A distant relative of my family, an ardent supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would often tell us that every time he heard the incantation Bharatmata ki jai he was overcome by a rush of emotion so strong that he would do anything to prove his love for the country. If listeners looked askance, he would ask rather ingenuously, “What is wrong with being patriotic and saying India is Hindu?” It was a question that defied any answer.
It was only recently that he admitted that his adrenaline rush of nationalism came from being a regular at the daily shakha (branch) meetings of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in his youth and childhood. Bharatmata was apotheosised as a crowned goddess holding a trident in one hand and a flag in the other in his imagination. She had to be protected at all costs by men of stern principles and undying loyalty to the nation. But for decades there was a reticence in talking about the shakha, possibly because RSS had been banned several times — for its role in the killing of Mahatma Gandhi and in communal flare-ups across the country.
There is nothing furtive about the RSS or its 40 affiliates anymore. It flexes its political muscle as easily as it has co-opted Gandhi and other iconic leaders who it once reviled. In a careful image makeover it is modifying its rhetoric to recruit today’s youth and appear conciliatory to the religious minorities and the majority liberal Indians who view the organisation with deep distrust. As foot soldiers of the Hindu rashtra (nation) gather for their trademark meetings in full public gaze these days it appears the formula is working. Hindutva, or the Hindu supremacist ideology, is attracting followers in rising number. A little over 158,000 turned up early in January, all of them from just a handful of western districts of Maharashtra, to reaffirm their devotion to nation and holy land.
It would be naive to dismiss the recent RSS gathering as a quaint, Hindu version of the Boy Scouts.
The numbers are cause for awe — and envy. No political party in India can count on the kind of supporters that the RSS can muster when its saffron flag is raised. Dressed in old-fashioned flared khaki shorts, white shirts with rolled-up sleeves and black caps, their lathis at the ready, they presented an incongruous sight on the outskirts of Pune’s high-tech city where global software and electronics companies operate. There were drills, a marching band and a quaint salute reminiscent of the one used in oaths of allegiance, along with speeches about the need to build character to make the country powerful. Israel was held up as the role model since the world respects only powerful nations.
It would be naive to dismiss such gatherings as a quaint, Hindu version of the Boy Scouts. Founded in 1925 to form a nationalist Hindu character during British colonial rule, the Sangh sets much store by respect for authority and discipline, its creed shaped by Nazi ideology and its admiration for Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. RSS instils an intense nationalism based on religion in its followers based on indoctrination that starts with children as young as five to eight much like the madressahs do.
The Sangh may call itself a cultural organisation dedicated to protecting India’s Hindu culture but it is widely seen as a fascistic outfit that is antagonistic to people of other faiths (Muslims and Christians) and intent on browbeating them as it pursues a Hindu first policy. The RSS logic is simple: while India may be the homeland for Christians and Muslims, their holy lands lie elsewhere.
The congregation in Maharashtra was clearly a show of strength, a celebration of the RSS resurgence in the wake of the BJP’s sweeping win in 2014. It is said to have around six million activists, a number that the saffron outfit considers too small for its ambitions; it is aiming for at least 30 million and a presence in every village.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a former RSS worker, is of course the overarching inspiration for the resurgence in the RSS which is said to have witnessed a 20pc spike in attendance at the shakhas over the past year. And its star is clearly in the ascendant. In the 20 months, since Narendra Modi became prime minister, the revolving door between the mother organisation and the BJP has been swinging open pretty regularly. RSS officials now hold high-profile positions in the BJP and have become trusted spokesmen for the party, while sympathisers have been pushed into prestigious (and undeserved) posts such as the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Securities and Exchange Board of India. These were just rewards for its mobilisation that brought Modi to power.
The political gains have been far greater. RSS workers have been appointed governors of and chief ministers in several states. Many cabinet ministers in Modi’s government have an RSS background even though some have erased it from their official profiles. Even the urbane lawyer Arun Jaitley who now serves as finance minister cut his political teeth in the ABVP, the student wing of the RSS which most people mistake for the BJP’s youth wing. The political consciousness — and the rhetoric — of a great many in government has been shaped by RSS thinking
Today, the Sangh is no longer coy about its desire to shape government policies or to share the gravy trough of office. Mohan Bhagwat, RSS supremo, is unabashedly the most political leader the organisation has had. US academic Walter Andersen who has been studying the RSS since the 1970s admitted in a recent interview that the Sangh is becoming increasingly political. When he wrote the landmark Brotherhood in Saffron in 1987, the RSS was suspicious of politics as a vocation but this is clearly not the case anymore.
The high praise that Bhagwat is now showering on the Modi regime is RSS realpolitik devoid of ideology. Bhagwat is making amends for his remarks on the caste policy which are widely believed to have resulted in the BJP’s poll debacle in Bihar. While liberals worry about the increasing hold of the saffron brigade on the levers of power in the country, old-style RSS members like my distant relative are also upset. He fears Bharatmata is in danger from her avowed soldiers.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2016