Walter K Andersen is known for his profound scholarship on contemporary Indian politics, especially the rise of Hindutva. At the peak of the Ayodhya agitation, his book The Brotherhood In Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism was probably the first dispassionate academic inquiry of Hindutva, which traditional Indian academia treated with disdain and subjectivity. After nearly 35 years, Andersen with his co-author Sridhar D Damle, will be rewriting the book in the new context (of an Hindutva party leading the Union government with a majority of its own).
After attending a series of meetings at the World Sufi Conference in New Delhi, Andersen spoke at length about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, secularism and Indian politics. In an interview with Ajay Singh and Shishir Tripathi, he spoke about the inherent cultural strength of India, the rise of Hindutva and changes he has observed in the Sangh Parivar over the past five decades of his research, all of which will be part of his new book.
What are the social, cultural, political and strategic importance and ramifications of this ‘World Sufi Forum’? What were the top takeaways of this meeting?
The goal of this meeting, as I understand, was to establish linkages among Sufi leaders all over the world so we had people from West Asia, from South Africa, the US, Europe, Pakistan and from India. This was an opportunity for them to meet each other because this sort of event has never taken place in the past. And, also to establish some sort of organisational base for future efforts and to advance the cause of Sufi Islam, which is the moderate form of Islam. You know Sufism is not wedded to narrow textual dogma and therefore, the ultra-orthodox don’t like them.
Sufis talked about brotherhood among the many faiths something that you will never hear an orthodox speak. The big threat to religion and religious ideas today is not from religion, but from a kind of modern secularism which sees all religions as retrograde. They see all religious sentiments as impediment to progress. You see this very bright student from JNU, Umar Khalid, who said that he is an atheist. But I have heard his father is an extremely religious man. Probably when he looks at religion he does not find it appealing and in consonance with his scientific temperament. Science is what you need to prove, but religion is based on faith.
Don’t you think that this initiative should have come from the West — essentially the US — which actually needs to be made aware of the moderate face of Islam?
There is a practice in the US to ensure division between church and state, a practice that refrains the state from getting involved in religious activities and there is very strong sentiment regarding this. Further, Islam is relatively weak in the US and does not have the required push to get involved in such activities. Though, such events are indeed in the interest of US as Sufism is the moderate face of Islam.
But is it not in consonance with the fact that President Barack Obama went to Egypt and addressed Muslims with the same kind of appeal? Would it not have been better if the US has taken this initiative?
If this is identified with American interest, in this part or any part of the world, that would undermine its legitimacy. This is the world of conspiracies. Any involvement of the US would have been looked at with suspicion. Even in India, I have heard people raising doubt about the motive of the World Sufi Conference.
Why, in spite of Islam having such a peaceful and compassionate face like Sufism, are young people still drifting to radical Islam, manifesting in organisations like Islamic State?
There are two facts to explain this. One is that they are getting attracted to radical Islam and two they are getting attracted to atheism; and basically for the same reason. The institution of Islam in many ways is not satisfying to them; one thing that came out in this meeting too. They don’t have much to say to young people. One of the initiatives that Sufis from Ajmer are taking up is to establish a school with technical education for young Muslims boys because there is a very high rate of unemployment and data shows it is Muslims at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in urban areas, who need real help as they are mostly unemployed.
Islam has not done much about it.
Do you feel this meeting can act as an antidote to radical Islam?
I don’t think so, not because I think it should not be but because it is so difficult to organise. Then there is another problem with Sufism. It is very individualistic and at times its practices border on idolatory. On the other hand, orthodox Islam gives a sense of community to believers and gives them a direct connect to Allah. This is the reason Sufism, in spite of its message of love and compassion, gets overshadowed by the orthodox Islam.
Where does this initiative go from here then?
I think there is some success with Salman Chisty from Ajmer as he is very assertive and active internationally. He is doing a fairly good job in articulating Sufism to the world audience and in a clear and cogent manner. He is the man behind this conference.
