RSS: An ‘Uncritical’ View to the Inside – Honest Title of New Book

Sudheendra Kulkarni reviews Walter Anderson & Sridhar Damle’s new book on RSS.

11 min read
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(This article, published earlier this month, has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the RSS’ lecture series, from 17-19 September.)

First things first. Is this the book you should read if you wish to know about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), especially if you do not already know much about it? Yes, it certainly is. The RSS: A View to the Inside (Penguin Viking, 2018; pages 405; Rs. 699) provides a good deal of information about the evolution of an organisation that has come to wield significant influence on India’s society and politics.

But if you already have basic information about the RSS, and are looking for new insights, does this book provide a detached critical understanding of how the organisation is grappling with major issues before the nation?


This is because the authors, Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle, are in too much awe of the RSS to show the courage to attempt a candid critique. Therefore, an apt title of this book would be The RSS : An Uncritical View to the Inside.

Kind Words for the RSS

The book is full of appreciation of the RSS and some of its leading lights. In particular, it lauds two persons, Mohan Bhagwat (its current sarsanghchalak or chief) and Narendra Modi (an RSS pracharak who was deputed to the Bharatia Janata Party in 1987 and has gone on to become India’s Prime Minister), who have made the greatest contribution to enhancing its visibility in India’s national life.

Another person who gets top billing ─ with adjectives such as “astute” and “affable” ─ is Ram Madhav, a senior RSS functionary who joined the BJP in 2014 to serve as its general secretary.

Andersen and Damle had collaborated to publish their first book The Brotherhood in Saffron: The RSS and Hindu Revivalism in 1987.

Their familiarity with the organisation, which has grown more intimate in subsequent decades, had certainly placed them in a unique position to pen a sequel. Therefore, if their second book on the same subject sheds light on the phenomenal growth of the RSS since the 1980s, nobody should cavil over it. After all, the RSS is unparalleled as an organisation with an almost pan-India influence and operational footprint (Kashmir Valley perhaps being the only place where it has no functional shakhas or branches).

No other social, cultural or political organisation comes anywhere close to matching its involvement, through its 36 affiliates, in the most diverse domains of national life ─ from politics (BJP) to education (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), from labour (Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh) to farmers (Bharatiya Kisan Sangh), from Hindu solidarity (through the Vishwa Hindu Parishad) to tribal mobilisation (Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram), and so on.

Also, no other organisation has built such wide and strong links with the Indian diaspora as the RSS has. 

Therefore, the authors cannot be said to have made a tall claim when they write, “To understand India requires an understanding of the RSS”.

No, RSS is Not Fascist

The gross mistake many critics of the RSS, especially those in the Congress and Left circles make, is either to belittle its success in achieving this growth or, worse still, fail to introspect on why they have not achieved similar success. For example, the activities of the Congress Seva Dal (have people even known of its existence?) do not constitute even a fraction of the numerous social service projects run by the RSS swayamsevaks and their supporters. Another seminal difference between the RSS and its socio-political critics – in its long existence since 1925, neither has the RSS ever split over ideological or personality factors, nor have any of its affiliates, including the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (which was in existence from 1951 till 1977, when it merged into the Janata Party) and the BJP, which was formed in 1980.

The same cannot be said about the Congress or the communists, much less about the socialists or the Janata Dal.

Indeed, a major reason for the growth of the RSS network in India, apart from the admirable voluntarism of disciplined activists and the maturity of their leaders, is the fact that its opponents have failed miserably both in staying together, and in expanding their activities in diverse fields of national life.

The critics of the RSS are also wrong in calling it a “fascist” organisation.

It only shows them to be prisoners of a lazy habit. The RSS can certainly be accused of having an anti-Muslim communal bias, but it is by no means a fascist body.

RSS’s Inclination Towards Debate & Discussion

One of the positive points about this book is that Andersen and Damle demonstrate how the internal working of the RSS is marked by extensive democratic debate, consultation and consensus-building, and how the leaders of the parent body sometimes have to mediate between opposing viewpoints among its largely autonomous affiliates.

For example, BMS and Swadeshi Jagran Manch have often opposed Modi government’s policies on FDI and globalisation. When such things happen, it is the parent body that conducts coordination meetings. (Of course, Prime Minister Modi’s decisions have always prevailed in such cases.) Andersen and Damle make a persuasive argument when they say, “[t]he RSS usually asserts itself only when there is a power vacuum (as in the BJP after the 2009 parliamentary losses) or to mediate differences within or among the affiliates. Even this is a relatively rare occurrence ─ the parivar operates by consensus precisely to avoid the kind of destructive factionalism that has ruined so many of its non-RSS peers and competitors.” (p. 42)

Andersen and Damle have also rightly highlighted that, since their last book on the RSS, it has become more deeply involved in debate and formulation of national policies on various issues.

This, despite its primary focus being the programme of “character building” and “ideological orientation” through shakhas and training courses.

