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'Ghar wapsi’ [return home] is the deceptive euphemism employed in ‘secular’ India to convert Indian Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. They are, so goes the theory, descendants of converts originally Hindu. So making Indian Muslims and Christians change their religion and become idol-worshippers is like welcoming them home — hence ghar wapsi.

Christians are not the problem; Muslims are, as the book The RSS: A View to the Inside by Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle reveals, as it takes the reader through the evolution of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) political philosophy — from its founding in the pre-independence days to a 21st century India placed better in terms of advancing the Hindutva cause. A bewildering variety of terminology, dogma and pseudo-intellectual exercise go into this proselytising effort to make it acceptable to normal human beings. It still leaves out, of course, a large number of Indians appalled by their country’s slide into officially sponsored bigotry.

Founded by Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar more than two decades before independence, the RSS is now the world’s largest NGO, with nearly two million “participants” at 75,000 daily meetings of its various branches spread all over India. Dr Hedgewar was bitter about the long Muslim and ‘Christian’ (British) rule in India and held the Hindu caste system and social division responsible for what the authors call “a thousand years of foreign domination” — a theme articulated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Indian parliament on May 14, 1970, when he said, “… sir, Hindus will no more take a beating in this country. The tradition of taking a beating went on for 700-800 years.” V.S. Naipaul gives the reason why: in his book India: A Wounded Civilisation, Naipaul, as quoted by the authors, talks about the “deep wounds on the Hindu psyche caused by centuries of Muslim and British rule, such as the colonial historians’ portrayal of Hindu men as effete and lacking in martial virtues.”

The development of the pro-Hindu RSS and its influence on Indian politics

That Islam and Muslims are an obsession with elements within the RSS — and, perhaps, in large sections of the Hindu community — was to be seen in their reaction to the 1981 conversion of 180 families of low-caste Hindus (Dalits) to Islam in a village in Tamil Nadu. They interpreted the conversion as highlighting the vulnerability not only of low-caste Hindus, but also of Hindus generally, to flight from Hinduism. This fear of “Hinduism in peril” led to a campaign by the RSS and other groups to strengthen what the authors call “Hindu solidarity.” So frightened was then RSS secretary general H.V. Seshadri that he claimed in an article that a Muslim Action Committee had been formed to convert millions of Dalits to raise the percentage of Muslims in Bihar, to “carve out in the first instance, independent, Islamic States in Bharat […] and finally to Islamise the entire Bharat.” Vajpayee went a step further and said the conversions were part of “a sinister conspiracy … to undermine the demographic and secular complexion of the country and turn it [in]to a theocratic state [such as] Pakistan and Iran.”

Banned twice, first in 1948 after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s assassination, and again during the 1974-75 emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, the RSS initially kept itself aloof from politics and insisted that education was its “core aim.” Hindutva, it said, was misunderstood and for that reason the RSS’s aim was to reorganise “Hindu society on the lines of its unique national genius” and carry it to the “pinnacle of glory.” However, for a party with roots in Hinduism, staying away from politics was not possible for long. Gradually it was sucked into politics and played a major role in giving Indian politics a communal colour and paving the way for the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which, according to the authors, considers the RSS its “ideological godfather.”

Yet in spite of its commitment to Hindutva, BJP realised that a blatantly communal approach and a crude attempt at conversion would frighten Muslims and Christians away and that what was needed was a more restrained, cultural rather than religious approach.

In 2014, one of the pro-Hindutva leaders, Rajeshwar Singh, embarrassed the BJP party leadership by coining the phrase “love jihad”, which alleged that Muslims were marrying Hindu girls to convert them to Islam. The same year, at a well-publicised event at Agra, Singh claimed he had converted around 100 Muslims to Hinduism. This followed his declaration earlier that “the Muslims and Christians do not have any right to stay here. So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here.” This created a storm in India and embarrassed the ruling BJP.

In 1977, the RSS had changed its policy and threw open its membership to Muslims. Two and a half decades later it decided to seek Muslim cooperation and created a new organisation for Muslims only: the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM). The RSS leadership argued that instead of launching a movement to convert Muslims to Hinduism, the emphasis should be on making Indian Muslims accept “Hindu culture” the way Indonesian Muslims had accepted it.

Andersen and Damle’s book dwells on other aspects of what can be called the RSS phenomenon: the Gujarat riots presided over by then chief minister Narendra Modi (254 Hindus and 790 Muslims killed), the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the cow protection issue and the moral policing by the youth organisation Bajrang Dal — whose followers can be called Hindu Taliban — using the threat of violence against the media for spreading ‘obscenity’, pledging protection to Hindu traditions against insults, resisting such ‘Western values’ as Valentine’s Day cards and parties and opposing illegal immigration.

Of special interest for the people of Pakistan in this book is the Indian diaspora’s role in influencing their host governments’ policies toward their country of origin, especially the part the Indian community in America played in getting Congress to pass the nuclear cooperation treaty in 2008, besides the reception given to Modi during his last visit to the United States.

A point Pakistani political parties should note is the close attention the RSS leadership pays to foreign affairs, especially where Pakistan and China are concerned. Chapter 9 dwells at length on India’s relations with America, China and Pakistan and shows the deep insight the RSS has on issues of vital interest to India. As emphasised by many Indian analysts, the RSS believes nothing should be done that could adversely affect ties with Beijing. The RSS expresses concerns on many issues, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, especially where it concerns Pakistan, the South China Sea controversy, Beijing’s refusal to help on a permanent Security Council seat for New Delhi, the Ladakh territory and China’s veto on the Security Council with regard to Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar. But like all Indian governments, the RSS believes the red line should not be crossed, because New Delhi cannot afford losing its lucrative Chinese market and driving it closer to Pakistan.

The reviewer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor and an author

RSS: A View to the Inside
By Walter K. Andersen and
Shridhar D. Damle
Penguin Random House, India
ISBN: 978-0670089147
405pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 18th, 2018

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