The RSS: A Menace to India
Left Word Books
The RSS: A Menace to India is a wide-ranging, erudite, and at times polemical case for the prosecution. Over 500 pages replete with citations, sources and documents, Noorani leaves the reader in little doubt of the myriad ways in which RSS undermines India. Ideologically, the RSS is committed to Hindu Unity. The RSS has a historical thesis that division among Hindus is the single explanatory thread that explains their subjugation. The achievement of this unity is a radical, and not conservative, project that requires the move away from Hinduism. It requires the reduction of Hinduism to an ethno-nationalist identity, that does away with questions of religious experience, soteriology and eschatology, that are at the heart of traditional Hinduism. It requires the overcoming of all social divisions within Hinduism by assimilation into a single identity with a brahminical tinge; and, it requires a territorial claim of India as the land of Hindus that expunges all the foreign elements from it. The basis of ethno-nationalist unity is not a positive doctrine of regeneration, but a negative one, constituted by a constant sense of lack that needs to define itself against external enemies.
The RSS has a curious relationship with democracy. Noorani is right in pointing out that the claim — that the RSS is merely a cultural organisation — was always a façade. Its aim was to secure political power for Hindus and it has always been tactical in this regard. But, more than Noorani recognises, what makes the RSS modern, and in some ways more prescient than the Left, is its understanding that power and legitimacy flow from democratic mobilisation and the creation of majority rule. In this majoritarian sense, it takes the task of democratic mobilisation and seeking a permanent majority utterly seriously. But the RSS has no conception of individual freedom, or understanding of pluralism; everyone has to define their identity in its own terms. In this sense, it represents an antithesis to freedom.
The RSS is organisationally distinctive. In a country where organisations scarcely survive factions and schisms, the RSS’ growth and endurance have been spectacular, and, purely in terms of organisational theory, little understood: Noorani does not dwell on these matters. He is more attentive to the fact that the organisation is influenced by Italian fascism, committed to discipline, militancy and hierarchy, and is not averse to violence. Whatever may be the simple-minded and selfless dedication of its workers, its leadership has always been, beginning with Savarkar and Golwalkar, made up of men of limited understanding — crude and coarse in their conceptualisation of the world, admiring of Nazism, and constantly duplicitous. He will add to the debate over Savarkar, which is a matter for another occasion. He writes, “Presidents like Lala Lajpat Rai were men of character, scholarship and personal grace. Savarkar was devoid of all three.” Noorani has no doubt that the RSS was deeply implicated in Gandhi’s assassination. Its plausible deniability in the matter set up a template of working through fronts, where the RSS pleads a feigned innocence in the face of complicity in violence and riots. It is also, Noorani claims, legally duplicitous, claiming both that it is and isn’t a charitable organisation, in different legal contexts.
Noorani then charts the RSS’ history through various episodes: its ambiguous role in the Emergency, but one that finally led to its rehabilitation; the Vajpayee years, Gujarat. Noorani’s perspective is also useful on two current debates. He argues that Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s agitations in Kashmir, rather than being a nationalist stand against Nehru’s fulminations, actually made the integration of Kashmir more difficult by communalising the state. And, in light of Congress’s dilemmas over “soft Hindutva”, it is always worth a reminder that leaders like Govind Ballabh Pant were always more like a majoritarian fifth column in the Congress, who protected the RSS, much to Patel’s consternation. Noorani is attentive to the fact that the RSS discourse constantly repositions itself in light of tactics, but its overall goals remain the same. So, for instance, Mohan Bhagwat’s recent acknowledgment of India’s diversity, and the claim that “Hindu Rashtra does not mean that it has no place for Muslims,” are more tactically positioned; they are quite compatible with the assertion of Hindu supremacy and power. Noorani seems to suggest that there may be a possible rift between Modi and RSS, with the latter always, in the final analysis, asserting its superiority. This rift is exaggerated; both need each other and will work for a triumphal 2025, the centenary year of the RSS. It is a sobering thought that the RSS might outlive the Congress.
But while prosecuting the RSS, the book also unwittingly reveals the Left’s own lack of imagination. The introduction reveals this in two ways. In opposition to the RSS’ history of India — as being subjugated by Muslims, Noorani has to juxtapose the implausible view that this is a history of seamless cooperation and lack of hostility between communities. The RSS exaggerates hostility and the Left has made it difficult to talk frankly about conflict and difference. But the future of India’s constitutional project should not depend on the vagaries of historiographical debate. Second, we still have not grasped, as the RSS and Jinnah did, that the past history of cultural assimilation or difference, becomes relatively irrelevant when faced with the problem of democracy and representation. Then the question is not whether we had a “Ganga-Jamuna” tehzeeb. The question then becomes about who wields representative power, and, to what extent can a modern state interfere in traditional cultural practices. The RSS has cleverly occupied that space as well, while the Left fights battles without understanding how the terrain has changed. But the Left’s shortcomings should not blind us to the dangers of Hindutva, and we are grateful to Noorani for reminding us of its dangerous historical track record.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express