By Praful Bidwai
Hindutva crossed another red line in Indian politics on October 3 when the state-owned Doordarshan news channel made a live broadcast, for the first time ever, of the Vijayadashami (Dussehra) address of a Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh chief.
The speech, ritually delivered annually from Nagpur, is meant to convey to swayamsevaks the thinking of the Sangh on current issues and define the RSS’s own relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is thus an internal matter of the Sangh Parivar, patently lacking any value or relevance for the general public.
Yet, DD rationalised Mohan Bhagwat’s broadcast on the ground that it is “newsworthy”. So did information minister Prakash Javadekar-while claiming that his ministry didn’t order the broadcast. This is a red herring. DD and All-India Radio, like the Prasar Bharati Corporation under which they work, are nominally autonomous of the government, but their directors general are appointed by the ministry without consulting Prasar Bharati, and are presumably answerable to the government.
By this criterion of “newsworthiness”, DD should broadcast/display everything from fashion shows, to standup comedies mocking particular religions, to “honour” killings, but rightly doesn’t.
The crucial issue is the Modi government’s culpability in promoting, and giving publicity to, an organisation that pushes a sectarian Right-wing agenda, and routinely deploys hate speech and inflammatory statements. Doordarshan simply has no business to provide a platform to such an organisation. Doing so with the taxpayer’s money through a live broadcast, over the contents of which DD has no control, makes the offence even more unforgivable.
Bhagwat in his address unleashed a vicious attack on Muslims, and used old, shopworn clichés about a “serious upsurge” in “jehadi activities” in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and a growing “population imbalance” in West Bengal and Assam caused by “the illegal migration of a particular community” from across the border, all leading to a grave threat to “national security”. So much for “newsworthiness”!
This is an instance of naked Hindutva majoritarianism gone berserk. The RSS is not just another organisation, least of all the “cultural” body it claims to be. It is an intensely political organisation, and at the same time a quasi-militia with a secret society-like structure, whose leaders are never elected, but always nominated from the top. It is the ideological parent, political master and organisational gatekeeper of the BJP and the scores of fronts or affiliates that jointly constitute the Sangh Parivar.
The RSS was banned by the Central government in February 1948 following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindutva-inspired activist. The ground for the ban was that the RSS was involved in violence and subversion, including “suborning” the Indian state to its Hindu-supremacist agenda; it was spreading communal “poison” and indulging in other activities which “constituted a clear threat to the existence of the government and state…”, as the “final result” of which “the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji …”
The ban was lifted in July 1949 on condition that the RSS must have a written constitution specifying, among other things, respect for the Indian Tricolour-as distinct from the Bhagwa (saffron) flag the Sangh swears by-and its commitment to function as an open and peaceful organisation, and most important, to stay clear of party politics.
The RSS has flagrantly defied these conditions by repeatedly instigating communal violence and indulging in party politics. It spawned first the Jana Sangh and later the BJP. It has over the past decade nominated all the BJP’s key office-bearers, including Central and state-level organisational secretaries-and most recently, both the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and its national president Amit Shah. Indeed, it has tightened its grip on the Sangh Parivar as a whole, and the BJP in particular. It has played politics to the hilt.
The RSS’s defiance must not be condoned or go politically unpunished. All political parties not allied to the BJP must launch a sustained, serious street-level campaign of protest against the RSS and the Modi government-to begin with, by demanding an apology for the Doordarshan broadcast, and extracting a commitment never to repeat it.
So far, there have only been a few token demonstrations by the Congress. This won’t do. So grave is the breach of political decency committed through the broadcast that nothing less than a nation-wide campaign would do.
The RSS and the BJP have carved out a mutually close but unequal relationship, as AG Noorani argues in his The RSS and the BJP: A Division of Labour (Leftword Books). That relationship has reshaped and greatly strengthened the Sangh Parivar. As Noorani says: “Either the Sangh Parivar will have to be contained and defeated”, or else “Indian secularism, already enfeebled, will have to be abandoned and with it, democracy as well.”
