At one place in his 2022 book, The Commissioner For Lost Causes, Arun Shourie reminisces about one of his interactions with Ramnath Goenka, the founder of The Indian Express, soon after his meeting with RSS leader Bhaurao Deoras at Delhi’s Jhandewalan complex. “When I returned, I went to see RNG (Goenka). I told him how impressed I was by Bhauraoji: Such austere living, a sharp mind, clear thinking… ‘Arey chhodo,’ Ramnathji cut me short: ‘Yeh sab naa milee ke sadhu hain — chokree naheen milee to sadhu baney phirtey hain. Sattaa milegee, tab dekhnaa — kaisey us ke peechey bhaagengey, kyaa uskaa prayog karengey, ke kaheen voh panjey sey nikal naa jaaye uskey liye kyaa kyaa karengey… Satta mili to tumhein pataa lagegaa ki yeh kitney sadhu hain.’”
In short, Goenka questioned the notion of austerity among the RSS people, saying they were austere largely because they didn’t have power. Their real test would come when they found themselves in power, he added. Shourie didn’t contest Goenka’s assessment because “Ramnathji was an early supporter of the Gita Press”, and from this one could “infer his attitude towards Hinduism in general, to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in particular as the aspiring standard-bearer of Hinduism”.
Decades after Goenka’s death in 1991, Shourie still seemed to be under his influence when he invoked a “bhikhari” (beggar) allegory, in an interview with this writer in 2017, on the question of a “controversial appointment” of the then ICSSR chairperson. To paraphrase his statement, Shourie had said that the RSS made such appointments to give its “bhikhari karyakartas” cars, drivers, and accommodations in Delhi. How close his assessment was to that of Ramachandra Guha, who had publicly called the then ICSSR chief “a half-literate Sanghi”! Interestingly, the person had nothing to do with RSS all his life. He had authored/edited more than 100 books, was awarded by the Vice-President of India in 1991 (when the Congress was in power) in recognition of his work for the promotion of Hindi, and was recommended for a Padma award by the state of Nagaland in the early 1980s. Guha, to his credit, apologised personally to his son. Shourie couldn’t. For, he didn’t know the journalist interviewing him was the son of the ICSSR chief — and it wasn’t reported!
At Lutyens, Shourie and Guha can think alike, though ideologically they are so far apart (Guha will surely protest, saying he belongs to Bengaluru, but then here one is talking about the Lutyens mindscape, and not landscape!) And from the high of the Raisina Hill, the rest of India looks dirty, dingy and poverty-stricken. Marx wasn’t entirely wrong, after all.
Coming back to the RSS, this writer’s traditional home in Bihar has the opportunity to host several Sangh leaders. Their simplicity, rootedness, commitment for cause, selfless love towards the nation, and admiration for Sanatana ethos were readily discernible. They would come, meet, talk, sometimes eat, but what impressed the most was their simplicity and a profound sense of purpose.
Last time, however, maybe six-eight months back, when a Sangh leader, a regional one at best, visited the home, he seemed different: He had the air of being an important person, who should be treated “differently”. He wanted some of the “respectable locals” to be invited to listen to him, to kind of celebrate his presence among the “lesser beings”. But when nothing of the sort happened and the courtesies remained confined to providing him with an airy guestroom and a homely lunch, he became restless. He left the place in a hurry. This was the last that was heard from him.
To, however, treat the entire RSS leadership with Goenka-like reproach would be unfair. The Sangh has succeeded despite extreme politico-ideological hostilities, especially from the ruling-intellectual classes, for most parts of independent India. It was, in fact, banned at the very dawn of Independence — on 4 February 1948, to be precise — after fabricating its links with Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. As Ratan Sharda writes in his book, RSS: Evolution From An Organisation To A Movement, this was done “without a shred of evidence” and enforced with mala fide urgency because Nehru saw RSS and Hindu Sabha men as “traitors” and publicly vowed to “crush them”.
Still, the RSS has thrived. This not just shows the innate strength of its organisation and ideas, but also brings out the dedication and commitment of its cadres that work in most adverse circumstances with bare minimum resources and facilities. Though some of the Sangh leaders may be getting used to “good life”, given that the BJP is in power at the Centre and in several states, the cadre remain the same old committed lot. However, given the nature of the Sangh Parivar where hierarchy and discipline are of paramount importance, the rot, if not identified in time and surgically removed from the body system, can spread dangerously fast and wide.
One RSS leader told this writer, during the Karnataka Assembly poll campaigning, that the ground level karyakartas in the state were utterly dissatisfied and angry with their leaders. He confided that the Sangh, which had been the real strength of the BJP, thanks to its dedicated and selfless cadre, was full of people who were only interested in power and money. Currently, there are several videos in circulation where the RSS-BJP volunteers of Karnataka can be seen to be accusing their leaders of being corrupt and unmindful of people’s welfare. The RSS and the BJP can ill-afford to ignore such sentiments, even if some videos are fake and mischievously distributed by their politico-ideological opponents and disgruntled elements.
