In his article, ‘RSS and the realm of ideas’ (IE, March 17), Rakesh Sinha suggested that the organisation which he defends so frequently and ably on television is increasingly becoming more acceptable in society. To back this suggestion, Sinha pointed out that RSS members were heading the government in the Centre and in 24 states and gave figures for the growth of the organisation, maintaining that millions daily attend the shakhas, which now number 59,000. It seems worthwhile thinking a bit about how this growth has been achieved and what its impact will be.
Sinha openly admits there is “consistent psychological indoctrination of RSS cadres”. Indoctrination inevitably leads to fundamentalism because it leaves no room for doubt or for questioning. It is intolerant of any alternative, and is often born of fear. The renowned scholar of religions, Karen Armstrong, identified fear of aggressive liberalism and secularism as factors which can contribute to fundamentalism. It is not surprising therefore that Sinha says the RSS is contesting a left-liberal hegemony and its definition of secularism.
Sinha makes very little mention of Muslims but fear of outsiders, fear of those who are different, provokes fundamentalism and for the RSS, Muslims and Christian are those outsiders. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has said that the strategy of arousing fear of the alien, particularly Muslims and Christians “is the cornerstone of the Hindu nationalist movement. It was the first to be formulated and sustains its ideology”. Unfortunately, no Muslim political leadership has risen in India since Independence capable of allaying fear of their community by presenting an Islam, not hidebound by tradition, which can live peacefully with other religions.
Recently, Ramchandra Guha wrote (IE, March 20) that “Indian Muslims need an avant garde liberal elite to lead them” and called for “a class of Muslim liberals who would continuously assail communalist dogmas and tendencies”. There have been and still are many Muslims prominent in different walks of life in India who fit the bill for Guha as far as their liberalism goes. Among them there have been Islamic scholars. I think of Maulana Wahiduddin who once told a Christian bishop I took to discuss religious pluralism with him, “I believe Islam is the truth but I respect all other religions”. But the Maulana and the other eminent Muslims have not coalesced into the group Guha is looking for.
But the search for a liberal Islam can go too far. Guha objects to the burka and the Muslim cap being seen in public. I realise there is an argument that burkas are a symbol of male domination but I would still say that condemning believers in any religion in India for making their belief public by the way they dress is slipping into the secular fundamentalism which is so prevalent in the West. It is the secularism which even condemns sending Christmas cards or any public celebration of that much-loved festival. This secularism heightens the fear and arouses the anger of religious fundamentalists , giving succour to those who, like the RSS, recruit them to support their politics.
To me the irony of the RSS is that Hinduism is one religion, as I understand it, which does not believe in the dogmatism that goes with indoctrination. Over many years now in books and lectures, in India and abroad, I have argued that Hinduism has the answer to the vexed question of religious pluralism. I have pointed how India has given birth to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism and provided a home for most of the other great religions. I have quoted the words of R C Zaehner, who held the same chair at Oxford as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, The Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics. He said, “Hindus do not think of religious truth in dogmatic terms …For the passion for dogmatic certainty that has racked the religions of Semitic origin, from Judaism itself, through Christianity and Islam to the Marxism of our day, they feel nothing but shocked incomprehension.” And now Hinduism is being wracked by its own form of fundamentalism.
The increasing evidence of the acceptance of the RSS ideology has at last made the Congress party realise that merely repeating a commitment to Nehruvian secularism is not sufficient to challenge the RSS campaign to create a Hindu vote. Anyhow that commitment has not prevented the Congress from involving religion in politics. Two disastrous examples are its handling of the Shah Bano episode and sponsoring Bhindranwale in Punjab politics. In his much discussed book, Being the Other, Saeed Naqvi argues that the Congress at Independence was in effect a Hindu party and still is. He quotes the foremost Muslim Congressman at the time, Maulana Azad, as saying the Partition would lead to an “undiluted Hindu Raj”.
Whether the Congress is a Hindu party or not, it is evidently worried about the impact of the RSS/BJP dubbing it anti-Hindu. But what can it do to overcome this impression. Rahul Gandhi has made a start with his temple visits, but to me this is mere tokenism, and will get nowhere. It also runs the risk of starting a downward, competitive spiral, of communal Hindu gestures. There is another answer which I advocated at the Indian Express Adda and long before that. I believe the Hindutva ideology can be challenged by promoting the Hindu tradition R C Zaehner wrote about. This tradition of intolerance of dogmatism and respect for all religions could promote a nationalism which Indians could be proud of because it would be unique and would set an example of religious pluralism to the rest of the world. That could be matched against Hindutva which in the minds of many is nothing short of the discredited ideology of theocracy. I believe this proposal is secular because it doesn’t conflict with the constitutional prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion.