RSS & Hindutva: How Rabble-Rousing Outfits Put Bhagwat in a Tight Spot

Ideology doesn’t permit Bhagwat to disown them, but their political inappropriateness is a thorn in the flesh.

7 min read
RSS & Hindutva: How Rabble-Rousing Outfits Put Bhagwat in a Tight Spot

In possibly the most famous of Ajit (the Hindi film villain) dialogues or jokes, albeit apocryphal, the character tells Raabert, his henchman, to put the adversary in ‘Liquid Oxygen’, because the liquid would not ‘let him live’ and the oxygen would not ‘let him die’.

This joke comes to mind every time Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sarsanghchalak (chief) Mohan Bhagwat responds to unbridled actions or rabble-rousing statements by people not strictly part of the Sangh network but still symbiotically connected with its ecosystem.

The RSS chief’s predicament is simple: the belief of these people in the Hindutva ideology does not permit Bhagwat to disown them, but the political inappropriateness of their actions prevents him from embracing them, at least in public.


The Quandary Started With Godse

The quandary is a recurring one for the past 74 years, when Nathuram Godse murdered Mahatma Gandhi. Godse could never be explicitly acknowledged as their own, although every now and then, various leaders of the Sangh family, including some Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmakers, valourise the icon-in-the-closet.

This dilemma was seen again on 6 February at a function organised by the Lokmat Media group in Nagpur, at which Bhagwat spoke on ‘Hindutva and National Integration’ as part of a lecture series to mark the golden jubilee of the newspaper’s Nagpur edition. With the topic being framed the way it was, it would have been in any case difficult for Bhagwat not to respond to charges of Hindutva being a divisive idea in the backdrop of genocidal and incendiary statements made at the Dharam Sansad in Haridwar, and subsequently in Raipur. The ‘conclaves’ saw speakers calling upon ‘Sanatani Hindus’ to prepare for realising a Hindu Rashtra, while also praising Nathuram Godse and simultaneously calling Mahatma Gandhi a ‘traitor’.

A Set of Uncomfortable Questions

Bhagwat’s task was made tougher by the chairman of the host group and former parliamentarian Vijay Darda, who ‘relayed’ certain questions that several people wished to put to the RSS chief after learning that the event had been drawn up by his organisation.

These questions spanned a wide range of issues, including charges against the Sangh of encouraging or at least remaining mute against attempts to spread intolerance, selective appropriation of nationalist leaders and new Hinduism-specific postgraduate courses at the Banaras Hindu University and Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri National Sanskrit University, Delhi, in which Buddhism and Jainism were reportedly being presented as branches of Hinduism.

Darda also stated that many who learnt about the function wanted Bhagwat to speak about so-called ‘love jihad’, the need for laws to curb inter-faith marriages, and why he or any of his colleagues in the RSS did not forthrightly issue statements of condemnation following the Hardwar and Raipur meetings.


Hindutva as a 'Developing' Ideology

Bhagwat asserted that the event was not only an inappropriate forum to answer questions but that it was also necessary to know who had asked the question and the motivation behind it. Answers, he said, could be framed accordingly, only after knowing the identity of questioners and the purpose.

Bhagwat also found the title of his lecture ‘inappropriate’. He said instead of naming it ‘Hindutva and National Integration’, it would have been more fitting to say ‘Hindutva is National Integration’, indicating that in the RSS viewpoint, Hindutva had an adhesive capacity and was not divisive, as was on display recently.

That awkward bit about queries being put aside, the first definitive assertion, and which is similar to what Bhagwat said in a three-day lecture series in New Delhi in 2018, was that “Hindutva is not an ‘ism’,” not an ideology. According to Bhagwat, individuals have to “adjust to the imagination of an ideology” and that Hindutva was not like that. “Those who believe in it, develop it or change it with their experience and according to their capacities.”

From the RSS chief’s assertion, an essential question emerges in the backdrop of events preceding this lecture – can one not argue that those who called for genocide of Muslims and/or ethnic cleansing at Haridwar or at Raipur had also ‘developed’ or ‘changed’ the notion of Hindutva on the basis of “their experience” over the past three-and-a-half decades in the course of the Hindu nationalistic movement that gained ground on the back of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation?

After all, many among the Hindutva votaries went much beyond the initial demand that the Babri Masjid should be ‘restored’ to Hindus.


A Catch-22 Situation For the RSS

Since his first public interaction in New Delhi in 2018, Bhagwat has characterised his addresses with non-specifics and generalities. For instance, though he has often stated that Hindutva would not be Hindutva if it had no place for Muslims, he failed to curtail the incessant targeting and vilification of the community.

Bhagwat never offered an explanation for majoritarian calls for the boycott of Muslims engaged in trade, or lynchings on mere suspicion of carrying or eating beef. What action has he asked millions of swayamsevaks (RSS cadre) to take to ensure that such attacks don’t continue?

