Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) astonished many people when he said that nobody should be forced to say ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ (BMKJ). On reflection, this was of a piece with the statement that provoked the controversy in the first place in which he had said that the time has come to teach people the importance of uttering the slogan.
The departure Bhagwat made was significant. We, he said, presumably referring to the Sangh parivar rather than just the RSS, cannot force our ideology and thinking on people living in India.
The reactions have so far been muted, but a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson clarified that the statement was in line with the RSS’s respect for the motherland, while his party remained committed to the view that the ‘debate on Bharat mata was non-negotiable’.
That would, of course, be a reiteration of the position taken by the BJP at its recent national executive, where its president, Amit Shah, had said that refusal to utter the phrase was not an option.
Clearly, Bhagwat’s views are diametrically opposed to those of the BJP and would appear to be a direct repudiation of the politics of compulsion that the ruling party is playing over this issue and others relating to the rights of those who do not subscribe to its majoritarian agenda.
There are other fault lines. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has of late made statements that align closely with Bhagwat’s, but do not fit in with his party’s stated positions. Recently, in an address to the World Sufi Forum, he made a strong pitch for an inclusive politics. India, he said, had the space to accommodate minorities, believers and non-believers. There could be, he added for good measure, no compulsion in politics. At the BJP national executive meeting, too, he said something that many people have been waiting to hear for a while. Focus on the government’s professed development agenda he told BJP leaders, and do not get ambushed by worthless issues.
The cleavage between the prime minister and his colleagues’ attitude is relatively easy to read. Clearly, the BJP has a two-pronged strategy. Thus, while Modi hammers home to one section of the party’s constituency the message of development, occasionally with a garnishing of ‘secular, liberal’ values, others in the party, and not necessarily just the ‘extremist fringe’, keep plugging away at the party’s majoritarian and exclusivist values to consolidate and expand the larger sections of its ‘core’ constituency.
The RSS chief’s comments are more difficult to read. Clearly, one statement by Bhagwat cannot be seen as marking a departure from the organisation’s long-held and often restated ideological position which equates a certain territory with the timeless nation of Bharat, which is essentially Hindu.
Fortunately, the nation-state is hostage to a document called the Indian Constitution, which lays down criteria for citizenship that take no note of religion, faith, community, race or culture and furthermore guarantees equally to all citizens a charter of rights. Bhagwat has, wisely, endorsed this.
But an asymmetrical notion of rights and citizenship remains implicit in this endorsement. Thus, in Bhagwat’s universe the need to teach people the importance of the Bharat mata benediction remains intact — people should utter it, only voluntarily and with spontaneity. They should see the light, even though Bhagwat and his comrades (‘we’) cannot force their thinking on others.
The question that remains unasked and, therefore, unanswered, is what happens to those who do not experience the epiphany. It appears that they are condemned to remain at the margins; legitimate targets of those who do not agree that one set of views cannot be imposed on the entire nation.
Suhit K Sen is an independent journalist and researcher. The views expressed are personal.