Does the RSS have a future?

Swami Aseemanand's allegation against RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat should prompt a rethink in the Sangh parivar on what it is all about and where it is heading. Anti-Muslim postures are not relevant to its future.

R Jagannathan February 08, 2014 13:11:47 IST
Does the RSS have a future?

A recent story in Caravan magazine, based on interviews with Swami Aseemanand, a key accused in some cases involving Hindu terror groups, raises serious issues about the future of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which constitutes the ideological core of the Sangh Parivar.

Among other things, the story suggests that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat may have known about some of the terror plots involving Sangh members, or Sangh-related militant groups, targeting Muslims. The hint in the story is that Bhagwat may have even winked or encouraged these plots.

While the evidentiary value of these tapes is in doubt, there is also the curious coincidence that such stories surface only in the context of an election where the Sangh has a lot at stake. Let’s also not forget that Swami Aseemanand was arrested more than three years ago and has been in custody all this while. If he has been in jail for so long, one wonders why this fact never came up in his interrogations or the section 164 statements made by him – which he subsequently recanted. There is a need to ask why the Swami, known for his missionary work among tribals, deemed it important to announce this nugget on Bhagwat to a magazine and not the police.

However, these speculations need not detain us here, for there seems little doubt that Swami Aseemanand made these statements to the journalist concerned – especially now that recordings of these conversations have made an appearance. So the most important issue is not how the statement came to be made, but to analyse its content and intent as they are indicative of something. The details of the allegations are for the police to investigate and authenticate, but the import of Swami Aseemanand's broad thrust needs to be understood and analysed - especially by the RSS.

What the Swami’s meanderings - made over an extended period - underlines very clearly is the RSS's growing irrelevance to both Hindu concerns – militant or moderate - and the broader issues confronting Indian society. The radical groups spawned by the Sangh have now outgrown the Sangh and are impatient for action on their own terms. It is not without reason that we occasionally hear of Hindu terror groups seeking to target Bhagwat himself to kill two birds with one strike: get rid of a weak leader, and hope to generate Hindu anger for harnessing in their cause. Swami Aseemanand’s reference to Bhagwat can be seen in this context – the intent being to both debase the Sangh and create a crisis within it so as to radicalise it.

Does the RSS have a future

The BJP doesn't need the RSS, it's the other way round. AFP.

The RSS today is an ancient army without a purpose: the radical Hindu outfits it spawned have only contempt for its namby-pamby ways, the average Hindu on the street has no use for it, the BJP - its political offspring - would not mind using the RSS’s political foot-soldiers for election campaigning but, internally, the party realises that despite some common Hindu feelings, the RSS is actually a constraint to its emergence as the country’s main right-of-centre political formation.

As for the RSS’s role in society, it is becoming an anachronism even in the context of Hindu society where the youth are looking for growth and development. The RSS is obsessed with imaginary battles of the past. Nothing illustrates this fact more than the RSS’s shakha uniform of white shirt and khaki half-trousers in an age where the youth look for more modern ways to express themselves. While RSS baiters caricature the Sangh as “chaddiwalas”, the RSS should be worried about the fact that the uniform itself would be a great putoff to Indian youth. In fact, it is more than likely that the people now attending RSS shakhas come disproportionately from the older lot.

But it’s not primarily about attire. The problem is the people who run the RSS today are mired in a historical legacy of Hindu-Muslim confrontation and most of their ideas grew in the context of pre-Independence India and partition, when identities got defined in a particular way.

Even as Muslims in pre-independence India were inspired by the Ali brothers and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in traditional and modern ways, the RSS was born with Hedgewar and Golwalkar as its first two leading lights. They were products of their times, and trail-blazers in one particular version of Hindu identity.

In the years from 1947 to nearly 2000, the RSS rose and fell with the rise and fall of the BJP’s political fortunes. But with the rise of a more forward-looking Atal Behari Vajpayee and a post-reform India, it has simply become a caricature of the past.

The myth the Indian media believes in is that the BJP depends on the RSS; the reality is that the Sangh depends on the BJP. Nothing demonstrates this better than the rise of Narendra Modi, whom the Sangh cannily backed as the BJP’s 2014 prime ministerial candidate. But the question to ask is: did the Sangh really anoint him or did it merely ratify and recognise the power of Modi’s following in the BJP and among its own cadres.

The chances are if the RSS had lived up to its own norm of faceless, collective leadership, it would have picked a non-entity who displeases no one as BJP leader - but that would have led the party to defeat as in 2009. Modi, like Vajpayee, represents the growing importance of political power over social and cultural power. In the end, politics is a more powerful tool for change than mere social movements – which is what the RSS evolved from.

Silently, the RSS itself acknowledges this – and this is the reason why it chooses to play a political role in the BJP and tries to steer the party towards its core concerns. But as a real force, the RSS is heading towards obsolescence. Its power is waning.

This is odd for the power of religion, identity and culture is growing in a world of globalisation and urbanisation, which has disoriented vast masses of human beings and severed them from their roots. If you have noticed, young Indian Muslims are modernising themselves even while they seek to forcefully express themselves with skullcaps and hijaabs. The outward symbols of culture and religion are becoming more important than traditional ways of thinking in today’s India.

