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“Republic of Hindutva: How Sangh is Reshaping Indian Democracy”

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Trigger warning: mentions of Islamophobia and casteism

Badri Narayan’s intervention in the understanding of the Sangh Parivar has come in abnormal times. Abnormal seems to be his methodology. I have called it “abnormal”, I will talk about why later. His book is titled, “Republic of Hindutva: How the Sangh Is Reshaping Indian Democracy”.

Republic of Hindutva's book cover on the left. Its author Badri Narayan on the right.
Badri Narayan is a political commentator and academician. Photo credit: Times Now.

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The book is not a long one, simply written, but nuanced in ideas. It presents an altogether different understanding of the Sangh Parivar, quite contrary to the mainstream understanding of it.

Narayan dedicates his first chapter to what he seems to present as the “real image” of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

The first chapter is titled “RSS: Perception and Reality”. He tries to highlight the distorted mainstream perspective of the Sangh Parivar produced from a distance, away from the grassroots and reality of the Sangh Parivar.

He says that the RSS and some of its affiliates are well-known to us, but under the banner of the RSS, 800 different NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are actively working nationwide, in various sectors including: providing disaster relief during emergencies and natural calamities, and eradicating poverty.

The RSS Stance On Ambedkar Has Changed

One needs to ask how and where are they eradicating poverty? When the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) fails to provide data on reduction of poverty during their tenure, how are they reducing poverty?

He also writes about bowing to democratic imperatives, such as equality and justice in a broad sense. The RSS does not openly support traditional viewpoints on accepting homosexuality and transgender people.

In reality, the UP (Uttar Pradesh) government introduced campaigns like “Anti-Romeo squads” to harass young lovers and “love-jihad to prevent inter-communal marriage.

The RSS’s stance towards Ambedkar has definitely changed and is trying to project him as a brand icon of “samrasta” (social harmony). It is trying hard to erase Ambedkar’s scathing critique of not only Hindutva, but also Hinduism.

The RSS Co-Opts Local Heroes

In UP, certain textbooks have added the prefix “Ram” to Ambedkar’s name. Narayan’s insights into how the RSS is doing that is a valuable contribution to understand the Sangh’s strategies.

He says that he observed the greatest strength of the Sangh is its language of mobilisation—how they are weaving a metanarrative of Hindutva with stories of marginalised caste heroes, thereby, subsuming them and presenting them as Hindu warriors. They, at times, link deities of marginalised castes with popular Hindu gods (Kabir with Ram). [1]

What I found most interesting is his insight that many sub-castes among the SCs (scheduled castes) and STs (scheduled tribes) in UP and Bihar want a temple of their deity in their locality.

“These deities are not only their gods, but also the identity markers of their community. Their desire for the temples carries not only religious meaning, but also a social one.” (P24)

The RSS Has Tapped Into People’s Cultural Aspirations

Temple for them, he mentions, is a space where they can assemble, sit together, sing bhajans and share the joys and sorrows of everyday life. In other words, temples have a sacred and profane meaning attached to them.

“The RSS seems to have grasped this social meaning entangled with religious meaning around the desire for local temples.” (P25).

While researching Dalit and marginalised social groups, the author found that their desire for religious identity is coherently interwoven with their desire for social respect. For them, the meaning of respect is equal participation in religious spaces as well.

This is a challenging situation as secular parties at the prima-facie find it hard to view both the meanings cohesively, or together, and even if they grasp this logic, they find it uncomfortable to get involved in “mandir politics”.

They are cornered by seculars, and label such moves as “soft Hindutva” or petty politics.

Creating A Hindu Public Sphere

Ambedkartite groups (different from mainstream, self-proclaimed, Bahujan parties) find it disturbing as they want to project themselves as different from the RSS organisation, and want to keep silent on such demands.

He believes that one of the reasons for the increasing influence of the Sangh and Hindutva politics is due to their reach into the non-political, but socially, culturally and religiously powerful spheres associated with Hinduism.

Several katha mandalis (drama collectives) disseminate the message of Hindutva in not only the cow-belt states, but also non-Hindi speaking states such as Haryana and Odisha.

 

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Many self-styled gods and spiritual gurus cunningly uphold Hindutva values and consequently, helps in forging the Hindutava public sphere. From the days of the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement, many babas have helped with such causes.

