSS expanded `feverishly'. It also expanded into the southern tracts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and into Orissa and Assam in the east.

This organisational network was backed up by Golwalkar Hedgewar's successor who was to emerge as its major ideologue with his work We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939). He had been nominated to succeed Hedgewar before the latter's death, thereby throttling the democratic possibility of holding an election for the top leadership position. During his tenure, the concept of Hindu Rashtra stabilised. In practice, this implied staying away from the Quit India Movement, with the idea of avoiding any open conflict with the colonial government and complying with the government order prohibiting military drills and the wearing of military uniform. Golwalkar had his eyes on the future remain prepared to handle the communal conflicts after the War. As felt by the author, this phase saw the `quiet expansion' of the RSS into its civil and military wings.

The strategy paid off, with the Partition and the communal holocaust that accompanied it. The first ban against the RSS was imposed after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. Interestingly, among the mediators who worked to lift the ban included G.D. Birla a fact that symbolises the links between the RSS and a section of the capitalist class in free India. Independence also saw a shift in the RSS strategy the formation of a political front in the shape of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh ending its so-called confinement to the field of culture. Besides, there was the emergence of a mass front, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, to organise students; it also set up in 1955 the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) to organise workers.

Ironically, an organisation with a rather dismal anti-colonial track record swung into action during the anti-Portuguese liberation struggle of Goa (1954). This earned it a degree of acceptance. A very typical feature was the respectability that the Jawaharlal Nehru government provided it during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962 by allowing it to participate as a separate contingent in the Republic Day parade in 1963. Similarly, its anti-Muslim tenor got a boost during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. There seems to be a lesson here - jingoism precipitated by external conflicts provided the RSS opportunities to legitimise itself in the eyes of the Congress under both Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Along with these, traditional slogans such as cow protection and the activities in the shakhas kept the RSS active among its following.

In three succeeding chapters, Kanungo delineates vital aspects related to the RSS. These include organisation and training; creation of an ideology that is associated with the Hindu Rashtra; and, a connected aspect related to homogenising Hindus. Talking about organisation, the author mentions the ambivalence in the 1949 constitution of the RSS, which leaves out vital features, and the way important changes made over the years have not been incorporated into the written constitution. In this situation the author feels that any study of the RSS organisation has to go beyond the written text. And, while attempting this, the author has collected some valuable information based on interviews in Orissa.

While going through the details, one was particularly struck by the importance given to children between seven and 16 years of age in the basic unit of the organisation the shakhas. After all, the venom of hatred has to be injected from the word `go'. One can well imagine the way this can prevent questioning and check all possibilities of intellectual development. The details outlined by the author prove the importance of the psychological associated with hating the `Muslim' to be far greater than the physical aspect.

The fourth chapter examines the idea of Hindu Rashtra. Concentrating on the stated positions of Golwalkar, Deendayal Upadhyaya and other RSS ideologues, the author unravels the ideological content of the organisation. As mentioned, the word Hindu does not exist in the Vedas, the Puranas or the Bhagvad Gita. After all, the term emerged later on as a geographical reference to people who lived beyond the Indus (Sindhu) river. The colonial period saw the beginnings of the process that consolidated the term Hindu, with the RSS reworking it to suit its politics of Hindu Rashtra. What is indeed significant is the way this implied a periodisation that draws almost entirely from a colonial presentation of Indian history, which was divided into the `Hindu' and `Muslim' periods, with the latter being equated with a period of decline. Consequently, besides remaining largely outside the anti-colonial struggle, the RSS draws heavily from colonial ideological positions. Alongside, myths were incorporated in a project that created an uninterrupted `Hindu history', which lost its glory in the `Muslim' period. This `past' had to be re-created and this seems to be at least one of the reasons why the RSS is so obsessed with the past.

As one reads along, one gets the picture of a Hindu Rashtra that is quite distinctly rooted in a north Indian, upper-caste order and heavily male-centred. Muslims are the clear enemies, but Christians, Dalits and Adivasis certainly did not belong to the Hindu Rashtra, according to its original proponents. Some of these features have no doubt changed over the past two decades as it was increasingly felt that only an increase in the level of homogenisation can serve to make its tryst with power successful.

It is this effort at homogenising effort that Kanungo examines in the fifth chapter. Here the author outlines the RSS agenda of achieving a task that is ridden with contradictions. After all, a body founded on exclusiveness has had to alter its positions considerably to achieve this task. Consequently, what has been attempted over the years is to locate everyone from Dalits and Adivasis to women - as Hindus. The reform initiatives associated with education and welfare schemes, the idea of gender equality and re-conversion drives vis--vis Adivasis have been reworked to bring in everyone into the `undivided' Hindu family, as it were. This drive ignores the real problems affecting these diverse sections. Moreover, there is a built-in belief that sees as Hindus all Adivasis who have been converted to Christianity. What is hence attempted is the re-conversion of these people, who need to be brought back into the `fold'. Thus, what is being tried is the conversion of Adivasis into `Hinduism' a feature that is yet to receive serious scholarly attention.

The last two chapters explore the shifting paradigms related to the quest for power in the 1980s and 1990s. They examine the transformation centred around the Ayodhya dispute, which was accompanied by unprecedented homogenisation and mobilisation, with Rama being virtually `made' a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and with an expansion of the `Parivar'. Noting the consolidation of this drive, the author also mentions some of the inner contradictions and tensions within the RSS; the problems posed by being in power. Moreover, nothing can hide the fact that the BJP's economic policies harmonise beautifully with that of the Congress(I).

This book is a valuable addition to existing literature on the subject and would be of interest to the specialist as well as the ordinary reader. Besides the use of a host of archival material, Kanungo's method of collecting information on the basis of interviews provide interesting clues to understanding the RSS. It helps one to grasp how this body and its following consider themselves to be `Hindus' first and then Indians; why they cannot survive and expand without riots and hatred for the `Other'; and the serious danger they pose to Hinduism. Similarly, it enables one to grasp that RSS' obsession with the past is in some ways a reflection of its inability to cope with the present. Above all, it explains the brutal murder of people like Gandhi and Graham Staines and the genocide in its Gujarat `laboratory'.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor