A new RSS?

It’s unlikely, given the deep tension between RSS philosophy and individual freedoms and rights.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Updated: October 5, 2018 12:01:42 am
RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, Mohan Bhagway speech, RSS event, Ram Madhav on RSS, Indian Express Bhagwat now believes that children should be educated in their mother tongues, including regional languages. (File)

Since mid-September, a new political discussion has made its presence felt. The sarsanghchalaks (chiefs) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), unquestionably the BJP’s mother organisation, have spoken in public before, but mainly to comment on specific policies and programmes. They have rarely, perhaps never, spoken at length about the ideological underpinnings of the organisation. Over three days of public appearances in the heart of Delhi, Mohan Bhagwat, the current RSS chief, has changed all that. Some are hailing it as a veritable “glasnost”.

How momentous is the change? Answering this question requires probing two analytically distinct issues: Ideological and organisational. In what ways has Bhagwat made an ideological departure? And would his statements, if they deviate from the conventional ideology of the organisation, change the RSS?

We can’t really answer the latter question yet. It is futuristic at its core. But we do now have elaborate public pronouncements about the current ideology of the RSS. I will concentrate here on two things that constitute change, and two that, despite appearances, fundamentally do not.
On language policy and affirmative action, Bhagwat’s position was a good indication of how far the RSS has come. In its early days, the RSS used to be not only anti-English but also, effectively, against regional languages, for it would advocate imposition of Hindi on the entire country — an essentially European idea that India’s freedom movement, by embracing linguistic diversity, rejected, but the RSS, by espousing a one-language-one-nation European concept, accepted.

In contrast, Bhagwat now believes that children should be educated in their mother tongues, including regional languages. Moreover, English should not be removed, but kept, though not unduly privileged (angrezi hatao nahin, angrezi rakho, per yathaasthaan rakho). Finally, children should also learn Hindi, for it is spoken by a huge plurality, if not a majority.

This is simply a restatement of the three-language formula that the Congress party put into operation, but the old RSS opposed. Hints of change have been coming for some time, but they were never articulated so clearly. All Indian languages are mine (Bharat ki saari bhaashayen meri bhasha hain), said Bhagwat.

Bhagwat’s support for affirmative action also constitutes a substantial, if not a total, departure. If for thousands of years our society has rendered a part of the community completely disabled (poornatah nirbal), said Bhagwat, then the upper castes should bow down for 100-150 years — as a duty to those who have suffered. The RSS had originally opposed affirmative action because, in its view, it divided Hindu society. Note, however, that Bhagwat’s statement endorses Dalit reservations, not OBC reservations. He has only spoken about society’s “ek ang”, not “kayee ang” (one part, not several parts). His term “poornatah nirbal” (completely powerless) covers Dalits, not the OBCs.

On two other matters — Muslims and India’s Constitution — Bhagwat’s arguments are contradictory. Does the RSS now accept Muslims as an integral part of the Indian nation, and does it also fully believe in India’s Constitution? On Muslims, Bhagwat does not evince the outright hostility of M S Golwalkar, the second RSS chief (1940-1973).

But his ideological departures are minor. Despite claiming that he fully accepts India’s diversities, including the diversity of gods (devi devataon ki vividhta) and the diversity of diets (khaan paan ki vividhta), Bhagwat insists that Muslims should call themselves Hindus (for the term Hindu, he says, describes the Indian nation, as the RSS has always claimed); that Islam attacked India (Islam ka aakraman); that beef eating is unacceptable and cow protection is a national duty. Bhagwat also does not believe in the concept of minorities (alpsankhyak shabd thheek nahin). Finally, his extensive telling of Indian heroes, some cited repeatedly in the speeches, included Shivaji, Hedgewar, Golwalkar, Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, Gandhi and Tagore. The speech referred to no Muslim heroes — no Akbar, no Kabir, no Azad.

His is not a discourse about the full and equal citizenship of Muslims. It is hard to escape the inference that for Bhagwat, Muslims may be Indians, but they are secondary Indians. They have produced no Indian heroes; their religion “attacked” India; they must give up beef eating because Hindus are offended by it; accepting Ram as “Imam-e-Hind”, they should agree to a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, or the fingers of suspicion will continue to be pointed at them. The welfare of the Muslim community, in other words, depends on Hindu pleasure, not constitutional principles. There is no conception of rights.
This also leads us to examine Bhagwat’s statements about India’s Constitution. As is well known, the RSS was opposed to the Constitution when it was promulgated, something true until as late as the K S Sudarshan period (2000-2009). The RSS argument was that India’s Constitution represented western ideas, not India’s ethos. Now a hero, B R Ambedkar was an outright villain in the 1950s.

In contrast, Bhagwat clearly said that the RSS accepts the Constitution. But he was also emphatic that India is a Hindu nation, an unconstitutional idea; he did not accept the concept of minorities, enshrined in the Constitution; he repeatedly said that laws and courts are inadequate instruments for social change, and organised social action is necessary. The pursuit of a Hindu India through social action, until the Constitution is changed, is an unconstitutional project.

At another fundamental level, too, there is an ineradicable conflict in Bhagwat’s acceptance of the Constitution and the underlying RSS philosophy. The latter, according to him, says that individuals should not think of their own interests, but dissolve their existence in the service of society. This argument goes against the concepts of civil liberties and fundamental rights, which are individually based and constitutionally anchored in India. They are also integral to democracies in general.

Autocrats often speak of society’s interest as the only reality, and individual interests as a misleading falsehood. Hitler demanded complete immersion in German nationhood, and while launching the Cultural Revolution, Mao called for the creation of a new Chinese man — unacquisitive, unselfish, thinking only of China.

Democracies demand civic spirit, but they also defend individual rights, guarding against the possibility that governments might use the idea of collective interest to crush citizen rights and individual spirit. If the RSS endorses India’s Constitution, it also needs to ask whether it believes in individual freedoms and rights.

The writer is director, Centre for Contemporary South Asia, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and Social Sciences, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

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