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FANATICS AND HERETICS
- The RSS remains close-minded and intolerant

In the early 1980s, while coming out of a Marxist phase, I came across The God that Failed, a collection of confessional essays by once hard-core communists who had left the party and renounced its creed. The book was rivetingly readable, in part because of the quality of the writing (Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone and Louis Fischer were among the contributors), in part because erstwhile fanatics are often the most insightful heretics. Thus Terry Eagleton and James Carroll have written penetrating accounts of the Catholic Church, a body that, as one-time aspirant priests, they knew inside-out. And there is now an increasing number of revealing memoirs by lapsed jihadis.

I was reminded of The God that Failed by a memoir of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that I recently came across. Written in the 1970s by the economist, S.H. Deshpande, it was originally published in Marathi and later, in English, in the journal, Quest, under the title, “My Days in the RSS”.

Deshpande was born in 1925, in a village some 30 miles from Pune. He moved to the city in 1938, and joined the sangh shortly thereafter. Early in his apprenticeship, he attended lectures by the eminent Marathi littérateur, P.G. Sahasrabuddhe. Attracted by the commitment of RSS workers, Sahasrabuddhe began delivering lectures to their camps on topical themes, such as ‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘fascism’. However, the experiment soon ran aground, as the scholar “felt suffocated in an atmosphere which shut off all free discussion”, and which “demanded unswerving loyalty to the [RSS] leader.” In a short period of time, Dr Sahasrabuddhe “had been thoroughly disillusioned with the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the RSS.”

Life in the shaka was dominated by physical exercise — drills, marches, and the life. The new entrant compared the morning exercises with the traditional dances of rural Maharashtra. The former was more of a drill, the latter an intoxicating experience, recalled Deshpande: “The RSS lezim tended to be more mechanical and though it had vigour, there was no ecstasy in it.”

“A notable feature of camp life”, remembered Deshpande, was “the alarm that might be sounded at the dead of night to warn you of the impending attack of the ‘enemy’. You then jumped out of the bed, got into your uniform in about a couple of minutes and made a dash for the parade ground.” The sound of the alarm was “indeed frightening. It seemed to shout in your ears, ‘Get up, get up! The whole camp has caught fire!’”

Deshpande had been told that the RSS was a revolutionary outfit fighting to get rid of the foreigners. Hence his surprise that “when the Quit India movement gathered momentum [in 1942], the RSS remained a passive onlooker. In one of the theory classes this isolation was justified on the ground that neither the RSS nor the country was yet strong enough to overthrow the foreign yoke. The speaker told us that all the blood that was being spilled in the firings was in vain!”

Many years later, while looking back on his time in the sangh, Deshpande concluded that the main achievement of the organization was “the sense of unity and brotherhood the RSS was successful in creating in the minds of its adherents. True, this is confined to the Hindus, but the fact cannot be overlooked that in spite of its Maharashtrian parentage, the RSS is wholly devoid of any chauvinistic Maharashtrianism.... In fact, the easy camaraderie amongst its volunteers, be they Tamils, Bengalis, Maharashtrians or Punjabis, is its most heartening feature.”

On the other hand, “even a second-rate intellectualism had no place in the RSS scheme of things.” The anti-intellectualism of the sangh, recalled this former member, was responsible “for the utter vacuousness of the speeches that were delivered at the meetings misnamed theory classes.” For one thing, the speaker was chosen “not so much for his erudition as for the rank he occupied in the RSS hierarchy. So long as he merely mouthed sentimental platitudes, you found him at least bearable. But the moment he sought to give a theoretical basis to his arguments, he would stand exposed. This consisted of clichés like ‘Hindustan belongs to the Hindus’, ‘The Saffron flag is our National flag’, ‘One Nation, One Leader’, which would be repeated ad nauseam.”

Sometimes the speaker himself found the slogan-mongering wearying. Then he would instead “evoke the ‘glorious’ past of the Hindus, or ridicule the democratic polity, or find fault with the Indian National Congress because it was ‘founded by the British’. The discipline of the Germans and the Italians would be extolled....” Listening to all this, Deshpande “searched in vain for any rational or original thought in all this demagogy.”

The RSS “combined this intellectual poverty with intolerance of criticism.” The economist grimly remembered that in his years in the sangh, “at least three Marathi authors were physically assaulted for writing articles which were critical of the RSS philosophy.”

The sangh was close-minded in general, but, remarked Deshpande, it was “vis-à-vis the Muslims that this intolerance of the RSS acquired sharp edge.... [T]he image of a Muslim in the mind of an RSS volunteer is often extremely bizarre. An intellectual friend of mine, who like me has now left the RSS, only grudgingly concedes that a Muslim too could be a well-educated, cultured and soft-spoken person. He cannot yet get rid of the equation, ‘a Muslim = a dagger’!”

There have, in recent years, been a series of closely researched books on the sangh parivar by Indian and Western scholars. However, to my mind the best book on the RSS remains that written by D.R. Goyal, who — like S.H. Deshpande —was a once fervent swayamsevak who later left the organization. In a passage of striking clarity, Goyal sums up the ideology of the sangh as follows: “Hindus have lived in India since time immemorial; Hindus are the nation because all culture, civilization and life is contributed by them alone; non-Hindus are invaders or guests and cannot be treated as equal unless they adopt Hindu traditions, culture etc...; the history of India is the history of the struggle of the Hindus for protection and preservation of their religion and culture against the onslaught of these aliens; the threat continues because the power is in the hands of those who do not believe in this nation as a Hindu Nation; those who talk of national unity as the unity of all those who live in this country are motivated by the selfish desire of cornering minority votes and are therefore traitors; the unity and consolidation of the Hindus is the dire need of the hour because the Hindu people are surrounded on all sides by enemies; the Hindus must develop the capacity for massive retaliation and offence is the best defence; lack of unity is the root cause of all the troubles of the Hindus and the Sangh is born with the divine mission to bring about that unity.”

Goyal adds that “without fear of contradiction it can be stated that nothing more than this has been said in the RSS shakhas during the past 74 years of its existence.” Goyal was writing in 1999 — but nothing more has been said in those shakas in the past 13 years either.