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Interview: RSS ‘Vicharak’ on Modi, Ideology and Right-Wing Intellectualism

“The future challenge (for the RSS) would be to create a meta-narrative which can end all sectarian and narrow divisions,” Rakesh Sinha told The Wire.

Rakesh Sinha. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Rakesh Sinha. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

New Delhi: Recently, the RSS held a closed-door meeting with academics, including 50 “like-minded” vice chancellors, at Delhi University. The seminar was convened reportedly to discuss how to “decolonise” Indian minds. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat also addressed the gathering.

RSS ‘vicharak’ Rakesh Sinha, a prominent face in the media, was a participant at the meeting, which Sinha described as “part of a series of such events that the Sangh has been organising to augment its intellectual dimension”.

In a conversation with The Wire, Sinha, an associate professor at the university, also talked about “the need for (the RSS) to create a meta-narrative to end many sectarian and narrow divisions (existing in the country).”

Excerpts:

From what one sees in the media, it would appear that the RSS is working on bringing together right-wing intellectuals. So the RSS believes it is the Right?

Actually, we are against this categorisation of Left and Right. Deen Dayal Upadhaya was the first in the RSS to say that such categorisation is unsuited to Indian conditions. He said egalitarianism is not the monopoly of any political party; he said, let the RSS men prove themselves (as egalitarian). His argument was that there are many things which are common between the RSS and communists, between a communist and a Congress man, between the Congress and the RSS. However, this classification is being used by the RSS because we now have to deal with the Right and Left.

Could you discuss these “Indian conditions” you refer to a bit further?

I will give some examples. There was a very important RSS leader, Balasahab Hoddar. He was an accused in the Balaghat dacoity case. RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar thought the outfit would be ruined if Hoddar was caught. So he at once sent him outside the country for further studies. There, he became a communist and a vicious critic of the RSS. However, Hedgewar called him many times to address the swayamsevaks; he wanted them to hear Hoddar’s criticism. The tradition continued with CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan writing on Hoddar, so did the RSS. So this is the beauty of the liberal tradition in India.

This tradition existed. There was a Radhakant Deb leading a campaign against widow remarriage with the signature of 37,987 people and an Ishwar Chandra Vidsyasagar with 987 signatures. But they didn’t throw stones at each other, they co-existed.

Now we have become so sectarian that if you don’t agree with someone, you throw him into the dustbin. Here, we also have to ask, who is responsible for this intolerance?

I will give you another example. Hindus have a tradition of idol worship but the Arya Samaj, and its founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati, were its biggest enemy. He was invited to a meet in Varanasi on November 17, 1869 where he alone confronted 300 pandits and Hindu scholars on the issue. A huge crowd was watching them. By using logic, he won, but going by emotions, the pandits did. No one was defeated, no one was victorious. Importantly, there was no intolerance; no one threw stones at each other.

However, now we have become so sectarian that if you don’t agree with someone, you throw him into the dustbin. Here, we also have to ask, who is responsible for this intolerance? Who shrunk the space for co-existence?

B.G. Kher, the first prime minister of Bombay province, who was said to be close to (Jawaharlal) Nehru and particularly to (Sardar) Patel, wrote in an article in Maratha newspaper after (Mahatma) Gandhi’s murder saying that repeatedly abusing the RSS would hardly serve a purpose. He said don’t throw RSS men into a dilemma, they are politically untrained people, it can cost the Congress a lot. History vindicated him. Kher wanted to engage with the RSS, he told Nehru that they should be allowed to join the Congress, don’t push them to form a political party. But Nehru was unconcerned.

How is the BJP government at the Centre helping the RSS take forward this agenda of dealing with the Right and Left’?

In the last decade in particular, and the other six decades (since independence) in general, barring the A.B. Vajpayee-led BJP regime, the RSS had unnecessary confrontation with the central government. Even in the Janata Party regime, RSS had to confront state power. The state was leading an anti-RSS narrative. Since those top leaders were democratically elected, their narrative had national and international ramifications. However, after the formation of the Narendra Modi government in 2014, RSS swayamsevaks have found a place in the government. So RSS now feels completely unburdened from confronting the state on its core issues. This gives RSS opportunities to concentrate its energies, particularly on augmenting its intellectual dimension. That’s the help.

There are many BJP-ruled states now. How has this helped the RSS?

