Attempts to present a benign face of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh have been going on for some time now, because it has realised that the more secretive their functioning remains, the more are the misconceptions that the Sangh would have to bear with. One of the measures that has been taken in this direction, understandably, sartorial, is the change from the regulation half pants to full trousers and from khaki to dark green.
The recent speech by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, at the Chicago World Hindu Congress, at the very place where Swami Vivekananda had made his famous ‘Brothers and sisters’ address that electrified the 3000-strong audience in 1893 and mesmerised the whole nation. Bhagwat did not evoke any of that effect nor was, probably, intended to.
Following closely on that initiative, the RSS organised a three-day lecture series in New Delhi to which leaders cutting across parties had been invited, as an outreach gesture. But, regrettably, that did not evoke the response that the organisers had expected.
At the lectures, Bhagwat not only tried to change the public perception about his organisation, but also sent a clear message to the ruling BJP leaders that ‘they should not take their ideological parent for granted’. The Sangh wanted to reach out to moderate Hindus and other minorities was the message.
Many leaders who had cut their teeth in the Sangh before going on to join the BJP, in fact, said this overture was nothing new and it was a practice that had been followed for long. ‘Every Sarsanghchalak (head of the Sangh) holds such an event; it’s an orientation programme about their ideology. But with BJP’s electoral success formula fascinating everyone now, there is a newfound interest.’
Many leaders, however, admitted that this was not so simple; apart from just another outreach programme this had also sent a strong message to the BJP. It is a message that meant that ‘the BJP cannot take the RSS for granted’.
‘Significantly, sometime back Bhagwat had said that a ‘Congress-mukt’ Bharat, which was also one of the BJP’s election slogans, was not on their agenda. He repeated it this time also.’ A BJP leader said, ‘He has made it clear that the Sangh respects stalwarts in the Congress too, those who fought during the freedom struggle, and he also conveyed that the RSS will distance itself from fringe elements, which the BJP has been coy about. The RSS does not want the end of the Congress. For BJP’s success, Congress is essential. The BJP has not been successful where the Congress is weak,’ he pointed out.’ Take the case of states like Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and UP; BJP’s success may not last long if parochial regional parties grow strong,’ he pointed out.
Despite electoral successes, BJP leaders understand that the Sangh is yet to influence and catch the imagination of the larger Hindu population ‘which does not appreciate the fringe, but prefers a centric Hindu persuasion’.
Bhagwat had also communicated clearly that the Sangh was not satisfied with electoral success, he said. ‘What the RSS wants is that the Indian polity should become Hindu-centric, like the European or American polity is Christian-centric. This is different from the politics in Islamic countries where the religious rights of others are crushed. The RSS wants Hinduism as the mainstream and it wants its ideological influence on all parties.’
According to him, there was a message here for the Congress too. ‘The Congress is getting too influenced by the Leftists and the RSS does not want the Congress to distance itself from 85 percent of the population and Bhagwat was trying to convey precisely this message to the Congress and the language of this secularism that it should speak.’
Bhagwat has an advice to politicians too; and that is to refrain from using ‘polarising language’, but did this mean he was also sending a message to the top BJP brass? ‘The RSS never promoted the language of violence,’ he pointed out. But another BJP leader said what Bhagwat meant was that the politics of polarisation by any party cannot be supported.
He mentioned that the BJP did not come to power on the promise of building the Ram Temple, but on its specific promise of a corruption-free government and projection of India’s image as a unique country. But did it succeed in eradicating corruption, he asked. It was also suggested to the BJP that it should focus on creating a national narrative instead of resorting to negative politics.
Bhagwat said, apropos of the Ramjanmabhumi issue, ‘Whenever truth and justice are ignored, because of arrogance or self-interest, then the Mahabharat could happen, as it did in Ayodhya. It should not have happened but it did happen... who can avert this?’
He repeated the remark that Ayodhya is the birthplace of Ram and where his temple was demolished, the temple should be built, on that particular spot.
Ignoring truth and justice was like inviting trouble, and resorting to aggression for political interests was one of the reasons for such conflicts.
