The Vijayadashami function of the RSS is not just a custom — it is ideologically significant. The Sarsanghachalak candidly contextualises the organisation’s worldview. The tradition is as old as the RSS itself. Mohan Bhagwat’s Vijayadashami speech will augur a fresh debate on vital issues of being Hindu, the Hindu nation and Hindutva. Earlier definitions and interpretations of all three categories fell prey to discursive political debates which lacked historical perspective.
Hindu Mahasabha (HMS) leader V D Savarkar’s work, Hindutva (1923) was the first theoretical proposition on the issue. It monopolised successive debates on these three categories since the colonial era. Savarkar drew the geo-cultural boundary of Hindutva objectively. Contextually, it was an attempt to safeguard Hindus from becoming definitionally orphaned given the communal challenges posed through conversions and bubbles of religious nationalities. While a brilliant text, Hindutva is not the sole determinant of past and present Hindutva worldview. The likes of Bipin Chandra Pal, Rabindranath Tagore and S Radhakrishnan as thinkers, and the RSS as a movement, have their own imagination of Hindutva and the Hindu nation. The secularist discourse disparaged this, which is intellectually immoral and a fraud on their part.
Secularists painted Hindutva as a monolith and accepted semantic variations within it, not philosophical ones. This helped them to impose an imaginary objective on it — majoritarian political exclusivism. They drew parallels between Hindutva and discredited concepts like racial purity and minority subjugation. Concomitantly, they treated the RSS as an appendage of the (now dead organisation) HMS. In this context, Bhagwat’s speech is a remarkable intervention to correct both sides of the contemporary debate.
The RSS has never been a votary of a theocratic state. Its founder, K B Hedgewar, delineated a civilisational concept. Hence, it has continued to evolve and assimilate. Hedgewar’s perspective was informed not by the events of his time but the long civilisational and spiritual arc of Hindus. His concept of the Hindu nation was, as a result, not essentialist. Bhagwat contextualised this with substantive philosophical arguments. He aptly said that the identity of a Hindu is commensurate with the universal virtues of humanity and it accommodates and swallows diversities at the micro-level. Bhagwat stated that Hindu identity is not derived from particularism: “‘Hindu’ is not the name of some sect or denomination, it is not a provincial conceptualisation, it is neither a single caste’s lineage nor the privilege of a specific language. It is that psychological common denominator whose vast courtyard cradled human civilisation, that which honours and encompasses innumerable distinct identities.” Earlier M S Golwalkar, in an interview to the RSS daily Motherland (1973), echoed a similar idea — “nature abhors uniformity”.
More importantly, Bhagwat clarified what seem like semantic variations in the ideological lexicon. For example, many believe that “Hindu” is a synonym for “Bhartiya”. He states that “there may be some who have an objection in accepting this term. We do not object to they using other words if the content in their mind is the same”. The content is more important than the container.
Secularists have intellectually coerced the historical nuances of Hindus and Hindutva. This is evident from colonial-era census reports, which show a serious endeavour by scholars to understand what it means to be a Hindu. In the second all-India census in 1881, James Austin Bourdillon, the census superintendent, asked, “What is a Hindu?” In 1911, L S S O’Malley, census superintendent of Bengal and Orissa, found such exercises futile. The 1921 census report of Punjab and Patiala mentioned Rev. W W Wilkins’ understanding of being a Hindu: “In fact, Hinduism is not a religion but a group of religions in which diverse religious beliefs are compounded together. No single man can be ascribed as the originator of this religion. Whatever religion was prevalent in pre-historic time in India and whatever changes wrought with the tide of civilisation… should be considered as Hinduism.”
Bhagwat conceptualised Hindu Rashtra as an adjective for the collective of Hindus. He said: “Hindu Rashtra is not a political concept.” But he also leaves an unsaid question: Do the followers of Islam and Christianity, two major faiths in India, accommodate the cultural and civilisational journey of India from time immemorial or does their exclusivism not allow their secularisation? Exclusivism is incompatible with diversity and assimilation. We have instances of forcefully converted people not abandoning their cultural and spiritual traditions. However, exclusivists considered such traits as violating “religious purity”. C E Luard, superintendent of Census Operation in Central India, 1901, wrote: “It is not at first sight always possible to distinguish between a Hindu and a Mohammedan wedding.” The census report of 1921 gives another instance of the merger of tradition and religious practices: The Dudekula — a community numbering 71,612 people — performed shastra puja on Bakrid, as many do on Dussehra, and adopted both Hindu and Mohammedan names.
Hindutva is a politico-cultural response to Semitic pejoratives and their programme to impact the religious demography and unbroken historical journey of India. Savarkar’s work is a part of this, but the ideological response has many strands. The RSS, in this regard, has acquired hegemony. Contemporary scholars of the history of ideas err in taking the definitions of the periphery as the core of the ideology.
Bhagwat has a message for the other side too: Every spoken or written word masked with “Hindutva” is not the view of the RSS, which is the civilisational concept of Hinduness. And while the organisation is prepared to safeguard its plurality of ideas and practices, it cannot fall prey to narrow ideological battles. The RSS embraces thinkers and organisations who significantly contribute to the discourse but it is not the appendix of any organisation, living or dead. Our challenge multiplies with the growing shadow of the organisation on policies, politics and the public. But political discourse cannot confine the RSS to its narrow lane.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 3, 2020 under the title ‘The plural saffron’. The writer is BJP Rajya Sabha MP
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