Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sarsanghchalak (head), Mohan Bhagwat’s address at an event organised by the organisation’s affiliate Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM) evoked varied responses with some commentators seeing it as a sign of increasing moderation in the ideological fountainhead of the saffron camp.
Other analysts, including this writer expressed a contrary viewpoint, arguing that merely making a statement without restraining strident sections within the Hindutva fraternity, who range from chief ministers to BJP leaders including lawmakers, and foot soldiers for whom vigilantism is a way of life, is actually little but false piety.
The biggest ‘concession’ to Muslims is patronisingly stated by the RSS chief: “We call (ourselves) Hindus, if you do not wish to call yourselves that, do not do so, call yourself Bharatiya, leave behind the jhagda (contestation) of names and words, understand the bhawna (sentiment).”
In this outwardly reconciliatory gesture from Bhagwat, the ‘crucial’ words are Bharatiya and bhawna.’
Hindutva acolytes will ‘accept’ non-Hindus as Bharatiya or Indian only if they do the following: Consider Bharat as their matribhoomi (motherland), believe in ‘our’ parampara (traditions), sanskriti (culture) and common poorvaj (ancestors).
It goes without saying that what comprises the country’s traditions, culture and ancestry are decided by the Hindutva brigade. None of these are of composite or pluralistic nature, but unblended or unitarist.
Furthermore, within the Hindu nationalistic framework, religion and culture are indistinguishable. Several elements of this ‘common’ culture that RSS foists on non-Hindus may be regarded by them as religious.
As a result, adherence to these would be impermissible for reasons of the faith of non-Hindus. For the Hindutva lot however, this is evidence of ‘disrespect’ of Bharatiya sanskriti, thereby of the nation too. It would invite the wrath of vigilante groups, unrestrained by Bhagwat.
Saying that rule of law must prevail and the Constitution’s inviolability should remain is not enough.
Still Hindutva, but sugar-coated
What appears as moderation in Bhagwat’s lecture is actually an illusion and reiteration of their old position. The only difference is that the viewpoint is nuanced and disguised. Yet, for an organisation that is given to blunt-speaking, why did the RSS chief veil the organisation’s primary tenet?
For close to a century since its inception, the RSS and its leaders articulated cultural nationalism, according to which ‘India, that is Bharat’, is NOT a ‘Union of States’ as stated in the Constitution, but is actually a nation made of its people.
This dichotomy between two perspectives on nationalism has shaped the debate between secular, territorial or pluralistic nationalism and that of cultural or religio-cultural nationalism.
From a time when the RSS and its affiliates always harped on their ‘distinctness’, why has Bhagwat chosen to somewhat camouflage it, and not just now, but even in September 2018 when he addressed select members of the intelligentsia in New Delhi in televised three-evening sessions?
In the history of the RSS, Bhagwat will be regarded as the most pragmatic chief after Balasaheb Deoras. But, the organisation under the latter, although it underwent social inclusion gradually, maintained a structured distance from the hurly-burly world of politics.
Except for the six-seven year period, starting with the political phase preceding the imposition of Emergency in 1975 by Indira Gandhi and till the collapse of the Janata Party government in 1980, Deoras scrupulously kept the RSS a good distance away from electoral politics.
In contrast, the RSS under Bhagwat is extensively enmeshed in election campaigning from 2014 onwards. At the onset of his MRM address, Bhagwat clarified that although he almost invited himself for the event, it was neither an exercise at image makeover nor an effort at enlisting the votes of the Muslims.
Yet, he also accepted that the RSS campaigns during elections – “chunav mein tatakat lagate hain” (we put in efforts during election campaigns). This makes it imperative to examine why Bhagwat made several halfway moves to assure Muslims. Was this part of the election ‘effort’?
At the core of Bhagwat’s assertion is acceptance that even though members of the RSS fraternity routinely demand that Muslims need to be thrown out of the country, physically this is not possible. At 15-17 crore the number of Indian Muslims is too large and any attempt to force the matter, will hold the country ransom to a protracted phase of violence. This will be ruinous for economy, as well as global standing of the country and its leaders.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee famously asserted: “You can change your friends, but not neighbours.” This explains why Indo-Pak relations are perennially on a blow-hot-blow-cold mode. Phases of hostility alternate with talk and then actual conduct of dialogue because this is seen as the only way to resolve disputes.
‘If you can’t drive them away, tame them’
Likewise, the RSS brass has come to terms with the fact that it cannot decide on the country’s residents and that the more penal and political action is taken against Muslims, not for any crime they commit but for their identities, the more troublesome it is going to be.
The government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the possibility of a nationwide National Registry of Citizens (NRC) looms large and this grants citizenship to a chosen few, simultaneously exorcising many who came into the country years after partition.
But CAA and NRC are political weapons to consolidate the regime’s core constituency. Yet, these weapons cannot remain in a perennially unsheathed state in the hands of the state and the foot soldiers, for it will worsen the internal security situation.
As a consequence of this realisation, Bhagwat stated that “the only solution to Hindu-Muslim conflict is dialogue, not discord.” From approaching India’s communal dispute from a political standpoint, Bhagwat is pushing towards an approach that draws lessons from a diplomat’s handbook.
This explains the reason why from 2014 onwards, there have been periods when phases of extreme vilification and physical targeting of Muslims were followed by periods of relative tranquillity which saw a token reach out to the community.
Within months of Modi becoming prime minister, exuberance within the Hindutva fold was expressed in form of derogatory statements by the likes of Yogi Adityanath, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Griraj Singh; attacks on numerous churches in and around Delhi, and a resolute push for reconversion under the Ghar Wapsi programme.
But after a visiting American President reminded Indian leaders of the importance of religious freedom, there was a pullback and Modi also sent a chadar to the Ajmer Dargah during the annual Urs. A few months later, the Dadri lynching case marked the return of the targeting of Muslims. This was followed by vituperative statements during the 2015 Bihar assembly polls. This wave of hostility later waned, but the pattern has continued since.
Muslim outreach for UP polls
Reasons behind Bhagwat making the assertions now (he made similar statements in 2018 too) have to be seen in the short-term context as well as the long-term necessity. The biggest challenge the RSS fraternity faces is the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh in the first quarter next year. Bhagwat’s utterances have to be assessed in this context.
With Muslims in UP accounting for more than 19 per cent of voters, the nightmarish situation for the BJP would be if there is complete consolidation of Muslim vote behind the Samajwadi Party, and at the same time, an erosion in the BJP’s Hindu core vote.
Bhagwat’s statements are aimed to mollify a section, even if small, of the Muslim voters (post-poll survey data reveals that a small sections of Muslims have voted for BJP across several states) and convey a degree of reasonableness to Hindu voters who may have disapproved of Yogi Adityanath going the whole hog on Hindutva issue and launching a publicity blitz, while paying less attention to governance.
The intention is to convey a sense to liberal Hindus that the RSS has ‘conceded ground’ to Muslims and after this they must agree to playing by the new rule book that Bhagwat presented – “at least say you are Bharatiya”. The objective is to impress on this section of Hindus that after the RSS chief’s statements, it would be wrong if any section of Muslims continue nursing grouses against the state and the Sangh Parivar.
But because the core Hindu vote too is needed, Adityanath remains firmly in saddle suggesting that Bhagwat’s reach out to Muslims is aimed at balancing the chief minister’s virulence towards Muslims.
The overall intent behind Bhagwat’s placatory statements is to maintain semblance of normalcy, get the Muslims to understand sentiments of the majority Hindus and maintain the overall supremacy of the Hindutva idea.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)