India’s tryst with the RSS

The following article is a comparison of two books: The RSS: A Menace to India by A.G. Noorani (LeftWord Books, March 2019), and Messengers of Hindu Nationalism: How the RSS Reshaped India by Walter Anderson & Shridhar D. Damle (Hurst & Company, 2019).

Image Courtesy: STRDEL/AFP via Getty Images

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the subject of the two books at hand, is arguably the oldest, largest, most innovative and successful of all the organisations of the Far Right in the world today. It is also the effective ruling power in present-day India. Not the least of its many successes is that very few outside India recognise this fact and equivocation on this matter is fairly common inside India as well. Many know but few give due weight to the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules India today with clear parliamentary majority is merely a political front—one of numerous fronts—of the RSS. Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, has been a devoted functionary of the RSS all his life (since the age of 8, it seems) and it is the RSS that decided to field him first as chief minister of the Gujarat state (2001–14) and then as prime minister of the country (2014–present). Rare would be a member of cabinet in a BJP government, past or present, who has not been a loyal lifelong member of this altogether shadowy organisation which has never given account of either its finances or the roster of its members. For any accountability of that kind, RSS claims exemption as a self-styled ‘cultural organization’—or, on occasion, a ‘charity’—even though it is not at all clear whether it has ever registered itself as such with any office or entity of the Indian government. Nor is it clear why past governments in India never chose to hold it to account.

The claim of being a mere cultural organisation is at best disingenuous. Aside from the ruling BJP, a front that also serves as the largest political party in the country, RSS is estimated to have some 60,000 branches all over India. It also commands dozens of other affiliated fronts—for organising women, workers, peasants, students, forest dwellers, sundry caste communities, etc., not to speak of the disciplined paratroopers and goon squads who maintain a perpetual regime of low-intensity violence against religious minorities, Muslims and Christians alike, as well as Communists, especially in the state of Kerala. Noorani helpfully quotes from Bharat Bhushan who once provided a list of the known affiliates that takes up two dozen lines of small print (pp. 264–65). Andersen and Damle tend to repeat verbatim information given out by the RSS itself. According to them, RSS has 36 affiliates and another hundred or more that it counts as its own but not with the status of affiliates. They further offer a figure of one and a half to two million participants in daily branch meetings of the RSS and 6 million ‘alumni and affiliate volunteers’ (whatever that means). Together, these numerous affiliates and milling crowds of veterans and members constitute the ‘Sangh parivar’ (family of the Sangh); RSS itself is said to be the Mata (Mother) of all. That a doggedly all-male organisation should want to be called ‘Mother’ should be of some interest.

As for the violence, it is sometimes allowed to escalate into full-fledged ethnic cleansing, as during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 soon after Modi emerged as chief minister of that state. For the most part, though, violence has been administered in homeopathic doses. Since Modi consolidated his electoral power with his re-election in 2019 with a clear parliamentary majority, RSS has gone on the offensive, on many fronts, and there is now a clear will to step up the violence, not only against Muslims but also against large sections of the democratic opposition more generally. Key institutions of the Indian state—the Election Commission, the higher judiciary and particularly the police—have fallen in line. Indeed, many contingents of the police force, though not all, have been acting in consort with the RSS goons, in cities and small towns of the Northern states as much as in the great metropolitan cities like Bengaluru (known until recently as Bangalore) in the South—and, most recently, in facilitating and protecting hours of fascistic rampage at the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the country’s premier academic institution. In Hyderabad, a mega-metropolis, large contingents of the armed paratroopers of the RSS have staged marches through main thoroughfares and Muslim neighbourhoods, with full cooperation of the city and state administrations. As regards the full scale of power that the RSS claims for itself, its current chief, Mohan Bhagwat, said recently that his organisation ‘could assemble its cadres to fight much faster than the Indian army in a situation of war … The Sangh will prepare military personnel within three days, something that the army would do in 6 to7 months. This is our capability. Swayamsevaks (RSS cades) will be ready to take on the front if the country faces such a situation and the constitution permits us to do so’. This is classic RSS speech! Bhagwat invokes the Constitution, national need, and patriotic duty in case of war against an external enemy. But no such war is even remotely at hand. The threat of irresistible power is clearly directed at the numerous ‘internal enemies’ whom the RSS and its frontmen have designated as ‘anti-nationals’.

