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RSS concern about China has moved from security to economy. Cultural links don’t count

RSS' views on China have been long overlooked even as they undergo change during the Narendra Modi's leadership.

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In recent years, when visiting China, I can always sense a greater curiosity and interest amongst Chinese scholars on how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS — the ideological guardian of the Bharatiya Janata Party — looks upon and understands China. It is worth mentioning that despite its early cautionary observations on China, the views of RSS have been largely overlooked on the subject. Perhaps being in the political and academic wilderness, the views of RSS were thought to be of less academic scrutiny and relevance.

The Chinese, moreover, can also sense the shift in India’s approach to China from Nehruvian idealism in the early post-Independence era to a ‘new pragmatism’ in the past few years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. This shift also indicates two different narratives about India’s role and place in global affairs — from the earlier desire for Asian nationalism and non-alignment State to a more ‘aspirational power’ with a less strategic reticent approach, boosted by the idea of cultural nationalism.

For the RSS, India’s civilisational strengths and legacy cannot only be attributed to any kind of ‘diplomatic statesmanship’, rather they must be carefully calibrated keeping in mind India’s desired place and dignity in contemporary global politics.

Also read: Mohan Bhagwat is right, China is the big threat. But his prescription to counter it is flawed

RSS and China before 1962

The Chinese aggression of 1962, its invasion of Tibet and growing disparity in bilateral economic ties primarily shape the RSS’ hostility to China. However, much before 1962 happened, RSS leaders were speaking about the ‘expansionist tendencies’ of communist China. In 1951, then-RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar issued a statement at Shimoga, Karnataka, highlighting the possible Chinese aggression on ‘Bharat bhumi’. To him, while the Chinese are not naïve in their forceful occupation of Tibet, India, under Jawaharlal Nehru, was making a Himalayan blunder by ignoring political realities at the border.

Moreover, in the early Independence years, the RSS has always been an open critic of Chinese expansionism in the territories of close proximity to India, which includes Nepal and Bhutan. After the invasion of Tibet, fearing any possible fallout of Nepal with serious security implications for India, the RSS, much before 1962, asked the government to strengthen its relations with Nepal. For the organisation, these areas form a larger ‘cultural integration’ with India and its civilisational history.

In another instance, when the news of Chinese road construction activities came up in the public domain in 1959, the RSS resolution, adopted at its annual Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal (ABKM) in 1959, reiterated the ‘weak and unrealistic policy of government’ responsible for Chinese aggression.[1] The ABKM is the top executive body of RSS, which takes up resolutions of various social and national issues. For RSS, Nehru’s policy on China had overlooked the note of caution expressed by many senior Indian leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sri Aurobindo, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Acharya NG Ranga. [2] It is interesting to see that while advocating strong China policy, RSS also insisted on a more consultative approach in dealing with China.

From pre-Independence era to contemporary times, RSS called for more ‘pragmatism and determination’ when dealing with China. At the same time, given China’s growing influence in the region, and the existing “power asymmetry” between both, the RSS also sought to shape the bilateral discourse on the basis of ‘shared interests’ between both the powers.  

Also read: ‘Unholy’ China-Pakistan-Turkey-Taliban pact means India can’t rest, says RSS chief Bhagwat

RSS and 1962 War

In the RSS’ discourse on China, the shadow of the 1962 war still preoccupies minds and actively dominates their thought process. In 1962, after the Chinese incursion in the Northeast and Ladakh region, the ABKM resolution adopted that year argued for a more tactical approach to China. It reiterated that India’s ‘illogical talk to China without liberating our lost territories’ was useless. [3]

Senior opposition leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee of Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS) had particularly lambasted Nehru for welcoming the Chinese annexation of Tibet and thereby removing this very important buffer state between the two great powers. [4]

In recent years, the RSS has underlined the importance of learning lessons from the 1962 India-China war, which went down as one of the biggest political and military blunders in modern Indian history. For the RSS, the war holds lessons for younger India, where the bravery of soldiers in adverse circumstances was exemplary, especially in the battle of Rezang La and Tawang. The bravery of Subedar Joginder Singh, who was posthumously awarded Param Vir Chakra, is one such example. The war holds significance to instill pride and also serves as a crucial lesson in Indian diplomacy. Any understanding of the future course of Indian history cannot overlook these misgivings.

