What might be RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat thinking after his three-day lecture series in the national capital last week? May be, much like Julius Caesar: Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered).
Much of last week was devoted to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its new avatar. From all accounts, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat looked like a towering intellectual figure. The who’s who of the country gathered to hear him and gain an insight into science, technology, history, sociology, spiritualism–you name it. He emerged a harbinger of change in the 93-year-old organisation – a path-breaker presiding over its transformation into a modern, liberal, and pluralist outfit. He even went to the extent of junking the anti-Muslim views of its longest-serving chief, M.S. Golwalkar, in his book, Bunch of Thoughts.
“I do not deny that these statements seem to suggest a significant move away from hard-core RSS positions that had troubled secular Indians like me,” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor wrote in ThePrint Saturday even as he added that he found himself unconvinced that they represented any real change.
On the other side of the political and intellectual spectrum were commentators celebrating Bhagwat’s Vigyan Bhavan speeches as a “bold intervention” to correct perceptions about the RSS being narrow-minded and sectarian. Needless to say, the second narrative has been dominant in the past week. There is a broad consensus that the RSS under Bhagwat is, at least, trying for an image makeover, though there may be disagreements over its purpose and durability.
So, is the RSS really changing or is our liberal intelligentsia, finding itself on the fringes today, eager to herald that change a bit too soon?
The answer lies not in what Bhagwat said but in what he chose not to. Muslims may have been suspicious of the RSS chief’s postulation that Hindutva is all-encompassing when he said, “Everyone living in India is Hindu. No one is paraya.” But one can’t miss the glaring omissions in the question-answer session at Vigyan Bhavan.
Asked about his views on inter-caste and inter-faith marriage, Bhagwat dwelt at length on the former and went on to add that if inter-caste marriages were counted, RSS volunteers would make up the maximum number of cases. However, there was not a word on inter-faith marriage. Campaigners against the so-called ‘love jihad’ and the anti-Romeo squads might have heaved a sigh of relief.
Answering another question relating to the education system, the RSS chief said even if religion is not taught, the values contained in religious texts should be studied in the context of “sanskar”. He enumerated the religious texts that should be a part of the syllabus– Chatur Veda, Upanishad, Gita, Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures), Jain Agam (Jainism texts), Guru Granth Sahib, et al. The only religious texts he forgot to mention were the Bible and the Quran.
On cow vigilantism and mob lynching, Bhagwat started with the obvious. He said that it is a crime to take law in one’s hands but he found it “dogali (doublespeak)” that people should talk about lynching but not about attacks by cow smugglers. He didn’t have to say it, but it was obvious which side of the debate he was on.
The RSS chief was forthright in his views on the need for conversion and referred to the role that “money” played in bringing people into the fold of the church. He advocated a population policy, which should be implemented “on all, except none”. “Jahan samasya hai, wahan pahle…jahan bachchon ko palan karne ki kshamata nahin, wahan bachche paida kar rahe hain (It should be implemented where it’s a problem first… children are birthed in families who can’t support them).” Again, he didn’t name any community but the thumping of desks and giggles from back benches where Sangh volunteers were seated didn’t leave much to the imagination.
The above instances of omissions and innuendos targeted at Muslims don’t validate the arguments about any change in the RSS ideology or outlook. Bhagwat’s utterances on some old issues dear to the Sangh—construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, uniform civil code and Article 370—and some recent ones like Article 35A and Section 377 didn’t suggest any change of mindset either. The RSS chief grudgingly endorsed the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377, saying that “social tackling” of “aswasthata (illness)” was needed for the health of the society.
If the Sangh is re-visiting its ideology to make it inclusive or if there is a change in its conservative mindset about issues, Bhagwat gave no inkling of it in his two lectures and one question-answer session last week. What seems to be changing in the RSS is its reluctance to engage publicly and boldly with influencers, opinion makers, and others who have been sceptical about the Sangh’s ideology and its objectives.
In his second lecture Tuesday, Bhagwat had cited the example of examinees who attempt easier questions first and difficult questions later. The RSS has similarly succeeded in indoctrinating the faithful who were inclined to its ideology. That was the easy part. The difficult part is to convince the rest who may or may not be devout Hindus (or devout any religion for that matter), who may have reservations about the RSS version of Hindutva. The success or failure of this outreach by the RSS is anybody’s guess, but it will certainly make the Sangh less dependable on the BJP and give it more leverage vis-a-vis its ideological protégé.