Has the RSS had a change of heart? No, says Shashi Tharoor.
Three one-hour lectures by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan this week, where his organisation held a conclave on the ‘Future of Bharat: An RSS Perspective’, have led many to wonder whether the RSS has modified its views on some of the key positions with which it has long been identified.
In fact, it does appear that during his lectures, the RSS sarsangchalak explained the Sangh position on some issues in a manner that distanced it from the stand associated with his predecessors, notably the RSS’ longest-serving head, M.S. Golwalkar, who led the organisation from 1940 to 1973 and has remained, even in death, its principal ideologue.
For instance, the RSS has long held the belief that the Constitution of India is fundamentally flawed: first, because it is full of imported Western ideas, written by Anglophone lawyers in the wrong language; and second, because it rests on a dangerously flawed premise, that of territorial nationalism. The Constitution, Sangh thinkers from Golwalkar to Deendayal Upadhyaya have consistently argued, wrongly defines the nation as a territory called India and all the people on it, whereas a nation is not a territory but a people – in this case, the Hindu people. The RSS has therefore strongly taken the position that the Constitution must be rewritten to create a Hindu Rashtra.
This week, Mohan Bhagwat seemed to abandon this long-held view. The Constitution, he declared in Delhi, is no longer such a flawed document. “The RSS accepts the Constitution. There is not even one example in which the RSS has done anything against the Constitution,” Bhagwat declared. “The Constitution is the consensus of our country. Following the Constitution is everyone’s duty,” he added.
From anyone else, that would be a mere statement of the obvious; coming from Bhagwat, it seems an earth-shaking affirmation. What about Hindu Rashtra? Bhagwat did not disavow the term; he merely redefined it. “Hindu Rashtra,” he explained, “does not mean it has no place for Muslims. The day it is said that Muslims are unwanted here, the concept of Hindutva will cease to exist”.
Many in the RSS had held the view that the basis of Indian nationhood was Hinduism. This, some averred, did not exclude people of other religious affiliations; they merely had to acknowledge they were, at their core, Hindus too. “Some people know they are Hindus but they are not willing to accept it because of political correctness,” Bhagwat said. “According to us, this entire society is a Hindu society.”
From this, Bhagwat went on to argue that no exclusion of any minority group was intended. “Hum log to sarwalog-yukt Bharat waale log hain, mukt wale nahin,” he said in an uncharacteristic paean to inclusiveness. Bhagwat explained that India’s diversity – linguistic, social, cultural and religious – was inescapable. The idea was to celebrate this diversity and for the RSS to be the thread that tied together the different pearls in the Indian necklace.
If such statements were not a repudiation of much that the RSS had stood for over the previous nine decades, Bhagwat rubbed it in by scarcely bothering to mention Golwalkar, while scattering various other names through his three hours of lectures. Indeed, Golwalkar only came up in the context of a startling admission that the RSS had censored the inflammatory ideas of its erstwhile leader: “As far as Bunch of Thoughts goes,” said Bhagwat, referring to Golwalkar’s classic, a sort of RSS Little Red Book, “every statement carries a context of time and circumstance… his enduring thoughts are in a popular edition in which we have removed all remarks that have a temporary context and retained those that will endure for ages.” This editing out of ideas the RSS no longer wishes to defend is the clearest change of position imaginable. Asked about Golwalkar’s view that Muslims were “the enemy”, Bhagwat disarmingly explained that in the newly reissued and censored Bunch of Thoughts, “You won’t find the (Muslim-is-an-enemy) remark there.”
The omission of Golwalkar’s thoughts from the RSS chief’s lectures and the announcement of a censored version of Golwalkar’s book are arguably a major public signal that the RSS has been rethinking its stand on some of the key issues that have placed it beyond the pale for so many secularists and liberals.
For the RSS, India’s national culture is Hindu religious culture, and its idea of nationalism cloaks plural India in a mantle of Hindu identity. The RSS’ view of Hindutva had always been based on an idea of the Indian nation in which the Hindu religious identity coincides with the national. With Bhagwat now proclaiming that the RSS believes in pluralism, accepts heterogeneity and seeks to tie the pearls of diversity in a thread of unity, one might be forgiven for wondering whether he would next pronounce secularism as his organisation’s credo.
Indeed, some have welcomed his remarks, seeing them as ending the bigotry with which the RSS has long been associated, and heralding a new and more acceptable avatar of the organisation. Well-meaning friends have asked me, “Shouldn’t you applaud Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks? What more could he have said to make you happy?”
I do not deny that these statements seem to suggest a significant move away from hard-core RSS positions that had troubled secular Indians like me. And yet, I find myself unconvinced that they represent any real change.
First, Bhagwat’s redefinition of the central concepts of the RSS still stakes out his position on his own terms. He is still thinking of India as a Hindu state, albeit one characterised by tolerance of religious diversity, rather than one seeking to exterminate or drive out its minorities. This is a considerable improvement on Golwalkar, but it is still a long way short of the original idea of India as a secular state that grants equal rights to all, sees all faiths as equally valuable to the Indian idea and treats all faiths with equal respect.
The RSS’ India is still a Hindu Rashtra, but a benevolent one in which minorities live on the sufferance of the majority, thanks to the kindness and generosity of Hindus. That is not the free India Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar established, in which Hindus were meant to see themselves as equal to, and no better than, their fellow citizens of other faiths.
Bhagwat’s remarks made it clear he still sees other faiths as inferior to his own. Hinduism certainly has many benevolent features that are unique to it, notably an acceptance of different forms of worship, but it also has its own challenges and inequities to contend with. For Bhagwat to suggest that India can simply be an all-embracing Hindu Rashtra in which the identity of the majority, because of their natural inclusiveness, will ensure the well-being of all is at the very least disingenuous.
This became apparent in his remarks on the contentious issue of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. The RSS chief did not amend his stand in any way but expressed it in soothing terms: the construction of a grand Ram temple will help, Bhagwat said, to end a major reason for tension between Hindus and Muslims. “If the temple is built in a harmonious way,” said the RSS chief, “there will be no more pointing of fingers at Muslims,” a message he left for the final day of the RSS’s three-day lecture series.
In other words, Bhagwat seemed to be saying to the Muslims, settle problematic issues on our terms and you will face no trouble. That is a long way short of the reassurance the RSS believes its chief conveyed to India’s minorities this week.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.
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