By Dr. Rakesh Sihna, The Indian Express, April 16, 2021. RSS has not allowed itself to be a closed institution, which is why its quest for commonalities brings it closer to even those who disregarded and disagreed with it.
The newly elected general secretary of the RSS, Dattatreya Hosabale, said something that indicates a new phase in the history of the organisation. He identified two important issues: First, social inequality and, second, the narrative of Bharat. Although both issues are not new either for the nation or for the Sangh, the importance of Hosabale’s statement lies in the organisation’s quest for a fresh perspective in meeting these challenges.
The RSS, which is about to complete 100 years of its existence, has made an indelible mark on society, culture and politics of contemporary India. Unlike other ideological and political movements, it represents a genuinely decolonised mindset and ideological stream. This is its source of strength and helps it to face successive storms. The RSS’s new role — which has been articulated by its chief Mohan Bhagwat for about a decade — is rooted in its understanding of India’s freedom movement.
One can trace interesting commonalities between contemporary RSS leaders and many African thinkers and revolutionaries, if the conventional left and right categories do not hinder or prejudice comparative views on decolonisation.
Indian and African leaderships understood colonialism differently and, as a consequence, their anti-colonial movements too differed. In India, it was a political protest as a predominant section of the leadership considered colonialism as political slavery compounded by the drain of wealth. Therefore, the mobilisation of people was done accordingly. However, the African leadership fought not only political domination and racial discrimination but also cultural subjugation with equal vigour. Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o highlighted colonialism’s coercive impact not only on language but also African value systems represented by the concept of Ubuntu (“I am because you are”), which accepts the coexistence of differing views. Frantz Fanon was not wrong when he argued that the liberation of colonies through negotiation failed to completely eradicate the evils of colonialism.
The hegemony of European ideas and culture was rigorously and laboriously opposed by Swadeshi thinkers like Bankim Chatterjee, Rajnarayan Basu, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, B C Pal, Aurobindo, Lala Lajpat Rai and others, but their ideas could not acquire the centrality in the Congress ideology. Moreover, in the post-Tilak era, Congress resolutions and programmes completely missed out on cultural issues. Politics was, for the Congress leadership, the sine qua non. The colonial forces’ contempt for the people and culture remained largely unresisted. For instance, in the reports of all the eight censuses conducted in colonial India (1872-1941), they extensively discussed the success and failures of Christian denominations in their mission of religious conversion of the Hindus. The conversion was treated by them as an important programme. The Congress ignored the intellectual resistance by people like Swami Shraddhanand and Col U N Mukherjee, the author of two important tracts, A Dying Race (1909) and Hindus After Coming Census (1910). The colonial masters contemptuously described Indians living in forest areas as “animists” in the first four successive censuses; progressive priests who broke caste hierarchies to integrate and serve tribals and Dalits were denounced as “degraded Brahmins”.
The Congress leadership did not pay heed even to Gandhi’s concern for the Indian knowledge tradition, which witnessed a systematic onslaught. He summed up its consequence in a lecture in London 1931 as a “beautiful tree perished”. Interestingly, in the same year, Indian philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya cautioned against cultural domination which, unlike political domination, invisibly progresses and eventually threatens indigenous cultures.
The formation of the RSS was a response to the cultural aggression against indigenous people, Indian knowledge traditions and spirituality that India witnessed in the Mughal and British periods. Its core ideology centred around the cultural-civilisational identity of the nation. It considered political freedom without cultural sovereignty as a body without a soul. Therefore, it cooperated with both Gandhians as well as revolutionaries to oppose British colonialism but remained unfettered in its mission of combating cultural indoctrination. The RSS’s flexible and versatile identity could be seen in its advancement.
Its founding members, who were Marathi-speaking, demonstrated a unique catalysing capacity to rejuvenate local cultural traditions, dialects, languages by integrating with them. As Bhagwat aptly argued, Hindutva as a synonym for Indianness is about shared values and micro but vibrant cultural processes inherited by people across the country. For its founder K B Hedgewar, culture was not an artefact but a mode of resistance, a means to consolidate nationalism and, above all, prepare the people for a moral society.
The RSS began as a movement of ideas. However, stiff political opposition forced it to acquire an institutional shape. And we all are witness to the institutional battles among ideological movements in post-Independence India. They have been replete with prejudices and binaries. But the RSS has not allowed itself to be a closed institution, which is why its quest for commonalities brings it closer to even those who disregarded and disagreed with it. It is this unique characteristic that has the potential to build a narrative of Bharat beyond the sectarian and narrow lanes of political and ideological divisions. This is not an easy task but it’s not impossible either.
In a protracted ideological battle based on Hindutva vs pseudo-secularism, many prejudices and wounds developed. But they cannot be the basis for future discourse. When Bhagwat says the RSS was confined to character building, he does not mean producing merely humble citizens. Character, in the RSS worldview, has a broader meaning. It denotes mental preparedness for an ideal society free from discrimination and inequality.
In 1974, the then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras vowed to remove social discrimination, mainly untouchability, lock stock and barrel. The RSS made this a priority, but the desired goal is yet to be achieved. For three decades, it has used service as a means to reach a noble end. The socio-economic transformation will acquire central space in the narrative of Bharat and only its success can lift India from its current provincialised status imposed by the hegemonic Europe-US centric intellectualism. Too much politics is as bad as too much culture. The RSS expanded its thoughts to socio-economic aspects. The narrative of Bharat is not merely about resurrecting our knowledge traditions but also addressing contemporary world problems. A global perspective to change India and share ideas with the world community will be the new phase in the RSS’s journey. The world needs to be unburdened from neoliberalism, which survives by uprooting people, infusing individualism and glorifying competitive materialism. It endangers micro traditions, cultural process and the institution of the family. The foundation of Indian life is based on federal spirituality and society. The dynamics of the state and dynamics of a cultural organisation are different. The latter has the potential to re-initiate a transformation and reorient people with indigenous indices. The new role of the Sangh would lead it to encounter critical issues awaiting resolution.
The writer, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP, is a biographer of Hedgewar