We shall return to some of this presently. How the question of culture is posed in the ideological formulations of the RSS is nevertheless of great interest since that goes to the heart of the Indian variety of majoritarian nationalism. The primary claim here, as in so many contemporary culturalisms, is that culture is not simply an aspect of social life but the determining instance of all existence—the primordial, originary essence from which arises all that makes a people what they are; not something a people acquire in the course of history but that which constructs the people in the first place. The basic grammar of this belief is familiar to us from the earliest days of Europe’s own right-wing nationalisms. V.D. Savarkar, who did more than anyone else to give to modern Hindu nationalists their essential vocabulary, invented the word ‘Hindutva’ to designate a Blood-&-Soil cultural essence unique to India and claimed that the multiplicity of religious beliefs that get codified as Hinduism are simply aspects of this deeper essence. Logically, therefore, RSS presents Hindu nationalism primarily as a cultural nationalism of which Hinduism per se is the defining ingredient and a virtually identical twin. Indian culture is so deeply defined by its Hindutva essence that no non-Hindu can possibly be a part of that culture. Moreover, religions that did not originate on Indian soil—Islam and Christianity in particular—are forever alien essences. Muslims and Christians therefore can never truly belong in this culture, the country itself or its nationalism. Can they even live within this national territory? There have been various answers. Most famously, Savarkar once claimed that the solution that the Germans had found for Jews would be appropriate for Indian Muslims as well. We might recollect that in the pre-Partition British India, where Savarkar was offering this solution, Muslims constituted more or less a quarter of the population; approximately 200 million Muslims are said to live in today’s India. That genocidal intent may be unrealistic but it has never been entirely absent from the overzealous hearts and minds of many among them.

On other occasions, and more diplomatically, religious conversion is also recommended. It is even said that Muslims and Christians could have a place in India if they accepted the supremacy of Hindu culture and religion, becoming hyphenated Hindus, i.e. Christian-Hindus, Muslim-Hindus, etc. More recently, the RSS has also floated a front for Muslims who can never join the RSS itself but are allowed to come under its wider umbrella and do its bidding. Proclamations and plans of this sort are designed to illustrate what is presented as a liberal spirit of the RSS, its willingness to re-indigenise those led astray by foreign religions, and its openness to include those others into its own fold as slightly inferior breed. All this also involves a certain idea of what constitutes the majority that has the right to rule. India has had a sturdy constitutional structure for its representative democracy based exclusively on rights of citizenship, not religious or racial origin. That the RSS and its affiliates have had to function within that framework—and have functioned brilliantly, to meet its demands while preparing to subvert it—is also a matter we shall address presently. The essential view converges, though, with that of the race-&-religion supremacists running amok these days in the US, Europe and, quite prominently, Netanyahu’s Israel. RSS pursues the parliamentary road to power because it knows itself to be a prisoner of the institutional structures of liberalism but the real, right-to-rule majority for them is the permanent one of race and/or religion, not the always provisional one thrown up through periodic elections. What is required, then, is the conversion and consolidation of the religio-racial numerical majority, the Hindus, into a permanent political majority, and citizenship itself to be determined preferentially by religious belonging. In case one believes in the wrong religion and lacks documentary proof of one’s citizenship—dating back to one’s grandparents—one may be stripped of that citizenship. That is one of the many clouds that hang over India today. The irony is that the great majority of Indians who would lack such proof would be Hindu—the poorer, low-caste, rural Hindus in particular. How will the RSS square that circle? Perhaps Hindus can claim citizenship simply by virtue of being Hindu while all others will need to prove. No one knows.

