Mohan Bhagwat, RSS, missionaries
When every work was being done for society, how could it be big or small or different from each other, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat asked (file photo)

RSS’ Dussehra speech still matters, but it’s losing hold over BJP

Since 2014, the importance of the RSS' Dussehra speech has been augmented several times and is more closely monitored for nuanced shifts in the organisation, once considered the BJP’s ideological fountainhead

The office of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the individual who occupies it, are no longer behind a veil. The current chief, Mohan Bhagwat, is not reticent about speaking in public compared to his predecessors. But the annual Dussehra speech still carries immense symbolic value because it indicates the thinking of the organisation’s brass for the year ahead.

This was Bhagwat’s ninth Dussehra speech since 2014. Almost a century ago, in 1925, KB Hedgewar, along with some of his close political associates, established the RSS. This speech marks its anniversary every year.

In these eight-and-a-half years, the importance of this speech has been augmented several times and is more closely monitored for nuanced shifts in the organisation, once considered as the BJP’s ideological fountainhead.

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A paradoxical shift

Paradoxically, however, while this speech has attracted greater attention over this period in a calibrated manner from the media, analysts, and adversaries alike, the authoritative hold of the organisation over the BJP has weakened significantly. It has resulted in Bhagwat devoting significant portions of his speech to commending government actions and programmes.

He has also woven his speech in a way to ensure that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was complimented for either speech, utterance, or decision — on this occasion, the decision to rename Rajpath as Kartavya Path.

Like the emphasis placed by Modi on citizens fulfilling fundamental duties, Bhagwat emphasised that everyone — government, administration, political parties, and citizens — should “act in unison in a duty-bound manner.” He also said that it was enough for people to expect the government to perform their duties, but society, too, must “consciously carry out its responsibilities.”

Run-up to the speech

Bhagwat’s speech this year was preceded by two developments. The first, more recent, was RSS general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale sounding the alarm on the issues of poverty, unemployment, rising inequality, and economic stagnation.

Using uncharacteristically sharp words, he said on a public platform, “Poverty in the country is standing like a demon in front of us.” The question before Bhagwat’s speech was whether he would endorse this viewpoint, circumvent it, or do some damage limitation.

Also read: Was it aimed at reining in hardliners? Decoding Mohan Bhagwat’s speech

The second development, although the actual interaction took place in August, was Bhagwat’s meeting with five prominent Muslim members of the intelligentsia. This was followed by, after the news of this meeting became public, Bhagwat’s visit to a mosque in the capital.

The five personalities he met — former lieutenant governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, former vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, Lt General (retd.) Zameer Uddin Shah, journalist and political leader Shahid Siddiqui, and businessman Saeed Shervani — are in no way representative of the Muslims community. But the meeting was talked about. The question was if the Sarsanghchalak would talk about this initiative or skip the subject.

Mum on China

On the first issue, Bhagwat did a U-turn and handed out a virtual commendation certificate. He said India had made “remarkable strides in strength, character, and international acclaim. The government is pursuing policies leading to self-reliance. Bharat’s importance and stature have increased in the community of nations. In the sphere of security, we are becoming more and more self-sufficient.”

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He mentioned nothing specifically about India being at the receiving end of the conflict with China over several crucial border tracts in Ladakh.

On the economy however, while not referring to Hosabale’s contention, Bhagwat asserted, “After negotiating through the calamity of corona (Covid-19), our economy is inching towards the pre-pandemic levels.”

Dialogue with Muslims

Hardliners who are part of the Sangh ecosystem had received news of Bhagwat’s meeting with the five prominent Muslim personalities unenthusiastically. His reference to the meeting was directed at this section.

Bhagwat was unambiguous in saying that there have been interactions with members of Muslim society in recent years. “They have had meetings and discussions with Sangh office-bearers, and this will continue,” Bhagwat stated explicitly.

Many may consider this pledge to continue the dialogue significant. But it must be placed in the context of the framework of dialogue and the issues on which the RSS shall be unwilling to reconsider its position.

