Lin Ying Hui (林盈惠)

Introduction

This article talks about Rashtriya Swayamsevak  Sangh (RSS), but this is also reflective of how I grew up. After reading RSS’s ideology, learning its methods of propagation, and looking at the school education it provides, I realize I have actually grown up in RSS, the one catering to Buddhism and Chinese nationalism. I had participated in it devotedly until my junior year in college when my queerness and identification as Taiwanese were no longer compatible with it. The fact that I am now sitting in an apartment my mother bought years ago from the organization with the aim to be fully integrated with ‘the way of life’ makes typing this piece a bit ironic but also a bit reassuring.

Knowing that in a parallel world, the same rhetoric is echoing, neither of them are unique, special, and righteous as they claim to be. I have taken an interest in the Muslims’ role in the RSS because I have flashbacks of my growing unease in the organization. I wonder why Muslims would be interested in joining an organization that treats their religion as secondary. RSS Hindutva holds that ‘religions originating in India-Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhim-are the only true religions that have helped shape the culture of India, and it gives lower status to religions originating outside the country (Islam, Christianity).’[1] I will first look at Muslims in RSS discourse and their incorporation into the organization and then aim to find out why Muslims join the Sangh. In the following paragraphs, I will explore the current increase in Muslims’ participation in the RSS through the lens of individual interests.

Muslims in the RSS Discourse

RSS, originally, was founded because of its differences with Gandhi’s Muslim inclusive Indian independence movements. While Gandhi considered India’s independence was out of reach without Muslims’ participation, Hindu nationalists thought otherwise, as demonstrated in the words of V.D. Savarkar. He said that India would win freedom with or without Muslims.[2] The founder of RSS, Hedgewar, thinking in the same vein argued that the promotion of Muslim identity was too big a risk. It could harm Indian nationalism because the very act will allow Muslims in India to grow a distinct identity that can move them away from their Indian heritage.[3] Therefore, RSS has always been suspicious of Muslims. They consider Muslims mostly as foreign races[4] and at best incomplete citizen subjects[5].  Although as time went by RSS adjusted to the changing climate of the political reality in idea and opened its door to Muslims from 1977 onward. RSS leadership and its members’ general attitude towards Muslims is still very similar to their predecessors, and probably that is why the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM) has never been an official affiliate of the Sangh. Golwalkar’s famous statement that showcased his attitude toward Muslims and Christians in India is still very much alive and lives on in many RSS members’ minds. Let us compare the passage written by Golwalkar and the words written by Dr. Shreerang Godbole who is a Pune-based endocrinologist and a former city-level RSS sanghchalak. The passage by Golwalkar is as follows:

From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment -not even citizen’s rights.[6]

And the passage written by Dr. Shreerang Godbole in his email to the authors of Messengers of Hindu Nationalism Walter Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle is as follows:

The notion that Indian Muslims can be Indianized is, at best, quixotic. … The long history of Islam shows that communal and religious identity will always take precedence over national identity… The alternative is for Indian Muslims to be Hinduized, not Indianized.[7]

From these two passages, the same narration and logic can be observed. Both Golwalkar and Godbole show mistrust of Muslims completely. They deny the possibility of co-existence of being both a Muslim and an Indian which leaves no room for Muslims in their Hindu Utopia.

The ‘inclusion’ of Muslims in the RSS

The RSS was pushed to open its membership to Muslims and Christians in 1977 because of the political reality. They cannot afford to be seen as the representative of Hindu communalism.[8] To justify the inclusion of Muslims RSS developed another theory about Muslims, which is still opposed by many members. The theory is best demonstrated by the introduction of the MRM on its website.

Sudarshan said the world has seen only the violence of Islam. But it has the other face too-that of peace. Will there be any efforts to show this other face of Islam to the world? …  He also wondered why Muslims in India accepted the minority status when they belonged to this land by birth and shared the same culture, race, and ancestors with the Hindus? … Indresh Kumar believed that when we share the same ancestors, culture, and motherland where is the scope for confrontation? Once the Muslims and Hindus understand and realize the spirit and soul of India, all artificial barriers will automatically vanish.[9]

The statement looks all kind and inclusive at first glance, but the devil is in the details. It is the same rhetoric with brand-new packaging. By asking Muslims to re-join the mainstream and practice ‘the spirit and soul of India’, RSS leaders are saying the same thing as Golwalkar, which is to change Muslims’ behavior completely into conformity with the doctrine of   RSS, in its ideological version of an Indian which allows no diversity. Anyone who denies that ideology is characterized as unpatriotic and seems like an outcast.

