Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS), the ‘Brotherhood in Saffron’ formed in the 1920s is one of India’s largest and most influential politico-religious organizations.
The basis of the formation of this organization, however, can be traced back to the social, moral, cultural, and political intrusions of Muslim and European imperialism.
The revisionist ideology of the RSS is based on countering the political assertiveness of minority groups: Muslims and Sikhs. Similarly, their efforts to convert Hindus; and foreign politico-religious agenda weaken the community bonds.
The organization has established and thrived on the factor of solidarity among its members. In the language of Ibn e Khaldun, it is firmly erected upon the concept of ‘assabiyya’: social solidarity and social cohesiveness.
The Hindu nationalist adopted a strategy to profess the dual ideology of nationalism and socio-economic values to achieve their lost political identity.
At the start, it adopted a non-confrontational policy, but after consolidating its grounds after 1980 it adopted a Hindu extremist approach which is truly and entirely manifested when Narendra Modi came to power.
Belief System of RSS
The belief system of RSS heavily relied on the oldest Hindu text: “Rig-Veda” which inculcates the approach of social solidarity and organic solidarity which led to ultimate nationalistic sentiments.
Keshav Baliram Hedgewar believed that the Hindu school of thought is significant for achieving independence and for restructuring society. He argued that Islamic and Western civilizations have failed to improve the human condition because they focus on materialism. However, Hindu thought focuses on spiritual enlightenment and social welfare.
Besides, M. S. Golwalker has given three important characteristics for the adherence of ‘Dhamra’— invisible physical strength, character, and intellectual acumen, which are significant for revitalizing society.
Golwalker argued that we need a “living God” to achieve our goals, not dead idols that cannot do anything. The elemental tenet of RSS based on the classical Hindu school of thought “Advaita Vedanta” interpreted that the Indian geography is sacred and supreme and possesses a soul.
According to critics the belief system of RSS is based on Fascism, it’s entirely reactionary and conservative.
Structure of RSS
In structural terms, the theorists of RSS have divided the responsibilities into two broad categories: one of the laborers and the other of the people of enlightenment. Their scheme consists of giving every worker a job to discharge his/her responsibilities.
The scheme consists of various assemblies to provide equal opportunity to every employee based on their respective skills and knowledge. Assemblies include Shakha, Mandal committee, state and central assemblies, The Paracharak, and The Sarsanghchalak.
Shiksha consists of a few members, the lowest of the hierarchy. Mandal committees discharge different administrative responsibilities, and assemblies of state and center have symbolic importance with minimal powers.
The higher hierarchy is enjoyed by the chief, who is regarded as a spiritual guide and philosopher. They are regarded as the ‘national soul’— Jiva Mukta responsible for justice and equality in society.
In the context of training, it consists of different activities ranging from rituals, rites, exercises, and intellectual lessons to increase the sense of belongingness and solidarity among the workers.
The members of RSS believed in the narrative of “Dharma-Karma” to recover military leadership against foreign invasion. They used different symbolic tools such as “Bande-Mataram” and patriotic folk festivals to renew this spirit.
The daily basis rituals and practices in “Khakhi uniforms” in front of a saffron flag denote the communitarian ethos of the organization built on religious rhetoric.
The modernist Indian elite of Bengal, Bombay, and Punjab demanded their portion in British bureaucracy and legislative bodies, and the establishment of the Indian National Congress (INC) was also the outcome of that. Whereas the Hindu revivalist elements based their philosophy on warrior minded approach following the teachings of “Gita”.
After 1905, such revivalists used to recruit college students in their associations to strengthen their ideology. Initially, the Hindu revivalist supported the INC and Gandhi, but when the communal riots started, a Non-Cooperation Movement between Hindus and Muslims.
Then Hindus realized that the unity between the two communities should be ruined. In order to increase the Hindu influence and propagate Hindu philosophy, the revivalists professed the teachings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar that stressed renewal of Hindu character building and shaping the organizational culture.
On the other hand, these actors renounce the non-violent practices of Gandhi and demanded an extremist hue in their practices to throw out the non-Hindu elements from the Indian Subcontinent. Moreover, it reforms a group’s behavior by mobilizing communal support.
It has its presence almost in every socio-political institution in India, from politics to welfare organizations, media to religious bodies, and student unions to labor unions.
The incidence of Malabar Coast and Hindu-Muslim tensions in 1921-1923 led Hindus to organize them in an institutional mechanism. RSS led by Hedgewar from the soil of Maharastra purely based on anti-British and anti-Muslim sentiments.
