RSS: Glasnost or public relations?

RSS: Glasnost or public relations?

Subir Bhaumik,

India’s Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) claims to be a social organisation but those who have closely followed it say it is the political high-platform of Hindutva. Its Nagpur headquarters is located in Maharashtra’s Nagpur city, where in the 18th century originated the Hindu Pad Padshahi or the vision of a Hindu nation-state during the reign of the Peshwas.

The Peshwas drove the limits of Maratha empire to Attock in the northwest frontier before the devastating defeat in the third battle of Panipat in 1761 at the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali.

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The RSS, formed around the same time as the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the 1920s, has been a secretive organisation likened to a tortoise that draws into its shell when attacked and then begins to walk again spreading its limbs.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi likened it to the Muslim Brotherhood active in West Asia during his recent lectures abroad, after which the RSS launched a public relations blitz because its leaders appeared visibly shaken by the comparison.

It invited former president Pranab Mukherjee to its headquarters and listened patiently to his liberal vision of India. The RSSalso invited other luminaries from the liberal fold for open interactions on a future vision for India.

Now, insiders claim, RSS’ present chief Mohan Bhagwat has gone much further. His recent three-day lecture series on the important ideological questions led many pro-saffron commentators to claim a glasnost is sweeping through the hardline Hindutva outfit.

The most significant statement, according to BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav was about Hindu rashtra and Muslims. Bhagwat used a double negative to drive home an important shift. “No Hindu rashtra without Muslims,” he almost declared.

“Double negatives help to allow various interpretations. However, the fact remains that it is a significant shift,” said Madhav, recalling a question put to one senior RSS functionary sometime in the 1980s — “Why were Muslims and Christians not allowed to join RSS?”. The leader responded with a counter-question — “Do girls’ schools admit boys?”.

“The RSS’ mission is to unite Hindus. Where is the question of inviting those who are not Hindus — by religion or culture or whatever?” From there to the above statement of Bhagwat, claims Madhav, is quite a journey.

Bhagwat also said that some statements from ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ and other publications attributed to M S Golwalkar were no longer relevant. ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ was a compilation of the speeches delivered by Golwalkar over a period of 33 years as RSS chief.

On several other issues, too, Bhagwat took an apparently new and open stand, surprising many within the Sangh. His emphatic stand on the Indian Constitution — Bhagwat even read out the entire Preamble and said that the RSS has full respect for it, including the words Secularism and Socialism, inserted during the Emergency — and his stand on the status of women were, in Madhav’s opinion, “historic from the RSS perspective”. Equality and independence— samaanaurswatantra—are the words he used to describe the RSS’ view on women.

He even said that the RSS is ready to accept the proposition that “all religions are equal”. Many in the RSS hitherto insisted that secularism should mean “all religions deserve equal respect (sarvapanthsamaadar) and not, “all religions are equal” (sarvapanthsamabhav).

Some insiders may insist that there is nothing new in what Bhagwat said and the organisation always stood for those values. But Ram Madhav insists this has not been an easy transition.That could well be the case. It is not unlikely that a section in the RSS could be pressing to adopt a more inclusive philosophy, now that it commands much more reach and authority after the BJP formed the government at the Centre and in many states.

“There is no doubt that Bhagwat has disarmed most critics through his glasnost. But driving home the new thinking within the rank and file of the organisation requires no less than a perestroika – restructuring. Bhagwat’s challenge lies in that,” wrote Madhav in a column.

This is a frank admission that Bhagwat may not find it easy to sell new ideas of nationhood to the vast multitude of RSS footsoldiers who have grown up on a steady diet of anti-Muslim propaganda.

While Madhav and other pro-saffron commentators insist that Bhagwat is transforming the RSS into a more inclusive outfit to accommodate the enormous diversity of India, its detractors write off the Sangh chief’s lectures as “very smart public relations” to refurbish its archaic image.

Within a few days after he delivered this ‘path breaking lectures’, Bhagwat raised the demand for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya on the ruins of a mosque demolished in 1992 by Hindu zealots.

Now, other hardline Hindu groups have joined the bandwagon, threatening even the Modi government with loss of support if it stopped the move to build the temple. This exemplifies that even Bhagwat, for all his efforts at accommodation, is not ready to break away from the core agenda of the Sangh. Going too far too fast is always a huge risk for those leading closed change-averse organisations.