Ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power in the 2014 general elections, the air has been rife with liberal lament. Every day opeds, tweets and Facebook posts eulogise the secular fabric of the country that seemed to hold despite odds until, suddenly, hate-fuelled frenzy took over the country. The flaw with this construct is that the forces that are tearing through the secular fabric today have been lurking in the shadows since the birth of the republic, nurturing an alternative idea of India. Dhirendra K. Jha’s Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva, profiles eight such groups and their leaders who have travelled a long distance to reach this turn.
Four of these organisations – the Bajrang Dal, the Bhonsala Military School, the Hindu Aikya Vedi and the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat – are affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Others – the Sanatan Sanstha, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the Sri Ram Sene and Abhinav Bharat – are outside the structure of the RSS, but, according to Jha, are “on the same page” as the Sangh parivar. “Like the RSS and its affiliates, they claim to derive their ideological raison d’être from V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva:Who is a Hindu?”.
Arguably, this is not entirely accurate. The well-documented differences between Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, which deepened in the 1940s, were not merely about tactics. While Savarkar’s tract clearly influenced M. S. Golwalkar’s We or Our Nationhood Defined, once the latter took over as the head of the RSS in 1940, he distanced himself gradually from the more radical bigotry in Savarkar’s writings, and the RSS still maintains that they do not subscribe entirely to Savarkar’s vision.
That said, there is plenty of common ground between the Hindutva of the RSS and that of Savarkar. In fact, the very term Hindutva was coined by Savarkar who described it as the essence of Hindu identity. He asserted that India belongs to Hindus – those who consider it their holy land, carry the ‘blood of the great race of Vedic people’, and conform to ‘Hindu Sanskriti.’ For both rigid Savarkarites and those who have distilled their ideology from his original ideas – ‘Hindu-sthan’ is primarily defined by what they see as the ‘cultural unity’ of its ancient inhabitants, the Hindus – not the principles enshrined in India’s constitution. The shadow armies profiled in this book seek to propagate this problematic definition of nationhood using historical falsehoods, hate speech, and hooliganism.
Another reason why it might not be inaccurate to link Savarkar to the RSS is because over the decades, it has crowded out all other claimants to Savarkar’s legacy – including the Hindu Mahasabha – and emerged as the agenda setter for proponents of Hindutva.
Structurally, in Jha’s book, the RSS comes across as a shape-shifting hydra with an elusive legal identity. This elusiveness is at the heart of the organisation being able to function on multiple ethical and operational levels. Of the RSS bodies profiled in the book, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, seeks to bring Sikhism within the fold of Hinduism, denying the former a separate identity. The Bhonsala Military School trains and indoctrinates young men looking to go into the armed forces. The Hindu Aikya Vedi uses real and imagined history to deepen caste and communal divides in Kerala, and, come elections, ‘transfers’ its leader to the BJP to harvest votes from consolidated vote banks. And the Bajrang Dal does, what Jha calls, the RSS’s “dirty work”– its members have been implicated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid, riots in Gujarat, the murders of Graham Staines and his children, and harassment of artists like M. F. Hussain. The larger purpose of all these activities, as documented by Jha, is the same – to ‘reorganise’ and ‘reenergise’ the Hindu society into a consolidated majority that subscribes to a singular idea of India and nationalism.
The organisations outside the RSS share a peculiar relationship of resentment and regard with it. Jha’s book does the important work of drawing out the complexities of these relationships. Colonel Purohit, of Abhinav Bharat – the organisation that allegedly masterminded the Malegaon blasts and other terrorist activities – was a pupil, and later, trainer at the Bhonsala Military School. His co-accused Pragya Thakur, was an ABVP activist. And the founder of Hindu Yuva Vahini, Yogi Adityanath, is the chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. Yet both Abhinav Bharat and Yuva Vahini have had fraught relations with the RSS.
The tussles within the Hindu right are a key part of the larger picture, and often ignored in mainstream narratives. While reporting on the subject I have often been struck by how bitter some of the smaller Hindutva outfits can be towards the RSS, while apparently craving its approval and attention. In my conversations with Vishnu Gupta, the head of Hindu Sena, for instance, I found it hard to keep him on the subject of issues he rakes up for TV cameras. Off camera he would rather be criticising the RSS – for giving up on Ram Mandir, for controlling the Hindutva agenda, for not accommodating groups like his, and several other such “missteps”.
The RSS, for its part, is self-assured in its might, but no less equivocal when it comes to the ‘fringe groups’. I have come across sections within it that strictly oppose the ‘upstarts’ and their violent means, while others are in favour of keeping a channel of support and communication open with them. This dichotomy of collusion and collision is best illustrated by Sri Ram Sene’s quandary as presented by Jha. Led by Pramod Muthalik, a former pracharak, the Sene sought the RSS’s blessings, but the RSS chose to revive a defunct affiliate, Hindu Jagaran Vedike, to compete with the Sene and poach the latter’s leaders, driving Muthalik to destruction.