This ideology can be further observed by the images of ‘good’ Muslims presented by the MRM. Lalit Vachani, a prestigious Indian documentary director, talks about the scenes he filmed and the videos he saw in an MRM WhatsApp group:

Scenes of vegetarian Muslim gaurakshaks nurturing cows, Muslims engaging in symbolic sacrifice by cutting goat-shaped cakes on Bakr-Id instead of participating in the tradition of animal sacrifice, Hindu women tying rakhis on the wrists of Muslim men during Raksha Bandhan, or Muslims and Hindus playing Holi together are among the instances of the MRM’s performative syncretism.[10]

From this ideal image of Muslims created by RSS, we can clearly see that MRM has never been a space intended for genuine conversation between Hindus and Muslims, nor has it been working for a brighter future for both Muslims and Hindus. It is discrimination hiding in the plain sight of patriotism and historical heritage. If the true intentions of Sangh towards Muslims are that clear to an outsider like me, it must be pretty obvious to the Muslims at home, then why do some of them still join the RSS and participate in its activities? I will try to answer this question from two aspects, education and political aspirations.

Education

‘[S]chool are one of the modes by which nations imagine and reproduce themselves’[11]. Sangh knows this too well and utilizes education for its own end, which is to produce the ‘“enlightened” group [that] would work together to restore order and social harmony through reshaping society in a way compatible with the RSS interpretation of Hindu thought.’[12] The former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Murli Manohar Joshi, was part of the RSS from a young age. When he served as HRD minister;

the NCERT social science/history textbooks … reflect many of the RSS’s pet themes – e.g. the urge to prove that Indian civilisation is synonymous with Hinduism, which in turn is synonymous with the ‘Vedic civilisation’ … [which] is portrayed as the fount of all things great in the world, while all the evils that beset India are traced to foreigners – Muslim invaders and Christian missionaries.[13]

If this is the case in general education, then one can probably imagine the advocacy of this narrative would be more enthusiastic at RSS-affiliated schools. At an RSS school in Uttar Pradesh, the HuffPost journalist found the students are asked to

learn about the “Putraroop Hindu Samaj” that must serve “Bharat Mata” [and answer] questions that go like this: Name the animal that is everyone’s mother? Name the god who threw away a necklace because he couldn’t spot the image of Ram and Sita in each bead? Which ideal woman sets an example for virtuous women?[14]

Why would Muslim parents ever send their kids to a place they are not welcomed? The answer is actually hinted at in Nandini Sundar’s article about pedagogy where she mentioned that ‘[the RSS’s] educational front, Vidya Bharati, runs one of the largest private networks of schools across the country, catering mainly middle-class students’[15]. One of the most important intentions of Muslim kids to go to these schools becomes clearer when we see a Muslim kid explain to the reporter,

The choices in the Muslim community are limited. Madrassas won’t help you in your career. There are a few Muslim-run private schools, but those are not very good. The government schools are bad. The fancy private schools, we can’t afford them.[16]

From this response, we can see that one important intention behind sending kids to an RSS school is that Muslim parents trying to get their kids the best education possible at an affordable rate. Under the circumstance that ‘Muslims had the highest proportion of youth (age 3-35) who had never enrolled in formal educational programs[17], going to an RSS school might be an acceptable compromise.

Political Aspirations

Felix Pal’s article, ‘Why Muslims join the Muslim wing of the RSS’[18] discusses how RSS could be a step toward fulfilling political aspirations for some Muslims.  Some interviewees joined the organization out of resentment against other parties and believed Sangh could help them reach their political goals. For example, one of the interviewees was angry at Congress for not introducing the Communal Violence ACT, and the other one joined because the RSS realized her belief by criminalizing triple talaq [19] Furthermore, one of Pal’s friends, who was originally critical of  RSS, was thinking about joining it in order to be part of the national conversation.[20]

I think all of the reasons provided by the interviewees can be interpreted as the compromises they have to make with the norm of a broad society. With the popularity of Hindutva in India now, little political space is left for Muslims unless they join the ‘mainstream’. These people cannot really see themselves being successful in their political quests without integrating themselves into the narrative of the RSS. However, Muslims must not forget the original RSS narrative that ‘Muslims should join the national mainstream’; an understanding which interprets their beliefs as foreign and demands their transformation to experience India’s authentic culture.[21] Therefore, the current inclusion of Muslims in the RSS can hardly be seen as genuine. It is clearly a temporal solution, a step to the ultimate goal of all Indians calling themselves Hindus.

