Mainstream, VOL L, No 35, August 18, 2012
Enigma of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
Monday 20 August 2012, by
Dr K.S. Hedgewar, who had originally worked with Mahatma Gandhi and was in the Congress, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at Nagpur in 1925. When Mahatma Gandhi asked Dr Hedgewar why he created a separate organisation instead of creating it within the Congress party, Dr Hedgewar is reported to have said that his vision was of volunteers coming together and working for the nation selflessly and with no personal interest. This would not be possible within the fold of a political party which had a political agenda and, therefore, had a prescribed set of interests. Dr Hedgewar said: “I am convinced that it is only through such dedicated and committed workers that the nation could move forward in every sphere.” It is on this account that the RSS claims that it is a totally apolitical organisation whose sole purpose is service and nation-building.
Therein lies the enigma. Undoubtedly it is under the sponsorship of the RSS that the Bharatiya Jan Sangh was created. Prior to the constitution of the Jan Sangh, Hindu interests in India were represented by the Hindu Mahasabha of which Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was the pre-eminent member. As a Member of Parliament and an Opposition leader he was respected by everyone, including Jawaharlal Nehru, and his tragic death in Kashmir when heading an agitation there was a great loss to the country. However, the Hindu Mahasabha was not a creation of the RSS and after the Jan Sangh came into existence the Hindu Mahasabha faded away. According to leaders of the RSS, the reason why they sponsored a political party was that after the RSS had been banned, not once but twice there was no one to defend the organisation in Parliament and it was subjected to calumny and worse. Therefore, purely in self-defence, the Sangh encouraged the formation of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh as a political party which owed its origin to the RSS but was not a part of it. Even today, after the Jan Sangh converted itself into the much larger Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has real political influence and power, the RSS continues to emphasise its non-political character. The question arises whether this claim bears scrutiny or not.
The RSS headquarters are located in Nagpur and for senior BJP leaders that city is a pilgrim-centre which, in political terms, is the equivalent of Varanasi or Ujjain. As the BJP expanded, it naturally brought into its fold many people, including senior leaders, who had no RSS connection. For example, Sushma Swaraj herself had socialist leanings and as a Minister of State in Haryana in 1975 was part of a non-Jan Sangh government. This was inevitable as the BJP moved towards capturing power which it could not have done if it did not have a mass base. The RSS has always had an elite cadre and its entire structure is based on a hierarchy of Sanghchalaks, Pracharaks and Swayamsevaks. Every cadre-based party has a similar structure. For example, the CPI-M claims to be a party of the masses, but the number of card-holding CPI-M cadres is limited. This is true of the RSS also.
To add to the enigma, therefore, the BJP itself consists of two absolutely different groups. The first group consists of people who have come through the RSS rank-and-file and who have been assigned a full-time political role. They form the core of the BJP. Then there are workers at field level and in party offices at different levels from Block to State and the Central office who have never been with the RSS. For example, my batch-mates, N.N. Jha and R. Ramakrishnan, have been members of the National Executive of the BJP without any RSS exposure. Lt. Gen. J.R.F. Jacob spent his whole working life in the Army; by religion he is a Jew but he, too, was a member of the National Executive of the BJP. These people would never be comfortable with the RSS because their service background does not lend itself to a culture in which Hindutva is the ruling cult. How can these two disparate elements, the RSS-origin BJP leadership and the non-RSS, expanded Bharatiya Janata Party learn to live together and eat at the same table? That is both an enigma and a dilemma.
IS the RSS really apolitical? It unashamedly accepts that it is the progenitor of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and, therefore, of the BJP. It is alleged that the person who heads the BJP must have the clearance of the RSS headquarters and that Nitin Gadkari, the present head of the BJP, is there with the blessings of Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Sarsanghchalak. Am I really looking for the word ‘blessings’ or do I mean approval? The RSS bigwigs claim that the Sangh only lays down the criteria for selection of the BJP chief, but does not give any direction in this behalf. I may please be pardoned for skepticism about this statement. As evidence I offer the case of L.K. Advani who, on a visit to Pakistan, stated that Jinnah was a much misunderstood man in India and Pakistan, his agenda was not communal and his very first speech on Pakistan attaining independence was to tell the people of Pakistan that they were all part of one nation in which there was total freedom and equality for all religions. Advani was severely attacked by the RSS and virtually hounded out of leadership of the BJP. If the RSS is apolitical why does it have anything to do with how a political party is structured and run?