We are not state-centric. Jan Sangh came to power in a coalition government for the first time in the Hindi belt in 1967, then in 1977. Since 1977, there has been no election where the BJP has not been in power in one or the other state. However, as I said earlier, in such states we don’t face unnecessary confrontation. But RSS expansion is not dependent on the state. The best example would be Kerala, where the BJP has never been in power. For the first time, BJP won a seat in the assembly in the last polls. But the RSS has made a spectacular progress there. You can’t call it communalisation. Whatever polarisation is there, that even CPI(M) accepts. Remember, CPI(M) is a Hindu-majority party in Kerala, unlike in some other places. This means our expansion is based on our core ideas and our modus operandi, or what we call karya padhati. We have developed a sustainable karya padhyati.

Vice chancellors of 51 central and state universities took part in the event organised by RSS-affiliated Prajna Pravah. Credit: PTI

Vice chancellors of 51 central and state universities took part in an event organised by RSS-affiliated Prajna Pravah, with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat also attending. Credit: PTI

Recently, the RSS organised a meeting of vice chancellors in Delhi University to discuss the ‘decolonisation’ of the Indian mind. What does this mean and does the organisation have a roadmap for that?

It was a congregation of like-minded people from the social sciences, part of a series of such events. The first was in November 2016 in Bhopal, called Lok Manthan. Literary figures, folk artistes, social activists and other from different parts of the country took part in it. The idea was based on the concept that academics alone can’t dictate the nation, we need to pick the voices of those who are on the ground too. They may not be too educated but they have vast ground experience. Vinobha Bhave was not an academic but worked on the ground and his work is in Indian academics. The event was for three days but the preparation for it was for six months.

Then we had Bharat Bodh (Idea of Bharat) in Delhi (organised with the Indira Gandhi National Open University), where we focused on areas that needed more research. Not that all the participants belonged to the RSS, but their thoughts were different from the Marxist and Nehruvian. The DU meet was next, where 50 VCs among others were invited to deliberate on the same lines.

However, in academics, you can’t make a blue print; academics is based on what I call rigorous intellectual activism. Without rigorous work, you can’t compete. So there was no road map set as such.

Can you define what the RSS means by ‘decolonisation’ of the Indian mind?

What I proposed in Lok Manthan through a small work of mine called Swaraj in Ideas is that decolonisation of the Indian mind is a subject on which Marxists and liberals worked besides us, though we have taken a lead on the ground while the intellectuals were busy in seminars. In the book, I speak of the work on the subject by the likes of Kenyan leftist novelist Ngugi wa Thingo’ O and Afro-Caribbean philosopher-writer influenced by Marxism, Franz Fanon. By ‘decolonisation’, we don’t mean we are against the West; it is about the resurgence of our own culture and the need to contextualise it. Take what is good, discard what is not.

It is a concept which also invites the larger section of Indian intellectuals, not just the metro-centric and cosmopolitan elite influenced by the West. An example of colonised mind is that we hardly find the work of a social scientist from our regions published by say, Oxford University Press. However, an academic published by OUP will be given 40 marks and those by Indian publishers 20 marks when it comes to choosing someone for a job. I say, we are mean in our approach to our own academics. OUP certifies our intellectuals. Of course they will, because they maintain their standard. But why can’t we think of having our own university presses and raise them to that standard? Why can’t we have JNU press, DU press, AMU or Osmania University press, such that an American intellectual takes pride that his or her work was published by AMU or JNU press? For me, the West is just a province, it is not the globe. That’s what we mean by decolonisation of the mind.

Worldwide, there is a resurgence of right-wing populism, which is also giving prominence to rightist intellectuals. Where does the RSS find itself in this? There are not too many books of high standard to justify its work in this field.

Our bigger challenge is the international intellectual community. What we face in India is a very small challenge, say in terms of NCERT books. Regime changes, books change – (that’s) nothing new. Paucity of good literature and lack of progressive literature are some of our weaknesses, because we concentrated more on the ground work. We are now directing attention to producing more critical work with new ideas that appeal to a wider audience.

Earlier, we complained that our views were suppressed, we were excluded from the mainstream, now we are not. So no exclusion means no excuse too. We can’t be lazy.

The RSS may call itself a cultural organisation, but the continuous success of a right-wing party like BJP has to be looked at as the political success of the RSS too. After all, it provides it the ground support.

