In a televised address on the occasion of the ninety-fifth foundation day of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on 25 October, Mohan Bhagwat, the organisation’s chief—officially titled the sarsanghchalak—laid out his vision for a casteist, theocratic Hindu state. The next day, newspapers covered the speech on its front pages, but mainly reported his comments on issues such as China’s incursions into Indian territory, the recently introduced controversial farm laws and the COVID-19 pandemic. Bhagwat’s thinly veiled articulation of the Hindu theocracy, broadcast to the nation on Doordarshan, was wrapped in a specific vocabulary of the Sangh that needs decoding.
“This word ‘Hindu’ [includes] those who accepted India as their own, those who adopt its culture’s global and perpetual values into their conduct, and those who take pride in its glorious ancestral traditions,” Bhagwat said in his Vijayadashami—the term for the RSS’s foundation day—speech. “It applies to all 130 crore individuals of our society. This is what we believe.” He added that this identity included non-Hindus as well because they were “Bharatiya purvajon ke vansaj”—the descendants of Indian ancestors. But it became clear through the course of his speech that “Bharatiya purvaj” meant “Hindu purvaj,” or Hindu ancestors. He clarified in unequivocal terms, “Apne rashtra ka swa Hindutva hai”—the true self of this nation is Hindutva. Accordingly, Bhagwat said, every Indian must “adopt the word Hindu” as their common identity for the sake of “the country’s unity and security.” He did not explain how the country’s security would be at risk if they failed to do so.
Bhagwat’s speech reflected the Sangh’s vision for India, and must be considered seriously for the significant influence the organisation wields over Indian politics, policy and society. The RSS is an unregistered voluntary paramilitary corporation and the parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. At present, 38 of the 53 BJP ministers in the Modi government—over 70 percent— have a Sangh background. Modi himself served as an RSS pracharak, or full-time worker, for over three decades. The Sangh also controls dozens of affiliates across the country, including India’s largest trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which boasts of over ten million members, and the largest student union, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. It runs over 74,000 shakhas, its smallest organisational unit, nearly one thousand NGOs that are executing over fifty thousand projects, and operates at least twelve thousand schools.
Bhagwat was appointed as the RSS’s fifth sarsangchalak in 2009, but there was nothing novel about his vision for the country—he merely repeated what his predecessors and others from the Sangh had said in the organisation’s 95-year-long history. To understand the speech in all its context, I studied Bhagwat’s words alongside the works of four other Hindu nationalists and Sangh ideologues: VD Savarkar’s Essentials of Hindutva, written in 1923; Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism, written in 1965; MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, written in 1966; and Dattopant Thengadi’s Third Way, written in 1995. On such a reading, it becomes apparent that Bhagwat seeks to transform Indian into an unequal theocratic society with graded freedoms based on each individual’s caste and religious identity.
His speech is alarming not for the audacious rebuke of India’s constitutional principles, but for the fact that recent trends indicate a very real possibility of it being converted into policy. In June this year, I wrote for The Caravan how the Narendra Modi government’s economic policies following the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown mirrored the “Hindu economics” developed by Thengadi in Third Way. Bhagwat himself said in the speech that recent changes to India’s agricultural, labour, education, economic and industrial laws were “hope-awakening steps that were brought in with a desire to bring swa,” which he earlier identified as Hindutva. He further said that the RSS can keep “expectations” from the current “political leadership” in seeing policies shaped up on the basis of swa.