The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Why sex-workers should thank the RSS chief

Not surprisingly, dramatic dialogues in any episode of the long-running sangh parivar soap draw heavily from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and our rich heritage of Sanskrit shlokas. The patriarchs of the parivar cast themselves inevitably in the roles of steadfast Arjun and noble Ram, while opponents are sexualized and emasculated as prostitutes and shikhandis. For an organization that prides itself on the celibacy of its activists, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh certainly wallows in sexual imagery. The current Advani kahani too, has had its share. Up popped RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan, the other day, quoting an appropriate Sanskrit shloka, comparing politics to prostitution. The reason why the RSS stays away from politics, he said.

He may have a point. What does a 'prostitute' do' She offers a specific service, for which she charges a specific sum, and collects payment upon delivering the service. An open and honest transaction. Quite unlike politics, then. And certainly the very opposite of the RSS, whose dishonesty and subterfuge are legendary. By claiming to be a cultural rather than political organization, it controls a political party without ever having to prove its credentials by democratic means. Would the RSS dare to test itself and what it stands for in an election ' even an election restricted to Hindus by birth' But then, why should it, when it can hide behind the Bharatiya Janata Party'

Shikhandi, the transgendered charioteer, is invoked often, to suggest an emasculated figure from behind whom the opponent strikes. When Yashwant Sinha, one of the few non-RSS BJP leaders, attacked Manmohan Singh thus, an editorial in Organizer was effusive about the phrase. What a lovely turn of events in our modern day Mahabharata that the 'real' man is termed the eunuch and the 'real' woman, Sonia Gandhi, the warrior, and both are expected to be insulted. Not that these delicious ironies strike any of the political players in the field.

The recent overwrought discussion over Advani's comments in Pakistan is an indication that finally the Hindu Right is in the throes of its long-deferred nervous breakdown after the election results. Isn't it called the phantom limb syndrome, where the amputee continues for a long time to feel itching and pain and other sensations in her limb which is no longer there' One year down the line, it's just begun to strike them that it's actually happened. The limb has gone. There was the Sonia itch and the threats by various BJP women leaders to shave heads and retreat into kopagrihas. There was the shankaracharya ache, and no one except the BJP cared. (For a party that claims to represent 'Hindus', it really doesn't seem to get it at all. Anyone from the South could have told them that the Shankaracharya matters only to the Iyers, and the Iyengars don't really give a damn. Not to mention North Indians, for whom the shenanigans of Madrasis offer mild amusement, at best.)

The BJP-RSS link is fraying, and whether it will be patched up or not, is something we can only speculate about at this point. The tension is at the question of Indian nationhood. The RSS is more clearly the Hindu Right we recognize, the fascist organization with the agenda of a Hindu nation created by eliminating minorities. The BJP has tried in the past, and continues to hope to be a moderate right-of-centre party. This, by the way, is not a hope limited to the party itself. Post-general election, some of the mainstream English press and senior journalists can be seen urging the BJP in this direction ' to shed the Togadias and Modis, and to concentrate on becoming the Republicans of India. To make themselves worthy of a new globalized world, build alliances with the United States of America, and to disown their embarrassing relatives, the RSS.

It is not simply a question of degree, of 'hard' and 'soft' Hindutva, but of two substantively different strands within the ideology. Within the world-view of the BJP it is entirely possible to be a party of the Hindus while simultaneously espousing the language of abstract citizenship. The Hindu Right is usually understood to be asserting religious identity in place of abstract citizenship, but at least one strand of it, represented by the dominant voice in the BJP, makes a contrary claim. That Indian secularism in practice has not in fact, protected the abstract unmarked citizen. Hence the label of 'pseudo-secularists' for those who affirm the need for protection for minorities ' hence the charge that provisions like separate personal laws, special status for Kashmir and minority status for educational institutions are 'anti-secular.' The fact remains unnoticed by all proponents of abstract citizenship, even its impeccably anti-Hindu Right ones, that its apparent neutrality is already marked by the values of the majority or dominant community. If 'Indianness' is coloured by a Hindu upper-caste tinge, only malcontents and anti-nationals recognize this. This is why Vande Mataram can be claimed as a merely nationalist song, ignoring its embeddedness in Hindu religious iconography. Quite simply, it means 'Hail to thee, O Mother!' ' which child of India could refuse to sing this song' By a similar logic one should be able to claim that any believer in God should be able to utter the words 'God is Great' ' in the form of 'Allah-o-Akbar'. The point, of course, is that this latter claim is too absurd to be made ' minorities asserting 'their' culture can never claim universality, whether it is Muslims in India or Indians in the US.

Within a framework of abstract citizenship, in other words, it becomes possible to claim that it is 'communal' to raise the issue of religious identity at all, and casteist to assert caste identity. It is Ambedkar then, whom Arun Shourie can label casteist and anti-nationalist for insisting on prioritizing caste oppression. Within this framework again, the BJP leader, Harsh Vardhan, can quite logically claim as he did recently, that the Delhi government's decision to conduct a separate census of Muslims is 'insulting to Muslims', because the PMO's letter, on the basis of which this census will be conducted, states that Muslims are 'less educated, less earning and their employment is irregular'. Harsh Vardhan's protest holds that when the president of the country is Muslim, and Muslims have served the nation in various important positions, the PMO 'has no right to say that Indian Muslims are backward, uneducated and living in filthy conditions'.

This is only an absurd version of an understanding not limited to the Hindu Right. A large part of the opposition to it ' ranging from left to liberal voices ' shares this critique of 'identity politics'. Witness their discomfort with, and complete incomprehension of, the politics of Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party. It is crucial now to recognize that the assertion of identities is not necessarily counter to the spirit of democratic politics.

Advani's comments in Pakistan mark an attempt to move away from the RSS mohalla and into a more posh neighbourhood. It would be a mistake to assume a homogeneous camp where such differences are mere theatrics. This struggle for the soul of the Hindu Right is worth watching.

Meanwhile, sex-workers, celebrate! To be cleared by the sarsanghchalak himself, of any possible charge of being anything like the immoral and corrupt RSS ' what a relief!

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