Sunday, February 25, 2024

Reading AG Noorani’s ‘The RSS: A Menace to India’

The inauguration of Ram Mandir was an official National spectacle. Hindutva is now, like the Matrix; omnipresent in every single facet of Indian life; public places, homes, schools, offices, state institutions and so on. It is now the spectre that haunts not only Indian democracy and constitutionalism but what it means to be Indian itself. This has led scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot to categorize India as a de-facto ethnic democracy. According to Jafferlot, this is a product of ethnic Nationalism, which is the ideology of a majoritarian group based on racial, linguistic, religious or, more generally speaking, cultural characteristics, that imply a strong sense of belonging and often of superiority. This identity goes along with a rejection of the minorities, generally perceived as threats to the survival and integrity of the ethnic nation.

There is some level of consensus among legal scholars that; although the formal structure of the Indian constitution is retained and rights have not been formally suspended unlike the emergency in 1975 and elections are still conducted on time yet, there has been a serious democratic backsliding, described by legal scholar Khaitan; as ‘Killing the constitution with a thousand cuts’.  In his article, he defends the argument by pointing to the undoing of electoral accountability by ensuring the election commission is partisan and campaign financing is kept opaque to the benefit of the BJP. Second, weakening Political opposition by non-appointment of the Leader of the opposition and undermining the bicameralism accountability by evading the veto of the upper house. Third, Undermining the Judiciary by interfering with judicial appointments. Fourth, disabling fourth-branch institutions such as the anti-corruption watchdog (Lokpal), Human Rights commissions, auditor general, bureaucracy etc. Fourthly, silencing academia, the media and Civil society actors. Under each of these heads, Khaitan argues that the BJP has incrementally and systematically undone almost every mechanisms that seek executive accountability by ensuring these mechanisms became subservient to the political executive or were captured by party loyalists. 

Arvind Narrain’s ‘undeclared emergency; adds a layer; by applying Juan Linz’s framework of totalitarianism to describe the current Indian historical moment. He argues while authoritarianism is often based solely on the power of the ‘armed forces’ and ‘police’ totalitarianism supplements this with the support of ‘mass organisations’. It has the ambition of remaking society in its image, and elections have a different but high significance for totalitarian rulers, as they serve an important ‘integrative function’, when the public’s ‘visible and joyous identification with the regime’ is on display.  For Narrain, the RSS and its affiliates in nearly every sphere of social life, represent the mass organisations in Linz theory. It is in this context, ‘The RSS: A Menace to India’ becomes key to understanding the organization that has made this historical moment possible. Though written at the cusp of the 2019 general elections; it stays as relevant if not more at the cusp of the 2024 general elections. 

Reading any Noorani book can be a difficult exercise because of the excruciating details he asks you to pay attention to; in that sense he speaks through details and facts. The oft-quoted Milan Kundera’s line comes to mind, ” The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting“.  Whether it is the two books on the Destruction of Babri Masjid or the constitutional history of Article 370; the narrative is exhaustive, each telling a story of betrayal. 

If Devanoora Mahadeva’s, RSS – Its Depth and Breadth is an entry point, this is a deep dive. In this book, Noorani traces the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh’s (RSS) ascendancy from a fringe group/movement in its beginnings in 1925 to a hegemonic force in contemporary Indian politics. The ruling Hindu Nationalist BJP under Narendra Modi is described as being attached to the RSS by an umbilical cord. The RSS is an all-male Hindu nationalist volunteer group, often described as a paramilitary organisation. Having between 6-10 million active members, it is also an NGO which is highly funded both locally and internationally with close links to big business in India. Noorani’s endeavour, much like many authors today is to persuade a wide audience that Hindutva spearheaded by the RSS is disastrous for Indian democratic and constitutional values. 

The author, firstly, characterizes the ideological foundations of Hindutva by relying on the works of Savarkar and Golwalkar which still continues to be the dominant framework under which the RSS operates. Second, he chronologically and critically narrates the political history of the RSS from the 1920s till today and the contributions of political leaders affiliated with it in pushing forward Hindu nationalism at the cost of an inclusive territorial nationalism of the Congress. Third, he argues against the often-promoted myth that RSS is not a political but a cultural organization by illustrating the kind of control it exercises with the BJP and the erstwhile Jan Sangh. In the latter part of his book, he addresses the relationship of RSS with violence.

