RSS is both fish and fowl and also a red herring : Is it a threat to the Indian ethos?

Though inspired by the Congress Seva Dal, RSS has been both undemocratic and unaccountable. It can be what it wants but surely it has to function within the Indian Constitution?

Photo courtesy: Social Media
Photo courtesy: Social Media

Sujata Anandan

For an organisation that has been quietly operating behind the scenes and working to capture all of India for nearly a century, very little is really known about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother organisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

And make no mistake, it is indeed a very insidious organisation that today controls not just most government bodies or constitutional institutions but has a footprint across as many facets of India as exist in this country – cultural, political or social. It is both fish and fowl to the people and also a red herring when that suits the RSS.

And, ironically, it is the Indian National Congress which has been its role model in getting to where it has today, through the same means but to different goals, a different end.

It always bothered the RSS founders that after Emperor Ashoka, India was just a sum of its parts and never united as a whole under one banner – until the Congress appeared on the scene and Independence secured us a unity of sorts. Until then though there were strong kingdoms in the south, like Vijayanagar, in central and western India like that of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s, in the north of the Rajput kings, in the east of the Ahoms.

But beyond their core areas, none of these could extend their influence across the nation as we know it today. It was a feat that even the Moghuls failed to achieve given that they fought for generations to subject other Muslim dynasties south of Delhi and had to co-opt many Hindu kingdoms and Muslim sultanates into their reign for a semblance of a pan-Indian empire.

The RSS does not like it but grudgingly admits that the Congress acquired that pan-Indian character but still dismisses it as an organisation set up by the British and based on a post-colonial template that was bound to crumble once western ideologies like liberal democracy and Marxism ceased to be fashionable with the masses.

Biding its patience for more than 70 years, the RSS was just waiting to step in and take over. Which it seems to have done quite effectively now – placing its ideologues in all important positions of power like the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the PMO, the Speaker’s chamber and even areas like the armed forces, the courts and other quasi-judicial bodies of whom the nation has expected complete neutrality.

And how has it got there? Again, by following the Congress model of structure, though not quite its means or system of functioning. The RSS cadres are based on the Congress Seva Dal which was an important and potent means of connect with the masses but is now virtually defunct.

But while the Congress even in its founding years was a democratic organisation with a multiplicity of views – Hindu or Muslim, liberal or conservative, western or traditional - and governed by a succession of party presidents drawn from all regions and communities, RSS founder Keshav Hedgewar, who began life as a Congress Seva Dal worker, had other ideas for his organisation and himself.

He was a Tilakite and history is testimony to the fact that while Lokmanya Tilak, great friends with the more liberal Pandit Motilal Nehru (they are said to have issued statements in each other’s names without even consulting beforehand) was a rank conservative and against reforms in Hindu society advocated by other Congressmen like Balkrishna Gokhale, the advent of Mahatma Gandhi steered the Congress towards an all inclusive, more liberal and pluralistic party and there was no stopping this juggernaut after the Nagpur session of 1920.

Now that was also the year that Tilak passed away. It would be just a matter of time that the ultra conservative Hedgewar, who also hailed from Nagpur, would break away from the Congress and set up his own organisation. But to prevent a multiplicity of views gaining ground in the RSS, he appointed himself Sarsanghchalak for life and decided he would handpick his successor who would be equally conservative and continue the RSS on its chosen path of the pan-Indian uniform cultural integration of India.

But, then, how did it become political? The answer lies in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a member of the RSS, though the organisation distanced itself from Godse and denies he was a member of the RSS to this day. The government of India banned the RSS soon after and then Union Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel compelled them to write a constitution declaring themselves apolitical and merely a cultural organisation. But there was a headstrong RSS member called Balasaheb Deoras who believed the government would never lift its ban on the RSS without a political threat.

According to Dilip Deodhar, an RSS ideologue, Deoras was the chosen successor of Hedgewar, but he appointed Guru Golwalkar in his place instead because he thought Deoras was then too immature and might make mistakes. Perhaps, he was right. For Deoras insisted he wanted to set up a political party affiliated to the RSS.

At first Golwalkar was reluctant but then gave in on the condition that Deoras would find someone else in tandem with their ideology to run the party. Their choices were Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Deendayal Upadhyay both of whom unfortunately died too soon. After that Deoras took charge of the Jan Sangh - a mirror image of the Muslim League, in Deodhar’s words - from behind the scenes and it did not matter who the president of the party was.

Deodhar says the threat of a political party to challenge the Congress prompted the government to lift the ban on the RSS but the Jan Sangh did not look back until after the Emergency years when the dual membership of its men in the Janata Party became an issue. By that time not only had Deoras aged somewhat but was now also the third life time Sarsanghchslak of the RSS. He dissolved the Jan Sangh and leaders like LK Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee then set up the Bharatiya Janata Party. But it was always clear they were working to the RSS game plan.

