Book review – The RSS: A View to the Inside

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New Delhi | Published: September 9, 2018 2:30:48 AM

Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle attempt explaining the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’s) rise in the last couple of decades in The RSS: A View to the Inside.

rss, book reviewThe book brings to fore the contradictions between what the organisation professes it is or what it wants to be, and what it actually is. (Express photo)

Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle attempt explaining the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’s) rise in the last couple of decades in The RSS: A View to the Inside. To even the lay, ‘apolitical’ reader who is updated on current affairs, the book would read as “a view ‘from’ the inside”. At least two reviews of the book have commented on Damle’s close ties with the American affiliate of the Sangh, and the fact that this is not disclosed, let alone discussed, in the book. However, to doubt the authors’ independence as researchers is not useful for this review. That said, it isn’t too hard to understand that, right from the first few pages, the book is an almost uncritical examination. There are four questions the authors say the book broadly deals with:

* Why has the RSS increasingly relied on affiliates to convey its message?

* How does the RSS manage links between itself and the affiliates, particularly with its political affiliate?

* Why has the RSS ‘family’, despite different policy perspectives among its constituents, been able to stay together?

* How has the growing social inclusiveness of the Sangh Parivar shaped its perception of democracy, secularism and Hindutva?

Consider this as you read the questions here. The RSS’s political affiliate, the BJP, is perhaps at its electoral peak. The RSS itself is enjoying unprecedented visibility. There’s been a boom in the ‘service projects’ (50,000 in 1998; 1,65,000 in 2015) it has had the funds and the space to conduct. Sarsanghchalak (RSS chief) Mohan Bhagwat’s speech on Vijay Dashami—the organisation chief addresses swayam sevaks on this day every year—was first broadcast to the nation via Doordarshan in 2014, and ever since, both AIR and DD have been roped in for the broadcast. Of course, private channels also give the speech coverage like never before.

And yet, it is the actions and messaging of what is deliberately misnomered as “the fringe far-right” within the RSS/BJP fold that is shaping the public perception of the organisation and its core tenet, Hindutva. RSS leaders, on paper and, as Andersen and Damle claim, sometimes in private, too, disapprove of this “fringe”. On the ground, however, this disapproval hasn’t so far manifested in any kind of reining in of the fringe. And chances are, it won’t. Lynchings of Dalits and Muslims—under the garb of gau raksha, love jihad and other bogeys—continue despite even the prime minister making the right noises about the need to crack down on this. Dissent is easily branded anti-national and now, more dangerously, there are desperate attempts to paint it as ‘left-wing extremism’.

Against such a backdrop, the questions Andersen and Damle take up, at the very best, make their book a manual on the functioning of the RSS over the last three decades. To be sure, even this manual is an important exercise. It allows the critical reader to understand what the RSS wants the people to think of it. And it, though perhaps not unwittingly, brings to fore the contradictions between what the organisation professes it is or what it wants to be, and what it actually is.

Let us look at the chapter titled Indianizing Education. ‘Indianising’, as the authors themselves understand, is the RSS term for inculcating Hindu values in education. But, as the RSS and its affiliates project the praxis of Indianisation, “incorporating Hindu values” is a proxy for rewriting history from a Hindutva perspective, one that lays primacy on the Vedic and pre-Delhi Sultanate India. Giving greater breadth to these periods in India’s history isn’t an illegitimate demand at all, as long as this conforms to the standards of historiography, especially with regards to historical methods. But does the Sangh confine itself to just this? No.

Dinanath Batra, an RSS pracharak and founder of the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, an RSS affiliate that lobbies state governments and the Centre for revision of curriculum and content of textbooks in schools, has been a vocal supporter of deleting portions showing the Mughal rule as tolerant of religious diversity or anything that suggests that there was some form of cultural integration of the peoples in the period of Muslim rule in India. Unsurprisingly, in the age of social media outrage and vitriol, such views easily got mainstream-ed, evident in the Twitter hashtag—#RemoveMughalsFromTexts. One would likely think of this as too ridiculous to materialise, but the Maharashtra Board removed significant portions on Mughals, western history, etc, from its prescribed textbooks. Meanwhile, schools in BJP-ruled Gujarat have secondary texts authored by Batra that tell students of a Hindu royal couple who had a child only after they practised worshipping of the cow. If Batra was the fringe, he no longer is under the new RSS.

A reader, therefore, is perplexed to find that the most crucial questions pertaining to the RSS, the BJP and their politico-social and economic agenda—ones that would perhaps make the RSS leadership uncomfortable—have not been asked by the authors in this book.

The authors seem keen to project the new RSS as a camp where the left, the right and the centre are all accommodated. But their attempts in the chapter, What does Hindutva mean?, to paint Hindutva vision as being amorphous and eclectic is betrayed by the posturing of the RSS leadership of late. Andersen and Damle say the present head of the RSS thinks of the term ‘Hindu’ as denoting cultural provenance rather than religious. And yet, this benign vision doesn’t translate on ground, with culture easily conflated with Hindu practices and beliefs (cue in the opposition to beef-eating, Mahishasura festivals, etc). This orthodoxy, though, is of political convenience—beef-eating, for instance, wasn’t a problem for the BJP in north-eastern states, where such dietary predilections are common.

The authors say in the introduction that the RSS’s new orientation on economic development and welfare—with PM Narendra Modi as its poster boy—is intended to reduce criticisms of its ‘social engineering’. However, it is also true that this orientation—the extent of realisation of the economic vision aside—is also meant to buffer any meaningful rejection of polarising politics, which has, to an extent, benefitted the BJP. This is important because, as the authors point out, there has been a key shift in the RSS’s thought on using the state and electoral victories as instruments for realising its goals.

The new RSS is not shy of using realpolitik. The book touches upon the debate within the RSS on ghar wapsi (the absurd euphemism for conversion of non-Hindus); while you would expect the debate to be on ideological grounds, on whether the RSS’s new inclusiveness is also about allowing non-Hindus religious assertion, the debate within the organisation is whether such an instrument serves a positive political end for it and the BJP. Yet, it is this realpolitik that has let the RSS acquire constituencies where it had none before. The RSS: A View to the Inside, thus, unpacks how the relationship between the RSS and the BJP is now one of perfect symbionts.

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