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Newsworthy RSS?

Hindutva crossed yet another red line in India on October 3 when the state-owned Doordarshan news channel made a live broadcast, for the first time ever, of the Vijayadashami (Dussehra) address of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief. The speech, delivered annually from Nagpur, is meant to convey to swayamsevaks the Sangh’s thinking on current issues and define the RSS’s relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is thus an internal matter of the Sangh Parivar, patently lacking any value or relevance for the public.

Yet, DD rationalised Mohan Bhagwat’s broadcast on the ground that it is “newsworthy”. So did information minister Prakash Javadekar – while claiming his ministry didn’t order the broadcast. This is a red herring. DD and All-India Radio, like the Prasar Bharati Corporation under which they work, are nominally autonomous of the government, but their directors-general are appointed by the government while bypassing Prasar Bharati.

The crucial point is the Modi government’s culpability in giving publicity to an organisation that pushes a sectarian right-wing agenda, and routinely deploys hate speech and inflammatory statements. Doordarshan simply has no business to provide it a platform with the taxpayer’s money.

This is an instance of naked Hindutva majoritarianism gone berserk. The RSS is not the ‘cultural’ organisation it claims to be. It is an intensely political organisation – and a militia with a secret society-like structure, whose leaders are never elected, always nominated. It is the ideological parent, political master and organisational gatekeeper of the BJP and the scores of fronts that jointly constitute the Sangh Parivar.

The RSS was banned by the government in February 1948 following Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindutva-inspired activist. The ground for the ban was the RSS’s involvement in violence and subversion, including ‘suborning’ the Indian state to Hindu-supremacism, and spreading communal ‘poison’, which “constituted a clear threat to the existence of the government and state…”, as the “final result” of which “the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji …”

The ban was lifted in July 1949 on condition that the RSS have a written constitution specifying, among other things, its respect for the Indian Tricolour – not the saffron flag the Sangh swears by – and its commitment to function as an open and peaceful organisation, and most important, to stay clear of party politics.

The RSS has flagrantly defied these conditions by repeatedly instigating communal violence and indulging in politics. It spawned first the Jana Sangh and later the BJP. It has over the past decade nominated all the BJP’s key central and state-level organisational secretaries – and most recently, the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and national president Amit Shah. Indeed, it has tightened its grip on the BJP.

The RSS’s defiance must not be condoned. All political parties not allied to the BJP should launch sustained street-level protests against the RSS and the Modi government – to begin with, by demanding an apology for the Doordarshan broadcast, and extracting a commitment never to repeat it. So far, there have only been a few token demonstrations. This won’t do. The gravity of the issue demands nothing less than a nation-wide campaign.

The RSS and the BJP have carved out a mutually close but unequal relationship, as AG Noorani argues in his The RSS and the BJP: A Division of Labour. That relationship has greatly strengthened the Parivar. As Noorani says: “Either the Sangh Parivar will have to be contained and defeated”, or else “Indian secularism, already enfeebled, will have to be abandoned and with it, democracy as well.”

What makes the Parivar uniquely pernicious is, first, its insistence that India is and has always been a quintessentially Hindu society, which was invaded and subjugated by ‘foreigners’ belonging to ‘alien’ religions; and second, it wants India to become a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu-denominational, not secular, state by accepting the political primacy of one community on account of its numerical strength.

The first proposition is comprehensively contradicted by history. Hinduism as we know it today, in its Brahminical casteist form, goes back to the eighth century AD, whereas Christianity in India goes back to the first century and Islam to the seventh century AD. Well before Hinduism became dominant, India had large communities of Jains and Buddhists, many of which were wiped out. For well over a thousand years before the Modern Age, India was a mosaic of different ethnic-religious groups, including animists, ancestor-worshippers, and various syncretic traditions including atheism and agnosticism, besides Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.

True, many non-Hindu ethnic groups invaded and ruled parts of medieval India, but most of them did so not as Muslims, but as Turks, Tajiks, Persians, Pashtuns or Moghuls, without practising mass-scale religious conversion. India’s Hindu and Buddhist kings and princes also invaded parts of Southeast Asia and neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka: that’s how these religions spread there. Maharaja Ranjit Singh invaded Afghanistan too.

Second, and more important, the Freedom Movement which conceptualised the project of a Modern India, and struggled for it against British rule, developed an altogether different notion of nationhood, not based on ethnicity or religion, but independent of them. Central to this was the idea of citizenship, with equal rights for all. The Sangh Parivar did not participate in the Freedom Movement. As the-then RSS chief said: “Hindus, don’t waste your energy fighting the British; save your energy to fight our internal enemies that are Muslims, Christians and Communists.”

The same Parivar today speaks for nationalism – based on a nation of a different, pre-modern kind, which glorifies an invented ancient past. Thus we have Parivar ideologues like Dinanath Batra (of book-banning fame) who believe that ancient India was “the fountainhead of everything”. In an interview with Outlook magazine (Oct 6), he says: “So whether it be the first spacecraft, television or car, or plastic surgery, or rockets there’s nothing that wasn’t conceived, designed and executed by Indians aeons ago”, including atomic bombs.

These are pure fantasies. All those historians who reject these insane accounts have again become the target of the Parivar, whose ideologue Subramaniam Swamy has just demanded that the books written by eminent scholars (whom he calls “Nehruvian historians”) such as Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar “should be set afire”. It’s a crying shame that the BJP-RSS lionise such elements. Batra’s books have become part of Gujarat’s school curriculum.

This represents unprecedented social and intellectual retrogression of the most despicable kind, and an attempt to brainwash millions of children and infantilise adults on a mass scale. Yet, nothing will halt the Sangh Parivar – short of a popular mobilisation for secularism and rationality, against blind uninformed ultra-nationalist hubris, and for tolerance and a compassionate commitment to building a modern, forward-looking, non-hierarchical society free of caste, gender and communal prejudice.

The Parivar has thrown down the gauntlet. All secular political parties, civil society organisations and public-spirited citizens must pick it up and fight communalism and obscurantism in every conceivable way: by legal means, through mass education, intellectual criticism, intervention in the media, and above all, in the streets. That’s the only way to take India back from the Hindutva reactionaries by pushing them behind the red lines they have so audaciously crossed.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.

Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in

Praful Bidwai, "Newsworthy RSS?," The News. 2014-10-12.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Society-India , Social issues , Social needs , Social aspects , Social media , Politics-India , Political parties , Democracy , Media , Education , Taxpayers , Taxes , PM Narendra Modi , AG Noorani , Maharaja Ranjit Singh , India , Afghanistan , Sri Lanka , BJP , RSS , DD