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

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
According to Mohan Bhagwat, the new-found acceptance has brought the Sangh resources, convenience, and abundance, but those are the new thorns the organisation should brave (file photo)

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s speech at the conclusion of the annual officers’ training camp of the RSS at Nagpur last week stood out as a crafty piece of oratory.

It was a classic instance of persuasive speechifying because nearly all interested in the theme of his talk would have, in all probability, formed an opinion on his rousing 30- minute-odd address without listening to it in its entirety and reaching a judgement on the basis of a news report.

A crafty speech

Bhagwat’s latest speech was an example of shrewd public speaking because it appeared reconciliatory and aimed at reining in hardliners within the Sangh Parivar eco-system even though he effectively bolstered the worldview of the RSS, especially when sweepingly typecasting Muslims and presenting his organisation’s perspective on Indian history.

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The RSS chief repeatedly highlighted his organisation’s perception of the most contentious issue of our times — India’s past, especially the medieval period. It was evident that the fraternity’s understanding of the past was nothing but the undeniable truth and was not open to debate.

He repetitively asserted that Islam came to India from “outside” on the shoulders of violent and brutal invaders disregarding the fact that the religion first arrived in India via the trade route in the coastal region of modern Kerala several centuries prior to the onset of the RSS’s narrative of a millennium-long-period of “slavery”.

Propagation of the theory that Islam first marked its presence in northern India when “conquerors” arrived, demonstrated that this region remains the core of the Sangh Parivar’s notion of Bharat. States south of the Vindhyas, certainly do not form part of the Rashtra that was ‘defiled’.

This conceptualisation of Bharat and the theory of ‘invaders from outside’ has been a constant refrain since the idea of Hindutva was codified almost a century ago. This notion does not factor that for something to come from ‘outside’, there must be an ‘inside’.

So what was this ‘interior’ or ‘inside’ in an era when neighbouring kings did not live in a state of perpetual detente and instead were often bitter rivals locked over claims and counter-claims on territory and riches?

Are we not superimposing contemporary geopolitical lines drawn to mark ‘internal and external territories’ on the past?

This is being done by the RSS because according to it, cultural homogeneity solely defines the nation. In doing so, Bhagwat, or other leaders who matter in the Hindu nationalistic camp, ignore that alliances were formed and oppositional positional were taken in history across religious identities.

What to look for in ‘Shivlings’

The RSS chief’s talk — the concluding part of an annual programme that was held after a gap of three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic — was seemingly an exhortation to the faithful to stop looking for Shivlings everywhere, or in each mosque and that there was no necessity to trigger fresh discord — was received with great relief by the majority of India’s peace-loving citizens, especially in the civil society.

For an entire section of the populace that has viewed the countrywide mushrooming of legal cases at various levels of the judiciary, each seeking ‘restoration’ of temples and implicit demolition of mosques or other Islamic places of worship, Bhagwat’s statement induced a sigh of relief.

Indians, anxious for assurances from a responsible person, saw the RSS chief’s statement as ‘evidence’ of the Hindutva fraternity having no intention of starting a movement to regain the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi. They concluded that Bhagwat asked the temple votaries to leave the matter to courts.

The ‘don’t look for shivlings’ statement was also interpreted as a decision to not launch multiple agitations on the lines of the Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan, for other places of worship, listed on the ‘wish list’ of Hindutva votaries.

But, is there a guarantee that after ‘gaining’ the Gyanvapi Masjid, the ceaseless campaign waged since 1984, for regaining “temples converted into mosques” by “intolerant and tyrannical foreign aggressors and rulers in Bharat”, would be put to a halt?

Stress on dialogue

Bhagwat pressed on the need for dialogue on “Gyanvapi which has a history (he did not specify what) which we cannot change. We did not create that history…”

Dialogue, discussions and mediation were attempted over Ayodhya too at several levels from the late 1980s to 2019. These efforts were made at the behest of then prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In a last-ditch effort, the Supreme Court formally established a mediation mechanism, but this too came to a nought. No common ground was ever found because neither party budged from the primary position.

It is 31 years since the passage of the Places of Worship Act that left out the Ayodhya dispute from its ambit, this law was, importantly, termed by the Supreme Court in its Ayodhya verdict as emblematic of the basic character of the Constitution — one that “protects and secures the fundamental values of the Constitution”.

Despite this, members of the Sangh Parivar are taking pot shots at the law and attempting to either get it declared as unconstitutional or mount a campaign for getting the Act repealed.

Bhagwat’s urgings to accept the judicial verdict, whatever it be, does not stimulate confidence because he said in the same speech that on “Gyanvapi, our faith has been there for generations”.

He made his objective more obvious by unambiguously stating that many Hindus are of the view that temples were demolished by Muslim rulers “to break the morale of Hindus… and now feel that these temples need to be reconstructed.”

