How Mohan Bhagwat outlined a vision for a casteist, theocratic Hindu state on national TV

On the occasion of the ninety-fifth foundation day of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on 25 October, Mohan Bhagwat, the organisation’s chief, delivered a speech that was broadcast to the nation on Doordarshan, in which he laid out his vision for a casteist, theocratic Hindu state. Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times
15 November, 2020

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.

Moreover, the solicitor general, Tushar Mehta, has submitted to a constitution bench of the  Supreme Court, which was adjudicating matters concerning the freedom of religion, that aspects of the fundamental right can be regulated by the government and court. In August, Mehta presided over a virtual meeting of lawyers organised by the RSS’s legal wing, Adhivakta Parishad. It cannot be ruled out that the RSS’s ideological thinking influences, and even shapes, the central government’s policy formulation. It thus becomes of paramount importance to study the speech and recognise it for its theocratic ambitions.

Bhagwat spoke extensively on the concept of swa, referring to the meaning of self in India and the role of families in driving it, Hindutva, and Hindu parampara and mulya—traditions and values. He also spoke of India’s foreign policy and the coronavirus pandemic, but one basic thought underpinned Bhagwat’s speech—that only a Hindu way of thinking is the right approach to state and social policy. The writings of the four Hindu nationalist ideologues I referred to help explain the RSS parlance and these concepts as understood in the Sangh. Bhagwat has previously tried to distance the Sangh from the openly communal words of Golwalkar in Bunch of Thoughts, in reference to his predecessor calling Muslims the “enemy.” Bhagwat had said those words were said in a different “context” and had lost its “relevance.” Yet, a study of the five articulations of Sangh ideology reveal that the underlying principles have remained the same for almost a century, even if the language may have now been sanitised to present a more moderate façade.

Within the Sangh, Savarkar is celebrated alongside the RSS’s founder and first sarsanghchalak, KB Hedgewar, even though he never formally held any post within the Sangh. He enjoys massive support nonetheless because he is considered the father of the idea of Hindu nationalism. His notion of a Hindu identity was based on racial purity and on a “common flow of blood” among Hindus, and bears striking similarities to Bhagwat’s idea of Hindutva based on a common ancestry and tradition.

Deen Dayal Upadhayaya was among the founders of the Jan Sangh, the political predecessor to the BJP, and Golwalkar is the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS. Though Thengadi never chaired the RSS, he founded the Sangh’s labour, agriculture, and trade wings. The writings of Golwalkar, Upadhyaya and Thengadi show that the RSS’s ideas about Hindu identity, Hindu nation and Hindu society have remained the same throughout. All the three advocated for a state to be functioning under the treatises enshrined in Brahmanical scriptures and a society divided into castes, and the same ideas were reflected in Bhagwat’s speech as well.

Bhagwat’s interpretation of Hindus constituting the entire population subject to the condition that they “take pride in Bharatiya ancestors” was effectively a reiteration of Savarkar’s idea of an exclusivist Hindu nation. In his 1923 book Essentials of Hindutva, Savarkar wrote, “A Hindu then is he who feels attachment to the land that extends from Sindhu to Sindhu as the land of his forefathers—as his Fatherland.” He continued to list the makings of a Hindu, as one who “has inherited and claims as his own the Hindu Sanskriti, the Hindu civilization, as represented in a common history, common heroes, a common literature, common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.”

Even though Savarkar believed that Indian Muslims and Indian Christians were descendants of Hindus, and therefore cleared his test of racial purity, he discarded their entries into Hindu fold. Savarkar reasoned, “Their heroes and their hero-worship, their fairs and their festivals, their ideals and their outlook on life, have now ceased to be common with ours.” By insisting that Hindus “take pride in Bharatiya ancestors” and its “sanskriti,” or culture, Bhagwat effectively reiterated Savarkar’s exclusivist ideas of a Hindu nation, because for him, the Bharatiya identity meant being Hindu.

Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts is clearer on the Sangh’s understanding of “Bharatiya ancestors.” He wrote, “Let us revive that glorious tradition which produced a Vasishtha, a Vishwamitra, a Chanakya, a Vidyaranya and a Samartha, that blossomed forth in a Sri Rama, a Chandragupta, a Krishnadevaraya and a Shivaji.” According to Brahmanical scriptures, Vasishtha, Vishwamitra, Chanakya and Vidyaranya were all Brahmin priests who served under different Kshatriya kings as advisors or counselors in different periods of time. Samartha was a spiritual guru in Maharashtra; Chandragupta and Krishnadevaraya were kings during the fourth century and sixteenth centuries, respectively, whose kingdoms had seen Hinduism flourish. Ramwas a Kshatriya king as mentioned in Tulsidas’s Ramayana. Shivaji was a Maratha king in the seventeenth century, who is considered a Hindu icon because of his battles with the Mughals.

Golwalkar expressed his apprehensions about the word Bharatiya and how its usage by India’s political leaders caused “confusion and leads one away from the truth.” He wrote, “It is commonly used as a translation of the word ‘Indian,’ which includes all the various other communities like the Muslim, Christian, Parsi, etc., residing in this land. So, the word ‘Bharatiya too is likely to mislead us when we want to denote our particular society. The word ‘Hindu’ alone connotes correctly and completely the meaning which we want to convey.”

Bhagwat insisted that all Indians must take pride in their “Bharatiya ancestors,” mirroring a Hindutva practice of hero-worshipping Kshatriya kings and Brahmin priests, subject to the condition that they regarded these Hindu icons as their ancestors and felt proud of them. But he, too, echoed Golwalkar’s apprehensions. He said, “If intent is the same in hearts, then we have no issue in using any other word. But, for the sake of the country’s unity and security, by adopting this Hindu word … the Sangh moves forward.” Bhagwat added that those who want to “break the society” are the same ones who say, “Hum Hindu nahi hai”—We are not Hindus. He referred to such people who refused to adopt the Hindu identity as the “tukde-tukde gang,” and called them a bigger threat to India than China. Ultimately for the Sangh, the word “Bharatiya” still referred only to Hindus and Hindu society.

Bhagwat’s description of all Bharatiyas as sons and daughters of the same ancestor is historically inaccurate, though in 2017, Modi went so far as to appoint a 14-person committee of scholars with a mission to establish that Hindus descended from India’s first habitants. A Reuters investigation termed the committee’s focus as an effort to “rewrite the history of the nation.” It has now been well-established that the modern-day Indian population is a result of mass migration. As far back as 1916, BR Ambedkar had noted in a paper, “Castes in India,” which was presented at an anthropology seminar in Columbia University, that “according to well-known ethnologists, the population of India is a mixture of Aryans, Dravidians, Mongolians and Scythians.” Ambedkar added, “All these stocks of people came into India from various directions and with various cultures, centuries ago, when they were in a tribal state.” The Sangh’s idea of Bharatiya does not allow for any other such cultures. In 2019, two different papers on the study of ancient DNA published in the journals Cell and Science confirmed the migration of large populations into the subcontinent after the Harappan civilisation. 

One of the points Bhagwat focused on in his speech was the idea of swa, or self, and how Hindutva was nothing but the “desh ka swa,” meaning the nation’s self. According to Bhagwat, people would progress only if they made swa as their basis for everything, so that individuals can ultimately attain “param vaibhav samapann,” or supreme grandeur. Thengadi explains the concept of “Param Vaibhav” in Third Way, and defined it as the “pinnacle of greatness of the Hindu Rashtra.” Bhagwat noted that the underlying principle behind acting in accordance with one’s swa was that of purushartha, which is a Vedic treatise that fixes four goals for an individual to achieve—dharma, which is moral and social righteousness; artha, or accumulating wealth; kama, or seeking pleasure; and moksha, which refers to observing spiritual values.

While Bhagwat only referred to the ideas of swa and dharma to prescribe the social practices that he believed Indians must adopt, it is clear from the writings of the other Sangh ideologues that the current sarsanghchalak was propagating casteist, Brahminical practices in doing so. To explain the concept of dharma, for instance, Golwalkar, Upadhyaya and Thengadi all quoted verses from Brahmanical texts including the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, and the Manusmirti. These texts prescribe the social conduct of society, ranging from the rights and duties of individuals and kings, to daily social interactions such as how men should interact with women. The Manusmiriti divides society into four varnas—Brahmins, the priestly class; Kshatriayas, the martial class; Vaishyas, the trading class; and Shudras, the artisans—in descending order of hierarchy and stipulates laws for each, with duties for individuals based on their birth in a varna.

