Narendra Modi and the RSS: Why Mohan Bhagwat remarks are contemporaneous and yet consistent with history

Editors note: Russia is not the only “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. For many, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi also fit Churchill’s description of Russia. So, analysts tend to interpret both (Modi and the RSS) according to the convenience of their own perceptions. This happened after Mohan Bhagwat's outreach to Delhi's elite on 17, 18 and 19 September. Bhagwat espoused the RSS' idea of India and spoke about Muslims, Hindutva, the Congress and caste divisions in India. His assertions were seen either as a radical departure from the “RSS position” or as an attempt to rein in Modi and reaffirm the RSS' position as the ideological mentor of the Parivar. This three-part series will attempt to unwrap the mystery that is sought to be created around the RSS and its relations with the BJP. More importantly, it will show how Modi’s politics is not delinked from the RSS’ concept of nation-building. This is the first part of the series.


Consistency is often seen as banal and non-intellectual ever since Karl Marx coined the phrase, “History repeats itself; first as tragedy and then as farce”. The consistency of history tends to get intellectual interpretation through the prism of this axiom very often.

In the case of the Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the consistency of its objective and broader discourse is ignored to invent a proposition which may appear innovative or thought-provoking. It happened when the RSS organised a three-day conference in mid-September to reach out to critics and non-conformists of Delhi’s elites.

 Narendra Modi and the RSS: Why Mohan Bhagwat remarks are contemporaneous and yet consistent with history

File image of RSS Sanghsarchalak Mohan Bhagwat. PTI

When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, in his 19 September address on Bharat of Future: An RSS Perspective, insisted on his organisation’s inclusive (yukt) approach to society, some have analysed it as a rap on the knuckle of the BJP’ political leadership which is bent upon making India free of the Congress (Congress-mukt Bharat). His praise for the older generation of the Congress leadership is seen as a well-deserved rebuke to an "upstart" BJP leadership that is apparently drunk on the arrogance of power. Some have drawn vicarious pleasure from what they perceive as the emerging dissonance between Bhagwat and the BJP leadership on national issues as they find the opposition led by Rahul Gandhi quite inadequate to weave an effective counter-narrative.

But a glance at the RSS’ history would be indicative of a canny consistency with which it has been approaching the national issues and changing its views with the changing times. Over the decades, the RSS has adapted itself to the transformations in Indian society and polity and recalibrated its approach on various issues. The conference at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi was an important sequel to that change.

Right since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the RSS has faced many trials and public scrutiny to establish its credentials as a genuine “socio-cultural organisation” committed to the consolidation of the Hindus. It was proscribed by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948 after Gandhi’s murder and again by his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1975 after the imposition of the Emergency. On both occasions, the RSS was blamed for carrying out a “secretive and subversive mission” that promoted violence and disaffection in society, a charge that has been levelled quite frequently and liberally but never been proven legally. And this formed the basis of a perception about the RSS which continued to be understood from a particular prism.

But the remarkable flexibility that the RSS leadership had often shown to adapt to the times is often ignored to perpetuate a particular narrative that stereotyped the RSS and its constituents. Now let us recall the manner in which the RSS, under Balasahab Deoras (the third Sarsanghachalak during the eventful period between 1973 and 1994), had thrown itself open for Muslims in the post-Emergency phase. This was a transformative event for an organisation committed to the cause of the Hindus.

There is no doubt that Deoras’s move was audacious even as it evoked criticism from within the fold. In an authentic account of that period, Lost Years of the RSS (2011), Sanjeev Kelkar refers to the criticism faced by Deoras and points out that Maharashtra RSS chief KB Limaye wrote a letter expressing his anguish. His letter reads, “You have been given the position of the chief of the RSS of Dr Hedgewar. Kindly run that Sangh and try to foster its growth. Do not try to change it. If you think a change is necessary, start a new RSS. Leave the RSS of Doctorji for Hindu consolidation to us. If you change this RSS, I will not be able to have any relationship with that Sangh.” Of course, Deoras remained unfazed and continued with his experiment.

It will be quite instructive to know how this new experiment came about. When Indira had put Deoras and many other RSS functionaries in jail during the Emergency, they found themselves in company with leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami. Both took the opportunity to interact with each other and got to know each other better while the tyranny of the Emergency was at its peak. In the post-Emergency phase, Deoras displayed an enormous sagacity not only to let its political affiliate, Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), merge its identity with the Janata Party but also promised to undertake initiatives dispel misconceptions about the RSS. He allowed Muslims to examine the RSS from close quarters.

Those who are surprised at Bhagwat’s assertion that Hindutva would be incomplete without Muslims are oblivious of yet another instance which was quite radical in its approach. After the Emergency, a group of Muslim clergy went to meet RSS leaders at its Nagpur headquarters. As the discussion was prolonged, they became anxious as it was time for their namaz. The hosts asked them if they could offer prayers there itself — within the RSS headquarters — and they said, yes. Indeed, that day the group of Muslim clergy said their prayers in the RSS headquarters. Perhaps, against the backdrop of the Emergency, the bonhomie between the RSS and the Muslims was at its peak. If you have any doubt then look at the utterances of Mohamed Ali Currim Chagla, a noted jurist and former Union minister, who praised the RSS and described himself as “Muslim by religion and Hindu by race” much to the annoyance of orthodox Muslims and liberal Muslims alike.

The end of the Emergency did not mean an end of the RSS’s travails. The BJS members who were now part of the Janata Party were targeted over the ‘dual membership’ as socialists questioned their allegiance to both the party and the RSS. However, much before the issue of the dual membership was raised as a pretext to break the Janata Party and bring down the anti-Congress coalition, there were several instances when the tallest leaders from the socialist block, like Madhu Limaye and Madhu Dandvate, sang paeans for the RSS and its contribution to nation-building. When the wrangling began in the Janata Parivar over the RSS, Deoras promptly issued a letter that freed its workers to follow their discretion in choosing a political course. The implicit message was that the RSS would not influence its volunteers’ political preferences. Once again, Deoras faced severe criticism within the saffron fold for his move.

Now read Bhagwat’s statement on Muslims with the post-Emergency changes brought about in the RSS by his predecessor, you will find a consistency. This clearly flies in the face of argument advanced by intellectual patricians (ironically drawn mainly from the Marxist stream) that the RSS is driven by a pernicious ideology that promotes orthodoxy, dogma and intolerance. Perhaps the RSS leadership has faced more criticism from within for pursuing a course of reform that runs contrary to traditionalists beholden to dogmas. Bhagwat’s exposition in Delhi is perfectly in sync with the organisation’s unique flexibility to adapt to change.

Read the second part here.

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Updated Date: Sep 27, 2018 08:05:13 IST