Also read: RSS expresses concern over rising income inequality; terms poverty as demon-like challenge

Cultural nationalism

For more than a century, the RSS has pursued the notion of cultural nationalism, and it has been in direct contrast with a more inclusive form of nationalism. On this, there is no alteration. For, Bhagwat said in the speech that the people of this country “are of Bharat, came from Bhartiya ancestors and its eternal culture; we are one as a society; and this is the only protective shield in our nationality, the mantra for us all.”

Common ancestry is “problematic” because the RSS looks at mythology as history and differentiates between Hinduism as culture and as religion, although there is no clear demarcation on what ritual, act, or expression is cultural, and which is religious.

Additionally, several other features indicate that the RSS is more inclined to get its perspective on nation and nationhood accepted by religious minorities.

For instance, Bhagwat concluded his speech by referring to a message written by Sri Aurobindo for All India Radio, Tiruchirapalli. It was broadcast on August 14, 1947, and is listed in his oeuvre as “The Five Dreams”. Bhagwat, however, presented this text in a manner that enabled him to further the politics of the RSS.

He said while the national-leader-turned-spiritual-seer was happy at India becoming independent, “he was worried that due to partition, instead of Hindu-Muslim unity, an everlasting political divide had been created, which could obstruct and get in the way of Bharat attaining unity, progress, and peace. By whichever means possible, he wanted Bharat’s partition to be nullified and fervently wished for Akhand Bharat.”

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At the outset, this is problematic because the Sarsanghchalak once again resurrects the divisive idea of Akhand Bharat. The idea is clearly based on the Hindu supremacist theory, but the RSS chief distorts Sri Aurobindo’s words and sentiment.

Appropriating Aurobindo

The original text read: “It is to be hoped that this settled fact will not be accepted as settled forever or as anything more than a temporary expedient…. the partition must go. Let us hope that that may come about naturally, by an increasing recognition of the necessity not only of peace and concord but of common action, by the practice of common action and the creation of means for that purpose… by whatever means, in whatever way, the division must go; unity must and will be achieved, for it is necessary for the greatness of India’s future.”

This is another instance of the RSS attempting to appropriate another leading nationalist, who in later life veered towards spiritualism, by distorting his words. Aurobindo did not at any point endorse the idea of Akhand Bharat, already propounded by Hindu nationalists. Yet, Bhagwat attempts to showcase him as their own.

Why should the RSS make such an effort? In the backdrop of this attempt, how serious is its effort at engaging with Muslims in a dialogue?

Also read: Mohan Bhagwat is ‘rashtra pita’, says Imam after meeting RSS chief

‘Population imbalance’

Furthermore, Bhagwat resorted to the old tropes used to spread prejudice and much more against Muslims. For decades, the Sangh Parivar has flagged India’s rising population as a worry and argued that the disproportionate Muslim birth rate was part of an Islamist conspiracy to “reduce Hindus in a minority in their own country.”

Ingeniously, Bhagwat in his speech called for a new population policy, which “should be applicable for all.” No one will grudge this formulation. But the Sarsanghchalak thereafter used a formulation on “…population imbalances. Seventy-five years ago, we experienced this in our country.” This contention takes those listening to him to the old Sangh Parivar narrative — that of deliberate “differences in birth rate, conversions by force, lure or greed, and infiltration.”

To conclude his arguments in this section, Bhagwat said, “Population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored.”

He also postulated that East Timor, South Sudan, and Kosovo were carved out of Indonesia, Sudan, and Serbia, respectively, because of “religious community-based imbalances”.

Veiled call for social vigilantism

Not just on issues that deepen the schism between Hindus and India’s largest religious minority, but the Sarsanghchalak harked to the old theme of “obstacles by forces who are inimical to Bharat’s unity and progress.”

The indication is similar to the standard BJP-government-RSS campaign since 2014. It has been claimed that there exists a cohort of groups who “pit different sections of society against each other based on sectional self-interest and hatred, and increase chasms and enmities…”

The RSS chief is not apologetic in asking people to “assist the government’s and the administration’s efforts to control and bring such forces to its heels. Only our society’s strong and pro-active cooperation can ensure our comprehensive security and unity.”

This veiled call for social vigilantism is worrisome in the backdrop of similar attacks in recent years, and it also overlooks the accusation that this regime has misused draconian laws in an unprecedented manner to stifle all dissent in the name of action against disruptive elements.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other 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)

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