Reviews

The RSS — A View to the Inside review: Blurred vision

Walter Anderson and Shridhar Damle’s book The RSS: A View To The Inside is a useful primer for journalists seeking information on Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh resolutions or its affiliates and a source of talking points for RSS supporters.

Yet, while it seeks to present itself as an academic or semi-academic work, the book is replete with methodological weaknesses. It seeks to argue that the Sangh has evolved over the last three decades, and that the meaning of Hindutva for its rank and file has got complicated.

What defines Hindu-ness

The authors argue that the Sangh has moved from Veer Savarkar’s definition of Hindu-ness implying a convergence of fatherland and holy land within India to a Hindutva that just has “loyalty to the nation” as its essence.

So, while for Savarkar Muslims and Christians were not Hindus, as their holy land lay outside India, the RSS’s present Hindutva has veered around to including these religions, albeit on its own terms, as Hindus. This is reminiscent of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent Delhi lectures, but this is not enough for a good academic book. Even if this were true, one is left to wonder why a description should be thrust on the minorities.

The book details how the RSS top brass would want to be seen, something that an RSS publication could have done as well. However, an academic book has to engage with existing academic literature on the subject, locate its gaps and adduce evidence from multiple sources to move beyond it.

The book, strangely, has no review of literature. It does not deal with earlier works on Hindutva or RSS. It presumes that its only predecessor is the authors’ previous book, The Brotherhood of Saffron.

The authors could have done well to engage with how, say, Christophe Jaffrelot sees the Sangh’s worldview as “a simultaneous stigmatisation and emulation of threatening others,” meaning primarily the Muslim. It could have engaged and critiqued Peter van der Veer’s work that sees it as an exclusivist conception of religious nationalism. It could well have reviewed John Zavos’ work that sees it as an imitation of the “discourse of organisation” that British rule brought to India.

The book does none of this. It creates a definition of Hindutva in a vacuum and entirely exclusive of a plethora of academic literature around the RSS and Hindutva.

The minority view

When it proceeds in this fashion — sometimes citing theorists and scholars to ‘agree’ with their works that might be on a different theme — the book makes no attempt to see how, say, sections of Muslims or Dalits are reading the RSS.

To seek an understanding of an organisation primarily through the claims it makes, and without even attempting to see how different sections of society are reading those claims, does not add up to an academically rigorous work.

Breaking barriers?

Another argument that the book makes is that the RSS’ social base has deepened with its expansion, and that the Sangh goes beyond caste. This claim may have some merit.

The RSS has sought to reach out to the Scheduled Tribes in a major way and has also attempted a Dalit outreach more recently, sometimes claiming untouchability to be a medieval phenomenon.

An article by a senior RSS functionary in The Organiser’s 2015 collectors’ edition on B.R. Ambedkar claimed that Ambedkar saw untouchability as linked to Muslim invasions. Volume-7 of Vasant Moon’s collection of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches, however, makes it clear he placed it in 400 AD and linked it to the ostracism of beef eaters.

The RSS shakha surely is open to all castes, but the Sangh’s reform zeal is not as radical as, say, the Arya Samaj’s Jullundhur branch in colonial times. Zavos seems to be right in his interpretation that the RSS at a theoretical level replaces caste with the Sangh itself as the prime organising principle and thus makes it less relevant for the swayamsevak.

Community ties

However, some observations of Anderson and Damle are insightful. They are perhaps right in saying that those who feel rootless in a liberalised world feel a salience for the bonds of community and family the RSS advocates. Many Hindus seem to think like this today, also partly because the Congress lost its conservative Hindu side a few decades back, embracing secularism as its prime discourse around 1990.

While not saying so explicitly, the book captures a fundamental aspect of the RSS: the focus on the long-term goal of Hindu consolidation while maintaining tactical flexibility. This is why the Sangh permits beef-eating in north-east, burying of the dead by Hinduised tribals in Chhattisgarh and Shakhas that women also attend in the U.S. However, the reader has to know the Sangh well to be able to fathom this from the book.

The authors use economic development as an empty signifier when they claim that the discourse of development makes the BJP today inclusive for all, including Muslims. Development is a contested term with several possible meanings, but the book takes it as a given. In fact, a discourse of development privileging the prosperous may end up other-ing communities that are underdeveloped and see them as laggards in the national journey.

The RSS: A View to the Inside; Walter K. Anderson & Shridhar D. Damle, Viking/ PRH, ₹699.

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