Hindu Activism outside the Sangh Parivar
“An RSS man”, that is how the Indian media and the Western South Asia scholars label anyone known as or suspected of standing up for Hindu interests. In fact, there have always been Hindu activists outside the RSS Sangh, working as individuals or in smaller organizations. Today, the modernization of Indian society and especially the spread of the internet has facilitated the mushroom growth of new forms and networks of Hindu activism.
Most supposed experts refuse to see the existence of Hindu activism outside the Sangh and instead reduce any Hindu sign of life to “Hindutva” (thus incidentally flattering the Sangh). One reason is purely political: in the struggle against Hindu activism as a whole, it is simply more useful to extend all prevalent criticism of the Sangh, e.g. that it murdered Mahatma Gandhi or committed “genocide” in Gujarat 2002, to any and every form of Hindu resistance. It implies that if you hear a Hindu complain about, say, Christian missionary demonization of Hinduism, you must stop him for he is about to commit murder if not genocide. In the Indian media, this kind of innuendo is frequent enough.
The main reason, however, seems to be that India-watchers have settled for a conspiratorial explanation of the existence of Hindu activism. In their construction, you first have the Sangh, or its historic core, then you get Sangh propaganda, and as a result of this, you get a belief among large numbers of Hindus that they are suffering various injustices, historical and contemporary. This is the dominant paradigm in Hindutva studies: a Hindutva conspiracy has created for itself a large constituency by means of mendacious propaganda.
The existence of multiple independent sources of Hindu activism makes this Hindutva conspiracy theory harder to sustain. It becomes more likely that they had independently noticed a really existing state of affairs, which then aroused their indignation.
For example, in numerous media and academic accounts, the Ayodhya controversy is introduced with the explanation: “Hindu nationalists claim that the Babri mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a Hindu temple”, or something to that effect. While the Hindu nationalists do indeed assert as much, the formulation falsely insinuates that this “claim” is of the Hindu nationalists’ making. In fact, that “claim” has been made in all the historic sources that speak out on the matter: Muslim, Hindu and European. Before the controversy became politically important in the 1980s, it was accepted by all competent authorities, e.g. the 1989 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. So, the temple vandalization scenario was not a piece of propaganda deliberately floated to plant false consciousness in the minds of the Hindu masses. It had very solid historic credentials, and consequently, divergent people with no mutual organizational connection or common ideological allegiance could independently act upon it.
For another example, the “Hindutva claim” that the Indian state imposes some and tolerates other injustices against the Hindus, can simply be verified. Thus, when I asked Hindu activists of any stripe in the 1990s what motivated them, practically everyone of them would mention the constitutional exception for the non-Hindu majority state of Jammu & Kashmir (and likewise Nagaland and Mizoram) and the related expulsion of the near-total Hindu community from Kashmir in 1990. Well, has this expulsion taken place or not? From most Western studies of Hindu nationalism, you wouldn’t learn about it, and yet, the answer is that it really has. Moreover, no Indian or Kashmiri government has seriously attempted to resettle the expelled Hindus in their homeland. One need not be duped by a Hindutva conspiracy to notice this fact as well as the injustice of this fact. Consequently, non-Sangh Hindus as well as Sanghis have spoken out against this injustice. If the Sangh had not existed, Hindus would still speak out against this injustice.
When the Pope came to India in 1999, the Indian media loudly denounced as “Hindutva paranoia” the assertion that the Church was out to destroy the Indian religions by converting their adherents to Christianity. But of course it is official Church doctrine that only Christians are saved and that out of charity, all Pagans must be converted. Having gone through the Catholic school system myself, that is what I learned from the horse’s mouth. And when the Pope finally opened his mouth in Delhi, he said in so many words that the Church was in Asia in order to “reap a rich harvest of faith”, modern Church parlance for the harvesting of Pagan souls. He merely restated a generally known fact, one from which any Hindu could draw his own conclusions without anyhow being compromised with “Hindutva paranoia”.
For yet another example, the “Hindutva claim” that the absence of a Common Civil Code amounts to “pseudo-secularism”, or indeed to a simple absence of secularism in the Personal Law dimension of the Indian state, would have to be acknowledged as more than just a Hindutva claim. It is something that Hindus of all kinds including those hostile to the Sangh, and people of all denominations, can see. Indeed, were it not for the widespread assumption that anything coming from the RSS-BJP must be “Hindu fundamentalist” or “Hindu fascist”, all international observers would readily concede this point. By definition, a secular state is one that has laws applying to its citizens regardless of their religion. The usual insistence that “Hindu nationalists want to abolish secularism” and its implication that the Indian state is indeed secular, cannot stand scrutiny on this score. But admitting this much would upset the entire conceptual framework of Hindutva studies.
