At RSS HQ in Nagpur, Pranab Mukherjee played it safe with speech, barely ventured beyond philosophical cliches

Former president Pranab Mukherjee's speech at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh headquarters in Nagpur has been resoundingly applauded largely because we either do not read history or are forgetful of it. Or because we are incorrigible optimists who believe humans do change over time. No doubt, Mukherjee hit all the right notes, as was expected, when he spoke of India’s soul residing in pluralism and tolerance, and then went on to declare that "India's nationhood is not one language, one religion, one enemy".

For sure, the RSS knew that Mukherjee would not speak the language of Hindutva and lavish praise on Hindu nationalism. The organisation's decision to invite him to Nagpur has, therefore, spawned hope that it perhaps wants to eschew its strategy of demonising and terrorising religious minorities. Yet we have neither a profound reason nor incontrovertible evidence to believe that the RSS is going to substitute the rainbow hues for the saffron colour it prefers. It may occasionally speak of pluralism and composite culture, but we will always wonder whether it is part of its famed doublespeak.

History asks us to doubt the undertakings of the RSS. For instance, no less than the RSS' second sarsanghchalak, MS Golwalkar — arguably its most revered chief — assured Mahatma Gandhi that his organisation was not opposed to Muslims, yet harboured a secret plan to drive them out of India and silence anyone who dared to oppose its mission.

Pranab Mukherjee speaks during the RSS event on Thursday evening. PTI

Pranab Mukherjee speaks during the RSS event on Thursday evening. PTI

In Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, Pyarelal, Gandhi’s personal secretary, writes that Golwalkar visited the apostle of nonviolence on 12 September, 1947. "It was common knowledge that the RSS… had been behind the bulk of killings in the city as also in various other parts of India," writes Pyarelal, "This these friends (Golwalkar and his associates) denied." They claimed that "their organisation was for protecting Hinduism — not for killing Muslims. It was not hostile to anyone. It stood for peace".

Gandhi said that if this was indeed the case, they should issue a public statement repudiating the allegations against them and publicly condemning the killings and harassment of Muslims. The guests said that Gandhi could do it on their behalf. To this suggestion, Pyarelal writes, "Gandhi answered that he would certainly do that, but if what they were saying was sincerely meant, it was better that the public should have it from their own lips."

At this point, a person from "Gandhi’s party" praised the RSS for its exemplary work at the refugee camp in Wah (in Pakistan now). "'But don’t forget,' answered Gandhiji, 'even so had Hitler’s Nazis and the Fascists under Mussolini'," writes Pyarelal. He said Gandhi characterised the RSS as a "communal body with a totalitarian outlook". Yet Gandhi decided to attend the RSS rally of 16 September in Delhi because he, as Pyarelal writes, "felt he must give everybody a chance to make good his bona fides". At the rally, Golwalkar described Gandhi as a "great man that Hinduism has produced". In his own address, Gandhi said that he was indeed proud of being a Hindu, but his Hinduism was neither intolerant nor exclusivist.

Pyarelal reports Gandhi telling the audience comprising RSS activists: "If Hindus believed that in India there was no place for non-Hindus on equal and honourable terms and Muslims, if they wanted to live in India, must be content with an inferior status, or if the Muslims thought that in Pakistan Hindus could live only as a subject race on the sufferance of Muslims, it would mean an eclipse of Hinduism and an eclipse of Islam".

Gandhi also announced what Golwalkar had asked him to do in their 12 September meeting. Pyarelal reports Gandhi saying that "he (Gandhi) was glad… to have their (RSS leaders) assurance that their policy was not of antagonism towards Islam"; and that "the Sangh did not believe in aggression… It taught the art of self-defence. It never taught retaliation".

From this perspective, it is hard to figure out how Mukherjee’s speech improves upon Gandhi’s. In different words, both spoke of tolerance and inclusion. But Gandhi had gone a step further than Mukherjee — the former challenged the RSS to either accept it was violent or declare it was for peace. It was Gandhi’s hope that the RSS would adhere to the claims he had publicly made on its behalf.

