The recent outreach by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi seems to have succeeded in its principal objective: an image makeover for a niche audience. Thanks to an obsequious media and a commentariat ever willing to suspend disbelief, the event has yielded the soft, liberal gloss the RSS needed and desired. Sadly, the critics limited themselves to questions that the RSS anticipated, indeed wanted: Does the RSS exercise influence on this government? Is the RSS anti-Muslim?
It is time we asked a harder and deeper question: Is the RSS anti-national?
Theory and practice
On the face of it, this is an odd question. Nationalism, Indian-ness and Hindutva are very much the calling card of the RSS. This is not put on. I have known the RSS from inside and outside. Having met hundreds of swayamsevaks and many pracharaks, I know that an average RSS volunteer carries this nationalist self-image. I can also attest that just like the communists or old-time socialists, an average RSS worker tends to be more honest and idealist than a run-of-the-mill political leader. I am aware that on more than one occasion, the RSS has done exemplary rescue and relief work during national disasters. If anything, its critics accuse it of being ultra-nationalist. Thus, to question its nationalist credentials might appear outrageous.
Yet this question needs to be debated in all seriousness and all fairness. Given the salience of the RSS in our national public life today, this is a pressing question. We worry, rightly so, about the impact of Islamic fundamentalist groups and Maoist insurgents on our nation. We debate, as we should, the challenge posed by separatism in Kashmir and Nagaland to our nationhood. But we no longer debate with any seriousness the challenge posed by the RSS and its associates to the project of nation-building the Indian nation. The question is about the theory and practice of the RSS as an organisation and its relation to the Indian nation, its past, present and future.
The nation and the past
Let’s begin with some indisputable facts about its past. Right from its inception in 1925, the RSS was not in any way active during the national movement. In fact, its associates such as the Hindu Mahasabha actively opposed the national movement. It is also a well-documented fact that V.D. Savarkar, whose ideology inspired the RSS’s founders and who remains its icon, was released from Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after he wrote four mercy petitions to the Viceroy pledging loyalty to the British empire. After his release, he lived off a stipend from the British government and obeyed faithfully the conditions it had imposed on him. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, another Hindu Mahasabha leader, actively collaborated with the British during the Quit India movement while the RSS kept aloof from this biggest anti-colonial uprising. The two-nation theory was propagated by Hindu nationalists, much before the Muslim League. And it is no secret that Nathuram Godse was once an RSS member and was very much a part of its extended family when he murdered Mahatma Gandhi. Bluntly put, the RSS made zero, if not negative, contribution to the national struggle. But that is not sufficient to dub it anti-national today.
The role of the RSS after Independence is more relevant here. How did the RSS contribute to the project of nation-building? Sadly, the answer is again in the negative. The RSS was among the few organisations in independent India that refused to honour some of the key symbols of the Indian republic: the national flag, the national anthem and, of course, the Constitution of India. It speaks volumes that the head of the RSS has to clarify, nearly seven decades after the promulgation of the Constitution, that his organisation believes in it, something explicitly contradicted by his predecessor. Notwithstanding its recent claims to the contrary, the RSS does not quite subscribe to any of the key tenets of the Constitution: socialism, secularism, federalism and, indeed, democracy.
In practice, far from being a part of the solution, the RSS was always a part of the problem that India faced in its difficult journey of nation-building. The legacy of Partition and the challenge of bringing together immense diversities posed an unprecedented challenge to the nascent Indian nation. During this delicate phase, the RSS was at best an irresponsible denominational pressure group for the Hinduisation of the Indian state, opposing any and every concession to minorities and advocating a hawkish foreign policy. At worst the RSS became a fulcrum of organised subversion of the constitutional order, as in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. If constitutional patriotism is the heart of national political life, the RSS has repeatedly stood in opposition to the nation.
More than anything else, it is the theory and practice of its nationalism that shows the RSS to be a European import, out of sync with Indian nationalism. The RSS subscribes to the now outdated European model of nation-state which assumed that the cultural boundaries of a nation must match the political boundaries of a state. In Europe it meant a uniform race, religion, language and culture as the defining features of a nation. In India it meant Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan, the slogan coined by Savarkar. India’s home-grown nationalism challenged this European model and its futile and bloody quest for matching cultural and political boundaries. Instead, Indian nationalism was about creating political unity in conditions of deep diversity of culture, religion and language.
Paradox of its workings
Today, as a rapidly diversifying world seeks to learn from the Indian model, the RSS clings on to an alien, borrowed and fractious understanding of nationalism. Worse, its model of separatism of the majority is clearly the biggest obstacle for Indian nationalism. Isn’t it odd that an organisation that claims to work for national integration has, or has had, little time and energy for an amicable resolution of some of the issues that challenge our national unity? These include intractable regional disputes (the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu and Punjab-Haryana water disputes), intra-regional tensions (demand for Telangana or Vidarbha), language issues (Punjabi-Hindi, Kannada-Marathi) or differences with racial and ethnic dimensions (violence against migrants from the Northeast in Bengaluru, Hindi speakers in Mumbai).
The RSS version of nationalism comes into play only when there is a religious angle to any issue. It is not that they care for Hinduism either. The RSS ideologues have little knowledge of or interest in Hindu traditions. In fact, the version of Hinduism that it seeks to impose is itself a parody of orthodox Islam and orthodox Christianity and against the basic spirit of Hinduism, let alone the spirit of humanism that informs all religions. Unfortunately, the principal focus of the RSS has been to foment Hindu-Muslim differences, division and hatred. Since Hindu-Muslim violence poses the biggest single threat to national unity today, those who work for the exacerbation of Hindu-Muslim tension must be seen as anti-national, and guilty of treason.
The secessionists challenge the territorial integrity of India. The left-wing extremists challenge the writ of the Indian state. The challenge posed by the RSS is much deeper: it challenges the very idea of India, the swadharma of the Republic of India. If this is not anti-national, what is anti-national?
I am not for a ban on the RSS. Its theory and practice represent a cultural-political malady that needs a deeper cure rather than a ban. It originates in an inferiority complex of a modern Hindu, made worse by a westernised, deracinated form of our secularism. This might sound odd, but what the RSS needs is exposure to Indian culture and its multiple traditions, greater appreciation of culturally more confident Indians such as Tagore and Gandhi and a deeper understanding of Hinduism itself. If it introspects rather than hold an outreach at Vigyan Bhavan, I am sure its Sarsanghchalak would recommend to the RSS what Gandhiji suggested to the Congress party: dissolve itself.
Yogendra Yadav is the President of Swaraj India