Disturbing polemics

Published : Feb 19, 2000 00:00 IST

The Prime Minister's defence of the Gujarat Government's decision to lift the ban on State government employees taking part in RSS activities and the proposal to review the Central Civil Servies (Conduct) Rules point to a worrisome move that may have the effect of communalising the all-India services.

THE Gujarat Government's decision to lift the ban on State government employees taking part in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the organisations in the Hindutva fold, has triggered an intense polit ical debate. In some ways, it is reminiscent of another such debate in the late 1970s when the Janata Party Government at the Centre was wracked by convulsions over the issue of dual membership: disagreements over the propriety of some Janata Party membe rs retaining their membership of the RSS eventually contributed to the collapse in 1979 of the first non-Congress government. This time, however, the debate has so far not directly threatened the cohesiveness of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (N DA), since the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have taken the view that the RSS is not a political organisation.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had for a few days maintained a studied silence on the BJP-ruled Gujarat Government's decision, revealed his mind on February 5. "The RSS," he told newspersons, "is not a political outfit. It is a cultural and soc ial organisation and I don't think objections should be raised to anybody joining it."

The remark, which was seen as an ill-conceived defence of the Gujarat Government's ill-advised decision, surprised many who had convinced themselves that Vajpayee was cultivating a "liberal" political constituency so as to defend himself against the dieh ard and rather more militant votaries of Hindutva within the Sangh Parivar. Opposition parties were outraged by Vajpayee's defence of the indefensible; Opposition leaders read the development as an indication that Vajpayee was perhaps feeling boxed in by the hardliners and was preparing to rip off his "liberal" mask and be counted as one whose loyalty to the Sangh was undiminished.

Vajpayee's remarks struck a discordant note on another count as well. For the Centre to defend the Gujarat Government's decision was illogical since a similar ban is in place at the Central level: the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules and the All In dia Services (Conduct) Rules forbid Central services employees to participate in the activities of the RSS. In Gujarat, the Government amended the State Civil Services (Conduct) Rules in order to permit government staff to associate themselves with the R SS. In defence of its action, the Gujarat Government cited the findings of the Bahri Tribunal, which quashed the ban imposed on the RSS in December 1992 in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The BJP's allies seemed overly eager to accept the argument that the RSS was not a political party or a banned organisation and that there was therefore nothing wrong in government servants participating in its activities. Perhaps emboldened by this, Uni on Home Minister L.K. Advani said in a television interview that there was a case for reviewing the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules in order to lift the restrictions on government servants participating in the activities of organisations that were no longer banned.

Sub-rule (1) of Rule 5 of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964 states that no government servant shall be a member of, or be otherwise associated with, any political party or any organisation which takes part in politics nor shall he take par t in, subscribe in aid of, or assist in any other manner, any political movement or activity.

In 1966, the Union Government clarified that the government had always held the activities of the RSS and the Jamaat-e-Islami to be of such a nature that participation in them by government servants would attract the provisions of Sub-rule (1) of Rule 5 of the CCS (Conduct) Rules. It warned that any government servant who was a member of or was otherwise associated with these two organisations or with their activities was liable to disciplinary action.

Significantly, there was no ban on the RSS in 1966. The RSS was banned following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 (his assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a former activist of the RSS), but that ban was lifted a year later. Although the RSS was form ally exonerated of the charge of complicity in the assassination, the then Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, had charged the RSS with whipping up a communal atmosphere in the country in the wake of Partition, which had resulted in Gandhi's killing .

THE attempt by Vajpayee and Advani to portray the RSS as an apolitical organisation and as a cultural outfit is far from convincing in the light of the RSS' statements and actions over the years. Although the RSS has not directly taken part in elections, it is known to have lent the services of its pracharaks (full-time propagandists) to the erstwhile Jan Sangh and the BJP for party work. These pracharaks maintain their links with the RSS and provide an interface between the RSS and its po litical arm of the day. K.N. Govindacharya, Narendra Modi, Sunder Singh Bhandari and Kushabhau Thakre are RSS pracharaks who were at various times deputed to the BJP. Both Advani and Vajpayee were once RSS pracharaks. As the Jan Sangh and l ater the BJP groped for a mass base, these pracharaks brought with them their grassroots-level political experience they had gained in the RSS.

The RSS has for long had a say in the BJP's affairs - in determining the party's office-bearers, in the choice of candidates for elections, and so on. It may be true that RSS leaders do not directly take part in election campaign meetings, but Sangh acti vists have been central to the BJP's campaign network. Moreover, RSS leaders miss no opportunity to express their views on political issues.

The restrictions placed in the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules were meant to prevent civil servants from associating themselves even remotely with political organisations or functions. Of course, civil servants are free to vote in elections, atten d public meetings organised by political parties, and listen to political leaders. The Centre had clarified in 1969 that the restrictions in the CCS (C) Rules were essential to ensure that government servants not only maintained political neutrality, but were seen to be doing so and that they did not participate in the activities of, or associate themselves with, any organisation in respect of which there was the slightest reason to think that it had a political aspect.

In 1980, the Centre reiterated its decision not to permit civil servants to participate in the activities of the RSS and the Jamaat-e-Islami. "In the context of the current situation in the country, the need to ensure secular outlook on the part of gover nment servants is all the more important. The need to eradicate communal feelings and communal bias cannot be overemphasised," the Government said.

VAJPAYEE'S and Advani's defence of the Gujarat Government's decision drew flak from Opposition parties.

The Congress(I) submitted a memorandum to President K.R. Narayanan, in which it sought a reversal of the Gujarat Government's order. The President forwarded the memorandum to the Government, and although no explanation was sought from it, the Prime Minis ter asserted that the Government would offer him a satisfactory explanation.

Congress(I) spokesperson Anil Shastri wanted the BJP's allies in the NDA to take note of Vajpayee's remark, which he said marked a "major deviation". The Congress(I) launched a campaign to protest against the Gujarat Government's decision. Party presiden t and Leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi led a march by party workers to the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi on January 30, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. She broke through a police barricade, courted arrest, and exhorted p arty workers to campaign aggressively on the issue, if necessary by "filling the jails". Later in the day she addressed a rally in Ahmedabad.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and Congress(I) leader Digvijay Singh said the Prime Minister had adopted a "benign attitude" towards his party's government in Gujarat.

Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja warned that the Prime Minister's action in giving a clean chit to the RSS would open a Pandora's box and embolden other communal and fundamentalist organisations to demand a similar relaxation of rules. The Janata Dal (Secular) said that Vajpayee's description of the RSS as a non-political outfit that was active only in the social sphere was fallacious. Party spokesperson Kunwar Danish Ali said that several commissions of inquiry had indicted the RSS f or its role in communal clashes.

The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) refuted the Prime Minister's claim that the RSS was a "social outfit" and said there was no doubt that the Sangh had a "clear-cut political-ideological perspective though working in the guise of a social outfit". It suspected that the Gujarat Government's order was aimed at infiltrating the State administration with RSS elements and communalising it.

THE BJP's allies in the NDA seemed an excessively eager to accept the alibi put out by Vajpayee in defence of the RSS. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi said he found nothing wrong in the Prime Ministe r's characterisation of the RSS (see box). Janata Dal (United) vice-president Jeevaraj Alva defended the Prime Minister's remark.

The Gujarat Government, which had come under attack following its controversial order, seemed relieved by Vajpayee's and Advani's defence of its action. The Government and the BJP's State unit dismissed the Congress(I)'s protests as of no consequence.

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