If the RSS were to analyse reality, a similar trend may well be present among Hindus – who, despite, outward economic success are looking for cultural meaning and a sense of belonging in a disorienting world. This group, even while looking for Hindu roots, does not see the RSS as its role model. It is seeking its own ways of cultural and religious expression – though this is less visible among Hindus, given the peculiarities our own anti-majority secularism, than it is among Muslims. Many young Hindus are turning to religion and spirituality furtively.

Put another way, even assuming the RSS sees only the Hindus as a core constituency, it is losing its customer base: to radicals who want to terrorise Muslims, at one end, and to smaller independent cultural-religious movements that are as yet unnoticeable among Hindus. It cannot be any other way: when ordinary Hindus see overt expressions of religious symbols among rival communities, they will seek their own. It is worth recalling that the RSS itself was a response to the rise of Muslim consciousness in pre-independence India. The Muslim League was formed in India before the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. Hindu identity consciousness has always followed Muslim identity assertions in India.

Given this context, two questions arise: Does the RSS have a future at all? Can it do anything to make itself relevant? And what should be its relationship with the BJP?

The answer to the first question always has to be a theoretical yes, for no organisation is truly irrelevant if it is willing to reinvent itself. Of which more later.

The answer to the second is simple: the RSS can well have fraternal and ideological ties with the BJP, but the BJP will always have more power than the RSS. If the RSS tries to play a political role, it will constrain the BJP’s growth.

In the US, various evangelical groups have clout in the Republican party, as do the labour unions in the Democratic party, but neither is anything more than a pressure group. They have their agendas that go beyond politics, and the political party is only a limited ally in some of their causes. The RSS has to adjust to this reality in the BJP.

The business of political parties is to seek hard power and run governments. The business of social and cultural organisations is man-making and social change by catering to the softer emotional, cultural and religious needs of society.

If the RSS wants a future it has to rebuild itself for the modern age without losing its roots. Among other things, it needs to ask itself the following:

One, if its goal is serving Hindu society, should its agenda not include a very strong social component – like eliminating caste injustices or seeking broader inclusiveness and improved well-being of the people?

Two, even if its goal in only to serve Hindu society, how can this be done if it has an antagonistic attitude to Muslims? Is Hindu society served by making it fight Muslims, or by opening a dialogue with them?

Three, more important, the RSS must seek answers to the question of who or what is a Hindu. The term has two connotations – one is the religious one, where anyone who adopts Hindu forms of worship in a Hindu; the other is cultural, where anyone imbued with aspects of Indian culture is a Hindu. But, equally, it makes no sense insisting that Muslims – whether converted ages ago from Hinduism or a born as Muslims who settled in India – must term themselves cultural Hindus. Everyone has the right to self-definition, and the RSS should not insist on meaningless shows of Hindu-ness - even culturally.

Four, the RSS has to sort out what from history is relevant to modernity and what is not. It has to decide what is truly valuable to its Hindu heritage, and what is not. And what is valuable can always be adapted to modernity. While it is in this area, it is worth asking itself: is building a temple in Ayodhya more important than merely getting Muslim society to accept the reality that Islamic rulers in the past did damage to many Hindu temples and icons? The former is an attempt to humiliate Muslims in India today; the latter is about truth and reconciliation. Even if Babar had demolished a temple to build the Babri, you can’t correct a historical wrong by demolishing a mosque today. Today’s Muslims were not responsible for Babar’s or Mir Baqi’s wrongs.

Five, the RSS has to accept the reality that there will be competition in the religious space. So if other religions are going to poach for marketshare in India, it has to gear up for the same by building long-term institutions like the Catholic Church. Banning conversions or seeking restrictions on missionaries is an acceptance of defeat. If the RSS truly believes in the values embedded in Hinduism, it has to accept the challenge and prepare for the long-term.

Six, the RSS needs to start valuing intellectualism. The long-term future of any ideology depends on the intellectual input that a group can generate and sustain. The Left, despite being authoritarian and anti-intellectual in politics (Mao, Stalin, and our own Prakash Karat), has managed to dominate the intellectual space and academia in India and abroad for nearly two centuries. On the other hand, the RSS is suspicious of free-thinking intellectuals in the Hindu space. In fact, over the last half-century, I have seen only two intellectuals – Arun Shourie and Rajiv Malhotra – emerge as true intellectuals in the Hindu space. (Though I must acknowledge there must be hundreds of unsung heroes here.) And the RSS has been unable to use them or grow new ones. The RSS cannot have a future without creating a solid intellectual base for growth.

Seven, the logic of any living organisation is growth. Without growth there can be no future. But growth needs constant scanning of the horizon for changed circumstances. Right now, the RSS is too mired in the past for its own or the country’s good. Most intelligent former swayamsevaks have left it behind and shifted to the social sphere – like KN Govindacharya, who now roots for the Aam Aadmi Party, or Sanjeev Kelkar, author of Lost years of the RSS, who left the RSS and now runs rural healthcare projects and empathises with Dalit causes. To have a future, the RSS needs a growth path without negativities and anti-minorityism.

The writing on the wall is clear: to survive, the RSS has to rethink and reinvent. In its present form, it has no future.

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