Yes, it is. Though the RSS doesn’t directly engage in politics, its influence is there. See, we are a cultural organisation but we are also not a jhal manjira-bajanewala organisation. To us, culture means confronting the minds of the people, through art, cinema, literature. Cultural activities are not merely to entertain people. For instance, look at cinema, it makes an impact on its audience. A huge organisation like the RSS, which has been doing work on culture, is bound to impact politics – not directly, but the shadow of the RSS is indeed making an impact on Indian politics.

What has worked for the RSS there?

Though the state, academia and media created a narrative of the RSS as a communal, fascist and anti-Muslim outfit and thereby gave it the tag of Hindu Right, it had no validity on the ground. The RSS, through continuous interaction with people and by showing its character through its work, developed a different narrative, which its critics failed to understand. Their propaganda didn’t match with what people saw on the ground. It even failed to fully convince the Muslims on the ground. They are not pro-RSS, they are suspicious of the RSS, but they are not convinced that it would question their existence. Of course, there are confrontations in some places, those are communally-charged areas but very few.

Sometimes, when intellectuals don’t change, the mandate changes. Intellectuals give ideas, but when they can’t, people take the lead.

So you are saying the intellectuals failed to understand the pulse of the people. Are you also suggesting that they haven’t contributed any credible work so far?

Indian academics do a lot of hard labour; they have brought name and fame to India; it will be a folly on my part to rubbish them. However, since most of them have been patronised by the state, they have become lazy intellectuals; their work is based on selective facts, on convenient theories. I think most Indian academics are suffering from Procrustes’ theory, one size fits all. They have decided their paradigm. Even the liberals and Left liberals were thrown out when they didn’t fit that paradigm. Ram Vilas Sharma, Trilocharan Shastry, Aghyeya, Inambar Singh, Nirmal Varma are some examples. They don’t like the evolution of ideas. This phenomenon, I feel, has suppressed the full growth of the Indian discourse.

Second, they kept the RSS out of that discourse. Instead of discussing what the RSS stands for, they discussed what the RSS is. We are also responsible for it. We made the RSS itself an idea – no need to go inside, to attend shakhas, to read our literature. This has damaged the Indian discourse and also suppressed Hindu values. It suits both the sides though, no hard work is required. We say, the population of the Muslim is rising and will pose a threat to the country; they say, it is a lie, no threat, or let it be. Both sides took the easy route. No need to study the issue.

Our academics are working hard but only for projects that give them money. This is the difference between Indian and Western intellectuals. They devote their life to a subject without thinking ‘I would head a commission, be a member of senate, or adviser to the president’. That’s why (Jacques) Derrida set the agenda and the world followed. I am not criticising the Left or Right here, but most of the Indian academia.

India is also a nation of diversity. One size can’t fit all, as you yourself say. What does the RSS have to say about that?

I believe what we need is a meta-narrative. I can’t give an official statement on behalf of the RSS, but from what I propose and pursue in the RSS I can say that the future challenge would be to create a meta-narrative which can end all sectarian and narrow divisions (among people in the country).

The RSS-BJP is also often accused of hijacking intellectuals and leaders, be it Sardar Patel or Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Hedgewar used to say you are my critic but I will interact with you. If you have contributed to national life, I will internalise you. That is why the RSS celebrates Patel, Shastri, S. Radhakrishnan. Patel said many things against the RSS. Shastri was not an RSS man.

RSS doesn’t make its own narrative. We want India’s narrative. Ram Vilas Sarma was a communist but he was published by Panchjanya many times. He never praised RSS in those articles. A distinguished feature of the RSS is also that we go by the intent. If one is doing some work beneficial to the larger cause of India, we adopt it, endorse his work.

Sometimes, when intellectuals don’t change, the mandate changes. Intellectuals give ideas, but when they can’t, people take the lead.

What about Nehru?

I will give you two examples here. In 1948, Nehru took two decisions. First, he made Ziauddin Ahmad, who was till August 14, 1947 the spokesperson of Muslim League, the vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. Then, a vice chancellor of Panjab University was appointed who coincidently had the same name as the then RSS chief there. Nehru wrote a letter to the then chief minister asking why did you elect an RSS man. The chief minister replied asking, how could you think I would do it. Nehru patted him. So, a man who was advocating division of the country could be given space by Nehru but not the one who saved the lives of Hindus and Sikhs.

Then, immediately after Gandhi’s murder, Nehru, without a cabinet decision, announced on All India Radio that RSS was behind it and so he would ban it. Indira Gandhi did the same during the Emergency, without any proof. I understand when RSS was banned after the demolition of Babri Masjid (for six months); the state had some proof. The RSS was leading the movement. At best, Nehru could have arrested some RSS men after Gandhi’s murder but he maligned the whole organisation. Public perception was manufactured.