The Politics Around ‘Ghar Wapsi’

Narayan is of the firm opinion that the Sangh Parivar, along with their like-minded NGOs, are involved in seva karya (service work). They mostly target groups which, until recently, have been out of the grip of the Hindutva ideology, such as tribals, Dalits, women and minorities.

He writes:

“Along with the RSS, the BJP too has been making inroads in these pockets, while the RSS and its affiliated organizations are already working among these communities to provide them education, health, employment, and so on; these organisations are autonomous and not connected to the government.” (P31).

It can’t be denied that the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, working for tribals’ welfare, has been stopping their conversion and even re-converting them into Hinduism.

The Muslim Rashtriya Manch and Rashtriya Sevika Samiti groups are also working, but what concrete measures are being taken by the BJP through its special policies for such groups is contested.

What About The Ground Reality?

One sees stark contrast in what the promised in its 2014 election manifesto and what it delivered.

Reduction of financial allocation under Special Component Plan for SCs; fund cut in higher educational schemes for SCs; and failure of implementing SC/ST Hub scheme (for entrepreneurship promotion among SCs and STs), has been observed. [2].

Seva is a strategy by the BJP to disseminate its Hindutva ideology. One must also note that during the pandemic, there was an attempt by the BJP to hinder other organisations to provide seva to the needy.

He points out that after the ascendance of BJP at the centre, it is trying to resolve the tussle, born out of the conflict between the Ambedkarite and Hindutva consciousnesses over religion, politics and society.

 

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Political Prisoners In The Bhima-Koregaon Case

This observation is starkly contradictory to reality. A number of Dalit activists have been falsely implicated in cases under draconian laws. Bhima-Koregaon arrests was an attempt to not only erase Dalit militant history but also disseminating a harsh message to Dalit activists.

Further, father Stan Swamy, who devoted his whole life fighting for tribals, was kept in jail until he died. He was refused bail, notwithstanding his age and health.

Some of the Hindu organisations are working on the project of reconstructing tribal culture. Tribal deities are placed inside Hindu temples as well, forging a Hindu–tribal synergy.

One needs to understand whether such attempts are made to provide religious equality, thereby, leading to fusion of Hindu and tribal cultures. As Anshul Trivedi rightly points out:

“The RSS re-articulates the Adivasi identity as Vanvasi or forest dweller, who is just an imperfectly integrated Hindu. It takes upon itself the task of integrating the Adivasis within the Hindu fold by co-opting their rituals.” [3].

Adivasis Being Recast As Hindus?

One of the insidious reasons for it to make attempts to erase the discourse of Adivasis possessing special rights to preserve and conserve their natural resources.

Another question that comes out pertinently is: whether is it morally right to reconstruct culture of minorities and that too only to recast them as “Hindus”?

In chapter 3, Narayan says that after the BJP came into power at the centre, it has led to the emergence of some politically ambitious outfits, that have started to mobilise people around religious identities, by creating relatively small incidents of conflicts.

 

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These small clashes or communal incidents between them is more politically advantageous, than large-scale riots. These clashes have a greater impact on keeping the tension persisting, as they keep the communities in perpetual fear and suspicious towards each other.

Small-Scale Communal Incidents On The Rise

He quotes the Indian Express investigation on the matter, which revealed that police records show that over 600 “communal incidents”, or small-scale, religious conflicts, took place in UP since the Lok Sabha results were announced in 2014.

The largest number of communal clashes took place in western UP: 259. Along with the socio-economic grounds which makes it fertile for such clashes, the deep-seated desire to establish dominance over one community is the rationale in some conflicts.

He points towards an intriguing observation:

“Though the presence of the RSS and its affiliates in the region provides aggressive confidence to dominant Hindu communities in the region, however, the RSS was not keen on escalating such clashes and transforming them into large-level conflicts. At the same time, the RSS uses the impact after the clash to strengthen its Hindutva ideology.”

Lynchings Not Condemned Unequivocally

One needs to ask the question who are these political outfits that create small conflicts? Are they covertly part of the Sangh Parivar? Is the Sangh Parivar playing a role of a “soft-villain”, saving them from larger conflicts, but at the same time indirectly instigating small-level conflicts.

