At the three-day meeting of the All India Pratinidhi Sabha (AIPS), the highest decision-making body of the RSS, that concluded in Coimbatore on March 22, the swayamsevaks felt unburdened. They are no longer in direct confrontation with the state. Those who considered the RSS the enemy of “secularism and nationalism” no longer hold state power. However, they still hold the dominant position in academia.
In the past, the annihilation of dominant political regimes, whether in the former Soviet Union, Britain, France or in Latin America, was preceded by the assertion of intellectual hegemony. However, the situation in India is different. While the RSS dominates India’s politics, its domination in the country’s intellectual discourse is awaited. The only change is that forces whose secular discourse required the exclusion of the RSS now realise that the presence of the organisation is necessary.
Anti-RSSism is not a monolith. The organisation’s critics can be divided into three broad categories. One, those academics and intellectuals who critique the RSS position on the nation and the state: Their misconception is not far-fetched since they find little substance in popular literature on the RSS to allay their misgivings. But the closer they come to the RSS, the more they will shed their misgivings. There is definitely a paucity of literature that delineates the value-loaded terminologies and narratives of the movement, like Hindu Rashtra and cultural nationalism. This gives rise to misconceptions. For instance, all anti-RSS literature and narratives describe the Hindu rashtra as a theocratic idea. That is absolutely against the RSS’s own understanding. But then, these critics have not felt the need to delve into serious work by RSS’s theoreticians. Dattopant Thengadi’s book Rashtra (nation), for example, is an attempt to delineate RSS’s understanding of the nation and the Hindu Rashtra.
No literature of the RSS advocates discrimination against minorities or the formation of a theocratic state. Critics intentionally impose the Hindu Mahasabha’s perspective on the RSS. It is pertinent to quote the second RSS chief, M.S. Golwalkar, here. He said, “Once the Mahasabha passed a resolution that the Congress should not give up its ‘nationalist’ stand by holding talks with the Muslim League but should ask Hindu Mahasabha to do that job. What does it mean? It only means that the hybrid nationalism of Congress was of the pure variety, whereas Hindu Mahasabha represented the Hindu counterpart of the rabidly communal, anti-national Muslim League.”
Similarly, the oft-repeated accusation about the RSS’s non-participation in the freedom movement has been falsified in K.B. Hedgewar’s biography by this author that draws on archival records. The fact is that RSS literature has not been included in the curriculum of Indian institutions. University students see the RSS from the prism of Marxists like Sumit Sarkar, Bipan Chandra, Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee or liberals like Christophe Jaffrelot or J. A. Curran, who use Western parameters to explain everything.
The second group of critics have produced a plethora of literature with the objective of defeating political outfits like the Bhartiya Jana Sangh and later the BJP. This includes the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan led by the Marxist-turned Nehruvian Subhadra Joshi, and its later avatar SAHMAT. This critique is virtually no different from those by Communist parties and the literature emanating from universities like JNU, University of Delhi, Jamia Millia and others.
The third and dominant shade is constituted by the RSS-hate club of intellectuals. It is they who have killed the inclusive tradition of Indian discourse. They have swallowed the genuine critics of the RSS, who wanted to engage RSS in their discourse. However, they could not stop the RSS’s expansion. The AIPS report says that the organisation’s over 57,185 shakhas have a daily attendance of lakhs; these operate at 3,67,29 places in the country.
The trajectory of the RSS movement since the 1980s shows that saffron political actors have been more successful than saffron intellectuals. RSS activists have used popular literature on nationalism, culture, secularism, and have appropriated the country’s rich intellectual and cultural legacies and its national icons. They have helped build a counter-narrative at the grass roots level. This has been supplemented by the RSS’s social actions. It runs more than 1,50,000 projects among the marginalised and beneficiaries have never felt discrimination on the basis of caste or religion.
The critics have undermined another characteristic of the RSS movement. The RSS has confronted state power in a major part of its nine decade-long history. But it has never rebelled against the state or used anarchist methods. In fact, it has increasingly accomplished tasks which were supposed to be the state’s moral task. Its activities in the North Eastern states since the late 1950s helped to fight separatism. More than 50,000 Ekal Vidyalayas impart education in the remotest parts of the country.
However, exemplary works are not enough to establish the hegemony of alternative narratives. That requires intellectual rigour. The challenge is to decolonise the Indian mind and ensure the revitalisation of India’s cultural and intellectual legacies.
The issue of combating neo-liberalism, which threatens indigenous diversities and substitutes social morality with market morality, remains largely unaddressed. This is because most of the intellectual energy has been taken up by the debate on nationalism and secularism. However, even here, there is much to learn from RSS literature — for example, in a 1972 interview to the Motherland, an RSS daily, Golwalkar critiqued the principle of uniformity. He said he, “abhors excessive uniformity. It is too early to say what these uniformities will do to western civilisation. Apart from the here and now, we must look back into the distant past and also look forward to the remote future.”