Walter K Andersen is co-author of The Brotherhood in Saffron
(1987), arguably the most authoritative book on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, based as it was on interviews with the Jana Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and RSS pracharaks. He is currently the director of the South Asia Studies Program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and is in the midst of writing his second book on the RSS and the BJP.
In this telephonic interview with Scroll, Andersen speaks on what the demolition of the Babri Masjid signifies for Hindutva, the tension between the RSS and the BJP, the increasing political orientation of the RSS, the need for the Sangh to crack down on the hardliners, and whether violence is implicitly built into the Sangh projects. Excerpts:
On the 23rd anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, what do you think it signifies for Hindutva as a philosophy and as a movement?
It is a difficult question. To be quite frank, the revision of what is alleged to be a mosque back to a temple has always been an element of Hindutva, though never a major one. It is hard to judge the issue because the major voices of Hindu nationalism – the RSS and the BJP – have put it on the backburner.
But they seem to be bringing it back in preparation for the Uttar Pradesh assembly election in 2017. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently spoke of building a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya.
As far as I understand, it wasn’t an issue in the recent Bihar election. Some in the RSS say that one of the lessons about the Bihar election was that the issue of development was better articulated by Nitish Kumar than the BJP. If that is the case, then development is going to be the primary issue (in the UP election.)
Nevertheless, 23 years later, what does the demolition of the Babri Masjid signify today?
I think it was a great mistake. This is because I think it generated antagonisms that were unnecessary. There were talks of working out a solution, but then, as you would know, it got wrapped up in politics. It was an event of its times. What does it signify now? There are obviously people who think the issue is important – for instance, there are voices in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Shiv Sena who say so.
But, as far as I can tell, the major figures in the BJP have shied away from the issue. An issue becomes an issue in a political context. The last significant political context was Bihar and it wasn’t an issue there. RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat has referred recently to building a temple and the press notes that senior BJP figures are distancing themselves from this statement, simply saying that the idea of a temple might be considered, but without spelling out when. As with the reservation issue on the eve of the Bihar elections, this statement by a senior RSS figure is another demonstration of the lack of close coordination between the RSS and the BJP.
Well, the [Uttar Pradesh] election is still a year away and it may become an issue. But I tend to be sceptical. As far as my reading of the BJP goes, the lesson learnt from Bihar was that the Indian voter is far more concerned about development, jobs and security than what he or she believes about religious issues.
While the Ram Janmabhoomi movement triggered the BJP’s rise, it also sharpened opposition to it. Do you think….
It is not actually true. The BJP’s rise started before the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
But it became spectacular thereafter.
The BJP’s rise started with the collapse of the Congress in much of the Hindi heartland, where it picked up high caste votes which used to go to the Congress.
Yes, but the BJP began to attract the votes of the upper castes because of their disappointment with the decision to implement the Mandal report, which provided reservations to Other Backward Classes in government jobs. The BJP was able to attract these votes spectacularly through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Sure, the Ram Janmabhoomi was an issue and it certainly helped the BJP initially. But whether it was the main issue, I would want it to be debated.
Mandal galvanised sections of lower castes into opposing the BJP, as it happened in Bihar in the 1991 Lok Sabha election. Didn’t the rise of the BJP, therefore, also sharpened opposition to it?
The RSS as an organisation has always been opposed to caste. On this they and the communists are on the same page of music. They quieted down in the early 1990s because caste was an important issue among the OBCs, since they were major beneficiaries of Mandal. This wasn’t very unusual.
But what is more interesting in today’s political context is that Bhagwat was quite outspoken on the caste issue at a very sensitive time of the Bihar election. He said reservations had to be relooked, re-analysed. Obviously, everyone interpreted it as opposition to reservation, which it wasn’t at the end of the day. To my mind, the more interesting aspect was that his statement was a signal that development is more important than caste or religion. All the polls, in fact, consistently show that. You do have fringe elements who speak in a different language. But all polls show they are on the margins.
