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Role of RSS in Indian polity, policy

New book deals with the Sangh’s internal organisational structure, ideology, internal diversity, relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the manner in which it has negotiated tensions with the current government, which it helped bring to power

india Updated: Jul 30, 2018 08:59 IST
Hindustan Times
RSS Book,Walter K Andersen,The RSS :A View to the Inside
The RSS remains adamant, it is not a political organisation, and that its primary focus is its schedule of ‘character-building’ programmes. (Reuters File)

Thirty years after Walter K Andersen, an academic at the Johns Hopkins University, and Shridhar D Damle, a US-based writer, wrote a pathbreaking book on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the two authors have collaborated to write ‘The RSS :A View to the Inside’.

The book, to be released next week, deals with the Sangh’s inner workings and more. Excerpts:

Role in policy process

When asking the senior RSS leadership in the summer of 2015 about the organisation’s major changes since our previous book was published some three decades ago, we usually received one of four answers—all of which noted a greater interest in public policy and the political decision-making process.

Those we questioned were, however, adamant that the RSS is not a political organisation, and that its primary focus—as it was when we did our first study— remains its schedule of ‘character-building’ programmes.

The first change noted by almost everyone is that the RSS is no longer a political pariah perpetually operating under the threat of another ban; thus, it is more willing to speak out and be transparent.

Second is the rapid growth of affiliated groups, penetrating almost all areas of society.

Third, and related, is that the spread of these affiliates into areas directly impacted by public policy has prompted the RSS to take an interest in influencing government decision-making. This development, they admitted, presents the RSS with the growing challenge of coordinating the many parts of the ever-expanding parivar, whose members have different and often-competing interests.

The fourth change is the expansion of the RSS’s work to social groups among which they were previously weakly represented, such as farmers, tribals and low-caste Hindus, especially Dalits; this development in particular has altered not only the demographics of the RSS, but also its policy face.

What seems most interesting about the changes identified is the manner in which they reflect the RSS’s commitment to and interest in the national political process.

HSS, RSS’s presence abroad

The HSS (Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh) is very much politically active now—indeed, the drawing power of Modi’s overseas rallies owes much to the efforts of HSS activists in the three dozen countries where it has a presence.

All national HSS units are administratively and legally independent from one another and from the RSS proper, though full-time RSS pracharaks from India are often assigned to them. Working closely with the HSS to organise Modi’s rallies is the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), an administrative wing of the BJP operating from the party office in New Delhi. Current OFBJP coordinator, Vijay Chauthaiwale, a former non-resident Indian in the US, said his critical first task in orchestrating these rallies is to identify what he described to us as ‘talented, energetic, pro-Indian and selfless team players’ to work as volunteers with the local HSS.

‘Indianising education’

The RSS has always viewed education as its core mission and virtually all its affiliates engage in some form of it, some with the specific mission of managing schools at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels—and on a mass scale. From the 1980s, the RSS has encouraged its affiliates to engage in educational experiments in order to package its Hindutva message in ways that make it more relevant and thus more appealing to Indians.

This has included the introduction of sports meets, music, art, skill-oriented instruction and coaching classes. Its educational affiliate, the Vidya Bharati, announced on 2 January 2015 a plan to establish model schools in all of India’s 9000-odd administrative blocks to serve as an example of excellence to be emulated by government schools.

The RSS’s decision to set up its own school system, starting in the late 1940s, was motivated by what it viewed as the deliberate attempt of India’s post-Independence Congress government to deny RSS members and their Hindu message any place in the educational system.

While the educational role of the shakha (referred to as ‘character-building’) is viewed by the RSS as an effective technique to train a future nationalist leadership, this message was, in its view, often drowned out by the anti-Hindu messages coming from the universities, the press, the Congress government and much of the intellectual class. With a commitment to restore (or ‘Indianise’, to use its term) Hindu values in the schools of India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh first forayed into formal education by supporting a private school at Kurukshetra in Haryana soon before independence, in 1946, with RSS chief Golwalkar taking part in the groundbreaking ceremony.

Jammu and Kashmir quandary

Our central thesis here is that the RSS approach to Kashmir includes a balancing of strategic goals and tactics. The strategic goals (national integration and a definition of Hindutva that includes Muslims) are firm while the tactics to achieve them will vary depending on circumstances. A key consideration on whether to modify or change tactics depends heavily on the reaction of the state’s Hindu population.

