The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism was published in 1987. Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar Damle, its co-authors are now revisiting the issues to write their second book, tentatively titled, Messenger of Dharma: RSS, Hindutva and Pariwar Organisations. Damle, who lives in Chicago, is on a visit to India to conclude his research on the book. Here are excerpts from his interview.
Q: Since the Modi government has come to power is there a kind of a conscious and determined effort of Hinduisation of Indian politics?
A: This is a misconception. The RSS-BJP had resolved to change the power structure, more forcefully than ever, since the phrase “Hindu terrorism” was coined. RSS worked furiously to change power. Narendra Modi coming to power is a by-product of that. For RSS, most importantly BJP needs to remain in power and to remain in power BJP needs to decide how to do that. I am not the spokesperson for RSS or the BJP, but my observation is that the RSS would like BJP to be a Saffron Congress—the all India party to replace the Congress. Whatever compromise BJP wants to do, they would let them do. Once BJP remains in power for three consecutive elections, only then RSS will go for its ideological programme. Currently, they have an ideological programme in education. They are building an all India network, a kind of a pressure group. But let Modi come to power again in 2019, first. RSS’ target year will be 2024.
Q: What do you think of Congress’s conscious decision of planning a temple tour for Rahul Gandhi during the Gujarat elections? Do you think that is a turning point in the straight battle between Congress and BJP?
A: When I talk to the people in RSS they say it is a good change because Congress was indulging in minority vote bank politics. Now, it’s like a battle between soft Hindutva and power-packed Hindutva. But RSS feels that Congress is an all India party but not an organised party. So it is a battle between the disorganised Congress party and the organised BJP. So they are not much worried about it, really.
Q: From 1987 to 2018, what are the changes that you see in RSS?
A: Most important change is that from being an urban middle class organisation it is striving to become a rural, OBC and tribal based organisation. Look at any RSS camp and you will find that mostly the non upper castes are attending it. The second observation is of RSS losing ground with the neo-rich middle class, which, according to them, is westernised and alienated from society…
The RSS has recognised the desire and ambition of the OBCs and tribal people and helping them get what is called upward social mobility. Their importance is accepted by a banker or say, even Kshatriya class. So this is psychological and sociological “upwardness”. And the third thing is the change in the background of the pracharaks. Once upon a time Maharashtra gave the highest number of pracharaks. Now, Kerala is number one, followed by Karnataka, and then UP. In fact, Maharashtra is fourth. Even, a good number of Gujarati upper castes have joined RSS, which was not the case before.
Q: So how far is the RSS still, Brahminical?
A: When I asked the same question, Morarji Desai told me that RSS is not even a Maharashtra Brahmin organisation, rather, it’s a Maharashtra Nagpur Brahmin organisation. Now they are connecting with people all over India. Vandana Shiva, she is not one of the RSS circle or say Claude Alvares or say Dr Abhay and Rani Bang. The RSS tremendously respects their work. The term they use is sajjan shakti ka sangathan.
Q: What does RSS stand for in 21st century India?
A: RSS has seriously got involved in tribal areas through Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. Second important thing is their Samajik Samarasta Manch. Third most important thing, is the Sewa project. They used to have people on volunteering basis in ’87, and in ’89 they started officially with 5,000 people and in ’99 they reached 50,000. Today the Sewa project has 172,000 NGOs in India. And it is a diversified project. Sewa project has made them accept the diversification of Hindu society. They realise that you can’t put them in one school of thought, you cannot put them into one ideological straitjacket. You have to understand the diversity, work with them, and respect them. As they have worked with people in Northeast and tribal people.
“The RSS has recognised the desire and ambition of the OBCs and tribal people and helping them get what is called upward social mobility. Their importance is accepted by a banker or say, even Kshatriya class. So this is psychological and sociological ‘upwardness’. And the third thing is the change in the background of the pracharaks.”
Q: What about the fear of RSS-backed and RSS-genre of people who are taking law in their hands? Some are lynching Muslims in name of cow protection and we know about Akhlaq’s horrific death?
A: The issue of the gaurakshaks or Durga festival are misused by miscreants or goons who try to use them for selfish purposes to enjoy the lifestyle. That’s why Narendra Modi, supported by Mohan Bhagwat, has seen that they are many of them are arrested and put in jail.
Q: What do you remember of your and Walter Andersen’s meeting with Guru Golwalkar?