This institution tried to unite and reconcile the Hindus segregated on caste, language, region, and economic status.
The organization critiqued the accommodative role of Gandhi towards other communities and the imperial power. The organization has seen unprecedented growth from 1931-1939 to 1939. Over 60,000 people from a business background, government employees, teachers, and women joined it.
After Hedgewar, Golwalker succeeded leadership role and completely reoriented RSS culturally and organizationally. During the separation of the Indian Subcontinent, the workers of RSS helped Hindu refugees and participated in humanitarian causes to accommodate Hindus.
After the assassination of Gandhi, RSS experienced a complete ban. Because of the conspiracy, it was involved in the murder of the founding father of India.
RSS and Jana Sangh
Though the constitution of RSS professes that it would not enter the political domain and only work as a social welfare institution, the allied association of RSS ‘Jana Sangh’ institutionalized itself politically.
The INC, interest groups, businessmen, and industrialist groups nevertheless resisted the entrance of RSS into politics in the ’70s, but RSS had managed to enter the realm of politics.
From its birth, it involved itself in the humanitarian cause but the ultimate goal of RSS was to revive Hindu politics. It entered the corridor of power slowly and gradually by establishing newspapers and journals: Panchjanya and Rashtra Shakti, in 1970, through making affiliations and alliances with student associations, labor unions, and the religious elite.
An important instance of such intrusion was the volunteer petition signing movement for banning cow slaughtering. Furthermore, Vidyanti Parishad played a significant role in mobilizing students to spread the ideology of RSS. Post-1977 marked the formal entrance of RSS in politics.
Jana Sangh, who was affiliated with RSS, attracted the workers to join politics formally. Jana Singh did not achieve any significant victory in the first general election. In 1953 and 1962, with the help of RSS, pracharaks constructed a framework that developed and organized an effective campaign.
This effectiveness established a strong base of Jana Sangh in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Punjab in municipal elections which consolidated the party. In the 1967 elections, Jana Sangh won significant seats in Bihar and Dehli.
In the 1970s, this affiliated association of RSS became a populist party. In that era, the founding fathers of RSS criticized the inclusion of the wing in politics, and they also renounced the western liberal democracy.
But when Jana Sangh established its political base, it admired the democratic values and alliances with the western world and also had the agenda of accommodating the Muslims.
Political Challenges and RSS
RSS confronted many political challenges, especially after being banned for inciting communal riots and polarizing labor and student unions. Despite this fact, many labor unions and student associations joined hands with RSS.
When RSS was under the ban, it collaborated and cooperated with the organizations and individuals who were against the organization through diplomatic channels.
After the revocation of the ban, RSS adopted a more liberal Hindu nationalism to survive in society though practically it resorted to propagating orthodoxy and a conservative face of Hindu thought. In 1970, it also launched a campaign to prove its innocence against the allegations of polarization and inducing communal hatred.
From 1977 to 1980, the Jana Sangh group formed a coalition with opposition parties named Janta Party to defeat INC, and they got massive numbers of 298 from 542 seats nationally.
On the other side, to sustain public support, RSS, again and again, denied involvement in direct politics. They adopted a rhetoric that they are only willing to work with the government on youth affairs, education, and social welfare.
But the rigid behavior of the Janta Party and Jana Sangh towards lower classes, political competitors, and people from lower castes weaken their coalition. After analyzing the situation RSS and Balasaheb—head of RSS, they are announced to stay away from the next general elections.
This boosted the manpower of RSS, which increased to almost 450,000. A consistent struggle for power and authority remained between RSS and Janta Party.
Entangled in dual membership issues, RSS accepted the inclusion of non-Hindus in an organization that Balasaheb disliked.
The organization also resorted to creating cultural harmony among different religions. But the elections of 1980 proved detrimental to Janta Party and Jana Sangh and they blamed the issue of dual membership as the cause of defeat.
While in a meeting, different individuals from Janta Party and Jana Sangh group decided to establish a full-fledged party on liberal socialist lines which would accommodate all general masses of India irrespective of any differentiation known as Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in 1980.
The general secretary of the party was Muslim, the party adopted a different flag and symbol from RSS. The BJP successfully won seats in elections but the next elections proved a horrible dream for it. It had to reorient its structure and narrative to become popular again to strengthen Hindu nationalism.