There are other strong indicators of the political agenda of the RSS. In every State BJP party headquarters the organising secretary is a functionary from the RSS placed there by the RSS headquarters. He is more than a moral policeman—he is the RSS watchdog on how the BJP functions in the State. In all matters of policy he is consulted and if he disapproves the policy is abandoned. Paradoxically the only State in which the Chief Minister and, therefore, the political party which he heads, takes the final decisions and ignores the RSS and its organisations such as the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) is Gujarat, whose Chief Minister has a background of the RSS. That is because Narendra Modi is prepared to take an independent stand even against the RSS in the matter of running the government.
I have not mentioned the political role of the RSS in any derogatory or deprecating manner, nor am I judgemental about the RSS’ politics. My submission is that however much it may deny it, the RSS has a strong political role and though it may be a service organisation, it has a political agenda. Then why is the RSS shy of admitting this? It would be in the interest of the country, of the BJP and RSS if it openly states that it is interested in the political situation in the country and has a definite political programme. It would then openly advocate its political agenda and either directly or through the BJP make it a part of the total Indian political scene. In a democracy in the matter of government we need political pronouncements, political programmes and political organisations and the RSS should not be shy to join the political process openly instead of dictating its political agenda from behind the purdah. Of course this would mean that the RSS would have to accept the discipline of the Indian Constitution in which secularism is the guiding principle, the freedom to preach, profess and propagate one’s religion is a fundamental right and there is freedom of speech and expression. This discipline would have to apply to other creations of the RSS also, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. It would also mean that narrow parochialism would have to be abandoned.
Is the RSS the representative of narrow Hindutva interests or is it a communal organisation in which non-Hindus are excluded and non-Hindu ideas are shunned? In this behalf one would have to look at the record of the RSS, especially from the time when partition became inevitable.
I am personally witness to the heroic role of RSS in pre-partition Punjab, especially in 1946 and 1947 when the Hindu-Muslim divide had become an unbridgeable chasm and as partition approached, West Punjab was soaked in blood. To be fair this was equally true of East Punjab, with Hindus and Sikhs being the victims in the West and Muslims in the East. This is a shameful period in our history in which the heirs to Mughal culture became savages and so-called tolerant Hindus became barbarians. It is the RSS volunteers who in West Punjab did much to save people and organise columns of migrants from West Punjab to the East. In the refugee camps in East Punjab it was the RSS volunteers who came forward in large numbers to succour, house and feed refugees. In times of calamity, natural or manmade, the RSS volunteers have been at the forefront.
One remembers how at the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy it was the RSS volunteers who came forward in large numbers to bury and cremate the dead and help the gas affected. Their role in the Gujarat earthquake of 2000 and the tsunami is well-recognised and this undoubtedly is the positive side of the RSS. To this extent it is an organisation of volunteers who come together for selfless service.
THE main objective of the RSS has been nation-building through shakhas in which the Swayamsevaks come forward and are trained. Undoubtedly discipline is taught and patriotism towards the nation is inculcated. So far so good. However, the entire training programme has a very strong element of Hindu ritual, with great emphasis on Hindutva and on a Bharat which is a Hindu nation. What about the fact that it is also the second largest Islamic country in the world, next only to Indonesia in terms of the Muslim population? What about the fact that in AD 52, that is just 52 years after the birth of Christ, the first Christian church was established in India by St. Thomas? What about the fact that predominantly Hindu India has a Sikh majority State, the Punjab, three Christian majority States, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram, two Buddhist majority States, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, and one Muslim majority State, Jammu & Kashmir? Is Bharat not their country also? The RSS has no answer to this except to say that Hindutva does not amount to Hinduism and that it is a way of life of a country called Hindustan.
Incidentally, even here there is a dilemma. The name that the Muslim invaders gave to India was Hindustan. The name that the RSS wants to give it is Hindusthan. That one letter ‘h’ makes all the difference because it makes India the land of Hindus only whereas Hindustan is a geographical entity whose origin is the land of the Sindhu, or the Indus River. Even the Mughals never called South India Hindustan. To them it was the Dakhan or Deccan, again a geographical entity meaning the south.