By contrast, Mukherjee did not refer to the incidents of violence in which the RSS and its affiliates have been implicated. He did not refer to the series of lynching over the issue of cows; he did not point to the RSS' pet project of ghar wapsi and love jihad, and the strain put on India’s social fabric. He did not remind his listeners about the assault on Muslims while they were offering their Friday prayers in Gurugram.

Mukherjee would have ventured beyond philosophical clichés had he condemned the increasing tendency of BJP leaders to communally polarise the electorate before every election. His speech would have been worthy of raising a toast if he had asked the RSS to ponder whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right in accusing his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, of hatching a conspiracy with Pakistan to impose a Muslim chief minister on Gujarat.

Certainly then, Mukherjee’s speech pales in comparison to Gandhi's at the 16 September, 1947 rally of the RSS in Delhi.

Nor should the decision of the RSS to invite Mukherjee to Nagpur overly impress us. Three months after Gandhi spoke at the RSS rally of 16 September, Delhi’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) filed a secret report of Golwalkar telling RSS volunteers of his plan to drive out Muslims from India, wage an insurgency against the government, and silence all those, including Gandhi, who dared to oppose the RSS.

This plan was first published by the historian Ramachandra Guha in Outlook and, subsequently, journalist Bharat Bhushan too wrote about it for Catch News. This author has seen the CID papers on which their stories were based. Based on the information provided by a source identified as "Sewak", CID inspector Kartar Singh filed a report disclosing that on 8 December, 1947, Golwalkar addressed 2,500 RSS volunteers who had gathered at their Rohtak Road camp in Delhi. After a drill, Golwalkar asked the volunteers to prepare for "guerrilla warfare on the lines of the tactics of Shivaji".

Golwalkar said the Sangh would "not rest content until it had finished Pakistan. If anyone stood in our way we will have to finish them too, whether it is the (Jawaharlal) Nehru government or any other government. The Sangh could not be won over. They should carry on their work". At the Rohtak Road meet, Golwalkar also contradicted his claims to Gandhi that the RSS was not opposed to Islam. Singh reported Golwalkar saying, "No power on earth could keep them (Muslims) in Hindustan. They shall have to quit the country."

Then followed his blistering attack on Gandhi: "Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress may profit by their votes at the time of election. But, by that time, not a single Muslim will be left in India. If they were made to stay here, the responsibility would be the government’s, and the Hindu community would not be responsible." Golwalkar was preparing RSS volunteers for violence, which was to spare none, not even Gandhi. He said that "Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too".

On 30 January, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated.

RSS supporters will argue that incidents seven decades ago, amidst the madness of Partition, cannot be recalled to judge their intent to change. This is, indeed, a reasonable proposition. But it is also true that doublespeak is unmistakably a trait of the RSS — it disowns ideas even though it subscribes to them; it choreographs actions yet denies scripting them.

Take the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. From 1986, the RSS and its affiliates spearheaded the movement to build a Ram temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood in Ayodhya. It was because of them the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December, 1992 and sucked the nation into a cycle of violence. Yet the Sangh leaders claimed that the mosque was brought down because of the spontaneous outburst of the mob gathered there, and that its demolition had not been planned.

These claims were rubbished by the Liberhan Commission, which was appointed to probe the demolition. Obviously, the Bharatiya Janata Party accused the commission of being motivated and ideologically biased.

But the same charge cannot be levelled against Cobrapost's Operation Janmabhoomi, that had an undercover reporter secretly tape prominent Sangh leaders boastfully confessing to their role in bringing down the Babri Masjid. Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal leaders claimed their cadres were trained for months for the 6 December demolition, for which purpose the RSS had allegedly also formed the Balidan Jatha, a suicide squad.

When the RSS can brazenly spin a lie to Gandhi, when it can disown the demolition of the Babri Masjid even though it spearheaded a movement against it, when one wing of the Sangh can speak of "Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas" and the other indulge in violence, the RSS' invite to Mukherjee and the latter's speech at Nagpur do not even measure up to the cosmetic change that involves its volunteers switching from khaki shorts to trousers.

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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 11:25:45 IST

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