Has RSS Lifted the Veil, With Mohan Bhagwat Taking Hard Questions?

In a closed door meet with foreign media in Delhi on 24 Sept, Bhagwat took questions on NRC, Kashmir, women, etc.

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Opinion
6 min read
Image of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat used for representational purposes.
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Journalists and scholars in India, writing on the politics of the Indian right wing in general, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates in particular, since the mid 1980s — when the socio-political conglomerate started emerging from the sidelines to occupy space on the political centre stage — were always flummoxed by the veil of secrecy which shrouded the organisation.

With this as the backdrop, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat's interaction with scribes — both Indian and non-Indian (except Pakistani nationals) — working for foreign media organisations, was a hefty moment in a relationship rooted in mutual suspicion and ignorance.

Image of RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat (lighting the lamp) at the “closed door” event with foreign press on 24 September.
Image of RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat (lighting the lamp) at the “closed door” event with foreign press on 24 September.
(Photo Courtesy: RSS)

Eventually, the session turned out to be “mutually beneficial” as one of the attendees put it, because it provided opportunity to not just listen to Bhagwat, but also ask tough questions, none of which went unanswered.

It is a different matter that most attendees this writer spoke with were of the view that, on tricky questions which had a “political dimension”, the RSS chief “eventually maneuvered his answer within a cultural context”.

‘None of Mohan Bhagwat’s Claims Should be Attributed to Him’

As the invite had said, Tuesday's interaction was billed as “closed door” and “not a press conference”, although the attendees were permitted to “use insights gained in their writings at a later date”.

They however, have been told that ‘none of Bhagwat's assertions are to be attributed to him’ but to be used as “background material”. Specifically, it was mentioned that the interaction was being held as per ‘Chatham House rules’. Although slightly vexing for most who attended, the session “marked a progress” insofar as it gave them an opportunity to hear Mohan Bhagwat articulate his thoughts and views.

‘Bhagwat Was Helpful With Answering Questions’

Much of this literal ‘glasnost’ of the RSS is Bhagwat's initiative, and followed a year after the much-vaunted three-day lecture series in the national capital, to which handpicked members of Lutyens’ Delhi’s intelligentsia were invited. At least one scribe felt that he spoke at little variance with what he said in September 2018, although Bhagwat was more accommodating when it came to answering questions — questions that were answered in the second half of the session, after a break was taken following the sarsanghchalak’s opening remarks, which went on for close to one hour.

Significantly, the Vigyan Bhawan session had taken place barely a fortnight after the RSS chief's global outreach at Chicago to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda's speech at the World Parliament of Religions. It was also dominated by an audience comprising the ‘faithful’. The audience on this occasion however, was more scrutinising towards the RSS, and this is probably why they were asked not to put out stories.

Image of RSS functionaries at the “closed door” event with foreign press on 24 September.
Image of RSS functionaries at the “closed door” event with foreign press on 24 September.
(Photo Courtesy: RSS)

Mohan Bhagwat Reiterated RSS’s Old Stances

Earlier in 2016, Bhagwat had held a ‘not-to-be-reported’ session with a small group of Indian journalists working for front-ranking print publications, although details of this interaction filtered out when at least one journalist chose to violate the RSS stricture. It remains to be seen if any journalist at this session interprets the “later date” as maybe being just a few hours or days after its conclusion. But, as was explained by someone who attended, “risking future access” is not really worth it, given that Bhagwat reiterated old positions.

The most significant of these was that the RSS was “not a political organisation but just a cultural body”.

Or that, “99.9 percent of Indians are Hindus, as only 0.1 percent of Muslims are descendants of those who came from other nations”; the “rest are all converted and originally Hindus”. Or even that, Mohan Bhagwat took to Twitter as a “precautionary measure” to ensure that no one else started a handle in his name and misused it!

Why ‘RSS is Difficult to Understand & Easy to Misunderstand’

The cordiality and ease of Tuesday's session was in total contrast with the experience of Walter Andersen, former official in the US State Department who co-authored two books: the pioneering work, The Brotherhood In Saffron in the mid 1980s, and the 2018 tome, The RSS: A View to the Inside. Andersen's early comment made for an insightful thought about the organisation: “The RSS is very difficult to understand and very easy to misunderstand,” Andersen had said.