RSS was founded in 1925, the decade that witnessed great expansion of the multi-denominational, national movement that is generally associated with the likes of Gandhi and Nehru, but that was also a time of great labour unrest, industrial strikes and rise of communist groups. RSS and other like-minded organizations arose in opposition to all that and with the revivalist project of re-building the fallen ‘Hindu Race’ after centuries of ‘Muslim Tyranny’ (‘race’ and ‘nation’ were used synonymously as had been customary in strands of British English itself). Internationally, this was the period of the rise of European fascisms and the RSS was undoubtedly inspired by both the Italian and German variants, as were other analogous formations of the time such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or the Lebanese Phalange. Nehru, for one, never wavered in his oft-repeated designation of the RSS as ‘fascist in the strictly technical sense of the word’ (quoted in Noorani, p. 110). The RSS has often taken pages out of Nazi rulebooks but has never been merely imitative. Three aspects of its originality deserve special emphasis.

First, RSS was founded on the principle that the Hindu nation needed a re-awakening and a full-blooded religious, cultural, military renaissance before attempting a final confrontation with its adversaries. It set out, therefore, on a long-term mission to constitute a certain sort of social subjectivity among the great majority of Hindus so as to organize them, positively, for a civilizational mission of all-encompassing Hinduness as defined by the RSS itself and, negatively, in opposition to fancied enemies—as Nazis had sought to unify the German nation against the Jews. Only by achieving this long-term goal would RSS be able to convert the demographic majority into a permanent political majority. The catch in this of course was that non-Hindus in post-Independence India were too few to prevent Hindus from permanent political power and most Hindus did not subscribe to the RSS project. It is at this point that the majoritarian project reveals itself to be basically a much larger project of the Far Right. What needed to be constructed was the power not of any Hindus but of the very special kind of Hindu that would be tutored, trained, even armed by the RSS itself. Other kinds of Hindus who opposed the RSS—communists, liberals, atheists, ‘pseudo-secularists’, Hindus who believed in very traditional kinds of religious tolerance and plurality—needed to be either converted to the RSS creed or opposed as ‘anti-national’. So, what arose as a majoritarianism also doubled as an all-embracing Kulturkampf for regimentation of Hindus themselves. Hence the immense variety of oppositions raging against the RSS offensive in various parts of India as I draft these lines.

The second striking feature of the RSS is that unlike European irrationalisms and fascisms it fashioned no discourse in opposition to the liberal institutional framework as such and prepared itself, gradually, over decades, for a long march through the institutions within that framework, waiting to take over the state when time was ripe not through putschist plots but from within, capturing one rampart after another. The long wait of almost a hundred years with full faith in its own strategy, and still not jumping the gun after all the interim triumphs, has been impressive. This raises in India on a much larger scale the same question that is arising in many parts of Europe as well: is it really all that impossible for the Far Right to come to power and rule comfortably through liberal institutions per se?

Finally, there is also the organisational labyrinth that the RSS has fashioned so as to resolve the problem that it seeks to make a veritable revolution from the Right in a country where a democratic system of representative government with all its constitutional intricacies has been erected over seventy years or so, universalizing a bourgeois political subjectivity and a widespread belief in liberal legality. The solution the RSS has devised is ingenious. In self-organisation it is profoundly hierarchical and secretive, shunning electoral politics in its own name. Its mass political front, the BJP, is headed by veteran members of the RSS who methodically implement policies that conform to guidelines set by the RSS high brass itself. When needed, as for instance at times of provincial and national elections, tens of thousands of trained RSS cadres are thrown into the fray as full-time ‘volunteers’. And there are other affiliates and fronts of various kinds we have mentioned earlier. Most don’t routinely engage in violence but instances when they do so are beginning to multiply. Their national federation of students, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), for instance, is notorious—and becoming more so—for its violent tactics, intimidation and vigilantism on numerous campuses in the country. RSS cadres have a distinctive uniform and are given rudimentary military training, sufficient to serve as paratroopers for fermenting civil strife and conduct local killings; the killings are done, though, in everyday clothes and in small groups or as mobs. There are other affiliates—some large-scale and permanent, and numerous others that keep sprouting and vanishing in one place or another—that are rife with seasoned killers. Over the decades, the RSS has become very adept at this combination of the parliamentary and the extra-parliamentary.

