Mis-Understanding Mohan Bhagwat

Scores of organisations like Ram Sene and Hindu Yuva Vahini have little consideration for the occasional preaching of sanity by the RSS chief.

Every time Mohan Bhagwat speaks in public, a group or another complains that he has targeted them and then at least one prominent media house is blamed for misquoting him.

It seems as if reporters never reach out to Bhagwat for a quote. They go to him for misquotes. He then gives them the misquote which naturally ends up offending some people. He then tells them, “Oh sorry, that’s not my quote. That’s my misquote.”

Often, this aggrieved group is the Muslim minority. But oddly it’s the Brahmins this time. 

In the past one month, at least two criminal complaints were filed against Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the Sarsanghchalak as he is affectionately called in the Sangh Parivar’s lingo. What might be astonishing for many observers is the fact that both these complaints were filed by pro-Hindutva activists who somehow feel that Bhagwat’s comments are prima facie anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin. 

This is disconcerting for observers because most Hindutva critics view the Sangh Parivar and its support base as a monolith wherein every follower obeys and never questions the decision of the top leadership, which is perhaps partly correct in the context of elections and the BJP’s political masterstrokes. In that context, what Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS have achieved in the past decade is a seemingly absolute political consolidation of a Hindu electorate that has been carved out from various caste groups and a brazen political exclusion of minorities, particularly the Muslims.

This includes an active outreach to the communities within the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes.

Contrary to its claims of a ‘Hindu first’ politics, the BJP has rather mastered the art of strategic caste and ethnic politics across states. The BJP’s traditional support base, the Brahmins and other ‘upper’ castes, seemed to have made peace with these new realities but the question of caste-based reservation and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act continues to haunt them.

These various caste alliances and their underlying contradictions are carefully but hurriedly glossed over with the help of a virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric that cuts across society, a tight grip over public institutions, and a pliant mainstream media ready to stoop to daily lows in its ambushes on the opposition and Muslims. It informs critics that the BJP has achieved an invincible formula to maintain its hold over India. 

However, if we keep aside this intimidating political arithmetic and focus on the recent attack and cultural backlash against Bhagwat and the RSS, it demonstrates the wider social contradictions in the vision of the RSS and other less popular Hindutva movements that are not ready to give up caste privilege in exchange of just Muslim-baiting.

It is advisable to view this apparent anger against Bhagwat in the context of these contradictions in the Hindutva universe that are not as ideologically homogeneous as it appears to be. Before we talk about these contradictions, let us examine why Bhagwat ended up triggering a prominent section of the Hindu right at least twice.

The first complaint against Bhagwat was filed for his allegedly “pro-LGBTQ” views and comments on the Hindu deity Krishna that he made during an interview. The interview had predominantly grabbed headlines for Bhagwat’s anti-Muslim diatribe in which he had asked Muslims to give up what he described as their belligerent supremacy and justified Hindu extremism as a natural response of a victimised society at war since the last 1,000 years. 

He had also claimed that the Hindu civilisation has traditionally acknowledged the LGBTQ community. According to the complaint, Bhagwat’s interview with the two RSS mouthpieces, Panchanjanya and Organiser, endorsed and associated homosexuality with Hindu religious figures. Bhagwat has also been accused of making inflammatory remarks against Krishna.   

The complaint alleged that Bhagwat’s depiction of Hans and Dimbaka as a gay couple or that they felt “attraction towards each other” is not factually correct. The complainants cited the Sri Harivansh Puran as having carried the actual version of this “historical incidence”. Further, Bhagwat was accused of calling Krishna a cheater. This was followed by a torrent of angry comments and messages by traditionalists. A section of rightwing activists demanded Bhagwat apologise and the two Sangh  mouthpieces take down the alleged “anti-Hindu” comments. 

With little oxygen from the media, the campaign ended abruptly.

However, two week later when Bhagwat was perhaps attempting to firefight Samajwadi Party leader Swami Prasad Maurya’s campaign against Ramcharitmanas, he criticised the caste system and said, “Caste was created by Pandits,” triggering widespread expressions of resentment amongst Brahmins.

