Speaking to Sangh volunteers in Muzaffarpur, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat claimed that his organisation had the capability to raise a force, should the country need it, in “three days”, while the Army would need “six to seven months” to do the same. Not surprisingly, the remark quickly drew Opposition fire. Rahul Gandhi deemed it an insult to every Indian, to the flag, the soldier, martyrs and the Army. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said it confirmed that the RSS has no respect for India’s institutions and has a hidden agenda to float parallel militias. The RSS has “clarified” since, but Opposition leaders continue to demand an apology. It is only apt that the RSS should face the brunt for its chief’s unsightly boast — it is, after all, an organisation that is seen to be the power behind the BJP throne, that enjoys influence in politics and government but ducks accountability by claiming to be only socio-cultural in character. Having said that, however, it is also true that in their eagerness to corner the RSS, critics of Bhagwat’s remarks may be taking them too literally. The danger is hardly that a posse of swayamsevaks will rush to the border and supplant the Indian army. Bhagwat’s remarks are worrisome because of the direction in which they seek to prod the nationalism debate. In fact, the RSS’s “clarification” has an unintended ring of truth: “This was in no way a comparison between the Indian army and the Sangh swayamsevaks but it was a comparison between general society and swayamsevaks”, it says. And that’s exactly where the problem lies.
Over the last four years or so, the RSS and BJP have sought to frame the public conversation on nationalism in society in a myriad ways, but all to one effect — to redefine what was an open-ended, accommodative and fluid notion into a harder and narrower version that calls upon everyone to prove their nationalist credentials in showy, bounded and uniform ways and excludes those who don’t. The nationalist must necessarily love the cow, marry only within the religion, hate Pakistan. To this list of do’s and don’ts, one more seems to have been added: The nationalist is the one who is ever ready to protect the nation on its borders. The RSS chief must be called out for this coarsening of discourse, for drawing a line between “society” that is presumably effete and the battle-ready RSS swayamsevak. He needs to be called out for this escalating notion of nationalism in which the border, within and without, is more and more central and indispensable.
The RSS thrives on such a confrontational, militant nationalism — its worldview has historically attempted to substitute the multi-cultural notion of the nation-state with a singular identity. But if they are serious, its critics need to find ways to address the deeper challenge, instead of giving in to the temptation of scoring easy victories.