Much about the RSS has never been open to public scrutiny but research into what is known or can be unearthed with due diligence is a very fertile field of study, inside India particularly. In this overcrowded field, A.G. Noorani, the grand narrator of this 95-year old odyssey of the RSS, has composed what is—at 400 pages of text and another 110 pages of research apparatus—the most comprehensive one-volume history of all the main phases, personages and projects of this ‘Mother’ of the first ‘Family’ in Hindu Right. A distinguished practitioner of law and a scholar of India’s judicial history, Noorani has authored some twenty books, including a definitive 2-volume documentary history of the Kashmir dispute as well as two shorter book on the RSS that LeftWord has also published in the past. His distaste for the object of his research is obvious from the title of the book but his knowledge of it is encyclopedic. He frankly confesses that he does no field work. The archive is his forte. He prepares his manuscripts with as great devotion to documenting the detail as a brilliant defence lawyer might in preparing his brief for arguments in a higher court of justice. Meticulous and chaotic all at once, he is not discomfited by repetition or sprawl; some of the same quotations can be found on different pages. None of that undermines, though, the clarity and coherence of the main narrative or the painstaking compilation of immense detail that is reliably checked, cross-checked, and footnoted. The main line of argument would be familiar to scholars in the field, even though he often makes surprising fresh connections. The breadth of such connections is sheer joy. The book belongs equally in the hands of the determined lay reader and in reference shelves.

Noorani rightly begins with brief summation of the rise of religiously defined, Hinduised nationalism in late 19th century India that was as powerfully articulated in the traditional as in the modern idiom, much of it in aggressively militant, war-like tones. Several organisations of roughly the same temper were founded even before the RSS. The secular side of Indian liberalism has typically believed that RSS represents a marginal social pathology in an otherwise healthy body politic. Noorani’s narrative suggests that RSS has sought to give organisational form to a structure of feeling that has in fact been very widespread from the earliest days of colonial society up to the present, and that believers have included some leaders of the Congress, senior members of the bureaucracy and judiciary, literary intellectuals, historians and so on. The idea that Hindus and Muslims represented different, irreconcilable essences might have been older, more widespread, more persistent among influential sections of the Hindu intelligentsia than among their Muslim counterparts. He documents that Lala Lajpat Rai, an eminent and influential leader in both the Indian National Congress and the right-nationalist Hindu Mahasabha, had already proposed in 1924 a full-blooded partition of India on the religious basis, with lines of territorial division almost identical to the ones that Radcliffe and Mountbatten enforced in 1947 (p.19). That was two decades before the idea of Pakistan was even a gleam in Jinnah’s eye. The idea of Indian nationhood thus emerges as a contested terrain with contrary articulations clashing, compromising and sometimes co-existing in different ways—at times in the same person! Savarkar himself, for instance, emerges in his early writings as a great advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity within a composite nation; however, once he discovers a unique Hindu claim to Indian nationhood, he never renounces his view of Muslims and Christians as eternal outsiders. Noorani is sensitive to such complexities.