The construction of the ideology of Hindu nationalism happened between 1870-1930s. Early Hindu revivalist thinkers Bankim Chandra and Lala Rajpat Rai became the bridge to the later violent framing of Hindutva. Savarkar defined a Hindu which then forms the basis of  Hindutva. A Hindu regards India as both his Fatherland (Pitribhoomi) as well as his Holyland (Punyabhoomi). The purpose of this is twofold, to exclude Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews as they consider their respective holylands outside India and to forcefully integrate Buddhists, Jain, Sikhs etc. into the cultural/ civilization construct of Hindu. Savarkar himself emphasizes that Hindutva is a  modern construct very different from Hinduism as a religion  Therefore, it is not a surprise when he much before Jinnah articulated the ‘two nation’ theory which formed the theoretical basis of partition; as he understood Hindu civilization as distinct as separate. Golwarkar’s Bunch of Thoughts has a separate chapter on ‘Internal threats’, that is Muslims, Christians and Communists; and gives these foreign elements the option to merge themselves in the ‘national race’ and adopt its culture or live at the mercy of the Hindus; who are identified as the National Race.

 Both Savarkar’s and Golwalkar’s admiration of fascism in Europe (the Nazi party in Germany and the Republican Fascist Party in Italy) is well documented, and the author emphasizes this aspect demonstrating the incredible violence implicit in the ideology itself. Noorani describes Deendayal Upadhya’s often-promoted idea of integral humanism as simply a less crude rehashing of the same ideas; at the heart of it is a homogenous cultural nationalism and contempt of pluralism itself. What is this culture? today many anti-caste scholars call repackaged Brahmanism. 

After a detailed exposition of its intellectual foundations; Noorani details the journey of the RSS from being viewed as a threat by the state to capturing many facets of state power today. In a chapter titled ‘RSS at Independence’, Noorani details Intelligence Bureau reports and Nehru’s circulars to illustrate that the state viewed the RSS as a dangerous fascist organization like a private army following Nazi techniques of organisation.

This led to the Ban of the RSS in February 1948 as an unlawful association just after its involvement in Gandhi’s assassination, however, the government did lift the ban in July 1949 on the condition that the RSS would respect the Indian constitution and that people resorting to violence will have no place in the Sangh.

RSS is characterized as a truly cadre-based organization spread through the Shakhas system (branches) in which members meet every day, wherein physical and arms training programmes are conducted; here members receive ideological instruction and take oaths to protect the Hindu nation. Noorani cites Andersen and Damle to demonstrate the numbers:-

“Close to 1.5-2 million take part in 57,000 daily shakhas, 14,000 weekly shakhas, and 7,000 monthly shakhas in 36,293 different locations, according to a report in 2016. On top of that, the RSS has six million alumni and affiliate volunteers. Without doubt, this is a formidable organisation, but its rise has been dramatic in recent years.”

He then points to a plethora of sub-organizations that represent different professions and socio-political identities; addressing students, tribal persons, militant organizations such as Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, the trade union in Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh and others (collectively called the Sangh Parivar). Significant overlaps between leaders of these organizations can be seen. He also points to particular well-funded organizations who aim to convert religious minorities back to the Hindu fold infamously known as Ghar Vapsi or Shuddi; Indian minorities are often reminded that they need to either convert or adopt Hindu culture to avoid being second-class citizens.

Noorani points to the sidelining of Advani leading up to his resignation to illustrate two points. First, the RSS always runs the show in the shadows and second, the framework of Hindutva hate has remained consistent and unshaken. To elaborate on the second, he highlights the reasons for the sidelining of Advani, despite being a lead figure in the Ramjanmabhumi movement that led to the destruction of Babri Masjid. Advani wanted to build an image of a moderate, which eventually backfired. Two reasons irked the leaders of the Sangh Parivar; that he publicly regretted the destruction of Babri Masjid; a badge of honour worn by the members of RSS and that he paid tribute to Jinnah during his trip to Pakistan. This was enough to lead to his resignation. So Advani misread the trend; thinking that politics will move towards the centre. 