The RSS has always averred that Hindutva is not Hinduism. In fact the word Hindu itself is something which has come to us from the Arabs because no ancient scriptures refer to the word ‘Hindu’. The Vedas, if they can be called scriptures, are both the genesis of Sanatan Dharma and originate from it. In other words, the word ‘Hindu’ itself comes to us from a foreign source which, ironically, is Muslim. In Sanskrit there is no word for religion because dharma transcends religion and is applicable to both the believer and non-believer, with an atheist being dharmic if his thoughts relate to truth and his actions are selfless. The true strength of Hinduism is this catholicity, this eclecticism, this total inclusiveness in which no one is the ‘other’. The Semitic religions have the concept of exclusivity, but the Sanatan Dharma is totally inclusive. Therefore, for the RSS to rise to the heights which Dr Hedgewar had in his mind while creating the RSS, it will have to transcend its narrow interpretation of Hindutva and become an organisation which is truly inclusive and all-embracive.
In order to become the RSS of Hedgewar and not the RSS of Golwalkar, the RSS will have to shed its narrow Hindu image and rise above narrow Hindutva. That does not mean that the vast majority of India’s population will not be Hindu. To that extent it is a Hindu nation and it is about time that Hindus begin to take pride in this fact. The RSS is more than welcome to generate such pride. At the same time India must realise that its Muslim population is more than the total population of over ninety countries and the Muslims have as much right to pride in their Indianness and their Islamic faith as Hindus have in their faith. It is also a country with a huge Christian population and Christians, too, have a right to pride in their religion and the nation, as do the Parsees. The RSS has no problems with the followers of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism because it considers these to be religions whose origins lie in Sanatan Dharma. Actually because Sanatan Dharma is applicable to the whole of mankind, every religion is connected with it and this is the true meaning of Hindutva.
One last point. Accepting that the RSS is not a political organisation I addressed letters to two successive Sarsanghchalaks, R. Sudarshan and Mohan Bhagwat. In my letters I suggested that because the RSS is non-political and is committed to nation-building, it should set up teams of experts in various fields, such as Education, Health, Agriculture, Industry, Forest and Environment, Water Management, Energy, Employment Generation, Social and Cultural Infrastructure, etc., and each of these groups should come out with a series of policy papers which could be guidelines for planning our future. Because they would be realistically written, keeping in my mind our human, physical and financial resources, they would be equally relevant to all political parties, regardless of different ideologies. Every party wants India to progress. By generating these policy documents the RSS would do a great service to the country and give shape to Dr Hedgewar’s dreams.
The fate of my letters was that both when Sudarshan was Sarsanghchalak and thereafter when Mohan Bhagwat became Sarsanghchalak I received postcards from Nagpur, the gist of which was that my letters had been received and would be submitted to the Sarsanghchalak at the appropriate time. I bow my head in salute to the RSS headquarters office for fine-tuning red tape beyond anything of which a government office could even dream. Never have I received such a reply from any government office. What is the appropriate time? Are astrologers to be consulted? I would happily accept that my letters were not worth reading and had been thrown into the nearest wastepaper basket. I can live with being told that my ideas were impractical or that they did not fit within the mandate of the RSS. But to be told that my letters had not even been read by the Sarsanghchalak because they were not shown to him indicates a high degree of bureaucratic insensitivity and, if I may submit, an act of discourtesy by a person who heads India’s most powerful group of volunteers.
Perhaps I blame the Sarsanghchalak unnecessarily because I am sure that had he known about the existence of my letters, he would have responded. Certainly the Prime Minister of India does. For the RSS to be widely acknowledged, taken at face value and trusted, it must move away from its present state of introversion, become more open, initiate dialogue with those who disagree with its philosophy and open its windows to the fresh breeze of ideas which will make it a truly vibrant organisation committed to the service of India.
Dr M.N. Buch belonged to the IAS batch of 1957 and resigned in 1984. Presently he is the Chairman, National Centre for Human Settlement and Environment, Bhopal.