Books

Review: 'I Could Not Be Hindu' Is a Unique Testimony to the Sangh's' Casteism

Christophe Jaffrelot reviews Bhanwar Meghwanshi's book tracing his trajectory from an RSS member to an Ambedkarite.

This book is unique in many ways. First, it is written by a former RSS member who has become a radical critique of the organisation and who explains why in detail. Till date, few ex-swayamsevaks had narrated what had been their experience in the Sangh and presented the reasons why they had left it. I know only three other such testimonies. The oldest one was published by Secular democracy in 1970, the most recent one came out almost two decades later and – probably – sometimes in between Ram Lall Dhooria published I was a Swayamsevak an undated text. Few people leave RSS and when they do, they do not necessarily write their memoirs.

Second, this book has been written by a Dalit, Bhanwar Meghwanshi, who enlightens the reader about the situation of the Scheduled Castes within the Sangh parivar and in today’s Indian society at large. In this preface, I will focus on this second dimension of the book which makes it most valuable.

The RSS and Dalits – Dalits in the RSS

Created by Maharashtrian brahmins, the RSS has gradually tried to attract Hindus from all kinds of caste backgrounds in order to be the “Hindu Rashtra in miniature” its founder, K.B. Hedgewar longed for. The shakhas were supposed to welcome youngsters from all social origins, including Dalits, and that was one of the reasons why it was so important that all the participants should wear the same uniform, in order to erase socio-economic distinctions.

In fact, the RSS was partly a reaction to the rise of Dalit politics under the aegis of Ambedkar whose first anti-caste mobilisations (including the Mahad satyagraha and temple entry movements) also took place in what is today Maharashtra. For the RSS, to include members of the Depressed Classes (as the Scheduled Castes were known in the 1920s), was a good way to defuse anti-Brahminism and to maintain social hierarchies.

Watch | A Dalit Who Quit and Fought RSS: Interview With Bhanwar Meghwanshi

Indeed, the RSS has never explicitly denounced the caste system but attempted to reform it in order to preserve its basic structure. In 1939, for instance, in We or our nationhood defined, M.S Golwalkar, who was to take over from Hedgewar the year after, considered that it was “none of the so called drawbacks of the Hindu social order, which prevents us from regaining our ancient glory”. Deendayal Upadhyaya defended the original varna vyavastha even more explicitly, in Integral Humanism, a text that is still considered as its ideological charter by the Sangh parivar. He wrote in 1965:

In our concept of four castes, they are thought of as an analogous to the different limbs of Virat-Purusha […] These limbs are not only complementary to one another, but even further, there is individuality, unity. There is a complete identity of interest, identity of belonging. […] If this idea is not kept alive, the castes instead of being complementary can produce conflict. But then this is distortion.

Bhanwar Meghwanshi
I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS
Navayana, 2020

The resilience of caste in the RSS is evident from the lucid and poignant testimony of Bhanwar Meghwanshi. He tells us that, like so many other Swayamsevaks, he joined the RSS at a very young age, mostly to exercise and play traditional games. But he was gradually presented the history and the culture of his society in a manner which made him proud of being a Hindu and angry because of the decline of the sons of the (sacred) soil of Hindustan – which was largely attributed by his teachers to the “Muslim invasions”.

These “gurus” were pracharaks who were almost venerated by the young swayamsevaks, including Bhanwar because of their dedication to the sacred Cause of Hinduism. They carried with them the prestige traditionally attached to asceticism:

In my time the district pracharak was an extremely principled man, Shiv-ji bhaisahab, who maintained strict discipline and lived a life of simplicity and frugality. He possessed only two sets of kurta–pyjama, and a small cloth bag. He slept on the ground, ate modestly, and was extremely punctual. He had no personal life, and spent most of his time touring the region. Always dressed in white, he lived austerely. Unlike the pracharaks of today, he did not get involved in politics, business and other such crooked schemes. Most pracharaks of the town were like Shiv-ji bhaisahab. Of course, at the time I had boundless respect for RSS pracharaks.

Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s ethnographic account is very revealing of the RSS’s modus operandum. On one hand, its pracharaks, because of their life style, attract support from all quarters, including the local notables (mostly traders); on the other hand, they related actively to others – virtually every body, including Dalits: pracharaks are not only always touring their constituency, but they visit the homes of the swayamsevaks and other sympathisers. To be directly in touch with the largest number of people, to maintain close relations, to enquire about their family and their personal problems is clearly part of the RSS’s modus operandum.

Also read: The Two Faces of Hindutva’s Dalit Agenda

Dalits and low caste Hindus particularly appreciate this attitude because they are usually ostracised. Not only are they segregated topographically in some neighbourhood, but upper caste people are not supposed to meet them – even less to share meals with them. The willingness of pracharaks to interact with Dalits was especially well received by those who pursued a strategy of sanskritisation consisting in emulating the brahmins instead of being proud of their Dalit identity – and fighting the upper castes. In the shakha, low caste swayamsevaks were shown forms of respect they were not used to, as evident from Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s description of the branch of the RSS that had developed in his village:

We came from all castes, even those who considered people of my kind to be beneath them and wouldn’t even talk to us properly. But here we all addressed one another as ‘ji’. From plain Bhanwar I too became Bhanwar-ji, well on my way to becoming Bhanwar-ji bhaisahab.

File Photo of rank-and-file RSS Karsevaks. Credit: Reuters/Files

Representative image of RSS members. Photo: Reuters/Files

In Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s village, low caste people joined the RSS in large numbers: “Of the fifty or so children who attended the shakha in my village, most were OBCs—Kumhar, Jat, Gurjar, Mali and so on. From among Dalits, there were Bunkars and Dholis, and also a couple of Bhil Adivasis. They came because of the sanskritisation process mentioned above and because of the games they played in the shakha, but they remained for ideological reasons too as, gradually, they learnt that their culture was threatened by others, primarily by Muslims and Christians.

Bhanwar Meghwanshi recalls that while in the Sangh he “heard a lot about weapons being stored in the basements of mosques” and that getting rid of the Babri Masjid was like “a second battle for independence”. Bhanwar Meghwanshi took part in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the early 1990s with a great sense of pride, as if to defend this symbol of Hinduism promoted his self-esteem. He was part of the first attempt at building the Ram temple, in the context of the Rath Yatra in October 1990. Then, he was “exhilarated”, chanting “To die for Ram-ji is such an honour…”. He and his Rajasthani comrades in arms were taught “how to evade the police” and were “told that implements to destroy the structure – hoes, spades, crowbars – would be provided by locals at Ayodhya” – a clear indication of the premeditated nature of the operation.

He discovered on this occasion, in Ajmer station itself, that the cadres of the RSS were not supposed to indulge in such work:

As the train started to slide out of the station, all the important functionaries slid out of the train […] I saw how one by one, the big folk, the industrialists, the sangh pracharaks, the leaders of VHP and BJP, all excused themselves. Having wished us well, they went back to their homes. Only people like me remained—impassioned Dalits, Adivasis, other young people from the lower castes, and a few sadhus and sants. To take charge of us, some lower-order functionaries tried to put us at ease, don’t worry, these people have other contingents to see off and then they’ll follow us directly to Ayodhya. They were never to come. They were sensible people and went back to their homes. I understood that sensible people always use us, we who are driven by passion; they push us into battle and return to their safe little coops. In this lies their greatness; maybe greatness is just another word for cunning.

Also read: When Rebel Swayamsevaks Took on ABVP and Were Attacked

However, Bhanwar Meghwanshi did not draw any conclusion from this episode but went to Ayodhya as a disciplined foot-soldier. He did not listen to his father, a Congress activist who had become sarpanch of his village and who explained to him that RSS needed Dalits primarily to fight against Muslims physically, something upper caste preferred not to do. Bhanwar Meghwanshi reacted to these words by putting up two stickers on the front door of the family house: “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain” (Say it with pride, we are Hindu)  and “Bade bhagya se hum Hindu hain” (We are blessed to be Hindu).

