New Delhi: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat speaks on the last day at the event titled 'Future of Bharat: An RSS perspective', in New Delhi, Wednesday, Sept 19, 2018. (PTI Photo) (PTI9_19_2018_000185B) Image Credit: PTI

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the national volunteer organisation, held a three-day conclave recently in Delhi. And the chief of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, made some startling statements at the convention. Some so staggering that they seemingly upended the RSS’s core beliefs; he even urged its followers to move beyond some of the more contentious and toxic comments made by the organisation’s founder K.B. Hedgewar.

Was Bhagwat’s effort simply an image makeover, intended for the upcoming 2019 elections, or a genuine pivot, or a radical departure from its long-held ideological position? Is there a full-blown revisionism underway, and a creeping acceptance of ‘unity in diversity’? Strangely however, much of what he said later, on Indian identity, was contentious reinforcing the view that its orthodoxy was intact.

The cynics will say ‘Beware of false [soothsayers], which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’. Harsh though this may be, the earlier history of the RSS breeds such cynicism and distrust. This brings to the fore, ideology and political myths, for imagined realityc — as well as myth making — is at the very core of nationhood. If for the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ and the ‘Mayflower Compact’, ‘manifest destiny’ was a core belief, for the RSS it anchors around the creed, ‘India’s natural destiny is that of a Hindu State’. Therefore ‘everyone living in India is a Hindu by identity and nationality’. Therein lies the rub, for when Bhagwat makes this assertion, he is indeed giving a monochromatic definition of Indian identity and as a corollary all Muslims and Christians in India are converts.

To dissect these conflicting strands of thoughts, a rewind of history and some key facts need repetition. Chief among them being the origins of the RSS itself and its gradual evolution from a fringe and sectarian group to its attempts to mainstream itself and achieve a pan-Indian reach; thereby give voice to Indians of all persuasions, irrespective of caste or religious differences and geographical and linguistic diversities. In that sense this makeover and Bhagwat’s assertions are not unique, it has been long in the making and where it is different is the extent and scope of this churn.

The RSS started over 90 years ago and its central mission was and still is to protect and further Hindu interests, it was also unashamedly fascinated with fascist methods of capturing and projecting power. K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwarkar, its founder leaders were decidedly anti-Muslim and ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ written by the latter is explicit — ‘it identifies the Hindus, and they alone, as the privileged community, disparages democracy as alien to the Hindu ethos and extols the code of Manu, whom he salutes as ‘the first, the greatest, and the wisest lawgiver of mankind’. Golwarkar identifies three major “Internal Threats: I: The Muslims; II: The Christians; III: The Communists”.

The RSS was not active in the freedom struggle though it has been at pains to refute this charge. Historian Ramachandra Guha writes: ‘On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by Nathuram Godse. Although Godse was not a member of the RSS at the time of the murder, he had been one in the past. And there were reports that in several places RSS members had celebrated his act by distributing sweets’. Similarly on the Hindu Code Bill, they were vehemently against it and to that extent for anti-women rights and in defence of patriarchy in all respects. Likewise today they extol Dr Ambedkar, the great constitutionalist, reformer and Dalit leader but in its very early days the RSS reviled the very man who is the father of India’s Constitution.

Why then has Bhagwat chosen to make these comments now?

Undoubtedly, repudiating Golwarkar ‘s ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ is a dramatic shift, and so is there more than a glacial change in its ideological stance? He also spoke on Dalits, commending the policy of empowerment of lower castes, eulogising Ambedkar and affirmative action. And for the first time he conceded that the Grand Old Party of India, the Congress Party, played a prominent role in the freedom struggle. Despite all these, the media would have us believe that the timing of this conclave and the outreach to Muslims and Dalits are without a shadow of doubt connected to the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh assembly elections just weeks away and the general election less than a year away. The ‘Scroll.in’ headlined its recent article ‘Mainstreaming’ RSS: Is Mohan Bhagwat trying to placate his critics — or confuse them?

Whatever its detractors may say, the RSS is the most influential cultural organisation in India today, with affiliates in fields as varied as politics, education and trade and its growth has been truly phenomenal. A more benign view of Bhagwat’s so-called doublespeak could be that the RSS is coming to terms with the fact that ‘Unity in Diversity’ has to be subsumed into its ideology. There is simply no getting away from pluralism, for it indeed is at the very heart of Indian society.

Ravening wolves can mutate into sheep. Miracles happen.

Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.