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India in Transition

Myth of the Monolith: Contested Nationalisms within the Sangh Parivar

Gautam Mehta
December 4, 2017

On July 2, 2015, an unusual Iftar party in New Delhi attracted media attention. Indian political leaders regularly host Iftar parties, an evening meal for Muslims to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. However, after becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi had neither hosted nor attended an Iftar event. What made this Iftar unique was that it was the first such gathering organized by the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM)—an organization established in 2002, reportedly with the support of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh (RSS), “to bridge the widening gap between Hindu and Muslim communities in India.” Envoys of major Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Qatar, and Morocco, attended the Iftar dinner, as did Indresh Kumar, a senior RSS pracharak (full-timer) and the MRM’s mentor. Amidst media spotlight on this seemingly peculiar event, Manmohan Vaidya, the RSS’ communication chief, announced that the MRM was an “independent organization” and not an affiliate of the RSS.  There have been intense discussions across the Indian political spectrum about the kind of nationalism the Sangh Parivar (RSS and its affiliate organizations) will pursue as the entity expands. The received wisdom among commentators of Indian politics is that the Sangh is a monolith, single-mindedly pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda. But, because of the rapid expansion of RSS’ affiliate organizations and the Sangh’s changing social composition, the Sangh Parivar has become an umbrella organization with many shades of opinion—centrist, center-right and far-right—contained within. The ambiguity in RSS’ relationship with the MRM reflects an under-recognized contestation within the Sangh over the version of nationalism it should propagate.

The increased public prominence of MRM, one leading RSS ideologue I interviewed in June 2016 noted, has created dissention within the Sangh Parivar. In 2002, the then RSS chief, K. S. Sudarshan, was instrumental in the creation of the MRM. Senior RSS leaders, including Mohan Bhagwat, the current RSS chief, regularly attended MRM events. Yet the RSS has faced a dilemma regarding how far to go in its support of the MRM. It does not want to offend its mostly Hindu members who hold negative views of Indian Muslims and Islam. In an interview I conducted with a regional RSS functionary in November 2016, he noted that the MRM’s attempt to “Indianize Muslims” was akin to “straightening a dog’s tail.” He argued that Islam’s 1400-year history shows that faith’s communal identity will always take precedence over national identity. Indeed, for one group within the Sangh, the MRM’s attempts to “Indianize Muslims” detracts from the more important goal of gharwapsi (“homecoming” or reconversion to Hinduism of Muslims). His views echo those of the Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Savarkar, an icon to many in the RSS, who argued in 1949 that only those communities for whom India is both the fatherland and the holyland can be Hindus – a definition that notably excludes Christians and Muslims. But, today, the BJP’s political dominance and Sangh’s increased public prominence has changed RSS’ incentives. Senior Sangh leaders recognize the imperative of reaching out to India’s largest religious minority. Virag Pachpore, the national co-convenor of the MRM and a former RSS pracharak, has argued that the MRM represents a “middle-ground approach” to bring Indian Muslims into the nationalist mainstream (as opposed to the Congress’ politics of alleged “Muslim appeasement”). Meanwhile, Indresh Kumar, a senior RSS leader, maintains that the MRM is a means to counter the radicalization among Indian Muslims, especially in Kashmir. At least for now, a way out of this dilemma is for the RSS to support the MRM, but keep a certain distance from it by emphasizing that group’s independence.