As the cauldron of popular anger against Bhagwat turned red, the RSS tried to water it down with a carefully worded clarification circulated in the media. The corrigendum claimed that Bhagwat was not targeting Brahmins by mentioning the word ‘Pandit,’ rather he was referring to ‘some scholars’ since the word ‘pandit‘, in Marathi, means ‘scholar’, and that he has been misquoted. 

Our north Indian Hindi speaking minds didn’t agree with this explanation but the more generous speakers of the language within the Hindutva fold seemed to meekly claim that perhaps Bhagwat was actually misquoted.

The word ‘pandit’ in the English language refers to ‘scholar’, the same meaning Bhagwat claimed it had in Marathi, the language in which he delivered his speech.

Bhagwat’s clarification, however, didn’t sit well with independent Hindutva ideologues. 

Also read: ‘Pandits’: Amidst Controversy Over RSS Chief’s Remark, Hindu Godmen Defend Caste System

As of now, the most prominent Hindu religious figures: the Shankaracharya of Puri and Dwarka have publicly attacked Bhagwat. 

When asked to react to Bhagwat’s comments by a devotee, Nischalananda Saraswati, the Puri Shankaracharya, appeared to defend the caste system and slammed Bhagwat. “The name of the first Brahmin is Brahma ji. You should study the scriptures. All the sciences and arts in the world are explained by Brahmins alone. Education, defence and other services should always be balanced. If we do not accept the Sanatan [literally eternal truths, used to refer to a version of Hinduism] system, then what system should be there?” he asked.

Responding to Bhagwat’s clarification, Shankaracharya Swami Avimukteshwaranand said, Bhagwat is saying that God did not create this (caste system), they have been made by Pandits. Then he says that ‘Pandit’ means ‘scholar’ and not ‘Brahmin’. If scholars have said something then why are you denying it?” the Shankaracharya asked.

The less charitable ones in the community of godmen, who are widely renowned for their anti-Muslim statements – like Paramhans and Narsinghanand – called Bhagwat anti-national and anti-Hindu.

This controversy is not limited to a war of words. Last week, an alleged BJP leader opened fire at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader in Moradabad of Uttar Pradesh, reportedly because of an argument over Bhagwat’s ‘Pandit’ remark. 

The controversy has given insight into the simmering differences within the Hindutva universe over the question of caste as it has opened a small window into the Sangh Parivar’s own lack of debate on how to navigate the growing concerns of the ‘upper’ castes over a resurgent Ambedkarite discourse in which the caste system and associated Hindu beliefs receive unsparing criticism.  

Bhagwat is not alone in antagonising this section of the Hindu right. We have seen how PM Modi often gets in the crosshairs with the traditionalists for some of his rare utterances bearing some semblance of secular civility.

However, secularism is no more the biggest worry of the traditionalist camp. A strong section of ‘upper’ caste right-wingers think that the BJP government is appeasing the so-called anti-Hindu, Ambedkarite and Bahujan groups. With the BJP being unable to strongly respond to emboldened Bahujan politicians like Rajendra Pal Gautam, Swami Prasad Maurya or Chandra Shekhar who have not shied away from their Ambedkarite views on the caste system and the religious texts that defend it, this anger of the Brahmin right-wing has come out in the open. 

Bhagwat is thus in a tricky spot. He can’t retract his comments totally (he never does) and he can’t also claim that he meant what he said. An explicitly violent campaign against Ambedkarite leaders and parties may even end up consolidating all Dalit communities in favour of Ambedkarite politics. Not responding at all would create a need to look for more radical caste supremacist alternatives to the Sangh Parivar.

But even Bhagwat’s sympathisers would agree with his critics that his clarification is sketchy. If Bhagwat was not referring to Brahmins when he talked about the so-called ‘Pandits who have polluted Hindu texts with caste propaganda then Bhagwat should simply name all those scholars, who in his view, are guilty and should be held accountable of this humongous sin of creating disunity amongst Hindus by adding caste supremacy in their texts.

He should then, by a rational extension of his own clarification, also mention the particular texts that according to him have been polluted by this propaganda.

Since Bhagwat is widely recognised as one of the biggest well-wishers of Hindus, he’s almost duty bound to name those ‘Pandits.’ In case he doesn’t do that, then common Hindus who follow him might end up getting confused. This would cast undue aspersions on scriptures and the Pandits wrote since Bhagwat left his comments open to public interpretation.

