Row over RSS chief’s remarks overblown, the institution is only seeking to define Hindutva as pluralistic
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s recent comments, that the organisation regards the entire 130 crore population of India as members of “Hindu society”, has come at a time when the country is witnessing large-scale protests over a legislation that critics say is ‘anti-Muslim’, ‘divisive’ and part of BJP’s ‘majoritarian project’.
The organisational heft of the RSS in Indian polity and its political clout challenges and scares India’s elite
Political leaders were quick to react. A Congress leader called Bhagwat’s remarks a disrespect to the Constitution
The RSS has been trying for a long time to create a cultural construct that unites India amid all its diversities
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s recent comments, that the organisation regards the entire 130 crore population of India as members of “Hindu society”, has come at a time when the country is witnessing large-scale protests over a legislation that critics say is ‘anti-Muslim’, ‘divisive’ and part of BJP’s ‘majoritarian project’. RSS being the BJP’s ideological wellspring, on the face of it at least it would seem that Bhagwat is giving intellectual ballast to BJP’s ‘majoritarian agenda’ and confirming the worst fears of the critics of the Narendra Modi government.
Political leaders were quick to react. A Congress leader called Bhagwat’s remarks a “disrespect to the Constitution” while AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi claimed that RSS “wants the nation to have only one religion”. The comments also drew criticism from BJP’s allies.
Political posturing apart, RSS’s ideological hegemony, its organisational heft in Indian polity and political clout challenges and scares India’s elite and has also bought into political discourse a fantastic description of the organisation in the West.
What terrifies me about evil in this world is that at this moment it is much more organised than the forces of good.
This is the RSS marching in India today. They are paramilitary Hindu Nationalist extremists.
And they are the largest NGO in the world.pic.twitter.com/pUSH3d128s
— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) December 25, 2019
Since much of this political discourse — tilted firmly to the left of centre — continues to shape India’s national consciousness (as witnessed during the students’ movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act - National Register of Citizens where the narrative was a curious mixture of misinformation, alarmism, political naivete and high-idealism), Bhagwat’s comments could be interpreted as an expression of Hindu chauvinism and lead to claims that the RSS is making a case for marginalisation of Muslims in India.
It may appear counter-intuitive, but such a reading is simplistic, erroneous and runs contrary to the RSS sarsanghchalak’s comments that were made during a public meeting in Hyderabad of RSS workers. Bhagwat’s statement, instead, is a continuation of his earlier effort to redefine the tenets of ‘Hindutva’ and present it as a benign force that unites, not separates. His comments are also a timed intervention aimed at calming frayed nerves and sending a message of inclusivity at a sensitive time.
If we look at the full statement made by Bhagwat, instead of the fragmented version that made the headlines — “RSS considers 130 crore people of the country as Hindus” — we note that the word ‘Hindu’ is used as a geographical, cultural and civilisational construct, not a theological or religious construct.
“When I mean Hindu, I mean a Hindu who loves this land, its people, its forests, everything here. He may be of any region, religion, caste or worship any god,” the RSS chief was quoted as saying. “Unity in diversity is in the very nature of the soil.”
This definition goes to the root of the confusion that critics have used to vilify the Sangh. According to critics, Sangh stands for ‘muscular Hindutva’, believes in “Hindu chauvinism” and seeks “to convert a number of people, who would otherwise be critical thinkers, into followers of one ideology,” according to leftist historians such as Romila Thapar.
Bhagwat tackles this question, ‘who is a Hindu’, in the clearest of terms. There is no contest between this cultural construct and practicing of individual faiths and beliefs.
“When Sangh says Hindu, it includes those who believe India is their motherland… The son of Mother India, whether he may speak any language, from any region, follow any form of worship or not believing in worship of any, is a Hindu… In this regard, for Sangh all the 130 crore people of India is Hindu society.” Here, Hindutva acquires a much wider context and becomes the inclusive force that runs through the veins of an ancient civilisational nation-State and binds its different peoples.
Bhagwat hasn’t said anything new. During the three-day lecture in September 2018, part of an outreach initiative by the Sangh to define its role in Indian polity, the sarsanghchalak clarified that Hindutva is an inclusive concept that cannot be conceptualised without Muslims being a part of it, and it respects and even celebrates diversity.
“Hindutva is not only for Hindus, it’s for the world and humanity, be it Sikh, Jains, Buddhists, who all were born here. We never saw state and nation as same. States can come and go, but nation, which is a cultural concept, stays. We believe in that,” Bhagwat said during the lecture, highlighting the structure of the ‘Hindutva’ construct where Muslims are a necessary part. “If we don’t accept Muslims, it’s not Hindutva. Hindutva is Indianness and inclusion,” were his exact words.
In the ‘liberal’ discourse on RSS, which also forms the backbone of mainstream media narrative, this inclusive concept of Hindutva has been conveniently glossed over in favour of a virulent interpretation that casts RSS as the agent of a “monotheistic” Hinduism that suffers from an envy of proselytizing faiths and militates against Hinduism’s pluralistic ethos. Bhagwat’s comments, that draw upon the greatest philosophical strains of Hinduism built on tolerance and pluralism, expose the duplicity of the liberal narrative.
It is worth pondering why Bhagwat has been at pains at various times to delineate the construct of Hindutva. Is it merely to counter the narrative of its critics? The answer is an emphatic, ‘no’. The RSS has been trying for a long time to create a cultural construct that unites India amid all its diversities while respecting the different strains.
This is imperative now more than ever because the delicate consensus that underwrote India’s unity and entity as a ‘nation-State’, has come under increasing pressure due to the relentless focus on identity politics. Bhagwat’s words are an attempt to reintroduce an element an unity amid the polarising debate.
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