Anyone desiring to uphold the dominant construction of Hindu nationalism, viz. the Hindutva conspiracy paradigm, logically has an interest in denying or minimizing the existence of independent non-Sangh Hindu activism. But the facts on the ground show increasingly that concerned Hindus are emancipating themselves from this identification of their own work with Hindutva.
Some of these start from philosophies different from the nationalistic RSS narrative, others are not ideologically different but want to provide an alternative mode of action to complement or replace an RSS working-style in which they have become disappointed. For indeed, the BJP election defeats in 2004 and 2009 and the steady decline in RSS shakha attendance since 1998 highlight a longer-standing disappointment in Hindu revivalist circles with the Sangh Parivar and its version of Hindu nationalism. The media construed the BJP defeats as “proof that the Indian masses are turning away from Hindu nationalism”, when in reality, the former BJP voters have only turned their backs on the betrayers of Hindu nationalism. This disappointment continues to be nurtured by Sangh displays of incompetence, such as the failed textbook rewriting initiatives in India 2000-04 and California 2005-09; and acts of “treason” such as the NDA government’s passivity regarding the Ayodhya temple and the Kashmiri refugees, or its permission of foreign media ownership. Far from abolishing the Hajj subsidies, a financially marginal but highly symbolic instance of “Muslim appeasement”, the Vajpayee government actually increased the Hajj subsidy (hence the nickname given him by his Hindu critics, “Hajpayee”). On each of its distinctive old campaign themes, they had acted just like non-BJP governments had done before and have done since.
As former swayamsevak Shrikant Talageri argued in 2000 already, the BJP has proven that “more foreign agency, anti-nationalism and injustice are possible in India in the name of Hinduism and Hindutva than in the name of Islam and Christianity or Secularism and Leftism. And more dangerous since it is cloaked in the garb of Nationalism”. Talageri notes that this government policy was rooted in long-standing RSS mores, viz. a radical non-interest in Indian culture as such, in Indian wildlife, environment, handicrafts etc. (see the RSS’s Western uniform and marching band music), and a mindless reliance on slogans and rumours rather than on serious analysis and principled ideology. While the RSS undoubtedly started out as politically nationalist, its occasional self-description as “cultural nationalism” implies a claim on cultural awareness that proves hollow.
The RSS has never abandoned the working style introduced by its founder Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, who had been formed by the Revolutionary movement and adopted its secretiveness, discouraging written communication in favour of personal communication through travelling office-bearers. A lot of physical locomotion is a status symbol in the RSS hierarchy, but motion is not action. The numerous RSS self-praise brochures boast about mass campaigns with millions marching, but these have rarely translated into the realization of their stated goals. Thus, the anti-cow-slaughter campaign of the late 1960s achieved nothing, and the Ayodhya campaign in spite of its unprecedented magnitude has not realized the construction of the projected temple even twenty years later. Though it is part of Hindutva culture to deny failure (vide the way the California Hindu parents tried to present the disappointing court verdict in the textbook case as a victory), inevitably at least some people had to draw the logical conclusion from these failures and try something new.
This disillusionment with the Sangh is triggering the emergence of new independent centres of Hindu activism. Between such non-Sangh foci in India and similar-minded NRI initiatives, there is little structural connection except for exchanges on internet forums: the loose network is their more modern alternative to the organizational rigidity typical of the Sangh.
It must be stated at this point that there has always been a wide array of Hindu activism outside of the Sangh, though often overlapping with the Sangh’s work, and at any rate not standing in the way of cooperation or friendly personal relations. In my experience, Western observers who have started believing their own shrill rhetoric of “Hindu fascism” tend to be surprised and shocked and indignant when they see apolitical Hindu dignitaries, praised in East and West for their spiritual qualities and leadership, interact on a friendly basis with the Sangh. Thus, when RSS Sarsanghchalak Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiyya) visited the Netherlands, he first of all went to see the Maharshi Mahesh Yogi in his castle in Vlodrop, to the consternation of reporters for the New Age media, who had lapped up horror stories about the RSS. Likewise, Edward Luce in his book In Spite of the Gods, notes the close cooperation between peacenik celebrity guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the RSS as if it were a dirty secret and a blot on the Guru’s name.