But he realised that some RSS members were more Hindu than others soon after. While he had been appointed vistarak, he expressed the desire to become pracharak. The district pracharak discouraged him because of his caste background which would have made his job complicated. Soon after Bhanwar Meghwanshi fully realised the resilience of caste in the RSS on another occasion: while he had prepared food for Sangh parivar members who were touring his district, they refused to come to his home for eating; instead they took the food with them in order to save time and, they said, feed the village where they going next – but they threw it out on the road. Bhanwar Meghwanshi was shocked:

How can the Sangh do this to me? They don’t believe in untouchability, in caste discrimination, they believe all Hindus to be one, they talk of a united Hindu society, and then this kind of hypocrisy?

This episode echoes the moment when the little Ambedkar and his siblings, on their way to their father’s place of work, had to drive the cart themselves because the tongawala believed in caste stigma. Ambedkar became even more aware of his untouchability as the children were not admitted in any dhaba on the way and had to drink muddy water from a stream. This milestone is also similar to the one Gandhi experienced in South Africa when he was expelled from a coach reserved to white people. Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s sense of belonging changed immediately: “For the first time in my life that day, I stepped aside from my Hindu identity and started seeing the world like a person from a lower caste”. Note that by “becoming” untouchable, Bhanwar ceases to be Hindu – as the title of the book itself reconfirm -, as if this religion was associated only to upper castes.

B.R Ambedkar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His new identity opened new horizons and went on par with a new mission that has resulted, among other things, in the present book:

“I decided not only to make a clean break with the Sangh, but that I would widely publicise their casteist behaviour towards me. It would be my life’s work now to expose the reality of this dishonest Hindu Rashtra and Hindutva. I resolved to tear the veil of fake harmony from the face of the Sangh and its family of institutions and expose their real face in public”.

Also read: The Hinduisation of Ambedkarism

Becoming Ambedkarite – waking up to humanism

The subsequent trajectory of Bhanwar Meghwanshi is a fascinating one. First, he had to cope with huge psychological problems, revealing of the challenges that Dalits face in many parts of India, especially when they feel betrayed and rejected by the rest of society – and Bhanwar Meghwanshi had been both by RSS. He tried to commit suicide, but was saved and the next steps he followed took him to Ambedkarism, through his quest for humanity.

First, he made a point to encounter the Others par excellence, the Muslims, who “turned out to be people like [him]”, “just as patriotic as us”. Remembering the attitude of the RSS cadres vis-à-vis Muslims and Dalits, he comes to the same conclusion as his father (without acknowledging it though): “They only want to use us to attack the Muslims, otherwise we did not matter at all”.

Then, like Ambedkar, he considered that “to convert out of Hinduism” was the best option. The fact – emphasised by Ambedkar long ago – that Hinduism and caste (even untouchability) could not be separated became obvious for Bhanwar Meghwanshi on two occasions. First, he had access to a confidential letter of the RSS exhorting upper caste members of the organisation “to make the caste system of Hindu society even stronger. It was only because of this caste system, the letter said, that Hindu society had survived. If not for the caste system, everyone would have become Muslim or Christian”.

Secondly, Bhanwar Meghwanshi was horrified by the way a VHP leader, Acharya Giriraj Kishor, justified the fact that Dalits had been burnt alive in Haryana on the suspicion of cow slaughter. Kishor, according to Meghwanshi, had said that “the life of one cow is more valuable than the lives of fiver Dalits”.  When he tried to leave Hinduism, Bhanwar Meghwanshi was attracted by Jesus Christ, like so many other Dalits, but he resented the way Christianity, like any other religion, tried “to expand its followers and control the world”.