Part of the reason was that the RSS did not provide access to anyone without ‘right’ credentials.

Living in the shadow of political isolation, it opened itself only to the ‘converted’, the ‘sympathetic’, or at least someone with the right ‘introduction’.

How RSS Put Ex-US State Dept Official to the ‘Test’

Andersen narrated how in the 1960s, as a student in Delhi University when Kapil Sibal was “down the corridor of Jubilee Hall”, he met RSS leader Eknath Ranade, who after several meetings with him, arranged a meeting with MS Golwalkar. The journey to Nagpur was eventful and packed with drama — a functionary was tasked to take Walter Andersen to the railway station, where he was introduced to another person (Shridhar Damle, co-author of ‘The RSS: A View to the Inside’, claims it was he) who took him to Bombay, where the two stayed overnight.

Following this, a third RSS functionary took Andersen to Nagpur. At Nagpur, after being escorted for the first exchange — a short one with Golwalkar — he was asked to return next morning, at 6:30 AM, and on a bicycle which would be loaned by a pracharak. “I think it was a test for me, whether I could make it on my own. I suppose it was like the (ancient) Hindu custom of having the girl play chess to judge whether she was intelligent enough to be married,” Andersen told a journalist last year.

‘Had We Held this Meeting 10 Yrs Ago, Not Many Would’ve Come’: Bhagwat

None of this preceded Bhagwat's session on 24 September, although the RSS expects its request of the event not being reported immediately, to be respected. Part of this confidence stems from the political power which the organisation wields currently. Bhagwat in fact, remarked that, ‘journalists were now willing to come and hear him out’.

“Had we held this meeting ten years ago, not many would have come,” Bhagwat is said to have stated on Tuesday.
Image of RSS sarsangchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, at the “closed door” event with foreign press on 24 September.
Image of RSS sarsangchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, at the “closed door” event with foreign press on 24 September.
(Photo Courtesy: RSS)

The reasoning within the organisation now is that if the RSS acts, and is seen, as the ideological fountainhead, it must no longer remain obscured from public consciousness. “Certainly, the mist has disappeared and the cloud has lifted,” said a journalist after emerging from the session, which included a lunch that Bhagwat also joined in.

Bhagwat’s ‘Tutorial’ on RSS

The Nagpur-based leadership knows that a brotherhood which does not open its doors to the other (primary) gender and other faiths, would be viewed as either obscurantist or seclusionist. Bhagwat certainly wished to dispel these notions and reasoned it would be useful to pick up the baton of reasonability which he waved last year with his clarification that Hindu Rashtra “does not mean there is no place for Muslims”, and that Hindutva would stop existing if “Muslims are unwanted”.

He certainly utilised the time at hand as an occasion for a tutorial on RSS’s history and philosophy.

Most significantly, the sarsanghchalak provided an interesting exposition of the primary RSS worldview. He said that the organisation believed in “diversity in unity (or unitarism)“ and not in “unity in diversity”, which has been the credo of regimes prior to the Sangh Parivar-driven government. The subtle difference is significant, although just appearing to be a mere rearranging of words. Bhagwat indeed “played the game well” and took questions which “others in the Parivar would have baulked at”.

Bhagwat Answered Questions On NRC, Kashmir, Women, Homosexuality, Ram Mandir

The questions Bhagwat answered included diverse subjects: NRC, Kashmir, women, homosexuality, Ram Mandir (although he sidestepped the legal and political dimension limiting to saying that issue of faith of the site being Ram's birthplace is non-negotiable), and lynching — a subject on which he was defensive — although he said the “politically correct” statements, that is, the ‘legal process must be allowed to run its course’.

As a journalist phrased it, in the final analysis, Bhagwat managed to convince that ‘although the RSS may still remain partially secretive, it certainly had become suave and well-versed in the necessities of realpolitik’.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book isThe RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached 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 them.)

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