Hindutva mobilisation has pitted the Dalits against the Muslims. Scholar Anand Teltumbde has described this as Dalits becoming the “foot soldiers of the Hindutva brigade”.

If one reads Badri Tiwari’s “Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation” written in 2009, an altogether different picture of the Sangh Parivar emerges, and almost polar opposite of what Narayan presents in this book.
There seem to be two Badris: one, viewing the Sangh Parivar polarizing and fragmenting society, not only on caste lines but also on religious lines. To say the least, they are complicit in creating a wedge between Dalits and Muslims.
Here, Narayan seems to overlook such a phenomenon. Why is Narayan changing its position is something needs to be discussed at length? Why does he seem to be soft on the Sangh Parivar?
What has changed in the Sangh Parivar over these years is something I can’t fathom (I believe such change is not visible to other academicians; Christopher Jaffrelot, on the contrary, writes that India is moving towards an “ethnic democracy”).

This should be seen as a demand by the RSS to integrate the Dalits into their fold, which Narayan, despite acknowledging the fact, fails to view in that perspective.

On the fact that the cases of mob lynching have become very common, he maintains a position that the RSS views such incidents as anti-Sangh and anti-Hindutva ones, by small, local organisations.

The impunity enjoyed by such groups and the accused being appreciated by some BJP leaders shows a contrasting picture. Even the silence of prime minister Narendra Modi on such occasions, speaks volumes about their deceptive public position.

Hate Is Not Met With Disapproval

A recent event was organised under the name of “Bharat Jodo” (unite India) in the capital of India, by former BJP spokesperson Ashwini Upadhay. In broad light, people belonging to Hindutva-inclined ideology were seen chanting slogans like: “Ram-Ram Kehna Hoga, Agar Iss Desh Mein Rehna Hoga!” (you have to utter the name Ram if you want to live in this country); and “Mulle Kaate Jayenge, Ram-Ram Chillayenge!” (when Muslims will be killed, they will shout the name of Ram). This shows the level of polarisation and religious hate instilled in the minds of such groups against minorities. [4].

The next day, when progressive forces tried to protest against such hate-mongering slogans, many were arrested.

Strategy Of Polarisation Misused By Fringe Elements?

Despite all this, Narayan’s central argument remains:

‘The mainstream Hindutva political and social groups want to use polarisation for limited purposes. However, certain fringe elements claiming to be Hindutva organisations, try to misuse the conditions prepared by the strategy of polarisation, which may be seen as a spillover effect. It can be used by both the Hindutva and non-Hindutva fringe elements simultaneously.’

He believes that the polarisation psyche may or may not be converted into full-fledged, communal riots.

 

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He forgets his aforementioned statement that communal riots are not what the Sangh Parivar wants, but it wants to push on minorities onto the margins, politically, culturally and economically.

Passing laws against illegal slaughter houses which affects minority communities financially, and the seizure of properties of people protesting against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) are ways to do so.

How Did The BJP Counter The Mahagathbandhan?

Chapter 5 is titled as “Politics, Narratives and Elections”, in which Narayan emphasizes on the extra-ordinary ability of the RSS-BJP combine to win elections comfortably.

According to him, caste became an important issue in 2019 parliamentary elections. The BJP tried to stitch their narrative of state security, hyper-nationalism, with the development claim as the sub-plot.

However, the importance of forming alliances with caste-based parties in the north, and regional parties in the south was also felt.

To counter the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), the BJP came up with the notion of “samagra Hindutva” (integrated Hindutva) for the 2019 elections, which was basically means to integrate the OBCs (other backward classes) and Dalits into the Hindutva fold.

The BJP Consolidated Non-Dominant Castes

Interestingly, Narayan observes the Kumbh Mela held in Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad), in 2019, to evolve this concept.

The BJP’s 2019 parliamentary election strategy revolves around keeping its base vote intact i.e., upper castes, along with trying to woo votes of until now non-dominant castes.

These included the non-Jatav Dalit like the Musahars, Nat, Kanjar and Kuchbadhiya; and non-Yadav backward caste votes; numerically substantial OBC communities, such as Kurmi, Maurya, etc. Also, the MBCs (most backward classes) including Nishads, Bind, Kasera, Kumhar, Thathera and Tamboli.