I wrote a piece in 1999 in The Telegraph. It was regarding a scene in the film Gandhi. It shows a man approving and directing protesters who gathered to show black flag to Gandhi during the Gandhi-JInnah talk in 1944. The man was made to resemble Golwalkar. However, my research said Golwalkar was not in Delhi that entire month. Each and every move of his was recorded as per RSS rules. It was Hindu Rashtra Dal, a rival of RSS, which organised the event. The generation which saw the film would continue to look at RSS from that perspective.

A video grab of the incident. Credit: ANI/Twitter

A video grab of the incident where ‘gau rakshaks’ brutally attacked a Dalit family in Una, Gujarat. Credit: ANI/Twitter

There is now a lot of vigilantism in the name of Hindu values though, leading to violence.

Nobody likes reactionary forces. I think this is a product of electronic media, which doesn’t expect a liberal position from the RSS. Recently, some channels began inviting someone as a ‘Hindu activist’ because he would say anything that these channels would want him to say, like we will kill all the Muslims, it is a Hindu rastra, etc. When I was asked to react to it by a news channel, I said most Hindus don’t believe what he said. He is not even the fringe.

So what I mean to say here is, the electronic media wants to create a contrast. Rational argument by RSS is unacceptable to them. Today, if I form some ‘Hindu sena’ and barge into a building and begin violence, there will be a debate in the evening shows about it. Anyone can take five people, form a sena and blacken people’s faces. But that’s not the RSS. The debates give such senas legitimacy.

Why don’t RSS leaders come out vehemently against such acts?

It is not in our nature. Also, when a case of vigilantism happens and by the time we find out who is actually behind it, a lot happens. A trishul-holding man with a saffron band and a red tikka will be featured again and again on electronic media, and many people by then will have finished giving their statements on it. In RSS shakhas, we don’t even harm an ant, forget human beings.

Also, the RSS has two crore cadres. How can the organisation leadership take full guarantee for each and every cadre? Same with CPI(M). If someone from that party rapes someone, does it mean party president Sitaram Yechury asked them to do it? For polemics sake, we may say things (to the press) but we all know the reality. But the press won’t do its job, won’t go into the background of such persons beyond the RSS.

Finally, India is a secular country. How does RSS look at it?

Secularism was born in the West due to conflict between the church and the state. It was born as a tool for crisis management there. In India, it is a way of life, a value of life. When a crisis-ridden state faces another crisis, it leaves secularism; it happened in America after 9/11. Even after many ups and downs in our history including partition, we have never thought of abandoning secularism. Secularism is the genesis of Hinduism.

  • subhash

    Whenever challenged , RSS spokespersons start enumerating hypocrisy of Congress. Agreed, that was the case, but on their own account they have not fared any better. RSS never talked about separation religion and the state. My fundamental problem with RSS is that though they talk about Hindutva ad nauseam, yet they have not understood or they never wanted to understand it. They want to model Hinduism on the lines of ecclesiastical religion like Islam or Christian where there individual is sought to be governed by man made rigid ancient book of rules through a religious bureaucracy of sorts. Hindus ( people who live in this region) were just told about the philosophy of life ( not rules) and were free to practice life as they deem fit. That is the reason Hindus never had any religious bureaucracy who could direct its followers to attack followers of other religion.
    RSS , perhaps, knowingly or unknowingly , wants Iran model to be followed in India. Remember, Ayatollahs , who played on corruption of Shah, took a long time to capture power , but once they did , they didn’t allow anyone else to oppose them.

  • The Wire

    From Hiren Gohain, Guwahati

    In the interview, Sinha comes across as a suave reasonable man defending unreasonable ideas and practices. He is right on some instances of Congress hijacking of academic life. But that does not justify the present rampaging attacks on left liberal ideas and Persons. Events like smuggling in Ram Lalla in Babri Masjid and the plot to create widespread communal mayhem in UP in 1948 reported by then Chief Secretary Dayal are passed over. While decolonisation is necessary how can we decolonise by aping imperialist centralised rule by fiats? Rule of law has become rule by law or whatever is passed by brute majority. And is Hindu Rashtra t he inevitable alternative to an anaemic secularism? Nobody will accept the term Hindu as ecumenical embracing all faiths.
    And the pacific professions of RSS are daily belied by horrific incidents. So?

    Hiren Gohain.