Golwalkar, Upadhyay and Thengadi not only supported the caste system in their writing, but also propagated it as a means of preserving Hindu values. Golwalkar went as far as saying that the caste system prevented Indians from “succumbing to foreign invasion” and it was rather essential for “social cohesion.” He wrote that swa was “our dharma and sanskiriti” and for India to be called truly independent, it was necessary to ensure the “protection and propagation” of both. Upadhyaya, in Integral Humanism, explained dharma by narrating an incident from the Mahabharata when “greed and anger dominated” society. “The Rishis were perturbed over the developments,” he wrote. He said the priestly class went to the Hindu deity Brahma to seek counsel. “Brahma gave them a treatise on ‘Law and the Functions of the State,’ which he himself had written. From thereon, life was good.”

Through the course of his speech, Bhagwat made several references to how Indians ought to follow their swa, which always centered around adopting Hindu cultural practices. For instance, Bhagwat claimed that COVID-19 protocols formed part of Bharatiya sanskiriti, and therefore reflected swa. “Our homes have built some habits—every time we come from outside, we wash our feet, we wash our hands before touching anything,” he said. “Such small-small habits, which were accumulated from our culture, came to us once again.” Although Bhagwat suggested that these habits were a reflection of hygienic practices propagated within Hinduism, it is well-established that notions of purity, and not health, form the bedrock of the Hindu idea of sanitation, which is rooted in Brahminical casteist practices.

Another example cited of swa by Bhagwat also revealed his support for caste-based divisions in society, and the idea that an individual’s duties were determined by their birth into a particular varna. Bhagwat said that Indian farmers did not farm for their livelihood, but because it was their dharma. “Farmers who farm do so not to earn any benefit but to feed the world,” Bhagwat said. “He farms because farming is his dharma and to feed the society.” He made the comment to justify the introduction of three controversial farm laws, which has prompted widespread outrage and protests among farmers across the country, who argue that the changes did not protect the minimum support price for their produce.

But Bhagwat called the changes a direction in making farming “swadeshi,” or indigenous, in India. He defined swadeshi as a word comprising two parts—swa and desi. He added, “Desi toh niti hai, magar swa kya hai”—Desi means policy, but what is swa? Bhagwat answered his own question by referring to a farmer’s swa being his dharma to feed the world. This framework of farming reflects the same casteist thinking that advocates for Shudras to serve the upper three varnas.

The institution of family, Bhagwat said, lay at the centre of ensuring that every individual lived in accordance with their swa. “Now that the importance of swa has come to our attention, the importance of nationality and cultural values, the thoughts for the environment, our swiftness towards it should not weaken,” Bhagwat said. “It will only be possible when the whole society would practice this and adopt it in its conduct … Every family can become a unit for this. We should focus on our family dialogue.” He called upon every home to “organise a bhajan,” or prayer ceremony, and “cheerfully and eat your meal together.”  

This call for family dialogue and organising bhajans may appear innocuous, but it forms part of a thought-out strategy advocated by Bhagwat’s predecessors for galvanising Hindu communities around a bigoted religious identity. The same strategy can also be seen around Modi regularly addressing the issue in his monthly radio show, Mann ki Baat, during which he has often called upon individuals how to have dialogue within one’s family has also the same purpose: to build a family around Hindu ideas. In September, Modi told listeners, “Every family mostly has an elderly person who talks about traditions, cultures … As a family set aside some time for storytelling.” In June, he asked children to interview their grandparents and ask, “How was their lifestyle in their childhood, what kind of games they played?” Modi added, “You will then know what India was like 40–50 years ago.” 

Golwalkar considered family the “first stage” in connecting Hindus with their neighbourhood and society, relying on the ties of “affection” and “identity.” He wrote in Bunch of Thoughts, “To us, the family is the first stage of our self-expansion. Then, all the various duties that devolve upon us as family members, have to be gone through so as to keep the delicate ties of sweet affection and identity among the members of the family always intact. As a son, as a brother, as a husband or in whatever relationship, let us uphold the noble Hindu ideal of a family man.”

For Golwalkar, these Hindu ideals of a family man revolved around his virility, which he termed a source of “national regeneration.” He wrote, “Our real national regeneration should therefore start with the moulding of ‘man,’ by instilling in him the strength to overcome human frailties and to stand up as a shining symbol of Hindu manhood embodying within himself our traditional virtues of love, self-restraint, sacrifice, service and character.” Similarly, Upadhyaya used the analogy of a “virat purusha”—a great man—to equate it with Hindu society. He identified the Hindu castes as different limbs of such a man, who can function only when all the limbs did its assigned job.  

In Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar also cited social and economic relations among Hindus as one of the reasons for maintaining constant family interactions. He mentioned a story in which an Englishman turned one entire Hindu community towards Christianity by building ties with one family. Golwalkar asked the Hindus to learn lessons from the story. “There are some plantations owned by the English,” he wrote. “How does the English planter behave with his workers? He goes to their houses, pats their children and personally looks to their medical needs. He builds up a human relationship with the entire family of the workman. He does not stop at that. He builds a chapel or a church in his estate… By such inducements and persuasion they have succeeded to a large extent in converting their workers to Christianity.”

He continued, “Hindus, owning tea plantations, whose relations with their workers are anything but cordial. They only try to squeeze out as much work from them as possible. The workers resent and revolt and demand more wages and better amenities.” But Golwalkar did not appear to have learnt any lessons himself, for even on this front, he did not propose solutions based on creating closer relations or resolving wage disputes by increasing the workers’ wages. Instead, he suggested organising bhajans regularly to build a “human touch” with the workers. Addressing industrialists, Golwalkar wrote, “They should build a temple in each estate or labour colony and arrange for weekly bhajan and worship, religious discourses and Harikathas,” the last of which refers to a traditional storytelling of Hindu epics. He further wrote that regular bhajans were important for “reviving the Hindu values in our daily chores.”

Golwalkar’s approach of uniting Hindus through bhajans resembled Bhagwat’s instructions in his speech. The RSS actively propagates the promotion of family interactions to cement Hindu relations. According to the organisation’s 2019 annual report, the Sangh runs a programme called “Kutumb Prabodhan,” or family exhortation, in at least 38 provinces—the RSS has its own political map of India, under which there are 41 different provinces. Under the Kutumb Prabodhan programme, family members associated with the organisation’s local units are required to meet at least once a week and have at least one meal together.

Bhagwat also called for all Bharatiyas to have “emotional integration” to build true unity. But once again, the sarsanghchalak stated that such integration would only be possible if everyone was to adopt a Hindu identity. “Indians should unite into one emotion,” Bhagwat said. “Here we call it emotional integration. In that emotional integration, and in Bharat, there is a respect for all diversities. The emotion in it, what is in the nucleus of it? It’s the Hindu sanskriti which is in the nucleus of it, it’s Hindu parampara, it’s Hindu society.”

As with so much of his speech, the idea of “emotional integration” also comes with context more clearly laid out in previous Sangh writing. Golwalkar had listed three conditions for “emotional integration” in Bunch of Thoughts. “In the first place, feeling of burning devotion to the land, which, from times immemorial, we have regarded as our sacred motherland,” Golwalkar wrote. “In the second place, the feeling of fellowship, of fraternity, born out of the realisation that we are the children of that one great common Mother. In the third place, the intense awareness of a common current of national life, born out of a common culture and heritage, of common history and traditions, of common ideals and aspirations.” The intent is clear and the same articulated by Bhagwat: the Hindu identity is central even to emotional integration.

The mainstream media did not focus on these aspects of Bhagwat’s speech, perhaps failing to understand that the Sangh’s chief was openly calling for a transition to a Hindu state on national television. In fact, even the publications that claimed to reproduce his speech appeared to quote from a different script, which had many crucial variations from his literal words. But even within that script, there were not significant efforts to hide Bhagwat’s aspirations of the Hindu state. “Hindutva is the essence of this country’s selfhood,” Bhagwat said, and this was reported verbatim by the Press Trust of India and published by several media outlets. The PTI report and other media coverage also quoted him saying, “We are plainly acknowledging the selfhood of the country as Hindu.”

But these reports did not challenge Bhagwat’s claims that Hindutva did not have a religious or ritualistic connotation. They did not question his claim that the word Hindu was applicable to the entire Indian populace. They did not dispute his declaration that those who distanced themselves from the Hindu faith were trying to break the fabric of Indian society. Instead, a modified script of Bhagwat’s speech, which still proclaimed the Sangh’s vision for a Hindu Rashtra, was reproduced for mass consumption.