RSS, No More a Political Pariah

This shift has happened because of three reasons. One, RSS today is no longer a “political pariah”. Second, through its affiliates, it has penetrated “almost all areas of society”, and therefore receives regular feedback on people’s (I must add, mostly Hindu community’s) problems and aspirations, and how the governments’ policies are affecting them. Third, and most importantly, the BJP, an offspring of the RSS, has come to power at the Centre twice and has also succeeded in forming governments in many states. Naturally, and to the chagrin of its opponents, the RSS is taking an “increasing interest in influencing government decision-making”. (p.1)

Another major difference is how the role of the sarsanghchalak has changed within the RSS after MS Golwalkar (1940-1973), its second chief.

Mohan Bhagwat is not a supremo who towers over the organisation; he works in close and regular consultation with his senior colleagues and heads of affiliate bodies. Indeed, the larger the Sangh Parivar has grown, the more democratic it has become in its internal functioning. Hardly the hallmark of a secretive and fascist organisation.

Here are a few examples of how the RSS has changed or moderated its outlook on several contentious issues. Both in its internal functioning and external advocacy, it has been taking an unambiguous stand against caste hierarchy, inequality and discrimination. Even though it is doing so in order to further its cause of promoting pan-Hindu unity, its anti-casteism campaign should be welcomed because it ultimately contributes to an important social reform in India. The RSS has revised its view on criminalisation of homosexuality and on the role of women in public life. These too are welcome signs of change, and show that the RSS is sensitive and adaptive to the external social environment.

Why Hindu Rashtra & Hindutva are Flawed & Dangerous

Where Andersen and Damle fare badly is in not probing the inconsistencies in, and inherent untenability of, the RSS’s central ideological tenets ─ India as a Hindu rashtra and Indian nationalism as Hindutva.

This begets the question: Who really is a Hindu?

On this, they quote Bhagwat as saying that “all Indians are culturally Hindu” and then remark, “[this] is likely to remain the RSS’s stand on nationalism”. (p. 243)

For too long, the RSS has indulged in such verbal jugglery by saying that ‘Hindu’ is a cultural and not a ‘religious’ term.

This does not convince even the meanest intelligence, because most of the activities of the RSS and its affiliates, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, conducted in the name of Hindus, identify Hindus exclusively in the religious sense of the term. The demand for the construction of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya, for example, which is backed by the entire RSS parivar, is raised by appealing to the religious sentiments of Hindus. Indeed, as the violent demolition of Babri Masjid clearly demonstrated, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was conducted in a manner that alienated Muslims, whom the RSS regards as “cultural Hindus”.

Even though LK Advani (who, as BJP President had launched the Ram Rath Yatra to support this movement) described 6 December 1992 as “the saddest day in my life”, the VHP and most others in the RSS have shown no such remorse.

Actually, even today, they hail the demolition of the Babri Masjid as an act of Hindu valour.

Even if one were to accept ‘Hindu’ as a marker of cultural identity, what kind of Hindu nationalism is it in which one section of Hindus (religious Hindus) routinely question the loyalty and patriotism of the other section of (so-called cultural) Hindus?

RSS’s Attempt to Hindu-ise the ‘Other’

The authors implausibly claim (on page 238) that “its [RSS’s] senior leadership has broadened the definition of Hindu to include most Christian and Muslims (and others as well) as long as they subscribe to what (Pandit Deendayal) Upadhyaya in Integral Humanism described as the ‘national soul’, that unique element that gives life to a people’s culture and institutions and provides the boundaries of what it is to be a member of the Hindu nation.” On the same page, they note that “the notion of a uniquely Hindu ‘national soul’ is the guiding cultural principle of the elites of the sangh parivar.”

Having stated this, Andersen and Damle do not deem it necessary to question how the ‘soul’ of the multi-religious Indian nation can be only Hindu.

If the soul of India is regarded as Hindu, it is but a next step to claim that the body of India is also Hindu. In other words, the championing of ‘Hindu rashtra’ and ‘Hindutva’ by the RSS is nothing but an attempt to Hindu-ise non-Hindus. No wonder, most Muslims are deeply apprehensive of, and strongly oppose this mission.

The same attempt to Hindu-ise Muslims is also evident in the RSS’s (rather, half-hearted) attempt to reach out to Muslims by establishing the Rashtriya Muslim Manch (MRM) in 2002. It is a half-hearted effort, because MRM, even 16 years after its inception, is still only a quasi-affiliate of the RSS. It does not have the same status in the Sangh Parivar as other affiliates. As noted by the authors (p. xxiii), “MRM was created to mobilise Muslim support for Hindu nationalism.” Almost every activity of the MRM so far has been aimed at getting Muslims to back Hindu demands.

No Attempt by RSS to Recognise Finer Points of Other Religions

Rarely has the top leadership of the RSS acknowledged the greatness of Islam, the uniqueness of Muslim culture and how it has enriched Indian culture, or the humanising social traditions of Muslims. If this continues to remain their attitude, MRM is unlikely to gain much base or credibility among Indian Muslims even after a hundred years. The authors hint at this by saying, “The Muslim Rashtriya Manch has yet to demonstrate that it will make a considerable impact on India’s Muslim community, or even that it has significant influence within the RSS.” (p. 106)

There is no doubt a very strong section of communalists and fundamentalists in the Muslim community that has been working to keep Indian Muslims isolated and ghettoised.