Escalating violence in Kashmir and a perceived favouritism towards the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley were eroding the confidence of Hindus in the Mehbooba Mufti government. The RSS’s information-gathering apparatus would have picked up on the growing restiveness of the Hindu community, which likely prompted its steady stream of criticism of the Kashmir government.

With the general elections fast approaching, the national leadership, in consultation with the RSS and others, decided to withdraw from the alliance and impose Governor’s rule. This gives the central government room to man- oeuvre to restore stability and rebuild Hindu confidence as well as burnish the party’s nationalist credentials among Hindu voters in the rest of India. The BJP, with support limited to the Jammu region, can only come back to power by working out another alliance with a party that draws much, if not all, of its support from the state’s Muslim majority.

Ram Madhav, who announced the BJP withdrawal, phrased his comments to suggest that the BJP–PDP alliance was the right tactical thing to do at the time and that the coalition had att- ained some significant achievements. He left the door open for negotiations with all stakeholders in the state, indicating that political dialogue would supplement security measures. While the RSS’s strategic imperatives have not changed, tactics may change or be modified, as happened in this case.

China

As long as Modi and the BJP do not back away from asserting India’s strategic interests and continue to work for a militarily strong country (which includes a growing security relationship with the US and Japan), the RSS and its affiliates will continue to support Modi’s right to shape Indian foreign policy. For this reason, it applauded Modi’s firm response to the Chinese road-building effort, his boycott of the OBOR conference and his provision of additional funds for Indian infrastructure at the border with China.

The RSS leadership thus seems prepared to go along with the Modi government’s policy of distinguishing India’s geostrategic imperatives, as at Doklam, from the valued economic dimensions of the India–China relationship.

The RSS has not backed the Swadeshi Jagran Manch’s (SJM) demand that the Modi government stop Chinese investments and put regulatory hurdles in the operations of Indian companies with significant Chinese investment. The challenge is to make sure that one part of this equation does not overwhelm the other. In short, that the rest of the parivar does not buy into the SJM’s policy prescription that incidents like the Doklam incursion justify a prohibition of all Chinese investments in India. Also that such incidents do not necessarily mean that China is an imminent threat as long as India makes clear that it has the will and the means to defend its strategic interests.

The RSS’s lashing out at China’s attempt to build a road in what the Indians say is contested territory is consistent with the long-held Hindu nationalist suspicion of China as a security threat and its conviction that Nehru’s efforts to build a close security relationship with China were based on an unrealistic romantic vision that was to have disastrous consequences for India.

A Ram temple in Ayodhya

The dilemma for the Sangh parivar is that, while the Ram Janmabhoomi mov- ement may instil a Hindu consciousness among India’s majority and may be eff- ective in arousing passion among Hindus, it is on a site claimed by Muslims, and any move to build a temple at this site could trigger communal violence and thus have a negative impact on the BJP’s own metanarrative of economic growth beneficial to all. The problem is how to advance both metanarratives without one undermining the other…

The RSS has also taken a similarly muted approach to the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, which formerly had been one of the key points on its Hindutva agenda. Yet, who can doubt that a Hindu monk will put temple construction on his agenda—when the time is ripe. Senior RSS figures also regularly express their support for a grand temple at Ayodhya, but are similarly vague on when that is to happen.

RSS and cow protection

The cow protection issue today, while still drawing the support of the RSS, is handled with greater caution than in the past, perhaps because the matter has unleashed violence from the radical right that undermines the efforts of the RSS (and the BJP) to convey a moderate image of Hindu nationalism.

No serious effort has been made either by the national BJP governments of Vajpayee or Modi to change the Indian Constitution to shift this matter from the states to the federal government, a constitutional action that would be needed to legislate a national ban, though the Modi government made a controversial regulatory move in May 2017 to hinder transportation of bovines for slaughter. India is thus left with a patchwork of state laws on cow protection ranging from no bans to total prohibition.

On how to proceed politically, there is a mixed response from many RSS interlocutors. Some argue that action at the national level must wait until the BJP controls both houses of Parliament and most state governments so that the stringent legal requirements of a constitutional amendment will be met.

First Published: Jul 30, 2018 08:59 IST