If the liberal cosmopolitanism of late-colonial bourgeois Bombay still shapes Noorani’s outlook on things, Andersen and Damle are old intimates of the RSS itself. Andersen tells us that the 31 affiliates that the RSS has outside India are typically called Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and we know that Damle has been the veteran Sanghchalak (chief convener?) of the Chicago HSS. Damle, on his part, claims that he introduced Andersen to the RSS circles and even to Golwalkar, the RSS chief of the time when Andersen first came to India as a doctoral student in the late 1960s. Their association with each other and with the RSS thus goes back roughly half a century. Their co-authored book of 1987, The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism, was one of the earliest monographs on the subject. Damle also tells us that the present book (published in India as The RSS: A View to the Inside) has been written in response to a direct suggestion from Modi himself when he went on his first trip to the US as prime minister. Andersen has divided his time over the years between stints at various academic institutions and work in the South Asia Division of the State Department, serving at one point as their chief analyst for the region. A mixed stance of the synthetic objectivity, mild sympathy and credulous inquiry is maintained throughout the narrative. Each of the two authors bring to this book very specific kinds of experience and expertise. And, if Noorani marshals his facts from hundreds of diverse sources, Andersen and Damle cull theirs largely from the RSS functionaries, its affiliates and publications. Sheer volume of factual data does impress even though it is hard to say how reliable that data is because much of this kind of data is simply not available from independent sources. For anyone who wants to know how RSS would like to present itself to a mainstream, comfortably middle class, politically Centre-Right and academically competent readership, this is the right book to read.

The portrait of the RSS as a conservative, religiously inclined but essentially a benign ‘non-governmental organisation’ that Anderson and Damle have tried so painstakingly to craft was not plausible even when Modi, the newly elected prime minister of India, asked them in 2014 to write their book, and it had become even more implausible by the time the book was published (2018 in India; 2019 in the UK). Savarkar’s command ‘Hinduise Politics and Militarise Hindudom’ has always been the watchword for the RSS and it has had other Hindu extremist allies as well. Over the years, though, a notable achievement of their formidable propaganda machine—propaganda of the deed as much as of the word—is that there exists in today’s India a very widespread culture of Hindu nationalist cruelties that goes far beyond any actual membership in the RSS and its affiliates. For instance, a number of India’s very eminent intellectuals and journalists, known to the broad public mainly for their campaigns in favour of rationality and secularism and for their opposition to Hindutva, have been killed, usually at point blank range, just before and immediately after Modi first became prime minister: Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Professor M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, over just one year. None of them was a Muslim but their opposition to the Hindutva project made them ‘anti-national’. The assassinations were apparently carried out by members of an outfit that does not profess to be an affiliate of the RSS but is surely a spitting image of it. Such clones are now proliferating all over the country. Meanwhile, lynching of Muslims became commonplace soon after Modi came to power, with news sites reporting over a hundred such incidents since 2015. Parliament was informed in February this year that 97 people were killed in the course of 751 communal attacks in 2016 and 111 were killed and nearly 2,500 injured in 822 such attacks during 2017.

This process got speeded up after Modi’s re-election in 2019. Election results were announced on 23rd May. On 5th August, The Modi government stripped Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) of its statehood, dividing it into two separate Union territories and thus violating not only the constitution of J&K but the Indian Constitution as well. J&K was the only Muslim majority state in the country and enjoyed some special constitutional safeguards thanks to the peculiar process of its integration into India. Abolishing its statehood and special constitutional status turned it effectively into an Indian colony.

Soon after the annexation of Kashmir, the parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act—CAA—and the Home Minister, the rather sinister Amit Shah, announced that there shall be a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to determine which current resident of India is truly a citizen and who is an illegal immigrant—‘infiltrator’ in common media parlance and ‘termites’ in Amit Shah’s foul language. CAA stipulated that illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal who subscribed to various religions except Islam and had come to India prior to 2014 because of religious persecution would be given an easier path to citizenship. This meant, for instance that Muslims who faced religious persecution in those very countries—e.g. Ahmedis in Pakistan or Hazaras in Afghanistan—cannot qualify because they are Muslims. Myanmar was not one of the countries covered by CAA, obviously because the religiously persecuted refugees from there, the Rohingyas, are Muslim and the Indian state is already busy deporting them. The legal absurdity of this Act of parliament was so egregious that Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, wrote to the Supreme Court of India, pointing out that the CAA contravenes any number of international legal statutes that India has signed.

