In his 'state of the nation' address on Vijayadashami, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat sought to banish the perception, sparked by recent incidents of mob violence, that the 'Hindu Rashtra' is synonymous with a majoritarian and authoritarian agenda.
Committing the RSS to “limits of the Constitution”, multiculturalism and social harmony, he sought to distance the organisation from the aggressively anti-minority behaviour of groups led by miscreants claiming sangh affiliations.
Video clips of brutal assaults on the minority community are widely circulated and celebrated on WhatsApp groups comprising the radical right and have deeply alarmed the centrists and centre-right moderates within the BJP's fold. The FIR against the 49 intellectuals who wrote to Prime Minister Modi on the mob lynching issue has exacerbated these fears.
Bhagwat acknowledged the unease generated by extrajudicial killings - although critics may justly observe that his primary concern lay in distancing the RSS from lynch mobs, rather than calling for penal action against them.
In fact, he objected to the use of the word 'lynching' to describe the collective assaults. From a semantic viewpoint, there is no distinction; Bhagwat's contention is that the concept of lynching is itself un-Hindu, so his cadres could not have been involved.
He also stressed that the violence was not one-sided: “There are reports of incidents happening from both sides and allegations and counter-allegations”. Many such incidents were part of fake news, he added, warning against vested interests which sought to turn “diversity” into “differences”.
The Vijayadashami speech must be seen in the context of his continuing efforts at global outreach. The red-flagging of the 'year of mob violence' in India by the international media has negatively affected the image of Narendra Modi government, which is perceived as drawing inspiration from the RSS. The sarsanghchalak has been at pains to position the sangh as far more pluralistic and tolerant than it is made out to be.
The keywords in his speech - 'Constitution', 'diversity', 'harmony' and 'cooperation' – recalled his lecture series at Vigyan Bhawan last year, in which he consciously distanced the sangh from the more extremist views of M S 'Guruji' Golwalkar.
Contentious paragraphs in Golwalkar's 'Bunch of Thoughts', which frames cultural nationalism in geographical, racial, religious, cultural and linguistic terms, have been expurgated. These paragraphs related to stigmatisation of minority communities and communists as 'internal enemies'.
On the eve of Gandhi Jayanti, Bhagwat pointedly refuted historian Ramchandra Guha's contention that 'Bunch of Thoughts' was the “RSS Bible”. The RSS was not represented by any book, nor did it believe in any -isms, he said. He painted the RSS as a dynamic, evolving organisation, sensitive to its socio-economic environment.
Last month, Bhagwat met the international media in a freewheeling question-and-answer session, during which he emphasised the RSS's belief in 'diversity in unity' and its acceptance of homosexuality as a “variation” rather than an “abnormality”, and condemned mob violence against minorities.
The big takeaway from his recent speeches is his repeated reference to the Constitution, “faith in the judicial system” and “the law”. Last year's speech had called for a Bill enabling the Ram Mandir, indicating that while the RSS will not resort to extra-constitutional means to achieve its objectives, it would not hesitate to deploy the BJP's legislative majority to do so. This year, he called for a consensus on, rather than an imposition of, a Uniform Civil Code.
Aware of the incendiary potential of the much-anticipated Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya case, the top RSS leadership made it clear in a recent closed-door meeting that, win or lose, it should on no account be met with either over-the-top celebrations or a violent backlash.
Bhagwat's 'Hindu Rashtra', seen in conjunction with his stress on respect for the Constitution and the Law, may effectively be a 'Hindu-majority Rashtra'. He did not make that fine distinction; his focus was on defanging critics of the Narendra Modi government.
The RSS is obviously satisfied that, for the first time in its history, concrete steps are being taken to fulfil its wish-list. At the same time, it is keen to clarify that its 'Hindu Rashtra' - unlike the repressive far- right 'Aryavarta' regime frighteningly depicted in the Netflix series 'Leila' - has a healthy respect for plurality, human rights and civil liberties.