Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat gave an important interview in the latest issue of Sangh publications the Organiser and Panchajanya, covering a variety of issues - from the RSS' relationship with the BJP government to its view on population control, LGBTQ rights and the RSS' approach towards Muslims and Christians.
Among these issues, the Sarsanghchalak's comments on LGBTQ rights garnered the most headlines mainly because it was seen as a softening of the Sangh's position on homosexuality.
In this article we will try and understand the rationale behind Bhagwat's statements and what they tells us about the Sangh.
So What Did Mohan Bhagwat Say?
"Every now and then, a minor question props up which is blown out of proportion by the media, because the so-called neo-left finds it pioneering. Like LGBT. "
"These people also have a right to live. Without much hullabaloo, we have found a way, with a humane approach to provide them social acceptance, bearing in mind that they are also human beings with an inalienable right to live."
"Jarasandh had two generals - Hans and Dimbaka. When Krishna fanned a rumour that Dimbaka had died, Hans committed suicide. What does this story suggest? That the two generals were in that sort of a relationship. "
"People with such proclivities have always been there, for as long as humans have existed. Since I am a doctor of animals, I know that such traits are found in animals too. This is biological. A mode of life."
"We want them to have their private space and feel that they too are a part of society. This is such a simple issue. "
Is This a Major Departure from the Sangh's Traditional Line?
So at least until 2014, RSS had a clear stand against homosexuality and in favour of its criminalisation under Section 377.
An article in the Organiser at that time hailed the Supreme Court's decision setting aside the Delhi HC verdict striking down Section 377. The article termed homosexuality as "unnatural", "immoral", "against human existence" and that "even animals don't indulge in it".
However, in a couple of years the RSS began softening its stand on the issue.
In 2016, senior RSS functionary Dattatreya Hosabale said that homsexuality should neither be criminalised, nor glorified and that it was a "private matter" between individuals that should be allowed so long as it didn't affect others.
When the Supreme Court finally decriminalised homosexuality in 2018, the RSS expressed its agreement with the verdict but with caveats.
Arun Kumar, then publicity in-charge of the RSS, said that while the RSS agrees with the Supreme Court that it is not a criminal offence, "Gay marriage and relationship are not compatible with nature and are not natural".
"So we do not support this kind of relationship. Traditionally, India's society also does not recognize such relations," Arun Kumar further said.
However, in October 2019, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had said that the issue of homosexuality can be addressed without any conflict.
What Bhagwat has said now is a further elaboration of his 2019 stand. A big difference is that his comment that homosexuality is "natural" and a "mode of life" are a departure from Arun Kumar's articulation of the RSS viewpoint in 2018.
Though Bhagwat didn't specify it, it does appear that the Sangh's opposition to gay marriage remains unchanged mainly due to its belief in what it terms as the sanctity of marriage.
To summarise, Bhagwat's description of homosexuality as being present in nature is the most significant takeaway from his comments on LGBTQ rights and need to be seen as the result of a gradual softening of the Sangh's position on the issue - from supporting criminalisation, to opposing criminalisation while still condemning same sex relationships, to calling them a personal choice and now finally saying that they exist in nature as well.
What Does This Change Tell Us About the Sangh?
It seems that the RSS is showing flexibility on issues that are not central to their larger ideology - the softening of its position on homosexuality is one such issue.
As the organisation grows both within India and outside, it probably doesn't want to be seen as "regressive" on an issue such as gay rights. As it is, opposition to homosexuality, though articulated in the past, wasn't really a major concern for the Sangh.
The RSS chief's statement is especially important at a time when RSS' activities are being observed keenly in the West. Having a hostile stand on homosexuality could have added to negative perceptions around the organisation.
This can be seen in another issue addressed by the RSS chief in his interview - regarding women's participation in Shakhas. He said that efforts are underway to figure out a mechanism to increase womens' participation.
It appears that the RSS doesn't want minor issues to come in the way of its larger mission of uniting and mobilising Hindu society.
"We should change our discourse and language according to the circumstance. The direction remains the same. Hindustan is a Hindu rashtra".RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in his interview to the Organiser
The RSS's preoccupation with what MS Golwalkar called the three biggest threats to Hindus - Muslims, Christians and Communists - seems to be intact, as Bhagwat mentioned all three in his interview.
However, this seems to have tempered a bit.
As compared to Golwalkar, who considered the mere existence of these sections as a threat, Bhagwat's stand seems to be that that they can exist in India so long as they don't try to assert themselves at the social and political level.
There has been no dilution in its core belief that "India is a Hindu Rashtra". The Sarsanghchalak spoke about India being a Hindu Rashtra in clear terms in the Organiser and Panchajanya interview.
This seems to be the bottom-line from Bhagwat's statements - that the RSS is willing to make ideological accommodations and concessions so long as the larger supremacy of Hindus and the aim of Hindu Rashtra remains unquestioned.