Do you mean all those who speak on the issues of caste and religion are on the margins?
Certainly those who speak on the issue of religion are on the margins, but also, to an extent, those who speak on caste issues.
As a person who has studied India but who is American and lives in the USA, what is your reaction to what people call the growing intolerance in India? Do you find this phenomenon worrying?
I have lived and been coming to India since I was 18 or 19 years old. I have always found in India a degree of intolerance. There is this wonderful book which came out two years ago, written by Indian journalist Gautam Adhikari, who lives in Washington, on the issue of intolerance in India. He goes into the roots of the intolerance issue. Much of it is because of the extraordinary plurality that one finds in India, leading to one group trying to take an advantage over another group.
I saw a study that came out recently in one of the newspapers that communal incidents are less this year in comparison to the past year. I don’t know what that study tells you one way or the other. As far as I know there is no systematic study which tells you whether intolerance in India has grown or become less in the present times.
But you certainly have a great deal rhetoric coming from BJP leaders who seem to privilege intolerance.
But this kind of rhetoric has been there before. For instance, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power, there was a great deal of rhetoric similar to what is being heard today.
But there is a difference. Under Vajpayee the BJP didn’t have a majority of its own and everyone thought its allies would restrain the National Democratic Alliance government from going beyond a certain point. It is not the case now. This lack of restraining influence on the BJP worries a lot of people.
But this is not true. For one, the BJP does not control the Rajya Sabha and it is a long way from doing so. It controls just about one-third of the states. It has tried to have what it calls competitive federalism, to provide more power to the states. It lost in Bihar. It doesn’t have the significant state of UP under its control. And then you have the free press, which has a restraining effect on the BJP.
What you have here are issues of value. For instance, I don’t think anyone can think of imposing Emergency on India. That is because there is a general sense among Indians that the Emergency was a huge blunder and shouldn’t be allowed to repeat. There is a realisation that democracy is the best protection for the civil liberties of the people.
So you feel there is no reason to worry about intolerance?
No, I am always worried about intolerance. Whether it has grown, no one knows. What I am saying is you have had a significant level of intolerance in India from the very beginning. Is that unusual in a plural society? No. Look at the US. It is only now people are becoming more aware of racism. Does it mean you didn’t have racism before? No, you had racism in the past. It is only now that it is becoming more of an academic and journalistic issue. People now know of racism because of better communication, because they know of racist incidents. And that is a good thing. At the end of the day, these are basically law and order issues. Whether it is the federal or state governments, they have to do a better job of ensuring there is no violence connected to differences of opinion. The real issue is of law and order, where there has been some major deficiencies.
True, but whether it is the movement for the Ram Janmabhoomi or ghar wapsi or cow-protection, why is it that violence seems implicitly built into the RSS programme?
There are groups associated with the RSS which have a propensity for violence. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal are the best examples of what I am saying.
But both the VHP and the Bajrang Dal belong to what is called the Sangh Parivar.
The Sangh Parivar organisations are relatively autonomous. That is why they haven’t fallen apart as most organisations in India seem to have. Take the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh – it has a very socialist agenda and was very much opposed to the government’s suggestions for reforms on the land issue. On one issue after another, the BMS has had differences with the government. These differences indicate autonomy. These different organisations work together, try to iron out differences, but there have been cases when they haven’t managed to.
But what is the source of VHP’s attraction for violence?
The VHP was meant to organise the ecclesiastical establishment of Hinduism – for instance, pandits and sadhus, etc. They have very distinct Hindu ideas of how the world should progress. Do they represent the majority Hindu opinion? No. In my opinion, they do not represent the opinion of even a majority of RSS and BJP members. At least the BJP realises that this (violent religious movements) does not get them votes. In 2014, they got the votes because of Modi and development, as it was the case in Haryana and Maharashtra. It fell down on the development issue in Bihar and lost.
In your book, The Brotherhood in Saffron, you say the RSS was opposed to the non-violence creed of Gandhi. What were the reasons for its opposition to Gandhi?