Modi’s Rise and ‘Hindutva’ Fascism
According to scholars, the rise of BJP and Narendra Modi is attributed to the rise of right-wing politics intermingled with the neo-liberalist economic policy. The rise of right-wing political parties which erected upon the rhetoric of ideologies and the policy of blaming and harassing minorities.
Additionally, Modi used the rhetoric of Hindutva and increased the real and symbolic violence to inculcate and perpetuate the narrative of “The golden past as future promises”. Hindutva is a policy prescription that is derived from the ideology of RSS.
The tenure of Modi had proved disastrous for the secular face of India. He adopted fascist policies to control liberal unions, and media houses, repress minorities, and reassert the Hindu extremist philosophy.
BJP is considered a communal Hindu right-wing nationalist party that works for the interests of the upper-class Hindu population.
BJP, after the 1980s, takes specific steps to polarize the society into communalism and hatred to win the sentiments of people in elections, such as the demolition of the Babri Mosque is one of the examples.
In the formative phase, the leaders like Advani and Vajpayee tried to maintain a cohesive political character of the party in a declared secular state. Still, they were defeated in the general elections of 2004 and 2009.
The party adopted a more radicalized policy towards the minority segments. The rise of Narendra Modi in Gujrat paved the way for the practical assertiveness of Hindutva in the form of the Gujrat massacre.
Narendra Modi was raised in Gujrat and joined RSS in the 1970s, where he closely worked with the student wing under the leadership of Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Modi joined BJP after his training and ultimately ascended to the position of Prime Minister.
Modi has adopted fascist policies to justify and legitimize his government in so-called secular India. The world has witnessed an authoritative imposition upon Indian society. He tried to centralize the state policies and promoted hatred cult by subjugating minorities. He attacked civil liberties and practiced censorship of print media and electronic media.
He adopted and resorted to cultural and symbolic violence through the looting, plundering, raping, and slaughtering of Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and other religious minorities. For example, BJP has blamed the Islamic missionary party ‘Tablighi Jamat’ for spreading the Covid-19 pandemic.
Regarding women’s empowerment in his era, even Hindu women faced different kinds of harassment. The case of a Kashmiri girl who Indian people raped was a horrible manifestation of Hindutva.
Similarly, the state of Uttar Pradesh has passed a law prohibiting religious conversion against Muslims. Cow Protection Bill and the Citizen Amendment Act (2019) is also significant example of human rights violation in India.
There occurred a clear violation of human rights in his era. Especially in his second tenure, the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution proved Modi’s reassertion and revanchist ideology. The curfew is still sustained in occupied Kashmir, and human rights violations persist.
The atrocities of India increased significantly in occupied Kashmir. According to Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), 1,726 people were injured and 6,221 were the victims of pellet gunshots in Kashmir in 2016. Likewise, the cases of forced disappearance also increased in Kashmir.
Regarding foreign policy Modi has shown a belligerent stance against its immediate neighbor Pakistan, even though he used anti-Pakistan rhetoric and the narrative of “Akhand Bharat” to win the support of the local masses.
Moreover, he pursued a liberal policy to enhance trade relations with world powers and even with Middle-Eastern Muslim states.
The recent trends of consistent violations of human rights within India and occupied Kashmir, the strict censorship of Indian print and electronic media, the repressive policies towards religious minorities, and the propagation of false rhetoric in the context of Pakistan are enough to show that the second tenure of Modi would not be different from the first one.
He would continue pursuing extremist Hindutva policies’ resurgence to perpetuate his narratives.
The RSS established the philosophy of reviving Hinduism, tainted badly with the socioeconomic and politico-religious alterations due to Muslim and British imperialism. It established itself to reorient a structural and institutional mechanism to create self-discipline along the lines of social solidarity among Hindus.
Its early leaders propagated an accommodationist approach to engage the organization in social work, but its entrance into politics changed the contour of the organization. From generating communalism and polarization, it adopted a cultural and religious co-existence policy shaped by the BJP.
But the BJP which the world is witnessing under the leadership of Narendra Modi is entirely based on fascist and discriminatory policies towards non-Hindus and lower segments of society. Thus, the brotherhood in saffron would keep haunting the so-called secular soul of India.
*The writer is part of the “Foreign Affairs Correspondent” Program at The Diplomatic Insight. The writer assumes full responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, and relevance of the information presented in their work. Diplomatic Insight and any affiliated organizations or individuals shall not be held liable for any errors or omissions in the content of the writer’s work or for any damages arising from the use or reliance upon such information.