Of late, comparisons are being drawn between the RSS and Islamic State (first by historian Irfan Habib and lately by Ghuam Nabi Azad). How do you react to that?
I don’t think it is at all an apt and valid comparison. In the India cultural context, it is very difficult to organise a group like Islamic State. Leave aside Hindus, it will be impossible for such a violent philosophy to get acceptance among Muslims or any other social groups. India’s cultural moorings are far too varied, resilient and complex to let such a tendency grow.
You held a view that the BJP and the RSS will grow simultaneously. Do you still hold this position?
They are closely linked to each other. I don’t see any split.
Is there any possibility of merging their identity in future?
No, I don’t think so.
The RSS will lose its role as of a mediator to resolve the differences in the Sangh Parivar. It will lose its ability to be objective.
Don’t you think that it has a tendency of becoming an extra-constitutional entity?
That has always been the danger. A lot of it depends on how one defines it. There is nothing illegal in seeking advice. The RSS has organisations in almost every aspect of Indian life. Look at the schools run by the RSS; it is by far the largest private school system in India. What the government thinks, affects them. So they are interested in having polices that are favourable to them. They have meetings with ministers to express their views. Whether or not it is wrong, I don’t know.
In the US, it is expected that the state will never get into religious activities, but that has never been the case with India. The Indian government provides funds to Muslims to go for Hajj. At Tirupati, an IAS officer is the director of the trust, chosen by government so you have the government involved in religion in so many ways.
In your book you dealt at length with the evolution of the RSS as a santhanist (organisational) entity. How do you see Narendra Modi as ‘sangathanist’ leader; as an organisational man?
He started off in the RSS as a young man. Here is a man who at the age of 17-18 decides to go around India as a religious student from one religious institution to another. Then he realises he wants to be an activist, a karmayogi. He becomes an RSS pracharak. He gets a degree in political science. He is an ambitious man and terrific speaker who works seven days a week, 16-17 hours a day. And so when LK Advani was organising his rath yatra, the Gujarat part was organised by Modi and he did a fantastic job and that is why perhaps Advani was attracted to him and eventually got him to Delhi to organise elections in some states.
He again did a fantastic job and was then sent back to Gujarat. In Gujarat, there was a BJP chief minister who had flopped and they were looking for someone else, and found Modi. But Modi had a particular bit of bad fortune of that event (post-Godhra riots) taking place in 2002.
However, after 2002, he progressively moved away and left that behind and started focusing on development. When I met Modi in 2013, he told me that economic development, in his view, was originally part of the Hindu message.
Almost three decades after your first book was published, what kind of change do you observe in the RSS?
It is much bigger now with many affiliated organisations. To a certain extent, the tail is wagging the dog. We have all these groups like the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and many others. They are in extremely outspoken roles and there are differences. The RSS has expanded in many new areas and now represents a much more complicated social spectrum.
That includes organisations like BMS, Kisan Sangh; have they also expanded?
Yes, absolutely. The RSS has reacted recently to this expansion and differences of opinions by assigning more pracharaks to various affiliated organisations. In 1960, Deen Dayal Upadhyay began to establish these affiliated organisations and the then Jan Sangh began to grow and have more support. So he assigned pracharaks to provide coordination among the groups, but the way these affiliates operate is a big issue. When pracharaks are assigned to affiliates, they began to identify with the affiliates. Look at the way head of the BMS reacted to the land acquisition bill. He termed it as illegitimate and also criticised Modi for it. But I think they will eventually get over it (the differences).
Doest that criticism really affect Modi? Given the fact that his stature as a leader has far outgrown the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Doesn't it overawe leaders like Bhagwat?
Modi is probably the most important figure in the Sangh Parivar. And compared to him, Bhagwat appears to be a diplomat and far less influential than his predecessors. But that is because of the changed political context where the BJP has far outgrown the RSS. And that could be the reason why Modi initially found it difficult to get acceptance within the Sangh fold.