That is an old strain in Maharashtra politics. Mahatma Gandhi was never very popular in Maharashtra. VD Savarkar represented a certain strain that said that if Hindus were to be independent, they needed a revolution. There were many there who felt Gandhi was on an incorrect path. When Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a member of the Congress, he too thought that there needed to be a strong, assertive anti-British struggle.
But, by and large, that view has been abandoned by the contemporary Sangh Parivar. When Vajpayee and LK Advani sought to restructure the Jana Sangh (which became the BJP), they adopted Gandhian socialism as one its central planks. Gandhian socialism was an unusual combination, for Gandhi was not a socialist. They continue to focus on Gandhian thought and the value he represented. So, to be frank, their opposition to the non-violence creed is no longer important.
But even in your book the description of the RSS drill with lathis conveys the impression that the RSS is enamoured of violence.
The use of lathi goes back to the formation of the RSS. Both the lathi and the khaki uniform of the RSS were the copies of the police uniform. Some youth groups in the 1920s too adopted it. It was something like an Indian version of the boys scout. Was the lathi meant for violence? I think it was to signify the importance of physical fitness. The RSS has expanded tremendously now, but the region where I studied them, its members were largely middle-class business people. They are the last ones to engage in violence, to do kushti, in which a completely different class of people engages. Does the possession of lathi indicate violence? I don’t think so.
But there has been a series of commissions of inquiry which have implicated the RSS in communal riotings.
Which commissions of inquiry?
Right from India’s first major communal riot post-Independence in Jabalpur to places in South India to, why, even Gujarat in 2002. How do you see that? Also, in your book, you write that one of the reasons for establishing the RSS was to protect Hindus from Muslims in communal riots.
Yes, it was a factor behind the formation of the RSS. There was a series of riots in the 1920s because of economic depression. Nevertheless, it was a reason. The major reason why [RSS founder KB] Hedgewar built it was to oppose the colonial rule.
But now that India is independent, the security forces are predominantly Hindu, and riots increasingly appear as state pogroms against the religious minorities, isn’t the RSS’s fear of Muslims or Christians unfounded?
Of course, it is. India is very complicated, and to divide India into Hindu, Muslim and Christian is basically illegitimate. If Hindus are divided into linguistic groups, so are the Christians and Muslims. So what we are talking about is the various conglomerates or groups that interact with each other. There was a communal issue before Independence because the British imposed a Muslim-Hindu division of the subcontinent – that is, Pakistan and India. You also had in the 1890s and 1890s a struggle between Hindus and Muslims to establish dominance in the Ganges belt, in what is Uttar Pradesh and Bihar now. You had Hindus calling for Hindi in the Devanagiri script to replace Urdu. You had a lot of violence then, because the issue got entangled in the larger Hindu-Muslim question.
However, other [communal] issues tend to be localised and arise because groups, for one reason or another, tend to have something against each other. So far, I have yet to see a very good analysis on this issue. To some extent, Paul Brass and Ashutosh Varshney have done some good studies. Brass argues that you have people all over who have something to benefit from violence, and it doesn’t matter whether they are Muslim or Hindu or whoever. They use violence because they gain from it. Varshney argues somewhat differently – when groups cease to interact with each other, they lose a kind of solidarity they had, as it often happens in urban areas. This means that Hindu and Muslims group don’t have means of mediations when they have disputes. He argues that this has become a sociological factor.
My wife is Indian She has a factory outside Gurgaon, in Manesar. Her factory has 60% Muslims and 40% of Hindus, largely from one district in Bihar – Madhubani. They get along beautifully with each other. From what I have seen there is that you have the beginnings of class sentiments. I think it is taking place elsewhere in India as well. Class has started to replace religion as an identity among the working class in urban areas. It will be an interesting development if this government increases urbanisation and manufacturing. You will then have a large number of people drawn from the countryside to the city and working together. It will be interesting to see how it will affect them.