What makes the Parivar agenda uniquely pernicious is, first, its insistence that India is and has always been a quintessentially Hindu society, which was invaded and subjugated by “foreigners” belonging to “alien” religions; and second, its demand that secular India must become a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu-denominational state by accepting the political primacy of one community on account of its numerical strength.
The first proposition is comprehensively contradicted by history. Hinduism as we know it today, in its Brahminical casteist form, goes back to the eighth century AD, whereas Christianity in India goes back to the first century and Islam to the seventh century AD. Well before Hinduism became dominant, India had large communities of Jains and Buddhists, many of which were wiped out.
For well over a thousand years before the Modern Age, India was a mosaic of different ethnic-religious groups, including animists, nature- or ancestor-worshippers, and various syncretic traditions including atheism and agnosticism, besides Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.
True, many non-Hindu ethnic groups invaded and ruled parts of medieval India, but most did so not as Muslims, but as Turks, Tajiks, Persians, Pashtuns or Moghuls, without practising mass-scale religious conversion. India’s Hindu and Buddhist kings and princes also invaded parts of Southeast Asia and neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka: that’s how these religions spread there. Maharaja Ranjit Singh invaded Afghanistan too.
Second, and more important, the Freedom Movement which conceptualised the project of a new society or Modern India, and struggled for it through mass resistance to British rule, developed an altogether different notion of nationhood, not based on ethnicity or religion, but independent of them. Central to this was the universalist idea of citizenship, with equal rights for all.
The Sangh Parivar was not part of this project. It did not participate in the Freedom Movement, choosing instead to collaborate with the British war effort and get arms training so as to build a communal militia directed primarily against Muslims. As the-then RSS chief MS Golwalkar said: “Hindus, don’t waste your energy fighting the British; save your energy to fight our internal enemies that are Muslims, Christians and Communists.”
The same Parivar today speaks for nationalism, but based on a nation of a different pre-modern kind, which glorifies an invented “Hindu” ancient India’s past. Thus Parivar ideologues like Dinanath Batra (of book-banning fame) believe that ancient India was “the fountainhead of everything”. In an interview with Outlook magazine (Oct 6), he says: “So whether it be the first spacecraft, television or car, or plastic surgery, or rockets there’s nothing that wasn’t conceived, designed and executed by Indians aeons ago”, including aircraft, generation of electricity in a cell, wireless communications, even atomic bombs.
These are pure fantasies, not backed by even a shred of evidence. All those historians who contradict these insane accounts have again become the target of the Parivar, whose ideologue Subramaniam Swamy let off a tirade at the National Museum (another compromised institution?) against “Marxist, Muslim and Western historians” and demanded that books written by “Nehruvian historians” such as Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar “should be set afire”. (The Hindu, Oct 6) It’s a crying shame that the BJP and the RSS not only entertain such elements in their ranks, but actually lionise them. No wonder Batra’s books have become part of Gujarat’s school curriculum.
This represents unprecedented social and intellectual retrogression of a despicable kind, and an attempt to brainwash millions of children and infantilise adults on a mass scale. Yet, nothing will halt the Sangh Parivar-short of a popular mobilisation for secularism and rationality, against obscurantism, superstition and uninformed, blind ultra-nationalist hubris, and for tolerance and a compassionate commitment to building a modern, forward-looking, non-hierarchical society free of caste, gender and communal prejudice.
The Parivar has thrown down the gauntlet. All secular political parties, civil society organisations and public-spirited citizens must pick it up and fight communalism and obscurantism in every conceivable way: by legal means, through mass education, intellectual criticism, public intervention in every forum including the media, and above all, in the streets. That’s the only way to take India back from the Hindutva reactionaries by pushing them behind the red lines they have so audaciously crossed.
(The author can be contacted at : email: email@example.com)