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The RSS' wayward history


Masoom Gupte  |  Mumbai 

In a game of word association, the mention of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, more commonly known as the RSS, is most likely to throw up not one but two words: Hindu hardliners. Or, for the visually inclined, conjure images of men wielding lathis and wearing khaki-coloured half-pants.

Is this understanding of the apt or is there more to this 85-year old organisation? has attempted to answer these questions. More specifically, as the book’s back cover states, “At the heart of the book lies the author’s implicit desire to contradict the current media representations of the Sangh and portray the as what it was actually meant to be.”

This attempt can, however, occasionally be discomfiting for the reader, presenting as it does a somewhat slanted view of history. For instance, the author attributes the origin of the to what he sees as the appeasement of Muslims by Gandhi. In the opening chapter, he writes, “The Mopla revolt in Kerala was, beyond doubt, an instance of eruption of Muslim communalism, killing at least 1,500 Hindus and converting 20,000. Gandhiji’s remark on the event was, ‘God fearing brave Moplas have fought for what they think is their religious duty in a manner they think is religious’.”

Such extracts, though, should not lead the reader to assume that the book is just more propaganda. As the author beseeches his readers, it may be worth picking up the book without preconceived notions.

The book’s title captures the dominant theme of the book — that is, highlighting the what-could-have-beens. After being associated with the RSS for almost half its lifespan, one would assume Mr Kelkar is in a strong position to comment on the path the organisation has taken since its inception. His faith in the RSS principles is unwavering. He describes it as “only one organisation in India that considers character building as a precondition to the betterment of the society”.

Even so, his criticism of the RSS and how it went wrong is quite sharp. He has chronicled the history of the RSS as well as other parivar offshoots to acquaint the reader with the organisation’s ideology. This is done by capturing the landmark events in the Sangh’s journey. On occasion, the author has even skipped large tracts of time, focusing more on the ideologies that evolved during the period rather than events and activities. For instance, while describing the founding of the RSS, Mr Kelkar has placed greater stress on RSS founder Dr Hedgewar’s rationale for starting the organisation rather than how the RSS reached out to supporters.

The turning points he has chosen represent missed opportunities as well as those that catapulted the RSS into the mainstream polity. An example of the former is the 1942 Quit India Movement, when the RSS distanced itself from the movement on ideological grounds, losing traction with the masses (in this context, the author describes the Sangh leadership as myopic).

On the other hand, he has spoken about the early seventies, years preceding and following the Emergency, when the RSS rose like a phoenix, capturing popular imagination. So much so that it even found a mention in The Economist. “The ground troops of this operation (the underground movement) consist of tens of thousands of cadres who are organised to the village levels into four-man cells. Most of them are RSS regulars. The other opposition parties which started out as partners in the underground have effectively abandoned the field to Jan Sangh and RSS,” the newspaper wrote.

Such variations in the RSS’ popularity over the years can be attributed to the equally varying leadership styles of Guru Golwalkar (who took over from Dr Hedgewar) and Deoras (who was widely believed to be the rightful heir to the founder’s legacy) and their impact on the organisation’s evolution. Mr Kelkar has relied on his conversations with journalists, old hands at the Sangh and several academics for his analysis. He has also drawn extensively on his own experiences to comment, especially on recent events. Thus, though the monograph is largely a historical account of the RSS, it occasionally acquires an autobiographical hue.

The momentum that is built through the book reaches its peak when the author finally asks if there is a future for the RSS. The organisation’s archaic ideology, refusal to participate in the globalisation of the economy and opposition to westernisation on account of apparent “cultural disintegration” are driving the organisation further from reality. Unless checked, it may soon be a once-upon-a time-there-existed organisation.

Whatever the future, given the RSS’ multi-layered history, this was a story waiting to be told. Mr Kelkar’s intention may be to analyse the history of the RSS as a believer as well as an opponent. But objectivism is easier said than achieved. In Mr Kelkar’s case, the opponent’s viewpoint resembles that of a mother, bitterly disappointed in her child but unrelenting in her support and affection nonetheless. So expect a historical account of a “misunderstood” organisation and a loyalist’s take on the way forward.

Sanjeev Kelkar
Sage Publications, 2011
354 pages; Rs 350

First Published: Wed, June 08 2011. 00:26 IST