Mr Bhagwat, Proof of the Pudding Will Lie in the Eating

Bhagwat's address at the recent Sangh parivar conclave was clearly an attempt to occupy the middle space, and he assured the audiences that "Hindutva" was an inclusive concept and did not represent hostility towards Muslims.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s charm offensive to woo the urban intelligentsia at the three-day conclave organised by the Sangh parivar has many interesting dimensions to it. The most important aspect of Bhagwat’s address delivered over two days – for about three hours – was his strenuous bid to seek legitimacy for an organisation which has had a shadowy and murky past, whose activities have been banned at least four times since India became independent.

In terms of moral and social legitimacy, the RSS took long to recover from the ban it was subjected to by then home minister Sardar Patel after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. The other big setback to the RSS’s legitimacy was when its affiliate body, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, campaigned for the Ram Temple in the 1980s and illegally brought down the Babri Masjid structure in 1992. Historically, the RSS has maintained that the Indian constitution at its core does not reflect the values of “Bhartiyata”.

Given this backdrop, Bhagwat’s address was clearly an attempt to occupy the middle space, and he assured the audiences that “Hindutva” was an inclusive concept and did not represent hostility towards Muslims. He went a step further to say there can be no Hindutva without Indian Muslims being a part of it. He quoted Sir Syed Ahmed, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, to suggest that Muslims are as much children of Bharat, only their way of worship has changed. Bhagwat even said the RSS had embraced the Indian constitution fully, along with the terms “socialist and secular republic”.

So what has brought about this radical shift in the RSS’s public pronouncements? One can only speculate on the reasons why Mohan Bhagwat is suddenly sounding so democratic and inclusive in his statements. He even cited the example of RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar, who had once said he would be willing to even work with communists for common goals. Bhagwat invoked the contribution of M.N. Roy, the founder of Communist Party of India in the 1920s, and his subsequent embracing of “radical humanism” which said any revolutionary social philosophy must strengthen the sovereignty of people and their freedom based on reason and morality. Roy, who was invited by Lenin to be part of the International Communist Presidium, over time moved away from the Marxist theory of collectivism as a driver of change to the supremacy of the individual as a moral and rational being in society.

People outside the RSS conclave in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh

So why is Bhagwat on such a charm offensive to influence the liberal Hindu intelligentsia, communists as well as Muslims? Is his purpose purely short term and political, so that people soften towards Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls? Well, Bhagwat also said what he was saying had nothing to do with day-to-day politics, and that the RSS’s focus was on “transforming society”. In this respect, the RSS would work with any person, social organisation or political party that works for such change in society.

All very nice-sounding words, but Bhagwat’s credibility will simply rest on whether his pronouncements pass the test of what is happening on the ground. There is consensus that the politics played by the RSS’s affiliates such as BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal and other assorted extreme Hindu outfits have served to severely and violently polarise society. They have targeted Muslims and made them insecure through campaigns around the beef ban, ‘love jihad’, ‘ghar wapsi‘ and so on. It is also statistically proven that such communal campaigns around election time help the BJP consolidate Hindu votes by unabashedly demonising Muslims.

So in my view, the seriousness, and indeed credibility, of Bhagwat’s pronouncements must be put to test over the next nine months by assessing the way RSS affiliates conduct the election campaign, especially in the Hindi belt. Remember, Bhagwat also quoted Hedgewar to say, “We cannot blame the Muslim and British rulers forever for all the ills facing our society. The problem lies within and we have to address those problems rather than blame others.” So carrying the spirit of this statement forward, can Mohan Bhagwat assure us that the RSS and its affiliates, especially the BJP, will stop demonising the minorities and do some serious soul-searching for bringing autonomous reform within Hindu society?

The greatest lie being perpetrated by the RSS affiliates is that of majority victimhood, and somehow holding the minorities responsible for this. There cannot be a greater act of cowardice, Mr Bhagwat. This must stop if we are to collectively build a new consensus to repair the damage caused to the social and political fabric in recent years.