RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who had called for a review of the reservation policy eight years ago, has now said the quotas should continue as long as inequality exists, marking a shift in position that has been forced apparently by political compulsions.
"There has been a history of social inequality in our country…. We kept our fellow human beings backward in the social system. They lived life like animals and, still, we didn't care for them, and this continued for 2,000 years," Bhagwat said on Wednesday, showing a never-before frankness in acknowledging the depths of discrimination in Hindu society.
"So, until we provide them with equality, some special remedies have to be there, and reservations are one of them. Hence, reservations have to continue as long as there is such discrimination. We at the RSS fully support the constitutionally mandated reservations,” he told students at an event in Nagpur.
“If the sections of society that faced discrimination suffered for 2,000 years, why cannot we (the rest) accept some trouble for 200 years?”
Bhagwat's remarks came amid a controversy over DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin's call to “eradicate” Sanatana Dharma on the ground that it promotes division and discrimination, and a demand for a caste-based census from key Opposition parties. While BJP leaders have ripped into Udhayanidhi, the RSS has so far maintained silence.
On reservations, Bhagwat had sung a different tune ahead of the Bihar elections of 2015 and suggested a committee be formed to review the quota policy, asserting it had been used for political ends.
“Form a committee genuinely concerned with the interest of the whole nation and committed to social equality, including some representatives from society. They (committee members) should decide which categories require reservation and for how long,” he had said.
“The non-political committees like autonomous commissions should be the implementation authority; political authorities should supervise them for honesty and integrity."
Lalu Prasad (RJD) and Nitish Kumar (JDU), who were at the time allies, had seized on Bhagwat’s statement and accused the BJP of plotting to end reservations. This was believed to have cost the BJP heavily in the polls.
Bhagwat's apparent turnaround is being seen as a reflection of his having drawn lessons from the past.
By unequivocally acknowledging caste-based discrimination in Hindu society, the RSS chief seems obliquely to have accepted the logical basis of Udhayanidhi’s salvo against Sanatana Dharma.
Bhagwat's pro-reservation statement comes against the backdrop of a Maratha agitation for the grant of quotas in Maharashtra, where a coalition government that includes the BJP has been compelled to acknowledge the demand.
The BJP, seen traditionally as a Brahmin-Bania party, has through a sustained effort made deep inroads among the OBCs, Dalits and tribal communities, particularly since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. This has coincided with the decline of the socialist and Dalit parties.
Bhagwat’s latest comments appear to have been prompted at least partly by fear of the BJP losing ground among the disadvantaged communities ahead of a bunch of Assembly polls and the general election.
Such apprehensions owe also to Opposition pressure for a caste-based census to determine the strength of each community and allocate quotas on that basis.
The RSS and the BJP are firmly against a caste-based census, fearing it can reignite caste divisions and pose political challenges for India’s ruling party ahead of the elections. The RSS-BJP has been striving to bring the lower castes under a wider Hindutva umbrella, and a caste-based census can upset such plans.
While interacting with the students, Bhagwat narrated a story that suggested that RSS cadres were ready even to eat beef if that ensured the assimilation of the lower castes into the larger Hindu fold.
He said some RSS activists were dining with lower-caste people at a village when they were told that what they were eating was beef. One of the RSS men replied they had no problem eating beef if that meant “you will be with us”.
Bhagwat added that it turned out that the food served was not beef and that the hosts were merely testing the seriousness of the visitors’ outreach to them.
“You may not see it, but discrimination exists. The question is not of political and economic equality. Social equality is a matter of respect,” Bhagwat told the students.
“You cannot understand this solely as a means of making an argument. This is a question of kinship, empathy. The only solution is mutual sensitivity and goodwill.”