The proposed NRC was in fact far more threatening and large parts of the country exploded into non-violent protests. The proposal meant that every single Indian had to produce documents to prove that s/he was a bona fide citizen. Some 70 per cent of Indians are estimated not to have any such documents, and that was the case especially for the low castes, the rural and urban poor, the forest dwellers, and the religious minorities. NRC was immediately perceived to be a means to deny citizenship to large numbers of Muslims. The protest movement that ensued was led initially by students who were already mobilised against great fee hikes in universities, and the state retaliated with brutal police repression. Jamia Millia and Aligarh, the two major universities historically associated with Muslims, were attacked in December by the police that crashed into libraries and hostels to beat up students while also smashing up the CCTVs.

Only after these atrocities did there explode a protest movement the like of which India has never seen. It began with a good number of ordinary Muslim women, most of them poor and socially conservative and neither young nor well educated, coming out into the public spaces near one of the universities that had been attacked and just sitting down in peaceful protest in defence of their rights of citizenship which they, rightly, took to be self-evident. Shaheen Bagh was the name of the place where it first happened and where it lasted the longest, but then many more such congregations arose all over the country, inspiring the most extraordinary movement involving hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, across the country and crossing all boundaries of class, caste and religion. That movement cannot be discussed here. But the atmosphere that surrounded these peaceful and festive protests should be noted briefly.

First was the sheer sense of menace. Anurag Thakur, the Union Minister of State for Finance in Modi’s government, went around addressing huge rallies where he would lead the chanting of a slogan: Desh ke ghaddaron ko / Goli maro saalon ko which translates into polite language as ‘These anti-national traitors / Shoot all the bastards’ but actually sounds much worse in Hindi. Or a BJP MLA from Haryana, the state next to Delhi, exhorting a crowd: ‘Today’s India is not the India of Nehru, this is not Gandhi’s India. Today it is Modi’s India and if we get even a little sign from him we will wipe them out within an hour’—them obviously meaning Muslims. Or take the statement of Mr. Verma, a BJP-affiliated member of Parliament, about Shaheen Bagh, where those mainly poor and often very elderly Muslim women were simply sitting in protest, some of them just holding a copy of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. Verma, however, told a crowd of his (Hindu) followers, ‘Hundreds of thousands are gathering there (in Shaheen Bagh). They will enter your houses, rape your sisters and daughters, kill them. There is time today, Modi and Amit Shah will not come to save you tomorrow.’

These are a few examples. Such incitements to violence were repeated hundreds of times in Delhi as well as in the neighbouring states. By mid-February, leaders of the ruling party were going around issuing ultimatums to the police to clear up all the protest sites. The RSS onslaught began in the 3rd week of February. The Delhi State Minority Commission says that roughly two thousand were brought in from outside Delhi the night before it all began. By 23 February there were marauding goons all over Northeastern Delhi, killing, raping, setting houses and businesses and mosques on fire—while Modi was busy entertaining Trump. At no point did either the Prime Minister or any member of his cabinet condemn the violence. We might note that the scale and quality of violence in Uttar Pradesh has been worse than Delhi, and far more uncontrollable.

Earlier, on 12 December, Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, had addressed a group of Congressional and US government officials in Washington D.C. Stanton has had a long career as a scholar of genocides around the world and is best known for his authorship of The Ten Stages of Genocide, a model of the genocidal process that the US State Department and UN have used. According to him, India is now at the 8th of the ten stages, especially so in Kashmir and the state of Assam. On 28th February, Samantak Das, a professor of comparative literature in Calcutta, published a short essay in The Telegraph entitled ‘On Pogroms’ in which he discussed in some detail the events of 9 and 10 November 1938 in Germany when Jews were attacked en masse and their homes, synagogues, shops and other properties were burnt down in what has come to be known as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass. Four days later, on March 3rd, Patrick Cockburn, a well-known British journalist, published a piece in the American net-based journal, Counterpunch, entitled ‘The Real Modi: Do the Killings of Muslims Represent India’s Kristallnacht?

What is going on in India these days in not fascism but surely does smell like it, for, as Sartre said, what is special about fascism is not how many it kills but how it kills them.

Republished from LeftWord. A shorter version of this first appeared in London Review of Books.