One reason for the Sangh’s respectability among the Hindu masses, though you might not know of it if you only read the expert studies on Hindutva, is its massive presence in social and relief work. After an earthquake, Sangh relief workers are the first to arrive in the disaster area. That doesn’s prove anything about its politics, and could be likened to the motivated social and relief work of the Christian Missions or the Hamas; but at least it ought to be noticed and reported. It helps explain why most criticisms of the Sangh among Hindus are restrained by an acknowledgment of its undeniable merits. But now it is dawning upon an increasing number of Hindu activists that all this charity is no substitute for ideological clarity. Therefore, while they may maintain contact with the Sangh, their initiatives and inspiration are clearly separate and distinct from the Sangh and its ideological line. Many Hindu activists who criticize the Sangh accept the intention of Sangh workers to serve Hindu society, and leave them to pursue this goal by their own lights. Also, sometimes they cannot bypass the relative omnipresence of the Sangh network. And finally, there is no definitive reason why Sangh workers shouldn’t be amenable to developing their understanding beyond the elementary level inculcated by the Sangh.
Some Hindu activists, however, have totally given up on the Sangh. Thus, when Muslim groups pressured the Jammu & Kashmir government into reneging on its promise to provide facilities for Hindu pilgrims to Amarnath in 2008, local Hindus in Jammu organised a non-violent protest campaign but purposely kept the Sangh at arm’s length. They feared that the RSS with its penchant for control would take the movement over, then with its equally typical craving for certificates of good conduct would abandon and dissolve the campaign in an attempt to prove its “secularism” and “reasonableness”. In the event, the Amarnath campaign, in contrast with so many Sangh campaigns, was successful: the original plan for pilgrim facilities was implemented overruling the Muslim objections.
The most pressing occasion for Hindu self-organization cocnsists in threats to their physical security. For quite a while groups have been sprouting here and there that promised to fill the void allegedly created by the Sangh’s insufficient militancy. During the Khalistani terror campaign, Hindus in Panjab started a local “Shiv Sena”, disappointed in the way the RSS failed to react in kind when its cadres were targeted for murder by the Khalistanis.
On internet forums, you frequently hear Hindus fumble that “if Muslims can get away with terrorism, why don’t we take to the gun, and the bomb?” Thus, a Delhi-based group calling itself the Aryavrt Government and a related outfit called Abhinava Bharat (after an armed revolutionary group in the independence struggle) does advocate paying the enemy back in the same coin. On its website its request for donations is strengthened with this warning: “Else keep ready for your doom. Remember! Whoever you are, you won’t be able to save your properties, women, motherland, Vedic culture & even your infants. Choice is yours, whether you stick to dreaded usurper Democracy & get eradicated or survive with your rights upon your property, freedom of faith & life with dignity?”
Mostly this is impotent rage by middle-class Hindus who have never seen or touched a gun, but of course the possibility exists that some young lads may act upon it. It has been alleged that the Malegaon bomb attacks in 2006 were committed by such an ad hoc Hindu terrorist group.
However, these rare cases of erratic and counterproductive Hindu violence should not obscure the actual need for self-protection in areas where Hindus are indeed prey for anti-Hindu mobs and militias, such as the Bengal border, where illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are trying to push out the Hindu villagers. That is where one sane and disciplined Hindu group for self-protection has come into being: the Hindu Samhati, founded in February 2008 by Tapan Ghosh. Until November 2007, and ever since graduating in Physics and spending three months in jail as a pro-democracy activist during the Emergency, he had been an RSS whole-timer for 31 years. But not seeing the desired results from RSS work, who started out on his own and soon attarcted a following.The group’s thrid anniversary celebration was attened by 14,000 people. It can already claim many successes on its local scale, such as protecting young couples where one of the partners is a Muslim joining a Hindu family, or ensuring the safety of Hindu festivals, which had become difficult to celebrate due to increasing Muslim harassment.
The one name towering over the whole field of non-Sangh Hindu activism is that of historian and publisher Sita Ram Goel (1921-2003), Gandhian then Marxist in his young days, later anti-Communist and finally reborn Hindu. In 1957 he stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the embryonic Swatantra Party (with whose founder Minoo Masani he cooperated in anti-Communist activism) on a Jana Sangh ticket for the Khajuraho seat. He subsequently contributed some articles to the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, until the RSS leadership intervened to have him expelled from its pages for being too unkind to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The stated reason was that if Nehru were ever murdered, criticism of Nehru in their own pages would cause them to get the blame. In the 1980s Goel was re-invited to contribute, until he was again expelled, this time for being too unkind to Islam. (It is routinely assumed that the RSS preaches hatred of Islam; but I award my bottom dollar to anyone who can show me an instance from the editorials of Organiser. And I will award it again for an authentic quotation from a Sangh leader that is more anti-Muslim than the revered Dr. Ambedkar’s book Pakistan or the Partition of India.) As a book author and publisher, he also had to deal with the Sangh, e.g. when he had to straighten out the BJP’s initially very muddled White Paper on Ayodhya. So, it is not as if he boycotted the Sangh, in spite of their treatment of him.
