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Book Review
From culture to politics: RSS bares its fangs
By Ram Puniyani

Name of the Book: RSS’s Tryst with politics
by Pralay Kanungo 
Manohar, Delhi Rs 625/313 pp

An organisation which was hardly in the news for decades, but now is on the front pages of newspapers every day, cannot escape analysis by social scientists for long. There were very few studies on this multi-headed hydra so far. Since the demolition of Babari Masjid in 1992, social scientists have done significant analysis of this organisation, which is at the centre of a massive communal offensive. Kanungo's work is the latest of these studies.

The book traces the backdrop in which RSS was formed. Hindu Mahasabha, which was running parallel to Muslim League and articulating politics based on Hinduism, was talking in terms of "legitimate rights of Hindus" as the majority community. Hedgewar made the crucial shift from Hindu Raj to Hindu Rashtra. The progenitors of Hindu Nation were trying to consolidate Hindus by showing the fear of Muslims as the aggressive community. The RSS, right since its inception, was not prepared to counter the British, but trained its guns on Muslims. And it suited the British fine. 

Unlike Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS remained aloof from active politics and concentrated on cadre building for years. The book gives the trajectory of RSS, co-relating it with the tenure of supreme leaders (sarsanghchalaks) of this organisation. The Hedgewar phase revolved around laying the foundations and starting the schedule of shakha training and pedagogy-based political discourses called bauddhikis (intellectual sessions). The significant event during this phase was Hedgewar's decision not to let women be the members of RSS, and asking them to start a subordinate Rashtriyasevika Samiti. This significant ideological decision does not get its deserved mention in the otherwise richly descriptive text.

Kanungo brings out the subservience of the RSS to the British very well. The next chief, Golwalkar, decided to comply with the British government's order of August 5, 1940, which prohibited military drill and wearing of military uniforms. Golwalkar crawled when asked to bend and also abolished the military department of the RSS, which totally remained aloof from the Quit India movement, landmark in the patriotic freedom struggle. One is amazed that despite having no truck with the patriotic movement, the RSS poses itself as the guardian of patriotism today. 

Kanungo, while describing these significant events, refuses to draw the obvious conclusions for reasons best known to himself. And this trend of the book continues all through. A detailed description of events and a comparative silence on the obvious interpretation seems to be the dominant pattern of this book. The strong point of the book is to project the gradual transition of this organisation from an apparently cultural one to the controller of the party playing on the chessboard of politics, co-relating it with the policies and orientation of the sarsanghchalaks.

Golwalkar that way can be easily called the one who crystallised the Hindutva politics in a very strong and blunt way. His hatred for minorities and communists comes out transparently. His appreciation for the eternal relevance of laws of Manu are a clear pointer to the status of Dalits and women in RSS vision of India, which is Hindu Rashtra. It was from Golwalkar era that rather than direct political activity, RSS emphasised the infiltration of its trained volunteers into bureaucracy, army and media.

Kanungo clearly brings out that the RSS identification of itself with Sardar Patel is not sincere. In the post-partition riots, Patel came down heavily on the RSS, and in post-Gandhi murder phase Patel did not at all hesitate to arrest Golwalkar and put a ban on the RSS. It is interesting to note that during this time while RSS rhetoric was directed against the Muslim community, in the wake of the ban on RSS, Golwalkar pleaded with the government to lift the ban and offered to cooperate with the government to eliminate communism. Why? It needs to be explained, but Kanungo is silent on this. One cannot forget that somehow the agenda of colonialists, imperialists and RSS has always converged. During the 50s, US imperialism and RSS together targeted communists, as well as today the same combination is spewing venom against Islam and Muslims. A full-length study of this organisation cannot afford to miss this nexus.

Kanungo is at his best in giving vivid descriptions of the structure and functioning of the organisation. The author makes a very pertinent observation about the fascination of boys for the RSS. Most of the boys want a channel to play games and also get taken in by the impressive personality of the pracharak, the chief propagator of the area. One should note that the pracharak is the highest attainment in RSS hierarchy, and the ilk of Godse and Modi had been trained as pracharaks.

Kanungo is cautious in criticising RSS authoritarianism for reasons best known to him. The sarsanghchalak has a total patriarchal control over the organisation but the author has hesitation in calling him authoritarian and merely mentions it as the view of critics of the RSS. His own views on the RSS remain a mystery for the reader. One is left with the feeling that probably the author is not forthright enough to call a spade a spade.

One of the strengths of LK Advani, which helped him to consolidate elite Hindus behind the BJP, was his criticism of Congresss practice of secularism. He coined the word "pseudo-secularism," which got successfully imposed on the mass consciousness. Kanoungo does well to demonstrate the RSS concept of secularism. Its approach to uniform civil code is essentially a thinly disguised attack on minority rights. He concludes that for the RSS the role of state in religion is not that of neutrality but of fostering Hindu Nation. One interesting point highlighted by Kanungo is about the caste issue. On the face of it, the RSS will want us to believe that it does not believe in caste. This is a deception as all the writings of Golwalkar, which are not disowned by the RSS even today, do highlight the importance of caste. In Golwalkar’s opinion, caste was a great institution, which held together when everything else seemed to collapse all around(P. 142). But as a sop to present compulsions, Golwalkar adds that this ancient armour is no more relevant today. Kanunago aptly brings forward the point that RSS explanation of Ambedkar embracing Buddhism because it was part and parcel of Bharatiya culture is totally wrong as what attracted him to Buddhism was its rational aspects, not its closeness to Bharatiya culture.

Overall, it is an extremely useful book, rigorously referenced. As pointed out, the book is weak in analysis. It does not touch the agenda of the RSS and its social base in a deeper fashion. However, it does deserve a serious look from scholars working on the issue. 

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