The RSS Has Now Come Out of the Shadows

The earlier coyness of the RSS is gone. It will now play an even bigger role in Indian politics

The nature of relationship between the Rashtriya Swayamswak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP-led government became a subject of intense debate last week as all key members of the cabinet made presentations before the top leadership of the Sangh on the progress made by them on various socio-economic parameters. It was probably the first time that the RSS had so openly displayed its ownership of a BJP-led government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned the compliment by saying “whatever I am today is based on the values imbibed from the RSS”.  It was also the first time that the BJP members of the cabinet made no bones about being ideologically mentored by the RSS. “Yes, we have no hesitation in saying we are all swayamsevaks”, said BJP spokesperson Siddharth Nath Singh in a TV debate.

Television news channels invited senior RSS members, who asserted that the BJP was one of the many organisations historically spawned by the RSS and the Sangh was like a father to them. “So what is wrong with the father asking the children how they were doing”, said Baldev Sharma, a prominent RSS ideologue and presently chairman of the National Book Trust. That there is no need to be defensive about the RSS seems to be the central message delivered by the BJP. This, by itself, is very instructive.

Of course, the debate was generated in the first place because of the larger question of whether a government which owes allegiance to the Indian Constitution should be answerable to an organisation which seeks to unify Hindu society based on the demonisation of minorities, especially the Muslims. After all, the RSS Chief, Mohan Bhagwat, chose to emphatically mark his presence just a few months after the Modi government took power when he gave a clarion call for “Ghar Wapsi”, asserting that Muslims in India essentially had Hindu ancestry and must “return home” by reconverting to Hinduism.

Making its intentions clear

The sense one gets from the interactions between the Modi government and the RSS leadership is that the latter is coming out much more into the open about wanting to drive the political agenda. True, the RSS had exercised influence over the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee too. But Vajpayee, because of his stature and long years of being imbued in parliamentary politics, had possibly developed a psychological and emotional distance from the Sangh. However, when it came to crunch situations in politics, such as seeking Narendra Modi’s resignation as chief minister for the horrific Gujarat riots which happened under his watch, Vajpayee bowed to the Sangh’s wishes.

So what is the difference between RSS’s behind-the-scenes influence over the NDA under Vajpayee and its much publicised and overt interface with the Modi-led NDA?  The 282 seat majority for the BJP-led government appears to have convinced the RSS that it can play a more explicit role in shaping the politics of the day. In due course, there could be a qualitative shift in the way the RSS might begin to think about its role in shaping the politics and policies under the present government. One can already see early signs of it.

In the emphatic victory of the Narendra Modi-led BJP, the Sangh also seems to be shedding its past fears and insecurities when it came to challenging the secular-democratic traditions embedded in independent India’s DNA. Historically, especially in the first decade after independence, the Sangh had a major setback when the RSS was banned by Home Minister Sardar Patel in February 1948, after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The ban was lifted in July 1949 and RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar was released from jail after prolonged negotiations with Patel. While in jail, Golwalkar accepted a draft constitution for a more transparent and open functioning of the RSS as a purely cultural organization, prepared by T.R.Venkatrama Sastry, advocate general of Madras Presidency, who acted as an interlocutor on behalf of Sardar Patel. Patel lifted the ban after Golwalkar personally conveyed the acceptance of the new constitution and organizational structure under which the RSS would operate. Until then, the RSS didn’t keep any membership or organisational records, inviting the charge of being a secret society with extremist Hindu elements. Sardar Patel, through Venkatrama Sastry and D.P. Mishra, then Home Minister of United Provinces, also got the RSS to formally swear allegiance to the Indian Constitution and the national flag.

Covert RSS activities

However, in spite of these promises, many of RSS’s covert activities continued in the political arena. The Sangh continued to exercise indirect influence on top bureaucrats, and even some key Congress politicians, which Nehru openly lamented.

Interestingly, just about five months after the lifting of the ban on the RSS, a political saga began which was to profoundly impact the secular-democratic polity of modern India during the next four decades. In December 1949, an idol of Rama was mysteriously placed inside the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya with the active connivance of the then district magistrate of Faizabad K.K.Nayar and city magistrate Guru Dutt Singh, and the site was virtually taken over by Sadhus for some time. Nehru was furious and told Gobind Ballabh Pant, the then Chief Minister of the United Provinces under which present day UP fell, to have the idol removed and restore peace. But the die was cast and the district magistrate expressed helplessness in the matter for fear of large-scale communal violence. Pant conveyed the message to Nehru who argued the Babri Masjid conflagration could impact larger politics such as that of Kashmir which already was already on the boil.

Subsequently, the main state actors, the district magistrate and city magistrate, who secretly facilitated the placement of the idol of Rama in the Babri Masjid joined the Jana Sangh, the political wing of the Sangh Parivar launched in 1951.

The larger point the above episode illustrates is that the RSS has done a remarkable job with  its covert operations through the past many decades. The communalisation of parts of the state apparatus was a reality then, and a reality now. I deliberately cited the example of Babri Masjid to illustrate this point because it continued to test the resilience of the Indian state and its secular Constitution over the next 60 years. The issue is alive even today as it finds mention in the BJP’s manifesto.

The seeds of discord sown in December 1949 erupted three and a half decades later with the Ram Temple movement. Again, the RSS and its outfits like the VHP and BJP managed to manoeuvre themselves cleverly by exploiting the shaky resolve of the Congress, first in 1986, when the lock to the disputed structure was opened, and later in 1992, when Narasimha Rao was accused of not protecting the Babri Masjid structure from a violent Hindutva mob.  The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the violence that followed was a rupture in the secular-democratic tradition fostered by the founding fathers of the Constitution. There have been many such ruptures, of varying intensities, occurring in India’s body politic over the decades. But the Babri Masjid episode has a surreal continuity about it since the dawn of independence.

In fact, I was witness to L.K. Advani’s 1990 Rath Yatra through Bihar during which he campaigned for a Ram Mandir. Advani described it as the biggest political mobilisation by the BJP. For a while during the campaign, the BJP publicly asserted that the establishment of the temple, and the dispute around it, were beyond the scope of the Supreme Court.  Courts don’t decide on matters of faith, it was argued. All along the rath yatra, in his public meetings,  Advani had a few young turks on the stage, standing quietly behind him. One of them was Narendra Modi.

All about political power

So is it any surprise that the RSS today expresses such supreme confidence in overtly guiding the first BJP-led government with a majority in the Lok Sabha? As the political power wielded by the Parivar grows, the lines between various Sangh outfits will blur. In any case, for the RSS it was always about accumulating political power. The tactics and instruments varied from time to time. While still in the Nagpur jail, Golwalkar told Sardar Patel’s emissary, who was sent to negotiate a deal, that the government had actually banned the RSS because of the fear that it will take away political power from the Congress in the years to come. Well, Golwalkar’s suggestion was laughable then. It was laughable even 30 years later. But not so today, given the way a certain pernicious strain of majoritarianism is taking hold of our polity.