Is India’s Narendra Modi going to succeed in his mission to ditch secularism and turn his people into bigoted fascists attached to obscurantist Hindutva values that consider all non-Hindus as — what Adolf Hitler used to call — untermenschen (racially or socially inferior)?
Authors Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle provide the answer in the very title of their book, Messengers of Hindu Nationalism: How the RSS Reshaped India — because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and current prime minister has already reshaped India in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) image.
Their well-researched third book — after The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism and The RSS: A View to the Inside — focuses on the transformation that has taken place in India and which continues to spread its tentacles across the length and breadth of Pakistan’s eastern neighbour. The authors trace the roots of Hindutva in the 19th century, the brains behind the origin and formation of the RSS, the various phases through which the movement passed — including two bans — and the stranglehold it has now come to exert on Indian politics and society.
Two men stand out: Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, who founded the RSS in 1925 and remained its chief till 1940; and Madhavrao Sadashivrao Golwalkar, who headed it for 33 critical years (1940 to 1973), which saw the trauma of Partition, the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the first ban on the RSS in January 1947. Also deserving a mention is Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, who dragged the RSS into politics and reforms — something his mentor, Hedgewar, was opposed to.
Initially, in keeping with the founder’s views, the RSS’s focus was on character building. But as time passed and Independence posed fresh challenges, a new leadership emerged, giving the RSS and its affiliates a communal outlook steeped in a hatred of all non-Hindus.
A well-researched book focuses on the transformation that has taken place in India under Narendra Modi and the stranglehold Hindutva now exerts on Indian politics and society
In 1958, when he was only eight years old, Modi began attending the RSS’s daily meetings. Since the prejudices acquired in one’s formative phases have a lasting impression, one should not be surprised if, during his stint as Gujarat’s chief minister from 2001 to 2014, Modi presided over a pogrom that killed 1,044 people — 790 of them Muslim — because the police were ordered by him to let the rioters do their job.
What is Hindutva? The RSS website gives it a very innocuous goal: unity of all Hindus, besides reorganising Hindu society “on the lines of its unique national genius” and “[carrying] the nation to the pinnacle of glory.” According to Hedgewar, Hindus “are the people of the land” and others live in India on “the sufferance of the Hindu majority and consequently should be expected to adopt Hindu culture.” He goes on to assert that non-Hindus should realise they are living in the “Hindustan of Hindus.”
In his 1966 book Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar says it would be “suicidal ... to believe that Muslims have turned patriots overnight after the creation of Pakistan.” On the contrary, he says, “the Muslim menace has increased a hundredfold.”
The movement puts extraordinary emphasis on “Indianising education”, with textbooks that it believes should be full of Hindu beliefs and mythologies, Hindu rituals and festivals, yoga, Sanskrit and classes on Indian civilisation, besides being littered with Hindu symbols. While the federal and many state governments did not agree with the RSS on school syllabi, the RSS started establishing its own schools, with some state governments, too, following suit.
However, given the immensity of the task, the RSS’s attitude toward Muslims has been flexible. For instance, Dr Shreerang Godbole, an RSS intellectual, believed in “ghar wapsi” [homecoming], claiming that all Muslims and Christians should become Hindu because the religion of their ancestors was Hinduism. Not all agreed with this philosophy, arguing that the RSS should follow the example of Indonesia, where Muslims have adopted facets of Hindu culture without compromising their own religion.
A major success for the movement was to set up the RSS’s Muslim branch, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM). Even though it was claimed that some Muslims themselves had decided to join the RSS, it transpired later that some senior RSS leaders were behind the initiative. Many Muslims, too, thought that their interests could be better served by close association rather than confrontation with the Hindu majority. In 2003, the MRM passed a resolution demanding a ban on cow slaughter and, in 2004, it pleaded for the abolition of Kashmir’s special status “to further the cause of national integration.”
As for Pakistan, any impartial reader of the book would not fail to detect the RSS’s obsession with Muslims in general and Pakistan in particular. And, even though it regards China, too, as India’s enemy, the book makes the Modi government’s policy clear on the issue. In brief, while Modi would maintain a façade of its purported determination to take on China, he would do nothing to up the ante.
In fact, the chapter on China shows how Modi would do his best to continue to have a robust economic relationship with China so as to avoid a military confrontation, which he knows will be a disaster for India. As for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) — a four-power alliance among the United States, Japan, Australia and India — New Delhi would pay lip-service to extort maximum diplomatic, economic and technological benefits from the US, without really doing anything practical that could annoy Beijing.
Andersen and Damle’s book has a hidden message for us Pakistanis. While India under the BJP’s philosophy and rule is in danger of becoming a nation of war-mongering fanatics, one wonders — going by the political bedlam here — whether the Pakistani leadership has the wisdom and character to prepare the nation for the inevitable hour when the chips are down.
The reviewer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author
Messengers of Hindu Nationalism: How the RSS Reshaped India
By Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle
Royal Book Company, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 8th, 2021