On 4 July, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh supremo, Mohan Bhagwat spoke at an event organised by the RSS-linked Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM) in Ghaziabad and this was reported in newspaper portals with emphasis on the 'reach-out' tone of his speech.
'Those indulging in lynching are against Hindutva: RSS chief' was one headline, 'Don’t get trapped in the cycle of fear that Islam is in danger in India: RSS chief' another.
His address was peppered with articulations like, "there can't be dominance of Hindus or Muslims. There can only be dominance of Indians," and, "people who are lynching others are going against Hindutva." Undoubtedly, these sounded reconciliatory and reassuring for stating adherence to the rule of law and inviolability of the Constitution.
On the same day, at the other end of the National Capital Region, in Gurgaon, Haryana Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson and Karni Sena president, Suraj Pal Amu, delivered a speech at a Mahapanchayat, exactly the opposite of Bhagwat's address in tonality.
Polarising Views Within the Sangh
"Remove them from this country, pass this proposal," Amu said. Although not explicit about the identity of "them", little ambiguity remained. Amu prefaced his 'demand' after asserting that "if India is our mother, then we are the father of Pakistan, and we will not give houses here on rent to the Pakistanis…"
This is not the first time Bhagwat, or at least one of his predecessors, has spoken with the intention of pacifying those in the RSS's 'excluded list' and initiating a process for their social 'inclusion'. On every occasion this was countered by polar opposite sentiments from within the Sangh Parivar.
In fact, a few 'birdies' in Nagpur whispered about widespread disenchantment within the fraternity over the sarsanghchalak's speech. "Bhagwat wants to drop the Hindu word," was the primary grouse of the traditionalists. Is Bhagwat getting alienated within his own, or are his assertions merely tactical, an attempt at role-playing, he as 'good cop', and so-called critics as the 'bad' ones?
Attempt to Take the RSS Into the Mainstream
Exploring the first poser is a waste of time because Bhagwat in his Ghaziabad address made little deviation from the RSS's core beliefs, its definitions and tenets.
This is also not the first time that the RSS chief has made these half gestures and disguised articulations. In September 2018, in the first of its kind initiative, he delivered hours-long lectures over three consecutive days for select members of the intelligentsia from New Delhi's very sarkari, but iconic, Vigyan Bhawan.
The watershed event stemmed from the realisation that the RSS lived a shadowy existence since its inception and members of the intelligentsia formed opinions on basis of secondary sources and subject 'experts'.
The RSS brass realised that it was time to take American historian and lecturer on media and consumer culture, Stuart Ewen's words seriously:
"The history of PR is a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality."
'Don't Call Yourself Muslim, Call Yourself Bharatiya'
In the effort to make people see and understand the RSS the way it wants to be seen, Bhagwat made his well-noted assertion that Hindu Rashtra (or Hindutva) did not mean "Musalman nahi chahiye, aisa bilkul nahi hota. Jis din yeh kaha jaega ki yahan Muslim nahi chahiye, us din voh Hindutva nahi rahega" (Hindu Rashtra does not mean that there should not be Muslims. The day it is said that there should be no Muslims, there will be no Hinduvata.)
In his MRM speech, Bhagwat was at pains initially to explain that it was neither an effort at image makeover, nor an exercise to enlist votes of Muslims for the BJP, he even went a step beyond his 2018 utterance .
Addressing Muslims he said: "We call (ourselves) Hindus, if you do not wish to call yourselves that, do not do so, call yourself Bharatiya, leave behind the jhagda (contestation) of names and words, understand the sentiment, and on that basis, we have to make this country a vishwaguru (global leader)."
On the face of it, this is a spectacular 'concession', Muslims can, not just continue following their faith, but are also under no obligation to call themselves Hindus, a concession to the position of the RSS—'everybody' in this country is a Hindu.
But the catch is in the operative part: "call yourselves Bharatiya". It is a trap because of the roundabout way that Bhagwat, following RSS tenets, went about specifying the essentials 'to be' an Indian.
How Does the RSS Define a Hindu?
How does the RSS define a Hindu? Bhagwat elaborated on this. "Our definition of Hindu is not the tilak sporting person, not someone who prays only in a specific manner. The Hindu is one who considers Bharat as one's matribhoomi (motherland), the one who believes in our parampara (traditions), sanskriti (culture) and our common poorvaj (ancestors)."
The same are the qualifying essentials for anyone to be considered Bharatiya or Indian: viewing the country as motherland and adherence to tradition, culture and ancestors. Being Hindu and Bharatiya are thereby synonymous, or the qualifications are the same.
The Muslims may not think of themselves as Hindus, but the RSS would continue considering them Hindus and the nation as Hindu Rashtra.
VD Savarkar and before him, Swami Vivekananda, both revered figures in the Hindutva fold, used another factor of commonness: punyabhoomi (Holy land). While the former distinguished between punyabhoomi and matribhoomi (or pitribhoomi)—this in effect, when extrapolated, meant ‘non-Hindus’ could not call India their nation, for Vivekananda the punyabhoomi was a land where, "all souls aspiring towards a spiritual quest must attain their last home."
Bhagwat chooses to remain silent on the punyabhhomi 'factor' in affixing nationality and Hindu identity. The question is would he, or any future RSS leader, formally state that even those who consider their Holy Land outside this country are free to join the RSS shakha and rise in the hierarchy and not just remain confined to the MRM as they are now?
This question arises because in his 2018 address, Bhagwat formally disassociated the RSS form certain pugnacious viewpoints contained in MS Golwalkar's Bunch of Thoughts and termed them not being relevant for contemporary times.
RSS' Core Belief Unchanged Despite Bhagwat's Words
Bhagwat is not the first leader from the Hindutva fold to insist that the loyalty of all (Muslims especially) shall be determined by their respect for Bharatiya tradition, culture, and ancestors. In the RSS thought process, definitions of culture and religion often overlap, especially in regard to Hinduism for no demarcating line exists when it is culture, and when it ceases to be that and morphs into religion.
Likewise, ancestry excludes the period that was dubbed as "1200 saal ki ghulami" (1200 years of slavery) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2014 election campaign. There is also another vital issue: are religious and mythological figures revered by Hindus also treated as 'common ancestors'?
A hint of this was provided during one of my interviews with Modi in 2012. I asked about India's compositeness and that he could not escape the demographic reality of a significant Muslim population. He waxed, Bhagwat like, on how there were numerous religious rituals even within Hinduism.
A specific question was asked: 'During the Ayodhya agitation a principle demand was that Muslims must accept Lord Ram as the symbol of national identity?'
He agreed and argued that the deity was considered a Mahapurush by the majority of people in India and that "everyone in this country should believe in this."
Likewise, Bhagwat made a superficial statement over nomenclature, but the core belief remained unchanged. His assertion that the rule of law must prevail and the sanctity of the Constitution remains unchanged are however, minor mercies.
Yet, no firm action (including Amu continuing as party spokesperson) against those advocating hostility and direct action against Muslims and Christians, would mean that the RSS continues paying lip service, while the fringe continues demonising minorities.
The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)