Also read: ‘History Was Accelerated in the Wake of BJP’s 2019 Victory’: The Wire Interviews Christophe Jaffrelot

Finally, he read Ambedkar. The chapter called “Towards Ambedkarism” is short but fascinating. It shows that what Bhanwar Meghwanshi had learned about Ambedkar when he was in the RSS was a completely adulterated version of the man:

I had read about Babasaheb Ambedkar here and there in Sangh publications like Panchjanya, Pathey Kan, Rashtra Dharma and Jahnavi, from which I learnt that Babasaheb was a great nationalist, and had contributed to writing the Constitution of India. That he had wanted to make Sanskrit the national language and the saffron flag the national flag. That despite every temptation, he had not converted to Islam or Christianity but to Buddhism, which was part of Hinduism. And that he was opposed to the continuation of Article 370 in Kashmir, which gave the state a special status.

Now I was reading Ambedkar himself, and found that his views on everything were the exact opposite of what the Sangh claimed. It was the first time I was reading him directly, not as presented by the Sangh. I was dumbstruck. The first book I read, Riddles in Hinduism, blew my mind. After that I found everything I could that Babasaheb had written. I learnt about the many bitter circumstances that arose in his life, with which he had to deal. Annihilation of Caste gave me a clear understanding of how Brahmanism was responsible for the establishment of the hateful system of caste hierarchy and discrimination. I came to recognise the true nature of the RSS. How, through their claim of samrasata or harmony, they were subverting the possibility of equality, justice and social transformation. And what the politics was, behind naming Dalits as neglected (vanchit) and Adivasis as forest dwellers (vanvasi), denying us our own identity.

Subsequently, Bhanwar Meghwanshi read Kabir, Periyar and Phule, suggesting that the corpus of Dalit literature has consolidated itself in the course of time and offer now a comprehensive new sense of direction for those who search a human identity. Finally, he was attracted by the last true ambedkarite organisation, BAMCEF—the All India Backward (SC, ST, and OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation -, that had been founded by Kanshi Ram after he himself discovered Ambedkar’s books in Maharashtra.

Bhanwar Meghwanshi. Photo: Facebook

As many other ambedkarites, Bhanwar Meghwanshi is struck by the lack of political and social consciousness of the OBCs who lay themselves to the fallacy of sanskritisation and indulge in untouchability:  “The tragedy of the Backward Castes is that they consider themselves pure Hindus and, under the sway of Hindutva, are at the forefront of committing atrocities against Dalits.”

But Bhanwar Meghwanshi has to admit that many Dalits have also been won over by the Hindutva movement, especially in the context of communal violence. Visiting Gujarat after the 2002 pogrom, he realised that “Much of the violence had been conducted by Dalits and Adivasis” because, in the case of the former, “Dalits attempt to prove themselves pure Hindus by taking a leading part in riots and violence against Muslims”.

Also read: BJP’s Rise Has Meant a Shrinking Number of Muslim Lawmakers in India

To continue his fight against Hindutva and to emancipate himself from the caste system, Bhanwar Meghwanshi created his own organisations and publications, before getting closer to secular movements, like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan – which, at that time was advocating the need for a Right to Information Act.

His fight is a difficult one. Like all those who have decided to defend Ambedkar’s trilogy, Equality, Liberty and Fraternity, he has been subjected to all kinds of pressure and intimidation: “Members of my family faced life-threatening physical attacks, false cases were slapped on me, cooked up complaints led to probes. The police, CID, CBI, IB, all carried out multiple investigations. These forms of extreme harassment carry on till today”, he says in the conclusion of the book. But the last words of the book suggest that he remains fully determined:

“Nevertheless I will speak, I will write, and I will always stand up, speak out, and fight the battle against injustice, oppression, exploitation and inequality.

Inquilab zindabad—Long live the revolution! “

This remarkable book by a remarkable man teaches the reader a life lesson, as it is as moving as informative.

Christophe Jaffrelot is Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris.