Some years ago, I edited an anthology of Indian political thought, profiling 19 individual thinkers. The usual suspects — Gokhale, Tilak, Phule, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lohia, JP, Periyar — featured, but also some less conventional choices. One of these was Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh between 1940 and 1973.
My inclusion of Golwalkar in a book on Indian thinkers angered among some intellectuals on the Left. I had omitted to include an Indian Marxist. I had compounded my error by giving ‘intellectual legitimacy’ to Golwalkar’s hateful credo by placing him alongside the likes of Phule and Ambedkar.
My judgment was not ideological, but scholarly. To include Golwalkar was not to endorse his views, but to recognise that he had a profound influence on the course of Indian politics. Indeed, as the decades go by, we see that his influence may become as significant as that of Gandhi, Nehru, or Ambedkar. For it was Golwalkar who formulated the ideological credo of the RSS, touring the country tirelessly to build up its organisation, while all the time consolidating links with the political party close to it, the Jana Sangh (forerunner of the BJP).
Among Golwalkar’s disciples were Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. They venerated him, as did many Jana Sangh and BJP chief ministers he had trained. When Narendra Modi joined the RSS, the halo around Golwalkar still hung around the organisation. In 2007 Modi wrote a long, adulatory, profile of Golwalkar.
Scholars are acquainted with Golwalkar’s books We, or our Nationhood Defined, and Bunch of Thoughts, which see India as essentially a Hindu country, with Christians and Muslims being at best second-class citizens, at worst traitors to the nation. Here I wish to highlight a forgotten newspaper article by Golwalkar, which has acquired a strange (not to say disturbing) topicality.
The background to the article is important. In September 1951, the RSS helped found the Jana Sangh, a Hindu-first party which charged Nehru’s government of betraying the cause of the Hindus. Refugees from Pakistan were attracted to the party, but not too many others. Despite having an extremely able leader in SP Mookerjee, the Jana Sangh won a mere three seats in the first general elections, held in early 1952.
Golwalkar now thought it time to change tack. Playing on refugee anger to attack the government had not worked, since, outside Punjab and Bengal, Partition had not left deep scars. So Golwalkar looked for a symbol which had the potential to unite Hindus across India.
In October 1952, Golwalkar wrote an article urging Hindus to reunite their present ‘with our glorious past’. They had to be fired ‘with a new spirit of service and devotion’, prepared to ‘sacrifice our all for the honour and glory of the motherland’.
What cause, campaign, or issue would inspire Hindus to sacrifice their all? Golwalkar argued that ‘such a point of honour in our national life’, was ‘none else but MOTHER COW, the living symbol of the Mother Earth — that deserves to be the sole object of devotion and worship. To stop forthwith any onslaught on this particular point of our national honour, and to foster the spirit of devotion to the motherland, [a] ban on cow-slaughter should find topmost priority in our programme of national renaissance in Swaraj.’
To be sure, this was not the first time cow-protection was being made a question of national politics. In a classic essay ‘Rallying Around the Cow’ (published in Subaltern Studies, Volume II) Gyanendra Pandey analysed the work of the Gaurakshini Sabhas formed by Hindu militants in Bihar and UP in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The love of these militants for the cow was equalled — if not exceeded by — their detestation of the Muslims. Then, as now, cow-meat was cheaper than sheep or goat meat. That Muslims ate beef was not something Hindu radicals could abide. The issue of cow-protection sparked many riots in north India, leaving Muslims insecure and pushing many into the arms of their own religious extremists.
After Gandhi came to prominence, he sought to work out a compromise — whereby Muslims would refrain from sacrificing cows at Id, and Hindus would refrain from playing music before mosques. The compromise worked for a time, then broke down. Gandhi shrewdly diverted the issue by focusing on the abolition of untouchability and the achievement of Swaraj instead.
Through the 20th century, the issue of cow-protection receded into the margins. Leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar focused on national unity, social equality, economic development, linguistic pluralism, and religious harmony. In this political climate, Golwalkar’s campaign for the cow found few takers.
After the deaths of Nehru and Shastri, it had one brief eruption — in November 1966, when hordes of angry sadhus demanding a nation-wide ban on cow slaughter unsuccessfully stormed the Indian Parliament — then went back into oblivion.
Until the past few weeks, that is. The horrific lynching of Mohammad Ikhlaq in Dadri was followed by a spate of comments by BJP leaders excusing, explaining or even justifying the incident. The Haryana chief minister has suggested that Muslims who eat beef should not live in India. The question of cow-slaughter has become an election issue in Bihar, and may become one in Uttar Pradesh.
For men like Sakshi Maharaj and Manohar Lal Khattar, love of the cow goes hand in hand with suspicion of Muslims — as it once did with MS Golwalkar. This narrow-minded and divisive agenda is central to the DNA of the RSS. There have been calls for Narendra Modi to distance himself from the bigots in his party.
But is he also prepared to distance himself from a man he has referred to as his ‘Pujniya Shri Guruji’?
(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal)