For all the excitement around Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, the event proved to be bit of an anti-climax. The former president gave an insipid speech on Indian nationalism suitable for a History 101 undergraduate class. The RSS supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, spoke at length before Mukherjee’s speech, largely avoiding any controversial issues. If the event itself was anti-climactic, the goal of the RSS in inviting Mukherjee was well served. The presence of a former president and a veteran Congressman, along with prime time coverage of the graduation ceremony of RSS recruits, would have gone some way in helping to mainstream an organisation that is regarded as radical and secretive.
Due to the RSS’s dominant presence in the present political dispensation, we often tend to elide the organisation’s controversial past. Beginning with the ban imposed on the RSS for its purported role in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the organisation has been banned on occasions.
Ideologically, the RSS has been founded on an exclusivist and majoritarian vision of Hinduism and India. It would take up too much space to quote at length from the writings of K.B. Hedgewar, the RSS founder, and M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak, to flesh out the RSS’s ideology. Suffice to say, Hedgewar, whom Mukherjee called a “great son of Mother India” in the visitor’s book at the RSS headquarters, had on many occasions proclaimed that India was a land only of the Hindus and had reviled Muslims. His successor, Golwalkar, was an admirer of Hitler and his policies towards the Jews, writing that Nazi Germany was a “good lesson for use in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.” Unsurprisingly, there is little reference to these views of Hedgewar and Golwalkar by contemporary RSS leaders.
None of this found a place in Mukherjee’s speech either. In contrast, Bhagwat used the platform to make the pitch that the RSS has place for diversity, citing the well-worn cliché of unity in diversity. He added that the state cannot do everything and it is upto organisations like the RSS to work for the welfare of society and the advancement of the nation. Indeed, this is a recurrent theme among RSS leaders and an answer to the critics of the organisation.
The logic goes something like this. The RSS is akin to an NGO, with a pan-Indian presence, which steps in wherever the state cannot fulfil its responsibilities, particularly in less developed areas or in disaster situations. Extending this argument, the RSS would like to present itself as an organisation akin to the Ramakrishna Mission or Bharat Sevashram Sangha. This vision, of course, ignores the RSS’s political and electoral campaign work as well as its violent past. Indeed, one of the crucial elements of Mukherjee’s visit to Nagpur was the physical drill by the RSS recruits, which are a symbol of the organisation’s inherent militarism.
While the RSS’s logic in inviting the former president was understandable, only Mukherjee can answer why he accepted the invitation. If it was to convey a message to the RSS or critically engage with some of its founding principles, that did not happen. Mukherjee’s speech, which attempted to summarise the idea of nationalism and patriotism in India, had little new in it. His conclusion that the “soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance” was an admirable one, but hardly captures much of India’s history or the present.
Part of our fallacy was expecting too much from Mukherjee’s speech. Mukherjee has always been an astute and consummate backroom politician. However, during his years as president, there were some who sought to build an intellectual aura around him. Lest it be forgotten, very few Indian presidents, with notable exceptions such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, can be termed deep thinkers or public intellectuals. Mukherjee is no Radhakrishnan, nor is he is a firebrand or popular orator. The latter partly explains his reluctance to contest elections in his home state of West Bengal.
Ultimately, it was the RSS that benefited from Mukherjee’s visit. Any hopes that the visit would lead to a more reasoned debate on the RSS and its role in contemporary India did not come to fruition.
The writer is with the National University of Singapore.