Moreover, as some Bhagwat critics argue, this ‘open to interpretation’ clarification can solidify what the so-called ‘anti-Hindu’ influencers have to say about the question of caste. This is what happened when Swami Prasad Maurya endorsed and welcomed Bhagwat’s comments.

On a more serious note, let us try to understand what these apparent contradictions mean for the non-Indic religion people, especially Muslims and Christians.

First, one can see that the RSS no longer controls the violent Hindutva network.

In the last decade several big and small gangs and organisations have emerged all over India which are not affiliated to the RSS the way BJP, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, VHP and numerous other organisations are. But without the long and sustained work by the RSS and the establishment of the national ‘Hindu Rashtra’ under Narendra Modi, it would have been difficult, if not impossible for them to thrive.

Scores of organisations like Ram Sene and Hindu Yuva Vahini have little consideration for the occasional preaching of sanity by Bhagwat. They are not guided by the need to indulge in pseudo-intellection as Bhagwat and his colleagues love to do. Why, even the members of the RSS know that they are mere words. We suspect that Bhagwat also knows what he says is not for his base or the larger Hindutva network. 

This is what the Muslim or Christian elites need to understand when they approach RSS to secure peace for themselves. It is foolish to expect the so-called ‘fringe Hindutva’ groups to cease what they are doing because the RSS asks them to.

It is also true that the influence of the ‘Shankaracharyas’ on the thinking of Hindus is highly overrated. We have not seen Hindus paying attention to what they say. 

The capacity of Bhagwat to effect a rethinking among the followers of the ideology of Hindutva is limited. As said earlier, he also does not intend it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be changing his ground on the question of Muslims being equal Indians or the issue of caste.

If we assume that Brahmins didn’t create this system, even then the moot question is whether the system should go or not? What are the efforts that the RSS is taking towards annihilation of caste? It recruits members from SC and ST communities in the army of Hindutva but what does it do to achieve equality within the Hindu society? 

Even when we read about Dalits trying to gain entry to temples, we don’t read of RSS playing any role there. Neither have we ever come across any news of the RSS undertaking any campaign to end violence against SCs in daily Hindu life. Its ‘upper’ caste base knows that the RSS would do nothing to take away the privilege it has enjoyed for eternity. Hierarchies would remain as they have been, the only ground where these historically segregated caste groups are allowed to meet is the battle ground against Muslims and Christians.  

The present day RSS leadership also knows well that it cannot control Narendra Modi.

Its decision to come out in support of Gautam Adani is a demonstration of the fact that it is compelled to make available all its resources to Narendra Modi.

As Dhirendra K. Jha has shown, with his extensive and deep understanding of the way the Hindutva network operates, the RSS is now subservient to the wishes of Narendra Modi. It cannot rebel against him also because of what his rule has secured for the RSS and its leadership. An RSS worker explained it very simply, “When in the history of the RSS would pracharaks and its leaders have imagined  that they would get the comfort that is now available to them? Which Sarsanghchalak would have thought that he would be treated as the national thinker and his speeches would be telecast live from all channels? Can they leave this comfort? The only way for them to maintain it is by keeping Narendra Modi and the likes in power.”

The political economy of the violent Hindutva network needs to be understood. It is related to local control: social, political and economic. Violence creates influencers and leaders. It is the first step of their career path. And a necessary component of their politics. It is impossible to do away with it.

Those who think that once they achieve power they’ll desist from indulging in it need to explain the dog-whistling of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah against Muslims and Christians. What is the meaning of the warning of Amit Shah to the Kannadigas against Kerala? What is the explanation of the call of the Karnataka BJP chief to eliminate the followers of Tipu Sultan?

What does the RSS have to say about these violent exhortations? 

Leaving these aside, how is a listener to make sense of Bhagwat’s talk of a “thousand-year warfare which has forced Hindus to become violent?” We can see that Bhagwat is trying to prove that he can be the leader of the wider Hindu society while at the same time assuring the violent lot that he continues to be their patron.

Thus any strategy to combat the ever-expanding network of Hindutva will need a rethink in the light of the above.