Of the two, Advani was more the RSS’s favourite but then Vajpayee torpedoed much of their plans by introducing Gandhian socialism to the party and casting himself in the Nehruvian mould. Advani, though, according to RSS diktat, steered the party on the path to Hindutva but as fate would have it, after a series of events when Vajpayee became Prime Minister, things went for a toss for the RSS.

According to Deodhar, Vajpayee’s reluctance to toe the RSS line came to the fore and he put a distance between himself and Reshim Bagh, the RSS headquarters in Nagpur by manoeuvring Advani into the position of go-between and choosing to have little communication with the RSS. As a result, says Deodhar, “Advani na hee RSS ke rahe, na hee Vajpayee ke ban sake.”

This dichotomy led to lack of co-ordination between the RSS and the BJP at all levels. So, says Deodhar, the BJP lost the elections in 2004. “Sonia Gandhi and the Congress did not win that election. Vajpayee and the BJP lost it because they did not have RSS help at the time.”

It has been a hard learnt lesson – there has to be perfect co-ordination between the BJP leaders and the RSS for the saffron forces to capture and govern India. Deodhar says this would have happened sooner than 2014 had Advani not arbitrarily declared himself the prime ministerial candidate for 2009 without consulting with the RSS.

But the mother organisation allowed him to seek his moment of glory on the promise that if he failed to make it to office, he would gracefully retire from public life. Advani not just went back on that promise but in the meantime also tried to cast himself in the Vajpayee mould by going to Pakistan and declaring that their founder Mohamnad Ali Jinnah, responsible for the break up of India, was the most incredibly secular leader he knew. That is something even most Indian Muslims don’t believe and it was clear that this old RSS hand responsible for much that is wrong in India today, was trying to get to the PMO by every means, fair or foul. The Jinnah comment was for acceptability by other parties in the NDA coalition who thought Advani was too extreme.

But like Deodhar said in another context, Advani could neither belong to the RSS nor to the suspicious secular allies after that nor quite to the people of India. For the BJP lost the elections again that year. This time it was a clear Congress win and an equally clear BJP defeat. But Advani wouldn’t still let go. So, the RSS had to be ruthless about booting him out. Thus, all the moves that Narendra Modi has made in that direction have not been done without the RSS’ consent, acquiescence and even urgings from top leaders in the organisation.

Deodhar says Govindacharya was absolutely right when he had described Vajpayee as a mukhauta. But then the mask believed he was the face and when the face unexpectedly became Prime Minister, he pushed all the RSS plans back by at least a decade, if not more.

But now Modi and Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, know where to draw the line. Unlike K Sudarshan, an earlier Sarsanghchalak, who thought he could dictate terms to Vajpayee, Bhagwat may issue some political statements but immediately retreat, leaving Modi to pick up the cue. The lines are clearly drawn – Modi will run the government and Bhagwat the organisation which helped him to get to that government.

With 36 organisations in hand, including the BJP, educational, cultural and religious bodies attempting to represent all sections in the country, including tribals, the RSS today has a finger in practically every pie in the making.

Which makes it perhaps the biggest NGO in the country but no one can corner the RSS because after two bans (the second during the Emergency), it evolved a system where it owns nothing – not even the buildings it operates out of – and yet is in permanent residence everywhere.

So, what about accountability? Given that the RSS has modelled itself on the Congress, the latter was always a political party never lurking in the shadows and making no bones about its goals and targets, even if it was placing its own people across institutions much like the RSS is doing today. The Congress has won and lost elections, been taken to court for undue interference in constitutional bodies and has allowed the spirit of the Constitution to prevail barring exceptions like Emergency.

Constitution. That is the key word here, says Dr Sudhir Gavhane, a social scientist who has headed several prestigious institutions across the country. “The RSS can be anything it wants to be and go wherever it wants to go but it has to operate within the parameters of the Indian Constitution.”

There is a democratic political, social and economic order established in the country by the Constitution and no one can step outside its framework.

“Democracy is a marketplace of ideas and the RSS is just another idea, whether of India or merely of itself. So, it has the full freedom to develop that idea but not unconstitutionally. It cannot function as an extra constitutional authority. It, too, will have to be accountable to the people at all times.” Accountability. Another key word. But more than that constitutionality.

Does the RSS believe in the Constitution? Apparently, not now and not ever. It has always been an unaccountable body, answerable only to itself with often one arm not knowing what the other is doing. That, and not its larger pan-Indian goals for the nation (it is still limited to some regions and has to penetrate much of Indian territory) is what poses a threat to the established ethos of India.

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