‘If we move ahead resorting to lies and injustice, then it will be followed by violence…Non-violence is with truth, and justice prevails when there is truth and non-violence. We will have to face the truth; we will have to deliver justice soon. Delay does not work.’
Bhagwat said debates on the movement (Ram Janmabhoomi), who demolished the structure (Babri mosque) and who was responsible, all these allegations would continue as they are part of politics, and there is the need to find the truth with consensus.’
The RSS chief also frowned on the politics of ‘shamshan-kabristan’(graveyard, cremation ground) that was indulged in for attaining power and not for public welfare. It was precisely these words that Narendra Modi had used during his election campaign in UP in 2017. Politics, he said, should be for the welfare of the people and the medium of this is power. In February 2017, Modi had used these words while accusing the Akhilesh Yadav government of discriminating on the basis of religion. ‘If you create a kabristan (graveyard) in a village, then a shamshan (cremation ground) should be created. If electricity is given uninterrupted during Ramzan, then it should be given during Diwali without a break. There should be no discrimination,’ he had said at an election rally.
Over the three-day conclave, Bhagwat sought to refute that view several times as he tried to present the RSS in a different, more liberal and forward-looking avatar. He said the Sangh ‘only supports policies’ and whoever implements them automatically gets its unflinching support. ‘We do not favour a political party.’ Nevertheless the RSS chief also praised the Modi government as he responded to a question on whether the country had progressed since it came to power in 2014. ‘The situation that you have got is the legacy... The government has to work accordingly. Moving forward does not happen all at once. They (Modi government) have moved ahead in that direction as there is a change in the atmosphere. More people are thinking of manufacturing within the country.’
He also spoke against religious conversions with inducements and said there should be no ‘double standards’ over violence in the name of the cow, the two contentious issues.
He said that a Ram temple should be built ‘at the earliest’ in Ayodhya, which would remove a major cause of discord of between the two major communities. But along with such sweat reasonableness, Bhagwat also set his own house on fire with the unsubtle use of animal metaphors at the Chicago meeting. In his short speech there, driven by his belief that all Hindus needed to be united, he summoned for his argument the imagery of a lonely lion being destroyed by wild dogs. While the imperious lion is equated with Hinduism, the wild dog is the other – mongrel, opportunistic scavenger, repulsive looking and hunting in packs.
On the surface, given the RSS’s penchant for equating the Indian state with Hinduism, the lion might appear an apt choice. The national emblem draws upon Ashoka’s Lion Capital, a sculpture of four Asiatic lions, originally placed atop the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath. But the metaphor is problematic, as the lion does not easily sit with the Hindutva image. For one, the lion is a carnivore and therefore incapable of surviving as a ‘pure’ vegetarian. In the Gir Forest, the last redoubt for the Asiatic lion, the semi-nomadic Maldharis regularly suffer livestock (mostly buffaloes) losses to lion predation.
The reason that the Asiatic lion finds itself limited today to the Gir forest is because the species is still recovering from near-extinction in the nineteenth century when the British preferred to expand settled agriculture at the cost of the forest and the savannas that straddled central and western India were put under the plough and thus the natural habitats of the lion was eliminated. Secondly, the caution of the restricted royal hunt during the Mughal period was replaced with the thoughtless kills from hunting wildlife either as colonial sport or enabled by Indian royals to flatter the British officials. Wild dogs were, in short, not even remotely involved in the massacre of lions during the British period.
These metaphors surely add up poorly to Bhagwat’s intellectual pretence to disgrace the wild dog to unite Hindus, a sociologist pointed out. Worse is his linking the lion as a pan-Indian symbol. Bhagawat needs to go back to the drawing table to learn about the complex symbols and complexities of this diverse sub-continent and its web of associations and deeper memories. He also needs to go to a finishing school and learn from the masters. Till then he would be subjected to the sarcasm and hostility from the differently endowed elite whom he has been trying to win over. The minorities and the dispossessed are not the one to be won over; it is the deracinated and culturally decimated elite that reside in the concentric circles of the capital that Lord Curzon has built.