But we also have rhetoric stoking fears of Muslims and Christians outstripping the Hindu population. The RSS passed a resolution to this effect in Ranchi a month ago.
(Laughs) It will take thousands of years for Hindus to be outnumbered.
What is the source of this fear?
Such comments come from the VHP.
No, it was at a RSS meeting that this fear of Muslim demography was expressed and a resolution passed.
It isn’t that the leadership of the BJP and the RSS are not concerned about the issue of violence. I wrote a piece on this subject in The Times of India. My contention is that the hardliners in the BJP and the RSS are not listening to the senior leadership. They are doing their own things. One of the problems is that neither the RSS nor the BJP has developed a strategy to marginalise or punish them for the way they speak. At some point, they have to.
You mean they have to crack down on the hardliners.
But, really, I’d find it amazing that the RSS is going to crack down on the hardliners.
You don’t think so? Well, ghar wapsi is an apt example. It is an issue which goes back to the 1980s and 1990s, when both Muslims and Hindus were converting each other. That in itself was not anything unusual. But what is unusual in this case [the ghar wapsi movement of last year] that a particular RSS pracharak who made a big thing of it had many people in the RSS very, very disturbing. He was told to stand down. And I am told he had a nervous breakdown as a consequence of that. It is easier to ask a pracharak to stand down. But it is so much more difficult to deal with people, say, in the Bajrang Dal. The RSS and the BJP have to come out and do something about the hardliners.
They have used the fringe elements to come to power, so how do they crack down on them?
The fringe groups did not bring Modi or the BJP to power. Modi came to power because of the corruption and the fact that economy wasn’t doing sufficiently well to benefit millions of young people who had come into the job market. It wasn’t religion, which was at the bottom of the heap – and still is.
In your book, you also locate the birth of the RSS within the context of Hindu revivalism, which you say was a response to restoring a sense of community among the Hindus who felt alienated or whose moral certitudes were threatened because of colonial experiences. Do you think the RSS has restored to the Hindus a sense of community?
Of course not, though its goal is to restore a sense of community. There are forces which are much bigger than the organisation which have had an impact, forces such as urbanisation, industrialisation, modernisation, spread of education, mobility, communication, all these have tended to link the country together far more than religion. It is not religion which gives people the sense of community, but it is the democratic system which gives people the sense of participation. The country has to grow economically at a much faster pace than it is. Otherwise what you are going to have is massive disillusionment, which is what happened when Indira Gandhi declared the state of Emergency.
Philosophically, the RSS rejects the idea that the conflict of interest is inevitable in society, and that social change happens through cooperation, not conflict. Does it not make it an organisation that supports status quo?
Well, it was Deendayal Upadhyay who thought so.
Yes, but his Integral Humanism is what the BJP subscribes to.
They do and they don’t. Integral Humanism had this view that strikes were not legitimate. However, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has, for long, used strikes. Yes, you have a kind of philosophical genuflection. But it hasn’t been so in practice.
The RSS-BJP has grown phenomenally over the last decade. But this expansion has had an impact on it, in the sense it has made it more difficult for them to come to a consensus. The land bill is a case in point. You had BMS and, in a sense, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and KN Govindacharya come out to say that the land bill is bad for the working man.
This kind of dilemma they have not faced before. It is the subject of my next book. It has become such a large organisation, with various interests in it, that it would be interesting to see whether it holds together with these forces playing back and forth.
Do you think it is coping well?
In terms of reconciling these varied interests, I would say the jury is still out.
Philosophically again, the RSS believes isms such as communism and capitalism are not relevant to India, and that it should turn to Hindu thought to work out a system suitable to its ethos. Do you think…
That also flowed from Integral Humanism. Modi is pro-west, pro-capitalist and you have the old Swatantra types, not in the sense of individuals but in terms of ideas, who have come into the party. When my book came out 25 years ago, it was perhaps legitimate to say that the RSS-BJP was far to the left of the Congress. But that is no longer the case. Over the years, they have attracted more people from big business. They always had the support of owners of small business, who, as anywhere in the world, can be very radical in their politics.