The RSS’ strategic ambiguity with respect to the MRM reflects a deeper contestation with the Sangh Parivar over which version of nationalism the Sangh should propagate as it expands. Would it be the territorial nationalism that includes Indians of all faiths or an ethnic nationalism that privileges India’s Hindu majority? In recent years, especially given the changing social composition of RSS’ membership and to facilitate the expansion of its affiliate organizations, the RSS had favored a territorial nationalist view that regards all Indians as culturally Hindu. The notion of territorial nationalism—motherland (Bharatmata) as the sacred—in India predates the formation of the RSS. In his 1882 novel, Anandmath, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay personified India (then undivided) as a mother goddess. The Bharatmata (Mother India) relief occupies a prominent place in the RSS’ Delhi headquarters. The RSS has also defined Hinduism in cultural terms. This view was clearly expressed by Mohan Bhagwat in October 2017 when he stated that “the term ‘Hindu’ covers all those who are the sons of Bharatmata, descendants of Indian ancestors and who live in accordance with the Indian culture.” In his 2016 Vijayadashami speech, which is akin to the State of the Union address for the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat noted that Hindu culture “accepts and respects all forms of diversity.” In the context of cow vigilante violence, some BJP and RSS leaders have even questioned whether the government should involve itself in dietary practices. The Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, perceived to be close to the RSS senior leadership, responding to the September 28, 2015 mob lynching of a Muslim man, Mohammed Ikhlaq, for allegedly slaughtering a stolen cow calf, remarked, “I personally believe that the government should not have any role in deciding what people should eat.” Manmohan Vaidya, a senior RSS leader and its communication chief, responding to press questions on the RSS policy toward beef consumption, said “we [the RSS] don’t tell society what to eat.” He made the statement during a December 2015 visit to the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh where cow slaughter is permitted, and where reportedly many of the 3,000 RSS members in that state do eat beef.

Hardliners within the Sangh Parivar, most prominently the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its affiliate, Bajrang Dal, are vocal proponents of religious nationalism. The VHP, which was established in 1964 by M S Golwalkar, the then RSS chief, to work with religious Hindus and organize the Hindu ecclesiastical establishment, wants the government to privilege Hindu religious precepts in public policy. Hinduism has traditionally been a non-prosletyzing faith. But, in December 2014, the Dharm Jagran Samiti, a VHP affiliate led by an RSS prachark, engaged in a highly-provocative and well-publicized campaign to convert Muslims to Hinduism in Western Uttar Pradesh—a region riven by communal conflicts. The VHP has led the charge on demanding a national law banning cow slaughter. The Indian constitution makes animal husbandry the jurisdiction of the states. Some twenty-nine out of India’s thirty-six states and union territories have laws banning cow slaughter, most of which were enacted by Congress governments immediately after independence. A nationwide law banning cow slaughter would proscribe beef consumption in states with significant minority populations, such as Kerala and West Bengal, and in the North-East of India where beef consumption is not a cultural taboo. A day after Prime Minister Modi condemned violence by ‘anti-social elements’ in the name of cow-protection, the firebrand VHP leader Praveen Togadia remarked that cow protectors were “dharmayodhas” (religious warriors) and claimed that the VHP would train and arm young men to be cow protectors. The VHP rejects the argument that the Ram Janmabhoomi, considered by devout Hindus to be the place where Lord Ram took human form, is a land title dispute. The VHP has argued that the location of birthplace of Lord Ram was a matter of faith for the Hindus, and that the government should not allow a Muslim religious structure on the disputed site, rejecting the contention of BJP and some RSS leaders that the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute was best resolved through the legal system or through inter-faith dialogue.

There are disagreements within the Sangh Parivar over the proper role of the state in economic activity and over the degree to which the RSS should be involved in electoral politics, but no intra-parivar debate is as intense as the one over nationalism. The Sangh Parivar hardliners believe that the “1,200 years of slavery” had a corrupting effect on Indian culture. They want to use the BJPs newly acquired political dominance to reverse Western and Islamic influences, exemplified most recently by the debate over the provenance of the Taj Mahal, which was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The Sangh hardliners want the government to privilege Hindu sensibilities in public policy. The recent expansion of the Sangh Parivar, which has come from a growth in the membership of affiliate organizations, especially the BJP but also the student union and labor union, has altered the Sangh Parivar’s social composition. Many of those who joined the Sangh come from the urban middle classes and do not share VHP’s conception of India as an exclusively Hindu nation. RSS swayamsevaks (volunteers) from newly affluent social groups fear that strident religious nationalism could disturb India’s social harmony, hurting both economic growth and India’s global image. RSS leaders seeking to expand the sangh parivar, especially to non-traditional constituencies such as college students, want the organization to be perceived as modern and inclusive. Instead of thumbing the scales, the senior RSS leadership is content to let multiple schools of thought coexist within the Sangh umbrella. Ironically, with its more apparent ideological diversity and increased factionalization, the Sangh Parivar more closely resembles the post-independence Congress party system today.

Gautam Mehta is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is helping write a book on the Sangh Parivar.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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