Even on the recent Dharam Sansads, he worded his speech guardedly – “Not all that is being done in its name, is Hindutva.” He mildly asked the aggressive lot that “even if [you] disagree, do it with friendliness, this is the nature of Hindutva”. Is this a tacit acceptance that the motor-mouths, too, are votaries of the idea of Hindutva, while not being part of the RSS mainframe?

A criticism of calls for violence, if veiled, merely points to the Catch-22 situation that the RSS leadership finds itself in on every occasion when the moral Rubicon is crossed.

The issue of the two Dharam Sansads awkwardly ignored in this manner, the RSS leader spent considerable time expounding on a favourite theme of his – that “religion is not Dharma” and that there are “many religions in our country” but all of them have a “Hindu swabhav” (nature).


Unity & Diversity in RSS Terms

Bhagwat’s words echoed what Prime Minister Narendra Modi told me almost a decade ago when I interviewed him while researching for his biography. “The practices and traditions of pujas and rituals can be different, but cannot be differentiated from the country, from tradition.” For Bhagwat, “Hindutva is not a full stop. It is not a religion and not bound with ritual.” But then, one may ask, why this insistence on adherence by all to certain rituals, practices and customs?

In his Nagpur address, the RSS chief returned to a previous postulation, wherein he reversed the word order in the national credo of “unity in diversity”. Like previously, Bhagwat emphasised that “our unity enables the diversity, and not the other way around”.

On the face of it, this appears an innocuous assertion made on a popular belief to merely underscore one’s ‘distinctiveness’. However, behind this contention is the understanding that unity is inherent because of a cultural commonness that exists despite adhering to different faiths. Bhagwat further stated that the RSS “did not consider uniformity essential”. He said, “To be different, however, does not mean that one is separate.”

Although he did not take questions, this one shall remain pending: why is different thinking in our outlooks being increasingly seen as a sign of separateness? Why are people questioning the regime being depicted as going against the national interest?

The RSS chief claimed that cultural commonness was nothing but Hindutva. As a consequence, “Hindu Rashtra banaane ki baat nahi hai, kyunki woh hai” (there is no need to work for a Hindu Rashtra because it exists already).


Hindutva's Insistence on a Common Lineage

Indians, according to Bhagwat, are bound by a common relationship, or bandhu bhao (friendliness), and this emerges from the troika of sentiments: Bharat Bhakti (devotion to Bharat), Sanskriti (culture) and Poorvaj Gaurav (pride in our ancestors.)

Of these, the cornerstone, devotion to the country, is on the basis of “everyone being the children of Bharat Mata”, which means that the relationship with the nation is not constitutional, but cultural.

Cultural commonality being seen as the basis of the unifying bond is fine in principle, but when Dharma is said to be the culture, with different religions being part of it, it becomes a problematic proposition.

However, taking pride in ancestors is more thorny because different sections have different perspectives on what constitutes common lineage – most importantly, is it drawn only historically, or are all Indians expected to also take pride in figures revered as mythological? As Modi had stated, everyone should “respect our ideas and ideals”.

'Hindutva in Constitution'

It is true that Alamma Iqbal termed Ram as zindagi ki rooh (the soul of life) and roohaniyat ki shaan (the pride of spirituality), and finally bestowed on the epic hero the title of ‘Imam-e-Hind’. But to expect reverence from all Muslim citizens because those in the majority do so is beyond constitutionalism.

However, this is justifiable for Bhagwat because he asserts that citizenship is merely a “legal relationship”, whereas the cultural one is paramount. He also contentiously argues that the “sentiment expressed in the Constitution is Hindutva” and that what is contained in it, portrayed as India’s only Holy Book, is “because of Hindutva”.


The Art of Riding the Tiger and Taming It

Despite presenting Hindutva as a unifying bond, Bhagwat stated that ‘indiscretion’ (or aviveki) occurs; he was perhaps pointing at the awkwardness cause by the Dharam Sansad utterances. But here, the conspiratorial mind gets active, for “that is used by people to harm the overall idea” of Hindutva.

Clearly, there is scope of improvement in the Hindu worldview, especially for its practitioners. Bhagwat called for ending caste discrimination “lock stock and barrel,” but perhaps being aware of his limitations, he did not comment on Yogi Adityanath recently calling upon people to take pride in their caste identities.

Viewed in its entirety, Bhagwat’s speech at Nagpur was an important exposition of the RSS viewpoint that showcased all its predicaments and contradictions. It underscores how the RSS is coping with new challenges, especially from those who are not guided by an understanding of realpolitik and know belligerence directed at Muslims and Christians as the only pathway. The Sangh leadership is yet to master the art of riding the tiger and taming it, or dismounting at will.

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

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Topics:  BJP   RSS   Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh 

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