Jha writes that Muthalik, who had begun to feel stifled in the RSS, left in 2005 and joined forces with other former RSS workers who were in the process of setting up the Sri Ram Sene. Interestingly, unlike Muthalik, the latter group did not break away due to personal discord. They were all from the lower castes and had begun to feel that despite rallying them for votes and groundwork, the Brahmin dominated RSS leadership would not allow them to rise up the ranks. However, eventually they found it difficult to sustain their me-too outfit without the RSS’s support. As Jha puts it, even if the backward cadres revolt, “they hardly look for an ideological alternative.”
This is also reflected in Jha’s account of the Thakur takeover of Adityanath’s Gorakhnath Math. He writes that the dalits and backward castes continue to remain attached to the math, “despite it growing antagonistic and distant from the original concept it was founded on.” Sharp as this observation is, it is of course but one part of the story. The evolution of the RSS’s stance on and work with the backward classes, and the latter’s increasing buy-in into the organisation, have several other aspects, many of them beyond the scope of the book, and this review.
However, one aspect of the draw for thousands of young men who join these organisations is relatively straightforward. From the profiles one can construe how rampant unemployment and underemployment contribute to the growth of these shadow armies. In his profile of the Bajrang Dal, Jha writes, “As it stands today, most Bajrang Dal activists are poorly educated young people who are either unemployed or who regard their jobs as unsatisfactory. Though the leadership belongs to the upper or intermediary castes, a substantial segment of the foot soldiers is drawn from the backward castes and even Dalits.”
In this context it is not difficult to see why young men with abysmal job prospects might take on the tasks set by the leaders of these organisations with fervour, in the hope of a small-time political career, a misplaced sense of purpose and self-worth that otherwise eludes them, or simply impunity to make a little money off crime and extortion.
Starker than the shortfalls of growth and redistribution, is the failure of India’s criminal justice system and rule of law – a failure that underpins Jha’s account of the proliferation of these organisations. He writes about a Bajrang Dal leader in Mangalore who runs a security agency that coerces Muslim businesses into hiring from the agency by threatening them with violence. In Chittorgarh, the police arrest Kashmiri students for allegedly cooking beef in their hostel room at the behest of Bajrang Dal activists, and brandish their powerlessness by claiming they did so to ‘protect’ the students from being beaten. In other places, Jha notes that despite a thoroughly compiled dossier against the Sanatan Sanstha, little action was taken against it; that the National Investigation Agency tried to pressurise public prosecutor Renu Salian into being lenient with the accused in the Malegaon and Ajmer blasts despite damning evidence against the latter; and that the CB-CID’s long pending request to prosecute Adityanath now lies at the latter’s desk in the state home ministry – a portfolio the chief minister has retained for himself.
It is hardly surprising that those who hold democratic institutions in contempt should try to capture or subvert them. What is surprising is how easily it is done. On closer examination therefore, political economy and institutional factors have contributed enormously to the rupture we tend to attribute solely to ideological and social pressures.
Whatever the motivations of its foot soldiers, it is evident that they are being deployed for political and ideological battles. If India’s institutions have failed to disincentivise them, so has the feeble counter-narrative and ideological imagination of the majority of liberals who lament this rampage.
Across profiles Jha also makes a case against opposition parties who chose not to stop these forces for short-term political gains. He reminds us that the Sanatan Sanstha got away despite a Congress government at the centre and in Maharashtra, and once the Congress was out of power, the former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and the former union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde publicly blamed each other for showing a “lack of seriousness on the matter”. In Kerala, Jha writes, the CPI(M) opened the door for polarisation, on the one hand, by allying with the radical Muslim leader Abdul Nazer Maudani, and on the other, by portraying its own leader E.M.S Namboodiripad as Lord Krishna in election posters. These are but two of several examples of the self-destructive myopia and cynicism of the political opposition to the BJP and RSS combine – their failure to see that ultimately, as Jha puts it, “the objective of these activities is always the same: to create a false fear among Hindus and stoke the polarisation of their votes in favour of the party leading the forces of Hindutva.”
However, if Jha is implying that political victory is the only goal of Hindutva forces, he would be mistaken. The majority of these shadow armies, advertently or otherwise, are cogs in a larger machinery and political victories are means, not the end for the Hindutva project. The continued efforts of the project’s myriad socio-cultural affiliates, now fortified by BJP’s electoral triumphs, are gradually turning this nation against its own constitutional morality.
While ideological, institutional, and political responses are falling short, Jha’s book shows that, ironically, the Hindutva project is facing considerable resistance from at least some temples and gurudwaras that are afraid of being usurped. But it is hardly enough. To read Shadow Armies is to look a looming threat in the eye and take stock of India’s journey to a crossroad where its future looks terrifyingly different from the dreams of its founding fathers.
Pragya Tiwari studied law as an undergraduate and postgraduate, and is about to complete an executive masters in public administration from the LSE. She’s worked as an editor and writer on politics, culture, and policy for several publications in India, and is currently working on a book on the RSS.