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Close Encounters with the RSS – What I learnt in Nagpur

I was 9 years old in the summer of 1992, in my ancestral village in UP for my summer vacations. Most evenings my father would take me to the nearby town of Ayodhya. On one such evening I met an old man named Parshuram sitting on a chauki on the banks of the river Saryu — flowing white beard, short white dhoti, a white cotton drape around his bare body and a very kind face. I recall very little of my conversation with him but I keep thinking back to what I do remember. Across the river, the message of kar seva was resounding on loud speakers. I asked him what they were saying. His reply was obscure: “There is an eternal truth, a truth of the present times and an exceptional truth of difficult circumstances. One can only hope these people are responding to what is true.” Seven months later ‘these people’ demolished the Masjid that housed Ayodhya’s patron deity, Ram Lalla, altering the course of India’s history. One month after that, Parshuram died. He was the first Sanghi I ever met; a member of the RSS whose affiliate organisations, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the BJP, were spearheading the Ram Mandir movement.

Two decades hence, the word Sanghi is used pejoratively to refer to all kinds of right-wing trolls and lunatics — bringing to mind the sort of venom, misogyny and bigotry my memory does not associate with Parshuram. What did he really believe in? Did his gentle manner belie his deepest convictions? What had I missed? I was thinking of the smiling old man last week when I landed in Nagpur, where, in 1925, Dr KB Hedgewar had founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation “of the society” as its founder liked to describe it. The Sangh has since gone on to become an umbrella for many different organisations — of labourers, students, farmers, women and religious missionaries. The BJP, started as the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951, is its political affiliate. The RSS headquarters in Nagpur is guarded like a fortress. A stack of lunchboxes lie around the police vans outside, an armed sentry in a watchtower at the entrance keeps a sharp eye on every passerby and past the metal detectors, a very rude security in-charge asks you prying questions before you are let in. Barely a few steps in, the tense hostility gives way to an easy congeniality. The office is as sparse as the security apparatus is beefy. A couple of children are playing on the grounds. A middle-aged pracharak apologises for the bookshop being shut and offers me water. He is warm and happy to host me despite not quite understanding why I am there. This warmth and openness characterises my meetings with every single senior RSS member over the next couple of days. They are generous with their time and happy to debate despite my hostile questioning. Their homes are bare, their libraries rich, and there is a little bit of Parshuram in all of them. Particularly, MG Vaidya, a 92 year old Sangh ideologue and former editor of Tarun Bharat. Vaidya, like Virag Pachpor, another RSS ideologue I meet, strongly believes in Hedgewar’s vision of uniting Hindus by “ignoring caste” and other socio-cultural barriers. “There can be no samata (equality) but we aim for samrasata (togetherness)”. Both of them tell me the story of how MK Gandhi applauded Hedgewar’s success when he found Hindus eating together in a RSS camp irrespective of differences in their castes. I ask Vaidya how one can reconcile Hedgewar’s belief that Hindus need to unite to strengthen the country with, say, the politics of the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP in Mahrasthra that has attacked Gujaratis and Tamilians, amongst others, for being ‘outsiders’ in their state. He says nothing about them directly but makes it very clear that drawing lines on the basis of region or language is not in keeping with the RSS’s ideology. But the RSS is an evolving institution, he adds. Explaining further he says, there are three kinds of Dharma- sanaatan or eternal dharma, the dharma of present times, Yug Dharma, and a third that applies only in emergencies, Apat Dharma. Almost the very words I had heard from Parshuram when I was 9, but back then I did not quite understand them as clearly. Vaidya is a learned man — proud of his daughter-in-law who goes out to work and his wife who continued her studies until much later in life. He tells me he has gone out of his way to intervene whenever he has heard of a case of domestic abuse in his village. He believes inter-caste and inter-religious marriages are healthy. He is appalled that people would confuse Sanghis with the likes of Muthalik and the Ram Sene. “There are plenty of bars in Nagpur. No woman has ever been harmed here for going to one,” says he when I ask him if he thinks I should not be going out to get a drink once in a while. Seemingly, no one I meet from the Sangh has anything against Muslims either, “as long as they stand up for their country in the same way as Hindus do”. Unfortunately that is an idea of nationalism that leaves far too much to the discretion of those who enforce it. Similarly incongruent are Vaidya’s views on what happened in Gujarat in 2002. He condemns the riots but believes they need to be seen as an understandable “reaction” to the Godhra incident. In the course of these conversations it becomes increasingly clear to me that the RSS’s outward ideology is not half as discomfiting as the fine print, which is most visible in the execution of its political agenda; its shadowy relationship with the BJP.

Towards the end of our conversation Vaidya tells me he doesn’t travel much any more on account of his age. Recently when he refused to attend an event in another town the organisers asked him to reconsider, offering to arrange for a chopper to fly him in and out. Vaidya scoffed at the idea. Neither he, nor they could afford a chopper. “But they were very clever,” he laughs. “They invited Nitin Gadkari too, so I could go in a chopper and attend the event.” You wouldn’t imagine Vaidya in a chopper with Gadkari if you met him. The dharma of the exceptional moment. Whatever one’s opinion on the RSS’s idea of India might be, it is hard not to question its alliance with the BJP on account of its own principles. BJP, with its divisive agenda, soft spot for big business and indiscriminate political alliances does not quite bode well for the RSS’s stated mission of a strong, unified nation concerned about its villages. But veteran RSS analyst Dilip Deodhar insists that Modi is truly secular. It is the Congress that is multi-communal. They have resorted to Hindu communalism in 1984, Muslim communalism in the Shah Bano case, Christian communalism in the north-east- his list is endless. Modi on the other hand does not bring up Hindutva in his speeches because he is a true disciple of Hedgewar who said, “Why should I call myself a Hindu. Let others call me a Hindu,” says Deodhar. He also goes to lengths to explain to me that neither Hedgewar nor Golwalkar saw eye to eye with VD Savarkar and his Hindu Mahasabha. They principally disagreed with Savarkar’s idea that all those whose holy lands lie outside of India cannot be considered Indians. Nathuram Godse, he points out, was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha. He also believes that the RSS is wrong to deny that there can be such a thing as Hindu terror. They must simply state that they do not endorse it.

Why then was the RSS banned by Vallabhbhai Patel, I ask him. The RSS was banned on Nehru’s orders because he suspected Patel would form a political alliance with them and challenge Nehru’s Congress, he answers. Pachpor too is of the view that had Nehru not stopped Patel from inducting RSS members into Congress after the ban on the organisation was lifted, BJP would not have come into existence. RSS decided to extend support to the Jan Sangh, BJP’s precursor only after they realised they needed a voice in the Parliament to counter future attempts to disband them. In their version of history I also find another answer. The RSS prides itself on remaining ‘outside the political sphere’ and yet it has bent its own rules and immersed itself in these elections. I have been told many times over that after the Emergency–when the RSS was banned again, by Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi this time–this is the first election that they are keenly participating in. The leaders claim workers are merely ensuring more and more people register and show up to vote but on ground it is evident that the entire Sangh machinery is at work to ensure Modi wins. When I ask why, I am sketchily told they are concerned about the state of the nation. But why now? Why more than ever? “The RSS did its job well after Emergency and Indira would have stayed out of power had Choudhary Charan Singh not made the mistake of putting her in jail”, says Pachpor. But Indira came back and was followed by Rajiv. The RSS sees Nehru’s progenies as a continuing threat. Deodhar tells me that in Rahul Gandhi’s attack on the RSS they hear his great grandfather’s ploy to stay in power by weakening the Sangh. “Modi’s cry for a Congress mukt Bharat is only a euphemism for a Nehru-Gandhi dynasty mukt Bharat,” he says. In Deodhar’s writings Rahul Gandhi’s surname is spelt as Gandhy because “he is a dummy Gandhi”. He points out that Modi is the first BJP leader to directly take on the family. Neither Advani nor Vajpayee could do it. That cannot be the only reason why Modi has emerged as Sangh’s favourite candidate. Deodhar tells me Pramod Mahajan was their original choice until he was “assassinated”. It is no secret that sections of the BJP, including Mahajan have had reservations about Modi. As have several Sanghis, including Vaidya in the past. Deodhar feels it was Sonia Gandhi’s “foolish campaign” that helped Modi the most. After she referred to him as Maut Ka Saudagar in 2007, he became a “Hindu icon” and neither the Sangh, nor VHP could afford to ignore him. On the face of it, the idea of a “Hindu icon” is also at odds with the Sangh’s philosophy. Contrary to expectations senior Sangh leaders don’t wear their religion on their sleeves. Deodhar is an atheist. He doesn’t think much of the Manu Smriti as a text. “It was written by a Kshatriya who said Brahmins can’t be kings. As a Brahmin I should take as much offence to it as any Dalit,” he says in jest. Hinduism is not a religion, assert RSS ideologues. “It is not even a commonwealth of religions as described by Dr Radhakrishnan”, says Vaidya, “it is more than that.” Hindutva for them is a force that must bring the nation together to build a strong state. But how can citizens come together in the face of frequent riots? The answer is blowing in the wind. There is no effective, practicable way to unite a community as impossibly diverse as the Hindus unless you create a common enemy from time to time. The Dharma of the exceptional moment. There is also the Dharma of present times. The carrot of development, unbridled economic prosperity and India as a global superpower. If you go out on the streets and talk to those who are about to cast their votes you will see that is also a very effective way of bringing the majority of this nation together. “Whatever the Sangh sets its mind on, it achieves,” Deodhar tells me. At what cost? It remains to be seen.

(First published on Firstpost, April 8th, 2014)

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