Barely a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed that every individual in India “has an undeniable right to retain or adopt” any faith on 17 February, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, courted controversy by saying that Mother Teresa’s service was motivated by the incentive to convert the people she served to Christianity. While this is the latest incident in which the RSS chief has articulated his disdain for minorities in India, it is not the first. Not too long ago, on 8 February, Bhagwat had created a furore by asserting that every person in India should consider himself or herself a Hindu. In this story that was published in our May 2014 issue, Dinesh Narayanan explores how the identity of the RSS has evolved to constantly emphasise its aggressively Hindu-nationalist and anti-minority stance.
THE RSS UNDER BHAGWAT may have updated its economic approach while retaining its ideological soul (the sarsanghchalak’s alleged tolerance for corrupt Sangh workers notwithstanding), and thereby partially overcome one of the most important challenges it has faced in recent decades—how to respond to the cultural upheaval wrought by economic liberalisation. But the organisation has failed to rid itself of a more longstanding existential threat—the bigotry of its members, especially against Muslims. Perhaps these trends are interlinked, and the Sangh, as it adopts a more market-oriented economic position, has found it advantageous to simultaneously reaffirm its aggressively Hindu-nationalist core.
Despite the RSS’s continual public denials that it is bigoted or fosters violence in its members, large and small examples of extreme intolerance in the Sangh family—Modi’s Uttar Pradesh campaign manager using the language of “revenge” and “honour” in riot-affected Muzaffarnagar; the head of the VHP calling for vigilante action to evict Muslims from their homes—seem to leak out into the press constantly. Bhagwat himself frequently accuses Muslim men of carrying out “love Jihad” by courting Hindu women. Former RSS members say that these are the attitudes in which the Sangh brought them up.
In January, I went to meet Shyam Pandharipande, a former journalist who grew up in an RSS family, at his sixth-floor apartment in Nagpur. “I joined the RSS before I joined school and I completed my RSS training before I graduated from college,” Pandharipande told me. He recalled a revealing episode from his third year of the Sangh’s officer-training camp, in 1970, the last step in becoming a full-time RSS worker. During a question-and-answer session, a volunteer asked Yadavrao Joshi, then the head of Sangh workers across all of south India, “We say RSS is a Hindu organisation. We say we are a Hindu nation, India belongs to Hindus. We also say in the same breath that Muslims and Christians are welcome to follow their faith and that they are welcome to remain as they are so long as they love this country. Why do we have to give this concession? Why don’t we be very clear that they have no place if we are a Hindu country?”
According to Pandharipande, Joshi replied: “As of now, RSS and Hindu society are not strong enough to say clearly to Muslims and Christians that if you want to live in India, convert to Hinduism. Either convert or perish. But when the Hindu society and RSS will become strong enough we will tell them that if you want to live in India and if you love this country, you accept that some generations earlier you were Hindus and come back to the Hindu fold.”