In my opinion, the chapter titled RSS & Violence is very significant given the attempts to whitewash the violent history of RSS and the Sangh Parivar; to also get a sense of what is to come. Noorani demonstrates that violence against religious minorities is deliberately and strategically used for polarizing votes and gaining electorally. He backs this claim by pointing to reports of Commissions of inquiry appointed by governments headed by Judges; that take note of the involvement of the Sangh Parivar and in at least two cases the RSS itself being involved in and escalating violence. These riots are Jabalpur (1961), Ahmedabad (1969), Bhiwandi (1970), Thalaserry (1971), Jamshedpur (1979) and Kanyakumari (1982).  The reports also describe the militant nature of the RSS and other Hindu right-wing groups and how these work in tandem to create an eco-system of hate. 

To give a few glaring examples, the Ahmedabad riots (1969),  had caused 660 deaths, as per official figures. What was the ignition? a charge against some Muslims went viral that they had attacked the Jagannath temple. It created a lot of bad blood. The Commission not only found this to be false but that Jan Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and other communal-minded Hindus were involved in the agitation and had contributed to communal tensions just before the Jagannath temple incident. The Jamshedpur riots (1979) resulting in over 100 deaths, were a product of the provocations in Ram Navami processions in Muslim neighbourhoods; a horrifyingly familiar phenomenon today. The report of the three-member commission held:

“After giving careful and serious consideration to all the materials that are on record, the Commission is of the view that the RSS, with its extensive organisation in Jamshedpur and which had close links with the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh, had a positive hand in creating a climate which was most propitious for the outbreak of the communal disturbances.”

In the Kanyakumari Hindu-Christian Riots of 1982, the commission of inquiry in no uncertain terms held that:

” The RSS adopts a militant and aggressive attitude and sets itself as the Champion of what it considers to be the rights of Hindus against minorities. It has taken upon itself the task to teach the minority their place and if they are not willing to learn their place, teach them a lesson.”

These are products of what Berenschot calls ‘Institutionalized riot systems’, which are well-oiled and designed systems with specific roles for organizations to play for an effective attack on minorities. These organizations disseminate prejudices against a target population through the use of hate speech and provocations. In all these riots the religious minorities are the relative losers in terms of lives and property destroyed. It is not Noorani’s case that communal organisations of religious minorities are non-existent; but that they are not nearly as organized as the RSS and Sangh Parivar and that the latter has the blessing of the government today.

The choice of Noorani’s sources such as Organizer (magazine of the RSS), and public statements by leaders and Members of Parliament/ state assemblies buttresses his description of the Hindutva framework, while his reference to Intelligence Bureau reports and commissions of inquiry drive home his point of the violent nature of RSS and its progeny such as VHP, Bajrang Dal etc. Just as a lawyer would present a petition with documentation backing each claim; he builds his narrative around these documents. This for me is very important simply because it is undeniable. 

I would go beyond Noorani’s argument of polarization but that this has created a rapidly expanding Hindu vote bank; which is being deeply radicalized. This explains why opposition parties such as Aam Aadmi Party and Congress have to now resort to soft Hindutva. In short, India today has a Hindu radicalization problem. 

The framework used by Noorani to critique the RSS is the Nehruvian inclusive nationalism wherein the differences of religious minorities are celebrated and protected through a regime of minority rights vis-à-vis the Indian constitution. One of the limitations of this framework is that it still looks at these religious groups as monoliths and ignores the key role caste and gender play and intersectional identities in general. Today anti-caste and feminist scholars have very powerful critiques of the RSS. There is much to say from these perspectives, but a comprehensive critique of the RSS as attempted by Noorani must speak of these. Notwithstanding this; and other limitations, the comprehensiveness of the book makes it a key reading to understand why India is battling for its soul.

Afeef Mohammed is a practicing advocate in the trial courts and High court of Karnataka. He is currently pursuing his LLM at SOAS, University of London.

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