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Hate manifestos cannot be re-made through nip and cut surgery

By Sanjay Srivastava

In the three-day RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh conclave in Delhi that started on September 17, its chief Mohan Bhagwat suggested that its critics should stop worrying and learn to love the RSS. He said they should re-think what the organisation stands for by sifting the vileness of the “temporary context” contained in the writings of one of its key architects MS Golwalkar from the “enduring” insights.
To drive home the point, Bhagwat noted that in most recent versions of Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, the Sangh has taken care to remove all references to the perspective that Muslims are the enemy of the Indian nation.
This has emboldened media commentators who seek a place in the sun for the RSS to say that Bhagwat has provided a way for liberal Hindus to feel proud of their heritage (championed by the RSS, presumably) while being able to discard all that is clearly out of place in the present. After all, we are told, this is just as true of other religions, whose textual sources carry just as strong a mark of their bigoted pasts as Hindu ones. The argument is that we are no more and no less worse than the others except in the eyes of self-flagellating, self-hating Indian liberals.
Even if the nub of the problem lies in excising a sentence here and reorganising a paragraph there, hate manifestos cannot be re-made for the times through nip and cut surgery. Their appeal lies in the banality of the observations that mark all aspects of their thinking. This is also the case with Bunch of Thoughts. It is difficult to work out that deleting hateful references to Muslims is going to improve a text whose every sentence is intended to invoke the idea of a delimited community with its exclusive territory where the norms of daily life are that of the exclusive community. Allegiance to the idea of purity of community requires consistency of thought, and Bunch of Thoughts is an exemplar in this regard.
What underlies the book is that purity chestnut that the consciousness of being Hindu arises solely from conviction rather than reaction. While one does not expect nuanced thinking on human behaviour from champions of community purity, it nevertheless beggars belief that they would suggest that identities are formed through reference to one’s own self. How would I know who I am – as a male of a certain ethnicity – if I was the only person in the world or there existed others who were exactly the same as me? All identities are formed through reaction, and the idea that we can define ourselves through reference to ourselves is itself one that is reactive: it brushes aside all that is around us. A collection of thoughts based on this idea cannot be refurbished unless it was to be presented as a bunch of blank pages.
I focus upon the book because it is important not to be deluded that superficial philosophies, sociologies and histories can be part of serious thinking about social life. How, for example, does the deletion of the Muslims-as-enemy perspective help us in dealing with these gems from Bunch of Thoughts?
“To a Hindu, life is not without an aim. That aim is not one of greatness measured in terms of power, position, name or fame.”
“The Englishmen were a civilized people who generally followed the rule of law. The Chinese are a different proposition. They do not possess even normal human qualities like kindness, pity or respect for human life.”
“The answer to the so-called problem of ‘religious minorities’ can be found only in the historically correct, rational and positive approach of Hindu Rashtra. Otherwise, the so-called minorities are bound to become more and more hardened in their separate shells of religion and turn into a dreadful source of disruption of our body-politic.”
“And thus we find that the two prominent features of the modem Western society, ie ‘permissiveness’ and ‘competition’, have led human society away from peace and happiness.”
“There is no doubt that it is this faith in God, this faith in religion that has given to the West, to a large extent, the strength to succeed in this world.”
“There is nowhere any instance of [caste] having hampered the progress or disrupted the unity of society. It, in fact, served as a great bond of social cohesion.”
The problem with one of the RSS’s most cherished touchstones is not that there are parts that can be excised to leave us with a worthwhile document for now or in the future. Rather, that it typifies a particular kind of rhetorical tradition that owes little to the capacity to reason since its primary purpose is to tap into the human capacity for hatred by denying how relations with others form us as social beings. It is the narrative of the comic book hero. Its claims for a special place for ancient Hindu civilisation as an uber culture also come from a deeply felt insecurity. Golwalkar was to note that all non-Hindu civilisations contain “the attributes of the asuras as detailed in Bhagawad-Gita!”.
There is, however, a wider contemporary context to Bhagwat’s discussion of a cleaned-up version of Bunch of Thoughts and the renewed relevance of the RSS in the present. This has to do with the rise of a technocratic imagination within which social problems can simply be solved through the intense application of different technologies. According to this approach, closed circuit television cameras and apps will reduce violence against women, electronic sensors will make cities “smart”, e-governance will reduce corruption, and a national ID system will allow for better delivery of essential services to the poor. More generally, a technocratic imagination allows for simplistic solutions to complex social issues.
At the VigyanBhawan conclave that was attended by a cross-section of people, Bhagwat responded to a question regarding the RSS’s stand on caste by stating that increasingly it could be found that it wasn’t only the upper-castes who occupied key positions within the organisation’s structure. On another question regarding higher education, he concluded that privatisation could lead to improvements in the quality and efficacy of the higher education system.
The technocratic imagination is the most fertile ground for religious conservatives (the Saudis are a prime example of this) as it does not pose any troubling questions about complexities of history, identity and community and social life. It is within the realms of this imagination that hyper consumerism and intense religiosity come together (for instance, the proliferation of KarvaChauth as a pan-Indian ritual and Hollywood inspired religious theme parks such as Delhi’s Akshardham). Bhagwat’s speech addresses a growing audience that is looking for a global and technologically-advanced Hinduism. It is an audience that is primarily interested in form and performative aspects rather than the content of ideas. Hence, it makes great sense that the conclave was held in Vigyan (Science) Bhawan rather than a math (monastery).
It is difficult to say if Golwalkar himself would have allowed a bowdlerised version of Bunch of Thoughts. Most likely not as the deleted passages were integral to his overall philosophy. However, the RSS is now in the fortunate situation where it can judiciously chop and change aspects of its worldview for public consumption while retaining its core ideology. The technocratic imagination is fecund territory for a New India where the novelty lies in maintaining an illusion of change.