Politics Reviews

‘The RSS — A Menace to India’ review: The enemy within

Constitutional expert, Supreme court lawyer and author of over a dozen books, A.G. Noorani opens his history, polemic and manifesto about and against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with these words: “What is at stake is not only the Indian Dream. What is at stake is the soul of India.”

He titles his book in no uncertain terms: The RSS: A Menace to India. What he attempts to do through 25 chapters and 550 pages is describe the battleground of ideas on which modern India has been made and remade from 1857. The contemporary dominance of Modi and the BJP cannot be explained without understanding a war that has been raging for well over a century, between ‘Hind Swaraj’ and ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

The story of how India won freedom from colonial rule has conventionally been told as the outcome of a clash between a dominant British imperialism and a resistant Indian nationalism. But alongside this narrative, there was simultaneously a running struggle between communal and secular visions of India’s history, culture and nationality. The successful repudiation of colonialism and the end of British Raj allowed the birth of the Indian and Pakistani nation-states. But the failure to resolve the deadly conflict between communal and secular ideas of India led to the moment of independence and decolonisation also being awash in the blood and fury of Partition.

Where we are today, at the start of a second term of a popularly elected government of the Hindu Right, is the reverberation, more than seven decades on, of the unfinished business of Partition. And all along, stoking the fire of communalism in both colonial and postcolonial India, and keeping it at a slow burn until the conflagration of Modi’s first election in 2014, there has been the menacing hand of the RSS.

In his magisterial study, Noorani draws our attention to the role of this entity in consistently repudiating the centuries-long reality of Muslim presence, participation and integration into the historical life of the subcontinent. From its founding in 1925, the RSS has always pushed the fiction of Hindu primacy and purity in any past and future of India. It has sought to pervert Hindu identity so as to dismiss the inherently multi-faceted and decentralised character of Hinduism and to supplant it with an exclusivist and fundamentalist new ideology, i.e., Hindutva.

Noorani emphasises that the notion of the RSS being a mere “cultural organization” — an image the RSS itself likes to project — is utterly false and misleading, even though it does not enter the electoral fray directly like other political parties. In fact it has always had a political agenda, which is of constructing a Hindu Rashtra, where ‘Rashtra’ should be understood less as ‘Nation’ and more as ‘Reich’, with all of the attendant connotations of Fascism, and Nazism that inspired the founders of the RSS. In this Rashtra, there is no place for Muslims, or indeed any religious minorities.

For Noorani, even the most conservative and avowedly Hindu of the mainstream nationalists, including figures like Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya, definitely on the right relative to Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru, were nevertheless not communal in their thinking about how different religions figured in the Indian mosaic. RSS ideologues like Savarkar, Golwalkar and Hedgewar, by contrast, were unequivocally anti-Muslim and majoritarian from the 1920s onwards, drawing sustenance from totalitarianism in Italy and Germany and supporting the colonial antagonism to Muslim power in India and elsewhere in the British Empire.

They fantasised about a Mother India (Bharat Mata) populated solely by followers of Hindu Dharma, speakers of Hindi language, worshippers of the Holy Cow, and members of caste society, occupying a geo-cultural terrain stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the sea-girded peninsula of the south. Nathuram Godse, a votary of the RSS and follower of Savarkar, murdered Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948. Nehru and Ambedkar saw through and thwarted the RSS at every step and carried the day by writing an egalitarian and secular Constitution, promulgated in January 1950. This Constitution has stood as a bulwark against continuous attempts to hijack the Tagorean ‘Idea of India’ and recast it as Savarkar’s ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

Thanks to the Constitution, a democratic, plural, diverse and inclusive Republic of India survived the death of Nehru in 1964, the Emergency in the mid-1970s, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement after 1984, the demagoguery of L.K. Advani, the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992, the first BJP-led coalition government of A.B. Vajpayee in the late 1990s, the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002, and the arrival of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah on the national political scene in 2014 (their mass appeal reiterated in 2019).

By looking at every twist and turn in the saga of the RSS, with no detail left out, Noorani wants us to grasp unequivocally that Gandhi’s swaraj, Tagore’s ‘unity in diversity’, Nehru’s secularism and Ambedkar’s Constitution, are all under threat from the Hindu Right. This includes progeny of the Sangh Parivar like the ABVP, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Supposed differences between the BJP and the RSS; between economic nationalism and cultural majoritarianism; between soft saffron Hindutva and outright Islamophobia are cosmetic at best.

As electoral democracy, counter-intuitively, legitimises a regime based on archaisms and atrocities like ghar wapsi, beef bans and lynching, the one ray of hope lies in the paucity of both historical knowledge and political imagination among the so-called thought-leaders of Hindutva. Noorani has a poor opinion of RSS thinkers from its founders down to its current proponents. India was built by intellectuals — it must also be saved by intellectuals.

Whatever the distortions introduced momentarily into the democratic process by populism and authoritarianism, ultimately the Hindu Right is bound to be washed up on the shores of history, its lies overwhelmed by the one principle that Gandhi taught us actually upholds politics: Truth.

The RSS: A Menace to India; A.G. Noorani, LeftWord Books, ₹1,500.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 5:57:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-rss-a-menace-to-india-review-the-enemy-within/article28404354.ece

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