Following in the footsteps of the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), the BJP also worked on various strategies to satisfy the aspirations of backward and Dalit castes, like providing organisational representation; organising caste-based rallies; and along with the help of the RSS, celebrating festivals in the memory of their heroes and gods, constructing their temples, and so on—thus luring them towards the party.

Of Household Schemes And The EWS Quota

Narayan writes that the BJP ensures that the benefits of schemes such as Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and the Mudra loans reached them. This claim was not substantiated with any governmental or non-governmental report.

Among various reasons, he credits the success of the BJP in UP to the distinction in the way the BJP and the mahagathbandhan used castes for electoral success.

“The Modi government, through policies and programmes, mobilised various marginalised communities horizontally to counter the BSP and the SP, which mobilised castes vertically. The SP and the BSP gave space to the visible and dominant castes among the Dalits and mobilised them to rise vertically in the overall socio-economic hierarchy, while the BJP worked for the ignored and invisible communities among the Dalits, to offer them horizontal mobility within the Dalit community.” (P70).

The EWS (economically weaker section) reservation has helped them keep their vote base of upper castes across the country intact.

According to Narayan: “The BJP has been savvy to the fault lines within these heterogeneities (OBCs, SCs) and has accordingly crafted new social and political equations.”

Harish Wankhede points out that the BJP is making attempts to alienate Yadavs among OBCs, and Jatavs among SCs, and also pitting OBCs against SCs. He points out that ‘behind the rhetoric of social upliftment exists the BJP’s familiar politics of divide and rule’. [6].

Is The BJP Really Democratising Politics?

Chapter 6 is titled as “The Road Ahead: Framing Own Public”, which talks about how the RSS-BJP combine have been trying to create a Hindu public sphere.

Yogi Adityanath constituted a committed called the “Other Backward Classes Social Justice Committee” to provide reservations to the most marginalised communities among the SCs and MBCs.

This strategy to provide a “quota within quota” is described by Narayan as a win-win situation. He is of the opinion that it could dent the SCs and OBCs alliance formed by the BSP and SP (Samajwadi Party), thereby benefitting the BJP.

Also, they provided mobility through getting a share of jobs and education to the invisible and marginalised communities among the SCs and OBCs.

This would, he believes, usher in to new politics of social justice which he calls “post-Mandal era” and have greater democratising implications on the Indian democracy.

Social Politics At The Forefront

The RSS, since its inception in 1925, has stressed on changing the society from below. It talks about creating a community-centric person, where there exists no conflict among communities and community and individual.

In order to divert their cadres from being drunk on power, it tries to engage them in what it calls samajik karya (social work), which sees them as doing a kind of social politics.

In the RSS agenda, “social politics” means mobilising communities and society in favour of the values and ideology of Hindutva politics through seva of people. Taking an expansive view of social politics, Narayan argues that the BJP is attempting to interweave culture, economy and development.

Campaigns such as the Namami Gange are an attempt to transform governmental efforts into social action but at the end of the day it failed miserably. [7].

Modi Is A Strong Orator, Is That Enough?

There is no denying the fact that Modi, with his innate oratory skills, tries to provide a cultural and social meaning to failure of his governments’ politics and his poor administration. Such attempts were made during demonetisation and the Coronavirus crisis.

The citizenry of this country need more than just an added cultural perspective to such crises. Narayan rightly points out that after the neoliberal reforms, politics has been reduced to mere technocratic governance and detached from its social moorings.

Modi, by branding himself as social leader, is attempting to fill that void. His campaigns like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) and the polythene-free nation, are positioned as social campaigns.

One must, however, remember that during the pandemic, he has not shouldered any responsibilities, but declared them as unfortunate events. He is just producing the optics of being a social leader.

The RSS Has Attempted To Modernise

Narayan’s shocking revelation lies in his propounding of a notion of a “new avatar of RSS”. He writes”

“A new RSS, which includes elements of the old RSS, can be seen emerging in the current scenario in our country. The changes are visible in the Sangh’s outlook and activities, where it has adapted to a modern idiom and logic generated by democratic values. This change has occurred across the several affiliated organisations that are active on the ground.” (P13).

In other words, he is trying to argue that the RSS has adapted itself to new logics, produced by democracy and modernity alongside its traditional Hindu and religious language.