How does he get acceptance then?
There is no secret to it. The RSS has a system wherein when they want to take a decision on something they pass the word down that this should be discussed. Then the opinion from the bottom travels to the top. A top RSS leader told me that this was the first time when the cadre forced the leadership to take a decision (the elevation of Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate) that the leadership did not want. But the opinion was so strong that they could not reject it.
Do you see this as transformation of the RSS from a brahamanical organisation to an all-encompassing entity.
That is already happening. The RSS has an increasing number of pracharaks from other backward castes (OBC), some are Dalits and they are trying to appoint Muslims too. The organisation is now so much bigger and is in transformation and is no more the brahmanical group that it was. However, it has a brahmanical orientation, as Christophe Jaffrelot points out, which the RSS won’t give up easily.
Do you think the ascendance of Modi repudiates this brahmanical character of the RSS?
Yes, it does.
So is there a possibility of friction between sections of the RSS and sections of the BJP?
There has probably always been some tension. Look at the way the land issue was dealt with. The way Bhagwat spoke on the eve of Bihar elections, wherein he questioned caste-based reservation and the joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale’s views on homosexuality. More and more expression of differences is emerging. It is interesting to see how the RSS performs its traditional role of mediation.
Why is that the RSS reacted in a totally different manner to Modi’s visit to Lahore from Advani’s Karachi visit in 2005?
This is a part of the research of my new book for which I will be speaking to lot of RSS people. There were people who privately expressed their discontent over his visit to Lahore. Advani's visit received much more criticism because of his comments on Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The RSS saw it as anathema.
Is Modi’s understanding of the RSS more profound than Advani’s then?
I think so. Advani came into the RSS during the days of partition. Modi came to the RSS in very different circumstances. There have been two strands in the RSS represented by MS Golwalkar and KB Hedgewar. Ashis Nandy in his recent book wrote about it. Hedgewar was in many ways an activist, political hard-nose and not particularly religious. Golwalkar, who was called 'Guruji', tried to portray himself as a religious figure. He emphasised on character-building, which was a very brahmanical way of life.
Which strand does Modi represent according to you?
The activist. Though he has had a sort of religious episode when he travelled across the country, I don’t think it (religious) is his inclination. He is the son of working class parents who had to move up in the world. Modi genuinely has a sense of a great India. He wants to build a great India which is strong and is respected, that can feed its entire people. That is a very activist orientation.
Onto the BJP as an organisation, and those who were heading the party were intellectually very sound people like LK Advani, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In that respect, how do you see Amit Shah as the head of the party?
Amit Shah is Rahm Emanuel of American politics. Emanuel was Barack Obama’s hard-knuckled manger of election. He forced people one way or the other in Obama’s favour. Amit Shah does that for Modi. I think Modi recognises that. It is a very Machiavellian relationship. I think that Shah has a skill that Modi needs to win elections. After all, he is a politician.
There was always this question that who after Jawaharlal Nehru. Similarly the question now is who after Modi? If Modi falls like Advani, there is a probability that the BJP as an organisation will be intrinsically changed and it will be very difficult to revive it. Your thoughts?
Modi is relatively young and healthy. He has no vices that I am aware of. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, I went to Modi’s room in Gujarat Bhawan (New Delhi). It was like a monastery cell. There were no pictures on the wall. There were some books and a bed — a simple cot. He is an ascetic devoted to one thing that is his work. He works seven days, he has never taken a vacation in the past 25 years. Most charismatic leaders don’t think about who will take their place.
What will you say about the RSS replacing its age-old khaki shorts with trousers?
Why has it taken so long? There was so much opposition to it for so many years. I think it took so long because these symbolic items are so intrinsically connected to an organization that they are usually reluctant to give it up because it is part of the image of the organisation. Some of the senior leaders too felt were silly. Now they see it as part of a modernising move.