RSS Conclave: Of Half-Truths & Changing the Eyes that See Reality
This lecture series seems to be a marketing strategy on the part of the RSS, a face-saving exercise of sorts.
American historian and lecturer on media and consumer culture, Stuart Ewen, said: “The history of PR is a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality.”
Having lived a shadowy existence for most of its 92 years, partly of their own volition and episodically because of the actions of their supporters, leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) would like to believe that their problems have been compounded by the inability to communicate the true intent and purpose of their organisation. Mohan Bhagwat's three-day lecture series must be seen in this context, and seems to be a ploy to increase the RSS’s social acceptability.
Roots of the New Lecture Series
The organisation which has been banned three times in independent India for unlawful activity, including on charges of involvement in the assassination of Gandhi, has been running quasi-study circles annually for its cadre. Reflecting the RSS' early fascination with militarist symbolism, its founders called these Officers' Training Camps.
This programme came under the spotlight in June when former President Pranab Mukherjee delivered the valedictory address in Nagpur at the conclusion of this year's OTC, now rechristened as ‘Sangh Sikhsha Varg’ or ‘RSS Education Camp’.
The curricula at these camps are three-tiered: the first year or Prathamik Shiksha Varg is a seven-day long affair and held at district levels. Swayamsevaks, depending on their grasp of the ideology, issues and rituals, then graduate to the second and third year camps, the last of which is held only in Nagpur and just for the crème de la crème, who qualify to become pracharaks or preachers of the RSS.
With his lecture series, Bhagwat has added a new level to this camp which, given the RSS’s fondness for nomenclature, can aptly be labelled Kishor Varg.
In Hindi, adolescence is termed kishor avastha and the prefix would be fitting for this televised lecture series because it targets political adolescents – people who are either okay with the RSS but are in search of argumentative ammunition to first convince themselves and then others in their socio-professional circles – or are marking their presence to get noticed by the powers that be.
Initially, when reports of the series surfaced, it was expected that the RSS was attempting to revive the tradition of shastradh or the great religious debate, which underscored the long tradition of questioning beliefs.
But this has not been the case and it was, at least in the first two days, planned as a ‘come, see, listen and go back’ event. Thus, this one-sided discourse has turned out to be an exercise in marketing.
Presenting Partial Truths
Bhagwat's first two lectures were exercises in presenting ‘partial truths’. In content, his speeches contained little but uni-dimensional fundamentals of the RSS, and could have been presented by anyone in the Sangh Parivar. Many of his claims were aimed at stripping the RSS of its ‘political pariah’ status, and to contest the communal and undemocratic tags pinned on its khaki shorts.
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Bhagwat however, should know that events since May 2014 demonstrate that the RSS is now known not for assertions made with a smile and flourish inside the privileged portals of Vigyan Bhawan, a symbol of post-colonial grandeur. Instead, the RSS is now known by outsiders – by the actions of street warriors who have either attended the Sangh Siksha Vargs or are guided by the public discourse that goes around in the name of Hindutva.
The majority of RSS’s supporters believe that Hindu society can be strengthened only by either eliminating religious minorities, or by reducing them to the state of second-class citizens.
For them, the rule of law and the Indian democracy's ‘only holy book’, namely, the Constitution, are obstacles to their national-rebuilding endeavour.
Re-Shaping KB Hedgewar’s Trajectory
On the first evening, Bhagwat elaborated on how Keshav Baliram Hedgewar went about establishing the RSS. He narrated several stories, some restrained and others exaggerated, on how Hedgewar too had been a part of the Congress and the early phase of the national movement. Bhagwat even regaled with great pride that Hedgewar went to jail for violating the law, and put up his own defence in court which the judge considered was more seditious than the actual crime.
But Bhagwat left out two important issues from his narrative.
First, he did not detail that the RSS founder Hedgewar moved away from the Congress and the Gandhian narrative because of the incorporation of the Khilafat movement in the Non-Cooperation Movement. Bhagwat also did not mention how Hedgewar, along with other Hindu nationalists, reacted provocatively after the Moplah Uprising. Bhagwat also offered no explanation as to why Hedgewar viewed the incidents from a communal perspective and depicted the rebellion as ‘the biggest Muslim attack on the Hindus after Muslim rule’.
The RSS leader certainly made no mention of how Hedgewar was involved in providing safe passage to Hindus during their religious procession in which loud music was being played on thoroughfares where Muslim colonies were located. Furthermore, no mention was made of the RSS activists acting as early vigilante groups in September 1927 and spreading out in Hindu colonies to provide protection when riots broke out, following the assassination of the revered Arya Samaj leader Swami Shraddhanand.
No Mention of Savarkar’s Influence on RSS
Secondly, Bhagwat also made no mention of the influence of V D Savarkar and his seminal text, Hindutva – Who Is A Hindu? on Hedgewar, and how it inspired him to form the RSS. Despite continuing discomfort about Savarkar's space in the development of Hindu nationalistic thought, most leaders eulogise the leader who was jailed for his alleged involvement in Gandhi's assassination.
Despite eventual acquittal, several questions regarding Savarkar’s alleged links with the assassin, Nathuram Godse, remain unanswered.
It must be recalled that immediately a day after being sworn-in as prime minister, Narendra Modi paid obeisance to Savarkar on his birth anniversary by making floral offerings at his portrait, contentiously installed in the Central Hall of Parliament during the Vajpayee regime.
While making sweeping statements in praise of the Congress for its role in the freedom struggle, affirming loyalty to the Indian Constitution and saying that Hindutva does not believe in purging Muslims, Bhagwat does not enter the fundamental question of what separates the Sangh Parivar from its ideological opponents – its notion of the nation, and nationhood.
What Separates RSS from Its Ideological Opponents?
The RSS’s self-definition is fundamentally different from that of others and this is the basic divide. Bhagwat did not throw open this debate and instead provided his perspective while leaving the field open for followers (from what has now become a Hindutva rainbow), to practise and impose their version of Hindutva. Looks like Bhagwat is going by the Byzantine maxim reworded by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis: “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.”
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. 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 the same.)
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