So what you are saying that a lot of their old ideas are old and perhaps forgotten.
They have people who still subscribe to them, but they have to debate these old ideas in a way they never had to before. And that is because India has changed. India’s economy has grown by five times since the market reforms were introduced. India is a different place. Every time I go back to India, it seems to be changing.
When were you here the last time?
Three weeks ago. I go to India three, four times every year.
Did you meet people in the RSS and the BJP?
I did, yes. It was part of my research.
So what was their reaction to Bihar and other challenges they are facing now?
There was concern over losing Bihar. One thing I kept hearing was that they said they were focusing on wrong issues. For instance, the focus on caste. It was the first election in Bihar where most of the BJP candidates were OBCs. The second part of that was that they did not campaign with local leaders. These were the issues I heard discussed in the RSS, particularly among the BJP types. There was the sense that they had a wrong set of issues, if not a wrong set of candidates, by which I suppose they meant that more tickets should have been given to the higher castes.
Did you get the sense of BJP leaders being worried about the centralisation of authority in Modi?
Some people are concerned about that, yes.
In your book, you say certain elements of the RSS belief system do justify the critics’ charge that it has a fascist orientation. What are these elements?
In terms of the European model of fascism, it is not a fascist organisation. The European idea of fascism is to invest special power in the leader. But this the RSS doesn’t subscribe to it, as it stresses on the collegial. This is where Modi is different. He stresses on the individual than on the collegial. It was an issue in Gujarat when he was the chief minister. It is an issue today, to an extent.
A lot of people also perceive the RSS chief as having a veto power over government decisions even though he doesn’t hold a constitutional position. How do you look upon this phenomenon?
To be very frank, I don’t know. When I asked them about this issue over the last six months, their answer was that they weren’t political. But they are becoming increasingly political. When I wrote my book, you could say they were suspicious of politics as a vocation. (The second RSS sarsanghchalak MS) Golwalkar certainly had. There is a certain strand in the RSS which still thinks that way. But, by and large, particularly after Balasaheb Deoras became the sarsanghchalak, they have a notion that is far more amenable to playing a part (in politics). That is because they have a wide range of affiliate organisations – for instance, the VHP and the BMS – dealing with issues which touch upon politics.
The biggest change since the time I wrote my last book is that the RSS has become far more politically oriented than it was before. This does worry some of them. Mohan Bhagwat has himself reminded members that they must remember that their primary loyalty is to the RSS and not to the government. By this, I think he means the RSS has a function to perform that is separate from what the government does.
Have the functions of the RSS changed from the time you wrote your book?
Well, most of the affiliate organisations did not exist. And those that were there were relatively small. They are huge now. For instance, the BMS is the largest trade union, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is the largest students group. Many of its affiliates are engaged in activities that impinge on politics. Why, a few months ago, you had a meeting in Delhi where senior government figures made their presentations. Those who were participating in these meetings, as I understand, were members of affiliate organisations. They did not belong to the RSS. They are the ones who have interest in policy making because that impacts on what they are doing.
So you do see tension between the government and the RSS.
How would you grade that tension? Is it becoming a problem?
Obviously, it is a challenge. The reason why you are having these meetings is to try work things out. Of course, the RSS remains important to the BJP. They still provide the cadres in election times, advise them, and indirectly help the BJP in fund raising. But it is also true that the BJP has started to develop its own cadre base. Should the BJP succeed in developing its own cadre, it would become less reliant on the RSS for help in terms of election campaign. It will be interesting to then see the relationship between the two organisations.
How do you compare Modi with Vajpayee?
For starters, Modi claims to look upon Vajpayee as a political guru and has an enormous respect for him. But the difference between the two personalities is that Vajpayee was more collegial and more willing to reach a consensus than what Modi was as chief minister. This feature in Modi is less so now as being prime minister is altogether a different ballgame.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.