Faith over law

There is thus no uncertainty left in the belief that faith will prevail over law. Let there be no doubt that nothing but eventual ‘removal’ of the mosque is a certainty now. The timing remains the sole question.

Prior to that, Hindu devotees may possibly even gain ‘access’ to the site where the Shivling has been claimed to have been found and begin offering continuous puja, just as it had happened at Ayodhya from February 1986 when Babri Masjid thrown to Hindu devotees by judicial subterfuge.

“The Constitution and the judicial system are sacred, supreme and the decision should be accepted by all. Nobody should question the verdict,” the RSS chief also said.

The track record of the RSS-BJP on Ayodhya – when it promised the Supreme Court and the Allahabad High Court that the Babri Masjid would be protected and only “symbolic” kar seva would be performed, however, must be kept in mind before believing in Bhagwat’s assurance.

Is there a way to prevent present generation Sangh Parivar leaders from following the same narrative in Varanasi as was done in Ayodhya?

Can anyone be stopped from getting away by declaring that the possible unlawful demolition in future of the Gyanvapi Mosque was the “saddest day” in her or his life?

Redefining Muslims

The RSS chief sounded like an epitome of reasonableness when he absolved today’s Muslims of “creating a history” that causes bitterness over the existence of the mosque in Varanasi.

But he also questionably placed them within the fold of Sanatan Dharma, a concept that has been a recent introduction in the regular political and public vocabulary of the RSS-BJP.

By accepting that “ancestors” of Indian Muslims “were Hindus”, Bhagwat craftily places all of them as adherers of this Sanatan Dharma. In the RSS lexicon, Dharma is not religion.

Bhagwat’s theory on why temples were destroyed in the medieval era is questionable. He said this was done to undermine the spirit and confidence of people who stood for Bharat’s pride and independence (during the aforesaid millennia) and thereby implicitly stating that the medieval period was one of ‘foreign’ rule.

The RSS chief suggested that Indian Muslims (“who were Hindus previously”) fell victim to the sustained onslaught against temples and became subjugated which “destroyed their spirit” and kept them deprived of independence.

It goes without saying that the RSS chief expects Muslims to be sensitive to Hindu sentiments for the restoration or resurrection of these temples. “If there are issues that come to mind, naturally those find expression in the political discourse,” he said.

At another point, Bhagwat asserted that “when there is an attack on religion, it becomes necessary to find a way to save oneself”.

In April, Bhagwat addressed a gathering of saints in Haridwar and stated that “we will walk together as an example, without fear. We will talk about non-violence but we will walk with a stick. And that stick will be a heavy one.”

Bhagwat did not hide the goal of infusing the idea of Hindutva within everyone. He was direct in saying that Swayamsevaks must prepare to convert people to one’s own way of life.

It is not that the RSS chief advocated coercive reconversion to the Hindu fold, by aggressively and in a coordinated way pursuing the ghar wapasi programme. Muslims can follow Islam, but they must own up “our ancestors,” he said

In the course of the Ayodhya agitation, one of the principal arguments was why Muslims “respected” Babur more than Lord Ram, construing that not opposing the conversion of the Babri Masjid (even by legal means) into a temple meant not owning up or disrespecting the Ram.

The RSS chief appreciated Muslims who chose to live in India when the sub-continent was partitioned but argued that they cannot believe that they can have separate interests if religious rituals are different.

“If Muslims wish to come back (to the Hindu fold), they are welcome,” he declared. “But if not, then too it is fine, was his assertion.”

But then, this was the crucial bit. Bhagwat said in the event of Muslims choosing to continue with Islam, it would not make a difference because Hindus have 33 crore gods and goddesses and “if there was one more, it would hardly make a difference”.

Despite apportioning no blame on today’s Muslims, it was not tough for the sarsanghchalak to completely suppress animosity towards them. He declared emphatically that often there is an atmosphere of hostility sparked by acrimonious statements and rejoinders.

But he held Muslims responsible for triggering conflicts by suggesting that they were the primary instigators. This is in sync with decades-old arguments and campaigns that hold Muslims solely being responsible for violence and strife.

Bhagwat was of the view that Hindus paid a “heavy price” while others “broke the country”. He was not ambivalent when he said Hindus have been “very patient” and curbed hardliners within but this has “not been done” by Muslims.

Almost as if expressing helplessness for inability to restrain motor mouths and those taking to the path of violence against Muslims, the RSS leader said “when we try controlling hardliners among us, questions remain in their mind”.

Besides what was stated around the Gyanvapi mosque which grabbed the headlines, Bhagwat said much more that leaves one wondering if any of his utterances can be relied on.

A lot more remained unstated and was merely hinted at, but that would be another effort similar to this one.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India, 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 reflect the views of The Federal)

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