Jaipur: The session on Friday at the Jaipur Literature Festival where ideologues from the RSS participated did not produce the sparks that were expected. Despite the heated build-up to the session, called ‘The Saffron and the Sangha,’ the hour-long conversation pointedly kept away from controversial issues and stuck to the themes of Hindutva as spirituality, the virtues of tolerance and diversity and some statements about caste-based reservations and the place of religion in classrooms that went unquestioned.
With both participants from the RSS, there was little room for fiery debate or argument. Instead both got a chance to air their views unhindered except for interventions and questions from the moderator Pragya Tiwari. Manmohan Vaidya, chief of the publicity wing of the RSS, critiqued caste-based reservations, but in a roundabout manner that was somewhat characteristic of the entire session. Vaidya started by citing B.R. Ambedkar’s opinion that reservations were not meant to be a permanent feature and ought to be done away with at some point. There was loud applause when he called for an increase in employment opportunities for everyone.
The threat of ‘left liberal intolerance’ seemed to hover over the session as both speakers made pointed remarks about the value of engaging with different viewpoints and the intolerance of those who could not stand to engage with ideologies different from theirs.
Pragya Tiwari, the moderator of the panel, who is currently working on a book about the RSS and its appeal to “thousands of Indians” opened the session by saying “there is little room for debate” since both panelists were RSS members and also added that she would be observing her ‘dharma’ as a moderator for the duration of the session.
The way the session was designed, Vaidya and Hosabale essentially had an uncontested platform to lay out their version of Hindutva and nationalism.
The duo split the session into two halves, with Vaidya taking the first.
He kicked off his bit by thanking the festival’s organisers for giving the RSS a platform and remarked on the ‘intolerance’ of those who had withdrawn from the festival due to the Sangh’s presence in this year’s line up.
Tolerance and diversity was a big theme in Vaidya’s rhetoric, though not in the contentious way one would expect. He painted Hindutva as a way of life, not a religious ideology, and equated it with spirituality. According to Vaidya, for the RSS, ‘rashtra’ and ‘nation’ too mean different things and nationalism in the English sense of the word is not what the organisation subscribes to.
In the RSS construction, people are bound together in a ‘rashtra’ when they have similar ways of living. These “connect them all together in spite of diversities of castes, languages etc.” He likened the Hindutva imagination of the state to a diverse democracy rather than a theocracy.
Although Hosabale listened without participating for the first half of the session, his comments in the second half were definitely more incendiary than Vaidya’s.
Tiwari asked him if the RSS condones violence in certain cases or as retaliation, Hosabale answered with a confident “No.”
But he added, “RSS has never supported any sort of violence. If some people are out to attack RSS persons, it is but human to attack in certain cases. Apart from that, no.” Hosabale confidently cited instances of RSS activists’ persecution going unchecked by The police in Kerala (“20 RSS activists have been killed, women and children burned but with no reaction”).
Tiwari did not delve into the RSS’s well documented controversial views on educational curricula in the country. Instead of asking about specific actions or statements made by RSS members, she went with broader ideological queries.
This resulted in the audience being treated to statements like, “The education system of this country should reflect the ethos of the nation and the right history.”
The RSS’s version of “right history” has most recently included claims that the dancing girl figurine from Mohenjo Daro is actually the Hindu goddess Parvati, though that did not get discussed at the session.
Hosabale said that the educational system should highlight the achievements of our ancestors and not focus only on their flaws and failures – though, by his own admission, our ancestors too made mistakes like all humans do. Hosabale criticised the “left liberal historians” for creating an educational curriculum focused on “denigrating the past.”
He said that the education system leads Indian youth to think India was shrouded in the dark ages before the British arrived whereas celebrated authors, such as William Dalrymple, have written extensively about India’s economic might before the onset of the British Raj. Tiwari said, “The fine print of this conversation is very, very tricky.”
Citing RSS founder K. B. Hedgewar, Tiwari asked if the RSS would actually disband after it had achieved its goals as Hedgewar had hoped would happen. However, Hosabale offered his interpretation, saying it is “not an organisation of Hindus, but wants to organise Hindu society.”
Continuing along this line, he said, “life is coterminous with society” and so he couldn’t say when the organisation’s goals would be achieved or when it would disband.
The question and answer session was about the only time a heated exchange took place. One man in the audience stood up and pointed out that the BJP has no Muslim members standing for the upcoming UP elections, despite 25% of the state’s population being Muslim.
Vaidya glibly answered saying the RSS does not interfere in the allotment of tickets. Earlier in the talk, Vaidya dodged the question of the Muslim community in India being among the country’s poorest by saying that the majority live in the BIMARU states, conflating the states’ relative economic poverty and the community’s economic status.
Facing a question about recent remarks about cows being the only animal to exhale oxygen and the place of religion in classrooms, both speakers supported religious ethos, “universal virtues like compassion” as Hosabale put it, being included in educational settings.
The talk ended with Vaidya taking a dig at the left’s intolerance for the presence of the RSS at the event and its general unwillingness to engage with members of the right. He cited the “social, intellectual, academic untouchability practised by left intellectuals” as an explanation for people withdrawing from the festival in protest.