The most controversial session of this year's Jaipur Literature Festival is finally over, without too much incident, apart from a member of the audience bursting into an Islamophobic rant in the question hour.
Dattatreya Hosabale, the joint general secretary of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and Manmohan Vaidya, who currently serves as All India prachar pramukh (in charge for media relations) of the RSS, spoke to journalist Pragya Tiwari for over an hour about their organisation's working principles and philosophy.
A post-graduate in English literature, Hosabale was previously the RSS's organising secretary of its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), while Vaidya completed a doctorate in nuclear chemistry and has worked as a lecturer of chemistry in Nagpur.
The inclusion of this session, featuring two speakers from the same side of the ideological divide with no literary work to their name, has already been greeted with criticism. Many of the concerns expressed by the sceptics came to be true as well.
One RSS man talking to another doesn't make for the most exciting conversation, primarily because the entire exercise sounds like rehearsed speech. Given the chaste and flowery Hindi in which the men spoke, peppering each reply liberally with quotations in Sanskrit, part of their argument may have escaped some of the audience. Equally, the progress from abstruse logic to obtuse references and evasive assertions is a slippery slope and in spite of the moderator's best efforts, the two men proved hard to be pinned down.
Tiwari deserved full marks for asking hard questions, in the gentlest of tones, challenging each shoddy claim with firm counterpoints, picking out holes and not letting up. Although there was applause during some of the most troublesome moments of RSS-speak, part of the the audience were no less enthusiastic about cheering Tiwari, as she threw one tough question after another at the speakers.
But in the end, nothing that the men said sounded any different from what an assembly line press release about the RSS may read like. Here are some excerpts, both questions and answers, from the session. For the first half an hour, Vaidya (MV) held forth by himself, while Hosbale (DH) saved himself for the latter half of the session. The answers are roughly translated from Hindi and lightly edited for clarity.
What do Hindutva and Nationalism mean in the dictionary of the RSS?
MV: Hindutva refers to a way of life, even the Supreme Court has said this recently, and nationalism is a western concept). The meaning of Hindutva is closer to an idea of Hinduness, not of Hinduism. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda said in his Chicago speech, we (Hindus) go beyond the notion of tolerance. We allow every individual to pursue their religion. Religion is as personal a matter as a toothbrush is to each of us. Hindutva hasn't abolished artha (question for wealth) and kama (desire). It looks for moksha (salvation).
Do you think its important for people to have a shared vision of a nation? Or is every individual entitled to their own ideas?
MV: As we have always said, you can join the RSS but you need not leave your faith. By Hindu nation, we refer to a composite entity, which takes into account diversity. This nation is not envisioned in terms of governance but in terms of ethos and organisation of society.
Why does the RSS prayer and oath have the idea of the Hindu Rashtra then?
MV: Under Hindu Rashtra, no one will be treated as a second class citizen. India has always been a secular state and never theocratic.
The Sachar Committee Report points out the sorry socio-economic state of Indian Muslims. How do you explain this in the light of the so-called secular character of the Indian state?
MV: But the report also points out Muslims in Gujarat are much better off than in, say, West Bengal, which is a communist and secular state.
Since the RSS supports caste-based reservations, could reservation for Muslims be a solution?
MV: We support caste-based reservations but also argue that it was not meant to stay forever. The varna system is outdated.
Would the RSS condone any form of violence, even retaliatory violence, in certain cases?
DH: We don't condone violence, but if somebody attacks us, we have to sometimes retaliate.
But isn't it the duty of the law and order bodies to protect you?
DH: The RSS in Kerala is being attacked recently but the government there is not doing anything. We are driving public opinion against these attacks as the national media is not covering it to the extent it should.
Does the RSS believe that teaching of history should change in India?
DH: That's not just the view of the RSS. Commissions have been appointed to suggest a proper education plan. We have to inculcate man-making, character-building education, as Swami Vivekananda said. In India now, a distorted history is being taught. The myth of the Aryan invasion that is being taught in our schools has been disproved, even by the BBC, which published a detailed article in its website. Now they are saying the Aryans migrated, they didn't invade. We teach science and mathematics and many other departments of knowledge to our children but not our our own disciplines. We congratulate Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje (seated in the front row) for her government's work in this area.
What is the RSS stand on the Uniform Civil Code?
DH: The answer to this question is in the directive principles of the Constitution.
You say you're for the freedom of expression, but people affiliated to the RSS have filed defamatory cases against it.
There has been as much intolerance against the RSS. People are boycotting JLF because of our presence here. The RSS has been a victim of social, academic, intellectual untouchability.
P.S. The only time Hosbale seemed genuinely out of his depth was when a member of the audience asked him about the recent comment of a BJP minister who said the cow is the only animal that exhales oxygen. And loud applause from the audience made matter worse.
Also on HuffPost