Conclusion

As time goes by, the narratives about Muslims in the RSS have become more moderate compared to the time when the RSS was first founded. The efforts to be more inclusive or at least to be seen as more inclusive can be observed. However, by looking closely at the speeches delivered by the RSS leaders, we can see the core narrative of neglecting the Muslim way of life remains. Now, there are more Muslims in the RSS, looking for better education quality and more effective channels to express their voices. Whether their participation will serve as a force to facilitate change in the culture of the RSS remains to be seen. People are always afraid of what they are not familiar with. Many members of the RSS disapprove of the Muslim’s participation in the RSS, but the policy of getting more Muslims involved in the RSS is here to stay.

Ying-Hui Lin is a graduate student at the Graduate Institute of International Politics, National Chung Hsing University, Taichung, Taiwan.

References


[1] Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, ‘Despite Modi, India Has Not Yet Become a Hindu Authoritarian State’, Cato Institute, 24 November 2020. <https://www.cato.org/policy-analysis/despite-modi-india-has-not-yet-become-hindu-authoritarian-state> [accessed 17 June 2022]

[2] Sangit Kumar Ragi, RSS and Gandhi: The Idea of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2022), 366.

[3] Ibid, 370-371.

[4] M.S. Golwalker, We, or Our Nationhood Defined (Nagpur, Bharat Publications, 1939), ebook, 104-105.

[5] Lalit Vachani, ‘When Hindutva Performs Muslimness: Ethnographic Encounters with the Muslim Rashtriya Manch’, Saffron Republic: Hindu Nationalism and State Power in India, ed. by Thomas Blom Hansen and Srirupa Roy (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 221.

[6] Golwalker, 104-105.

[7] Walter Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle, ‘The Muslim Rashtriya Manch’, Messengers of Hindu Nationalism (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Ltd.), 101.

[8] Ibid, 98.

[9] ‘About Us: Muslim Rashtriya Manch’, Muslim Rashtriya Manch (2016) < http://muslimrashtriyamanch.org/Encyc/2016/1/13/About-us.aspx> [accessed 3 July 2022]

[10] Vachini, 229.

[11] Nandini Sundar, ‘Teaching to Hate: RSS’ Pedagogical Programme’, Economic and Political Weekly, 39.16 (17-23 April 2004), 1605. [accessed 17 June 2022]

[12] Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle, The Brotherhood in Saffron: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism (Penguin, 2019), chapter 1, paragraph 13, Kindle edition.

[13] Nandini Sundar, ‘Teaching to Hate: RSS’ Pedagogical Programme’, Economic and Political Weekly, 39.16 (17-23 April 2004), 1605-1606. [accessed 17 June 2022]

[14] Betwa Sharma, ‘In RSS Schools, Muslim Students Are Learning to Live With Hindutva’, HuffPost News, 18 September 2017.< https://www.huffpost.com/archive/in/entry/in-rss-schools-muslims-students-are-learning-to-live-with-hindutva_a_23155028?fbclid=IwAR13aUgYHZRBLHhlPlTeZI0n2c6lAND2qQeTJvqD5jFjZfuIqOynhJ0T_fg> [accessed 17 June 2022]

[15] Nandini Sundar, ‘Teaching to Hate: RSS’ Pedagogical Programme’, Economic and Political Weekly, 39.16 (17-23 April 2004), 1605. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/4414900&gt; [accessed 17 June 2022]

[16] Betwa Sharma, ‘In RSS Schools, Muslim Students Are Learning to Live With Hindutva’, HuffPost News, 18 September 2017.< https://www.huffpost.com/archive/in/entry/in-rss-schools-muslims-students-are-learning-to-live-with-hindutva_a_23155028?fbclid=IwAR13aUgYHZRBLHhlPlTeZI0n2c6lAND2qQeTJvqD5jFjZfuIqOynhJ0T_fg> [accessed 17 June 2022]

[17] Atul Thakur, ‘Literacy rate for Muslims worse than SC/STs’, The Times of India, 13 August 2020. <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/literacy-rate-for-muslims-worse-than-sc/sts/articleshow/77514868.cms> [accessed 17 June 2022]

[18] Felix Pal, ‘Why Muslims join the Muslim wing of the RSS’, Contemporary South Asia, 28.3 (2020), 275-287. [accessed 17 June 2022]

[19] Ibid, 280.

[20] Ibid, 284.

[21] Jai Gopal Tiwari, ‘R.S.S. Policy toward Indian Muslims: origins and development, Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, 8.1 (1987), 84-85.

Ragi, Sangit Kumar, RSS and Gandhi: The Idea of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2022)

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