The above problem is largely physical/external in nature. But more perilous can be the psychological/internal dilemma facing the Sangh and the BJP: To cast itself in the image of its opponents by obsessively trying to “look and act secular”, and fixatedly seek “sabka saath” and “sabka vishwas”. The irony is that not long ago, the RSS and the BJP would accuse their politico-ideological opponents of doing exactly the same by pursuing crass minorityism in the name of ‘secularism’. They would target the previous Congress governments of indulging in Haj politics, but today BJP spokespersons proudly inform how the Modi government has hiked the Haj subsidy. Even the Central ministers can be seen queuing up at airports to see these pilgrims off for Mecca and Medina.
It’s understandable for the BJP to look for ways to extend its electoral base. After all, the primary object of a political party is to win elections. But can the same be said about the RSS? What will be left of the Sangh if it is not what it was originally formed to work for? The RSS was established by Dr KB Hedgewar in 1925 with the express objective of Hindu revitalisation. In this endeavour to strengthen Hindu society, it has done several milestone works through hundreds of its associated wings working with tribals, Dalits, among others, bringing them to Hindu mainstream. All this has strengthened Hindu society — an avowed objective of the RSS.
But how does the Sangh involving itself in giving pension to divorced Muslim women forwarding its cause? It’s a noble work, no doubt, but why just confine to Muslim women? Let all poor women be the beneficiaries of Sangh welfarism.
Even more confusing is the endeavour of one of its subsidiaries, Muslim Rashtriya Manch — formed in 2002 with the blessings of then RSS chief KS Sudarshan and is currently guided by senior RSS leader Indresh Kumar. One of its pet projects is “Imam-e-Hind Ram”. The Manch leadership thinks that by merely calling Bhagwan Ram “Imam-e-Hind”, India’s communal problem can be resolved, little realising that Allama Iqbal — the ideological father of Pakistan — too saw Ram as “Imam-e-Hind” (spiritual leader of India). In Islam, it doesn’t matter where the story began. What matters is where it ends — and the finality rests with Prophet Mohammed. Nothing changes or can be changed after Him. How skewed is the Manch’s understanding of Islam and Islamism can be gauged from the fact that its leaders in 2020 had taken to streets to protest against the Emmanuel Macron government on the issue of Islamophobia in France.
Then, there was a Sangh-inspired organisation that took pride in placing a “rare 16th century copy” of the Quran, written in gold ink, at the 108th Indian Science Congress (ISC) in Nagpur. Nothing can be a greater scientific validation for the Islamic holy book than having its copy put at a science meet. Despite the overwhelming temptation, the RSS should avoid leaving the Hindu shore to placate other religions. The BJP, being a political party, may have its compulsions to look ‘secular’ in the Nehruvian mould, but the RSS has no such obligations. Its ideological purity is paramount. For, the muddied waters of a downstream tributary can be ignored, but the source has to remain sparkling clean at all cost.
The minority-first secularism in India is the worst form of Nehruvian perversion of what has actually been a Christian notion, based as it is on the “specific theological framework that was conceptually conceived of during the Protestant Reformation”, as J Sai Deepak explains in his book, India That Is Bharat. In India, the term secularism is thus an oxymoron. No wonder, the Constituent Assembly after a detailed discussion had refused to accommodate the word in the Constitution of India.
In this backdrop, it was heartening to see RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat strongly tying the Sangh to its Hindu core in January this year. While assuring Muslims that there was “nothing to fear in India”, he urged them to abandon their “boisterous rhetoric of supremacy”. But more needs to be done on that front. Being the ideological fountainhead of its Parivar, the RSS has no option but to speak truth even if it sounds unpleasant, especially in today’s politically-correct world. If its ideology gets muddied, then it would have cascading impact on its fringe outfits. In that scenario, a section of Sanghis standing up with Islamists won’t be a one-off phenomenon. Then, taking a stern action against PFI-like jihadi forces, even when they target, maim and kill Hindutva karyakartas, would become difficult, as was the case in BJP-ruled Karnataka. And, the traditional hostility towards corrupt people and practices would get tampered with.
The crux of the problem in BJP-ruled Karnataka was in the ideological fluidity of those in power. This not just made the government susceptible to corruption and stemmed any efforts to provide good governance, but also innately enfeebled the state to take on anti-India jihadi forces operating within its boundaries. Ramnath Goenka wasn’t right on RSS in the 1980s. He may be partially right now. But this can be checked. All that the RSS and the BJP need to do is to rediscover their ideological moorings. This would be good for the nation. And it would be an electoral masterstroke too.
(This is the second part of the two-part series)
The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.