A: I asked, “Golwalkarji, if you were born in a Harijan family, what would have been your reaction to Hindu sangathan?” He said that the basic question is the mindset of the upper caste Hindu. The mindset has to change and it has to change according to their faith. It won’t be changed by law, it has to change by dharma guru. He said we should be grateful to our Harijan brothers and sisters that in spite of so much humiliation, they feel proud in remaining Hindu.
Q: Do you think RSS is working on the public perception of RSS being anti Muslim?
A: The biggest problem is that, so far, RSS never cared about public perception. Only 2000 onwards they started having a spokesperson. They have realised that it’s a baggage of 70 years and it will take a longer time. Do you know there are three RSS Muslim pracharaks? I am not defending them but they think it is a historical baggage. It is just like people say about RSS that it is anti-modern. But they say we appreciate modernity, but not westernisation.
Q: What’s your take on Ram temple? Is it still a dear project of RSS?
A: Yes. But, it’s not on top of the agenda because they hope that Supreme Court will give the decision mostly on line of the Allahabad High Court’s decision. Legally, the last judgement says that the place belongs to Hindus. But if the SC puts the ball, which is a possibility, back on the government side saying it’s not our job to decide, then RSS will come in picture. In a few months from now NDA is likely to have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Then, it will be easy for BJP to introduce the bill and pass it in both Houses. BJP will say, “There is public pressure.” However, the Parivar is serious about the issue because once the Ram temple issue is solved then automatically you solve “the problem” of Kashi and Mathura because of Aurangzeb’s decree and many other evidences. Kashi and Mathura will require only constitutional amendment. My feeling is that Ram temple issue is a Brahmastra. RSS won’t use it. Mostly the opponent will use the Ram temple issue.
Q: What are Congress’ options then?
A: See, RSS is clear. They want Congress without Gandhi family.
Q: What’s new in your book?
A: It’s a case study. It is not history. We took the case study of the Ram temple, ban on cow slaughter, Muslims, ghar wapsi, tribals, Hindus living abroad, economy etc. We have discussed how Rajiv Gandhi sent emissaries to RSS after opening the locks of Ram Janmabhoomi. How Indira Gandhi held talks with RSS. Rajiv wanted to know from Balasaheb Deoras if Congress built a temple, would RSS help it in the forthcoming elections. The book talks about Hindus abroad in detail.
Q: How do you see RSS mission going?
A: There are worries. BJP’s leaders’ and workers’ behaviour is an issue. The political arrogance is disturbing. The loyal cadre wants non corrupt nature of the government. The middle class in the urban areas are not happy. They say it’s three years since BJP has come to power but not enough has been done so far.
Q: If BJP does not win the 2019 elections, what will be the position of RSS-BJP in India?
A: Please keep in mind that BJP lost miserably in 1984 with two seats. The difference between the other party and BJP is even when completely crushed they don’t break. RSS does not have a 2020 agenda. They are looking for the next 50-100 years’ agenda. And their number one agenda for the next 50 years is to become pan-India and reach out to every village in India. They also want Hindu-based programmes abroad. I read in the Sarkar Bharti news, how they helped Namibia and other countries to establish cooperative banks. One group is in touch with even native Americans.
Q: Is RSS looking at a post-Modi narrator? Who will be the…
A: Yes, Yogi Adityanath. That is my feeling, I may be wrong but he is caste-neutral. He is a sanyasi, no family baggage. He has a good connect with dharma gurus of various sects and communities. He has 25 years’ experience of running institutions. He is the only leader who is invited outside UP. Like Modi he is in demand all over like Kerala, Karnataka and Gujarat.
Q: Is Mohan Bhagwat more powerful than Modi?
A: Not exactly. There is an existing demarcation between the PM and the Sarsanghchalak. During the last days of the election campaign in 2014, Modi came to meet Bhagwat at midnight. He was told that once you become PM you don’t need to come here. When you become PM you call us and we will come to meet you. I asked Mohan Bhagwat, if there is a problem within the parivar and if they come to you what will you advise them? He said we will ask them to sit down and talk with each other…
However, my feeling is that if RSS wants BJP in power for the next 15-16 years then they would like to have their checks and balances with VHP or Swadeshi Jagaran Manch on issues like FDI, etc.
Q: How do you see Modi? How much of a pracharak is he now?
A: I think this is a kind of a slippery question. Most of the RSS pracharaks work with society, so they have to work with pragmatism. Modi will act as a pragmatist… He wants to change India in a very short time. Many in RSS believe…the bureaucracy is the problem. RSS would like to give him time.