The RSS is trying to create a Hindu republic, at the same time shaping itself according to some of its democratic needs. Christophe Jaffrelot, on the contrary, argues that it is not Hindu nationalism that is changing, but the society. [8].

The RSS Goal Of Forming A Hindu Rashtra Remains

The sociology of the BJP has changed, as evidenced from its ability to produce leaders like Narendra Modi, Uma Bharti, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Keshav Prasad Mauraya, Kalyan Singh, Sarbananda Sonowal etc.; and also its ability to woo Dalit, OBC and ST votes, but it has retained its upper caste legacy to a large extent.

If one looks at the social profile of the caste background of its ministers, MPs and MLA, the caste becomes clear. In the Hindi belt we are back to pre-Mandal proportions of upper caste MPs and MLAs. [9].

Despite the tall claims of Yogi’s government in UP being very inclusive, an insightful view by Arvind Kumar into the composition of cabinet ministers and state ministers (independent charge) and state ministers reveals the dominance of upper castes. [10].

In the same interview, Jaffrelot argued that, “Hindu nationalism has not fundamentally changed over time, since its inception over one hundred years ago. The reading of history is same, the enemies are same, the objective—a Hindu rasthra where some Indians will be more equal than others—is the same.”

Of Militant And Moderate Strategies

Society, after the liberalisation period, has certainly become more egalitarian. He points out that:

‘The legitimacy and banalisation of inequality, at the expense of the old Gandhian and Nehruvian ethos, has prepared the ground for an acceptation of a hierarchial view of society, that has affinities with Hindu nationalism and its sociology.’

What Narayan sees as a new avtar of the RSS is nothing but a strategic shift. Jaffrelot’s reading of the Hindu nationalist movement identified two strategies: militant and moderate. [11].

The first: allied, ideological identity building, which is achieved by stigmatising and emulating “others” who allegedly posed a threat with Sangathanism (penetrating the Indian society through a network of activists); and the other: ethno-religious mobilisation.

The RSS And Ideological Identity Building

These two strategies are presented as ideal types. However, in practice, they overlap at times. Political context is significant in deciding which strategy to be given more preference.

For implementing the first strategy of ideological identity building, the other should be perceived by the majority community as a threat sufficiently serious to create an inferiority complex among them.

After the partition and especially after 1950, the conditions for a similar feeling of vulnerability did not occur again till the 1980s. One could draw an inference that the RSS and its allied organisations have moved from militant to moderate strategies of mobilisation.

What now seems to Narayan a “moderate stand” of the Sangh Parivar, is part of its strategy, and may shift to pure militant stand or combination when the time demands. It has always oscillated between these two strategies.

Lastly, I called Narayan’s methodology abnormal because he hardly makes an attempt to read between the lines of the Sangh’s shifting positions. One must, however, appreciate the extensive fieldwork he did for this book.

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REFERENCES:

[1] For a detailed understanding of the phenomenon, refer to “Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation” by Badri Narayan (2009).

[2] Sukhdeo Thorat. Dalits in Post-2014 India: Between Promise and Action. “Majoritarian State” by Angana P.Chatterjii, Thomas Blom Hasen and Christophe Jaffrelot.

[3] Anshul Trivedi. The silent erasure of Adivasiyat. The Hindu (August 11, 2021).

[4] Inflammatory, anti-Muslim Slogans Raised at Janatar Mantar Event Organised by BJP leader. The Wire (August 9, 2021).

[5] Harish S Wankhede. Dismantling the BJP’s Image as ‘Party of Subaltern Castes’ in Uttar Pradesh. The Wire (September 2, 2021).

[6] Sandipan Talukdar. Modi’s Namami Gange a Failure, Says Report. Newsclick (April 16, 2019).

[7] Christophe Jaffrelot, in an interview with Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, titled: Not Hindu Nationalism, But Society That Has Changed. The Wire (January 25, 2020).

[8] Christophe Jaffrelot. Rise of Hindutva has enabled a counter-revolution against Mandal’s gains. Indian Express (February 10, 2021).

[9] Arvind Kumar. Yogi expands his Cabinet, but still keeps SC/STs away from real power’. The Print (September 21, 2021).

[10] Christophe Jaffrelot. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s: Strategies of Identity Building, Implantation and Mobilisation.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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        A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

        Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

        A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
        biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

        Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
        campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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