The Takeover

How the RSS is infiltrating India’s intellectual spaces

On 25 February 2018, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the RSS, addressed a large scale gathering of RSS volunteers in Meerut. SAJJAD HUSSAIN/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES
On 25 February 2018, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the RSS, addressed a large scale gathering of RSS volunteers in Meerut. SAJJAD HUSSAIN/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES
01 April, 2019

FOR TWO DAYS IN MARCH 2017, over seven hundred academics and vice chancellors from 51 state and central universities gathered in Delhi University to learn how to bring the “true nationalist narrative” to academia. The closed-door event was called the Gyan Sangam—knowledge summit—and one of its main speakers was Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak—supreme leader—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The topics under discussion, reportedly, were the “cultural onslaught on educational system,” the “colonisation” of intellectuals and the resurgence of nationalism in academia.

According to its website, the Gyan Sangam is an “initiative started in 2016 to create a platform for positive nationalistic academicians.” The site quotes Vivekananda, stating “all sciences originated in Bharat.” These workshops are organised by the RSS-affiliated Prajna Pravah—a typical Sangh project that was floated 25 years ago. The organisation describes its vision as a “rational umbrella that stimulates, trains and synthesizes individuals to recognize the inherent strength of Bharath with academic vigor directed towards decolonizing Indian minds from Eurocentric impact.” Its will to transform, it seems, is not limited to India. “Hindutva being assimilative and self-sustaining has the potential to liberate world from arrogance of power accumulated through dictatorship policies of the west.”

The scale at which the Prajna Pravah was able to hold the event suggests the enormous heft the organisation has acquired under the Modi administration. That year, J Nandakumar, a prominent figure in the Sangh who was the akhil bharatiya sah prachar pramukh—national vice president for publicity—of the RSS, was appointed the national convenor of the Prajna Pravah. Often described as the intellectual wing of the RSS, the organisation is meant to take on the cultural dominance of the Left, whether in universities such as JNU or in states such as West Bengal or Kerala.

A month before the Gyan Sangam event, a conference organised by Ramjas college, called “Cultures of protest: a seminar exploring representations of dissent,” was violently disrupted by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’s student wing. The ABVP had objected to the inclusion of Umar Khalid in the line-up of speakers invited to the seminar. Khalid, then pursuing a doctorate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was one of the students in the centre of a storm that had unfolded at JNU in 2016. Along with Kanhaiya Kumar—the president of the students’ union—and others, Khalid was arrested on sedition charges. These events prompted heated primetime discussions focussed on the crackdown on students, and the idea that JNU was a “den of anti-nationals.”