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'The RSS has realised the importance of power and its benefits'

Hindutva scholar Shridhar D. Damle tells V. Kumara Swamy that the parent body of the BJP is fast getting a never-before grip on India

For the last few weeks, Shridhar D. Damle has been everywhere - Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi. At every place he has been single-mindedly focussed on getting new information on Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar. Not that he doesn't have enough information on the subject already. But Damle, by his own admission, is a bit like a child in a candy shop when it comes to Savarkar - he wants everything and more.

Damle is based in Chicago but is in Delhi currently on an important mission. "While researching Savarkar in Calcutta, I came to know that police there have intelligence reports on his 1939 visit. I want to read them. I am hoping the home minister, Rajnath Singh, can help me," he says.

I am meeting Damle to discuss not Savarkar, but another Sangh Parivar institution - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). We have just walked into a noisy cafe in Delhi's Bengali Market area. It is a particularly cold evening, but our man's sweater is only draped over his shoulders, its sleeves tied in a loose knot around his neck.

Damle is the co-author of the 1987 book on the RSS, The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism. The lead author of the classic work was Walter K. Andersen. The book deals with the RSS's organisational structure, its early years, the ideology and its relationship with the BJP and several other affiliates.

Andersen and Damle's upcoming book has been tentatively, but deferentially, titled Messenger of Dharma: The RSS, Hindutva and the Parivar Organisations. That's not what the writers think, Damle clarifies. It is the RSS that sees itself thus.

I ask him why there is no mention of brotherhood in the title and he laughs. "That is out of the question after what the Muslim Brotherhood has done in the Middle East."

The book was suggested by none other than Narendra Modi, Damle reveals. "When he was in the US in 2014, we met at a get-together and he asked me why we had not updated our book when so much had happened in India. I spoke to Walter and within days we were planning our book."

The new book will be a continuation of the old one, with a few differences. "We take up a different subject in each chapter, like the relationship of the RSS with the Muslims, cow slaughter, nationalism...," he explains.

But anybody who has read the first book would have one question for the writer duo. How did they get such free-ranging access to the RSS ranks? "Because they trust us," says Damle. Apparently, M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak, spoke to him at length in 1967 as part of a research project. "After that no RSS chief has denied me an interview."

Damle claims the new book will throw light on specific episodes of history. For instance, he says two or more independent sources have confirmed that when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister in 1988, he sent emissaries to the then RSS sarsanghchalak, Balasaheb Deoras, soon after the government decided to open the doors of the disputed Ram temple, which was within the precincts of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

According to Damle, the present governor of Tamil Nadu, Banwarilal Purohit, was one of those who had facilitated that meeting. "Rajiv wanted a secret pact with the RSS. He asked Deoras if the RSS would support the Congress in the 1989 elections if he promised the construction of the Ram temple," says Damle and adds that Deoras was, thereafter, ready to dump the BJP.

The 76-year-old also talks about the incorrect projection of the RSS - as a secretive, communal force with a fascist mindset and a direct threat to the secular Constitution of the country - by mainstream media. He says, "Much of the media that presented this point of view has been tamed after 2014."

Does he mean to say the RSS is not static, supremacist and backward-looking? Damle thunders, "That is so far from the truth. Some supporters call it a revolutionary entity. Even that is not true. It is a very evolutionary, fast-thinking group that plans its steps well ahead of others." He talks about how Modi as the mass leader had always been on the RSS radar and he was told well in advance to prepare for the role. "Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj were considered, but they lost out as the RSS leadership - quite correctly - felt they lacked a mass base."

What about the fact that the RSS likes operating behind the scenes through its various wings, while claiming it has nothing to do with the functioning of the BJP? And in 1998, the then RSS chief had gone so far as to suggest that the organisation was not interested in holding the Vajpayee government on a leash. Does Damle believe these claims as well?

"That was never true," says Damle. Of course, the RSS meddled in the BJP's affairs. He cites the example of long-time pracharak and skilled organiser Krishna Gopal and how he moved from Assam to Uttar Pradesh long before the 2014 elections with the single aim of strengthening the RSS network to help the BJP. He talks about the added impetus (for a closer engagement) that came after some Hindu groups came to be yoked with the "saffron terror" tag post the Ajmer (2007), Samjhauta Express (2007) and Malegaon (2008) blasts. He recalls how it all culminated with Mohan Bhagwat's announcement in 2009, post his elevation as sarsanghchalak, that the BJP needed chemotherapy.

Damle concedes that now, when the BJP is in power and stronger than ever before, the RSS may have undergone a more drastic change of heart. "I feel the RSS has realised the importance of power and its benefits. It doesn't want to lose it now."

He points to evidence. "The Parivar organisations are a lot more nuanced when it comes to criticism of the government. Vajpayee and his ministers were called names and they were even termed anti-national by some of the Sangh affiliates. You don't hear that now. The government too, I must admit, is a lot more accommodating when it comes to the concerns of the Sangh in some areas."

But there is one field that he feels the RSS has been given a free hand. "What the media and others are ignoring is how skillfully and sublimely the RSS is working in the field of education. By 2024, they would have raised and readied a new generation of educated Indians who understand and believe in the philosophy of Hindutva. All the vice-chancellors of major universities are partners in this project."

In the changed situation, Damle says, the RSS foresees a major role for Yogi Adityanath at the Centre post 2024.

And what is the RSS's equation with the minorities? Damle recalls how one RSS man recently told him that the organisation's Muslim outreach programme is a bit like an effort to straighten out a dog's tail. Damle, however, points out that the Sangh is looking to partner with Shias, Syrian Christians and even some Protestant organisations.

Speaking of partnerships, Andersen and Damle have studied all 36 affiliates of the RSS, many of which, such as the Bajrang Dal, have been involved in anti-minority violence. Do such organisations operate independent of the RSS? Both writers agree that nothing happens without the tacit approval of the parent.

But Damle dismisses all talk of the RSS being an organisation that models itself on the fascists of the West, as some of its critics allege. "Fascists emphasise upon one power centre and one leader," he points out.

Damle has a different analogy. "You can compare it to the Catholic Church and the RSS chief as the Pope. Kshetriya pracharaks are like archbishops. If you look at the selection of the RSS chief, it is almost like the workings of the Catholic Church."

He adds that this "Catholic Church", unlike the one in Rome, may never stop at just hand-holding the BJP. "It will keep a close watch and if the party is in trouble, the Pope will take control and set it right. You can be sure of that."

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