Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, over a three-day conclave the organisation held in the national capital, struck a note that was reconciliatory, yet radical—the latter, if only for its departure from how the Sangh is popularly viewed. Bhagwat talked about how there could be “no Hindutva without Muslims”, condemned lynchings by gau rakshaks, and even seemed to have unequivocally supported caste-based reservation, though, before the Bihar state elections in 2015, he had sought a review of the policy. He talked about how “upper caste arrogance and… social backwardness” resulted in caste atrocities—significant in the background of the Supreme Court modifying arrest provisions under the SC/ST Atrocities Act to reduce arbitrariness, and the Union government then restoring these. He talked about accommodating LGBT individuals to ensure that “they don’t get isolated”, a very different pitch from what some RSS leaders said immediately after the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. There was also a vocal endorsement of the Constitution—its secularism focus included—that marks a sharp departure from the RSS criticism hitherto that it lacked “Bharatiyata”, a deliberately nebulous concept.
What Bhagwat said about MS Golwalkar, the architect of the post-Independence RSS, reveals the most about what the organisation wants to be perceived as and how it will go about achieving that. Revered as Golwalkar is within the Sangh, it was curious that Bhagwat would mention him just twice over the three-day conference. This was a deliberate distancing, given how Golwalkar, in his Bunch of Thoughts, talks of Muslims, including Indian ones, as shatru (enemy). When Bhagwat did mention Golwalkar for the first time, in the context of a question asked about Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, he spoke of how the book had the context of a “certain time and circumstance” that has not endured and pointed the audience towards a popular edition of the book, from which such comments have been edited out. In a sense, Bhagwat seems to repudiate parts of the Sangh’s history in a hard push for evolution. The signs of this urgency to have the RSS seen differently have been there for some time. From inviting former president Pranab Mukherjee to address its ‘convocation’ event for swayamsevaks, to supposedly having invited opposition leaders across parties to its conclave in the national capital, the organisation has been trying to have a dialogue with ideological opponents.
However, it is difficult to say if the RSS is really turning a new leaf. It has spoken in many voices before. Even at the conclave, a vision of a Hindu Rashtra was foregrounded. The concept is one that many are uncomfortable with, given it is founded on a vision of “cultural nationalism” in which the understanding of culture is almost interchangeable with a narrow set of Hindu practices and beliefs. Sangh parivar outfits—RSS affiliates—have relied exclusively on sparking Hindu aggression and violent polarisation. Bhagwat’s words, no doubt, will be tested in the near term; nevertheless, they could serve today as an antidote to the toxic divisiveness that is rife currently.