Also read: India waving SFF and Tibet cards won’t scare China. Can’t pull levers you don’t have

RSS and Tibet

After the 1962 war, the RSS became much vocal about the Chinese invasion of Tibet and this was underlined in their resolutions. On the Tibet issue, several RSS affiliates like its student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) also became critical of China. Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the economic wing of RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), motivated by their long-held beliefs in commonality between Hinduism and Buddhism, also raised their voice. They also remained active in building their outreach with Tibetans living in India and pushed efforts to raise general awareness about India’s cultural links with Tibet.

To serve the cause, another organisation within the larger ideological fraternity of RSS named Bharat Tibbat Sahyog Manch (BTSM) was floated in 1999 to push for the cultural and political rights of Tibetans. That year, the Dalai Lama inaugurated the ABVP’s national conference in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, which was themed ‘Indian Public on Tibet’. Earlier too, he had attended the outfit’s national conference in 1978 saying that “we must be kind to each other and have a true feeling of friendliness.”

To mark the Tibetan Uprising Day on 10 March 2019, which I attended, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) unit of ABVP organised a talk on ‘Tibet: The Untold Truth’ with participation from students and faculty.

Even during Atal Bihari Vajpayee years, while endorsing his visit to China in 2003, the RSS was critical of his giving up too easily on Tibet, without extracting any concession from Beijing either on Sikkim or the border problem. It is important to note that, when Narendra Modi-led BJP took charge in 2014, the World Hindu Congress (WHC) was organised in November, inviting both RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and the 14th Dalai Lama for their inaugural ceremony in New Delhi.

The RSS has largely endorsed the position to recognise Tibet as an autonomous region of China. In recent years, India has been keeping a tactical approach on the Tibet issue, and RSS seems to believe in not giving up so easily without any concessions from China in the Northeast. In the RSS circles and discussions, it has constantly been referred to as ‘the border between India and Tibet.’

Also read: Modi must consolidate Dalai Lama legacy as Xi’s grip on Tibet gets tighter


Ideologically speaking, the RSS has always been averse to the idea of Communism. Despite India’s cultural links with imperial China, the liberation of China and its subsequent approach towards India was always viewed with suspicion by the RSS leadership. This is unlike the security imperative, which has dominated the RSS views on China in the early Independence years. In the last two decades, the RSS has become much vocal on the nature of ‘economic relation’ with China, and its huge impact on the domestic, indigenous Indian business community and commodities.

Nevertheless, unlike the Modi government, the RSS has been more candid in its condemnation of Chinese aggression at the border. During the Doklam crisis, one of the RSS affiliates — Swadeshi Jagran Manch — launched a month-long campaign across India to boycott Chinese goods and was observing 2017 as an “anti-China year”. During the ongoing border tensions in Ladakh, the RSS maintained that ‘boycotting Chinese goods’ is a natural reaction of Indian nationalism against the Chinese.

For the RSS, Modi’s China policy has been able to remain nationalistic in its perspective. For example, by not ceding to Chinese aggression during the Doklam standoff in 2017, India was able to show a proportional response and remind the Chinese of fault lines in the bilateral relationship.

In his last years’ Vijayadashami address, Mohan Bhagwat reiterated the need to strengthen India’s relations with its neighbours to counter the Chinese challenge. In the long run, the RSS aims to advance India’s comprehensive national power militarily, economically and technologically, to deter any Chinese moves against its national interests.

The author holds PhD in East Asian Studies (Chinese) from JNU and teaches as Assistant Professor, Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi. He tweets @apsinghvisen. Views are personal.

[1] Bharat’s Policy towards Chinese Aggression, ABKM: 1959, in RSS Resolves 1950 to 2007: Resolutions Passed by ABPS and ABKM, New Delhi- Suruchi Prakashan, 2007

[2] Ram Madhav, Uneasy Neighbours: India and China, Har Anand Publications, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 23-25.

[3] ‘Statement on Bharat’s Policy towards Chinese Aggression’, ABKM: 1962, in RSS Resolves, 2007.

[4]   Tathagata Roy (2012) Syama Prasad Mookerjee: Life and Times, Penguin India Press.

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