Nevertheless, the failure of the RSS to endear itself to Muslims is also on account of a similar rejection of India’s religious and cultural plurality, and of secularism as the defining principle of Indian nationalism.

Golwalkar, in his Bunch of Thoughts, “has chapters identifying Muslims and Christians as internal threats to national unity”. (p. 250) Which is why, even moderate leaders of the RSS, like Bhagwat, seem to tell Muslims (also Christians): “We accept you as Indians, but only on our terms.” This attitude is divisive, and can never contribute to national unity and integration.

On China: RSS’s Attitude is Out of Touch with Reality

The other questionable part of the book lies in the chapter on China. Here, both Andersen (an academic at Johns Hopkins who once worked with the US State Department) and Damle (an independent Chicago-based NRI researcher) clearly show their pro-US bias. Their narrative presents China as India’s biggest “enemy”, and, therefore, not so subtly argues that India needs a closer security partnership with the US and Japan.

This is a prescription for antagonistic India-China relations.

The authors do not point out the ludicrousness of the demand for an “independent Tibet”, which is close to the hearts of many RSS leaders and supporters. Golwalkar, for example, had this to say on the matter: India must work for a “free Tibet” and “for that, if it becomes necessary to cross our frontiers, let us do so without the least hesitation.” The authors fail to mention the basic fact that the Vajpayee government, in 2003, recognised the Autonomous Region of Tibet as an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. They also do not comment on the puerile nature of the “boycott Chinese goods and investments” campaign launched by the RSS and its affiliates at the outset of the Doklam crisis last year.

This chapter on China is also marred by a long, unrelated, irrelevant and unnecessary digression into the activities of Subhas Chandra Bose and Rash Behari Bose in Japan.

Obviously, the RSS’s attitude towards China is at odds with the maturity shown by Vajpayee, Modi and even the Congress prime ministers in dealing with China, our largest neighbour.

No Chapter on Pakistan in Anderson & Damle’s Book

How can there be a study of the RSS without a separate chapter on Pakistan? Its absence points to a glaring weakness of the book. Pakistan appears only tangentially in the chapter on Kashmir. Vajpayee’s earnest efforts to make peace with Pakistan are not even mentioned. Moreover, the authors make no effort to critically lay bare the flaws in the RSS’s attitude towards Jammu & Kashmir and the bankruptcy of the solution it proposes to solve the Kashmir problem. For example, there is not even a ghost of a chance of India getting Pak-occupied Kashmir (PoK), and the same is true about Pakistan’s ability to get the part of Kashmir now with India.

Three full wars (1947-48, 1965 and 1971) and a minor war (Kargil, 1999) have neither changed the divided status of Jammu & Kashmir, nor, much less, helped the two neighbours in moving towards a final solution to the problem.

On page 123, Andersen and Damle make a valid point about a workable solution. “Therefore, a win-win solution for Pakistan, India and the Kashmiris is required.” They even supportively mention the formula broadly worked out by Dr Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf (without mentioning their names) on “a solution acceptable to all the major actors”. Strangely, with all their access to the top echelons of the Sangh Parivar, they do not ask a single RSS leader for the organisation’s view on this formula. Nor do they seek the RSS’s view on whether Pakistan and the Kashmiri people have a locus standi to find a “win-win” solution to the Kashmir problem.

The answer is a clear ‘No’, going by the aggressive and oft-repeated anti-Pakistan statements of the leaders of the Sangh Parivar. True, Pakistan must end its support to terrorist groups targeting India. But thereafter what? How should the Kashmir dispute be resolved amicably? The RSS has no answer. Indeed, the chapter on Kashmir clearly shows that the RSS is more concerned about the Hindus in Jammu than about the Muslims in Kashmir. This is hardly a national outlook on a major problem confronting India.

Factual Errors & No Index

Then there are a few factual errors, the most glaring of which is the statement that Advani “walked back his remarks on Jinnah’ during his visit to Karachi in 2005. Advani did not. The book also suffers from the methodology of “case studies” adopted by the authors. As a result, in most places it reads like a journalistic study rather than the work of analytically rigorous scholarly research.

Indeed, a large part of the book is focused on the happenings in the last four years of the Modi government, thus making it rather superficial. Inexplicably, the book has no index.

To conclude, let me go back to a valid affirmation, mentioned earlier, by Andersen and Damle: “To understand India requires an understanding of the RSS.” But an even more valid affirmation would be this: To understand the critical shortcomings of the RSS requires an understanding of, and genuine respect for, the diversity (especially religious and cultural diversity) of secular India. In order to overcome its own shortcomings, the RSS has to understand and embrace Mahatma Gandhi, who continues to be disliked by many in the Sangh Parivar. India would be a better place if it did so.

(The reviewer is a Mumbai-based author and columnist. He served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. He tweets @SudheenKulkani and welcomes comments at The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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