14/09/2017 6:20 PM IST | Updated 14/09/2017 6:26 PM IST

Why Mohan Bhagwat's Message To Right-Wing Extremists Is Unlikely To Be Heeded

Is the RSS trying to control the damage?

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

The sarsanghchalak or chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) began the week by demanding an amendment to the Indian Constitution to reflect "Bharatiya ethos". He argued that the document owes its existence to Western values, namely those of the colonial lawmakers, and needs to be revised to reflect our contemporary realities.

He may have a point there, not with regard to the Constitution, but with respect to our codes of law.

It's true, India's legal system bears the burden of several imperial legacies, which can be happily discarded, beginning with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). A gift of our former British masters dating back to 1860, it criminalises adults engaging in consensual sex "against the order of nature" — a Victorian phrase that could stretch to include everything other than intercourse that leads to procreation. We know how the RSS feels about alternate sexuality — it's not a crime, as one of its leading lights announced last year, only to deplore it as "a socially immoral act" and "a psychological case" in the same breath.

In light of his organisation's stated affiliation with firebrand Hindutva values, one wouldn't be surprised if Bhagwat were holding up the Manusmriti, an ancient legal text that the RSS looks to in the highest regard, as a model to revive the spirit of Bharat in the existing Constitution. The Manusmriti, which dates back to 1,800 years, is a code of conduct for Brahmins, riddled with casteist and misogynist sentiments.

But such problems, as an RSS outfit recently said, are easily fixed too: by reworking the troubling portions of the text of Manusmriti. No one would have expected anything less of an organisation that has routinely given a spin to recorded history — be it with the murder of Mahatma Gandhi or the supremacy of Maharana Pratap over Akbar, the RSS has got its bases covered.

By the middle of the week, however, Bhagwat seemed to be singing a different tune. He met 50 diplomats and ambassadors from countries across the world (except Pakistan) at a posh hotel in the national capital for a tete-a-tete over breakfast. Facing a barrage of questions, under the watchful presence of Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) general secretary Ram Madhav, Bhagwat calmly fielded the questions thrown at him.

The three main takeaways from that interaction are as follows: 1. The RSS has no influence on the running of the BJP-led government at the Centre, even though the latter draws its ideological legitimacy from the former. 2. "Hinduness" does not pertain to a fixed set of rules, but it's a fluid way of life that makes room for freedom to eat and wear what people may like. 3. The RSS does not endorse aggressive trolling, which is a favourite weapon of its supporters to silence dissenting voices on social media and in real life.

Each of these sentiments is laudable, especially 2 and 3, which will hopefully trickle down to the rank and file of the organisation. Bhagwat's statements should send out a strong message out to the foot soldiers of the RSS, who are out there in big numbers across the country, teaching a lesson to whoever they consider to be failing to live by the rules set by them. Be it food, clothes, books or cinema, every aspect of life is under the hawk-eye scrutiny of the custodians of Bharatiya sanskar.

It's another matter to parse Bhagwat's comments or to simply put them through a reality check.

His claim about the independence of the RSS and the BJP from each another is theoretically beyond any dispute. The RSS calls itself a cultural organisation, which is involved in social work, whereas the BJP is a hardcore political party, set on the electoral path. However, a majority of politicians in the BJP were also erstwhile members of one of the sakhas (units) run by the RSS, including our prime minister and his closest aides, all of them honed on the philosophy of Hindu supremacy expounded by the RSS.

Here's an example of the bond that these entities still share: Recently, BJP chief Amit Shah had a closed-door meeting with Bhagwat and other notable figures of the RSS on the wings of a conference in Vrindaban, Mathura, ahead of the reshuffling of the Union Cabinet. What they discussed for over two hours is not on record, though reports claimed the talk revolved around the change of portfolios.

As for the other pronouncements by Bhagwat, the version of Hinduism that respects dietary and sartorial preferences falls flat on its face if one takes a cursory look at the political and social landscape of India now. Since the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre, there has been a sharp rise in levels of harassment, intimidation and killing of citizens in the name of cow protection or "gau raksha". Mobs of self-styled vigilantes have descended upon innocent dairy farmers, cattle traders and people suspected of being "beef-eaters", assaulting and killing them with impunity.

The RSS has officially distanced itself from gau rakshaks, just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rebuked all those engaged in mindless violence over cow protection. But nothing has yielded any positive result so far.

While not endorsing cow vigilantism, the RSS does not waste any opportunity to sing praises of the cow. Its cheerleaders believe in the restorative powers of various products that emanate from the animal, including its excreta and urine, which, they claim, can provide a range of services, from being used as raw materials to construct bunkers to ingredients in beauty creams. Now imagine how the believers of the RSS's doctrines must feel towards others, especially members of minority communities, who eat the flesh of such a prized animal?

Finally, it's heartening that Bhagwat has categorically condemned the despicable behaviour of social media trolls, but it's an evil that is unlikely to abate anytime soon. As the RSS has repeatedly insisted, truthfully enough, that it is only part of an ecosystem of right-wing outfits, with dozens of affiliates that have grown around it. This nebulous sangh parivar, the ideological solar system in which the RSS is the shining sun, is a collection of entities that don't always follow the core ideology of the RSS down to the last detail.

The timing of Bhagwat's clarifications is also of some significance. At the RSS meeting in Mathura, as The Telegraph reported, leaders of local sakhas raised concerns over the alienation of the core support base of farmers and small-business owners, who are put off by the imposition of Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the move to demonetise high-value currency notes last year. People are disillusioned with the government because of the latter's failure to unearth crores of black money, which was the original purpose of the note ban.

Although the RSS gave a call out to its affiliates to spread Hindutva across the country "like the BJP", there was justified fear that it alone may not be enough to deliver the public mandate of the 2019 election to PM Modi's government once again.

In these volatile circumstances, as brute force and coercion appear to backfire, prudent rhetoric may be the salve that the RSS needs to spread to those who feel let down by the very figures they voted to power.

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