Yet his judgement of them was merciless. In writing, he diplomatically limited himself to intimating that “in the history of an organization, there comes a point when its original goal gets overshadowed by its concerns for itself”. But when speaking, he was much blunter. In the presence of myself and of prominent witnesses, he said for example: “The RSS is the biggest collection of duffers that ever came together in world history” (1989), “The RSS is leading Hindu society into a trap from which it may not recover” (1994), “Hindu society is doomed unless this RSS-BJP movement perishes” (2003).
Goel’s main criticism of the Sangh concerns its anti-intellectual prejudice, its refusal to analyze hostile ideologies, hence its lapse into emotionalism and erratic policies. Thus, instead of reactive anti-Muslim outbursts after every act of Islamic terrorism, he posits the need for an ideological critique of the Islamic belief system, equipped with all the methods and findings of modern scholarship: “The problem is not Muslims but Islam.” The difference is that those who refuse such critique (and that is the case of the RSS) has no one but the physical Muslim population to vent its anger on whenever another act of Islamic violence occurs. This way, a more incisive deconstruction of Islamic belief translates into less violence against actual Muslims. (The converse is also true: George W. Bush and Tony Blair have spoken out in praise of Islam but killed a great many Muslims.)
Goel and his mentor Ram Swarup (1920-98) took inspiration from the British liberal tradition of Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell, even before rediscovering the Hindu debating tradition of Yajnavalkya and Shankara. For them, free debate was a matter of course. Hindutva organizations, by contrast, in the Sangh as well as some new ones like the Hindu Jagruti Samiti, react to every insulting book or film or painting with calls for a ban, perfectly echoing Islamic organizations demanding a ban on the Danish cartoons or The Satanic Verses. Calls for banning unpalatable opinions stem from an inability to meet the challenge intellectually, which was never Shankara’s problem but is very much the Sangh’s.
Some NRI-PIO organizations created in the 21st century explicitly adopt their line. One is the Hindu Human Rights group in London, founded by a streetwise performing artist, Arjun Malik along with writer Ranbir Singh. His answer to the humourless RSS and its equally humourless secularist critics is to “put the fun back into fundamentalism”. The HHR publishes an on-line paper and occasionally stages demonstrations on matters of Hindu concern, such as human rights in Bangladesh. On the challenge of the Christian missions, it has monitored and promoted scholarly studies, outgrowing the simplistic Hindutva positions current in India and the diaspora, which tend to confuse “Christian” with “white”, as if the world and the Churches hadn’t changed since decolonization. It interacts critically with the official pan-Hindu platforms and with the British multiculturalism authorities. These sometimes solicit its views, knowing that it represents a really existing and growing segment of opinion in the British Hindu community. Typically, the HHR sometimes cooperates with Muslim organizations on matters of common concern, all while staying away from the usual Hindu platitude that “all religions essentially say the same thing”. Human understanding does not require suspension of the mental power of discrimination.
The second similarly inspired initiative in the diaspora is based in Houston. Like the HHR, it also explores contacts with post-Christian spiritual tendencies in Western society and encourages Hindus to transcend the “racism” many of them display vis-à-vis Black, White and East-Asian population they encounter abroad. Quite a few Hindu individuals and local Hindu temple associations in North America also evince or acknowledge some influence from this line of thought.
Ram Swarup’s idea of a common inspiration and interest between all traditional religions, jointly targeted for conversion by the “predatory” religions Christianity and Islam, has also gained a following mainly through Hindu leaders based outside India. Swami Dayananda Saraswati (based in Coimbatore and in Saylorsburg PA) has been building bridges with the Jewish community, culminating in a joint Jerusalem Declaration with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. It also has penetrated the Sangh in the initiative for cooperation with Native American, Yoruba, Maori and other traditional religionists, the World Council for the Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures founded by US-based pracharak Dr. Yashwant Pathak.
In India too, these ideas have been picked up in independent as well as in Sangh-related centres of Hindu awareness and activism. The influence is palpable in some publications of the Vigil Public Opinion Forum and of the Centre for Policy Studies, both in Chennai. Then again, in India the strictly nationalist viewpoint, with increasing anti-Western overtones, still seems to prevail against the universalistic critique of hostile religions and ideologies as pioneered by Ram Swarup and S.R. Goel. Thus, consider the title of an otherwise well-crafted study of NGO activities and financing by Vigil authors Radha Rajan and Krishan Kak: NGOs, Activists and Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry (2006). Its main stated focus is on anti-national rather than anti-Hindu activities, in the mould of the RSS rhetoric about Babar as a “foreign” (rather than Muslim) invader and Rama as a “national” (rather than a Hindu) hero. In some cases, as in Sandhya Jain’s online medium Vijayvaani, this goes as far as supporting Muslim causes against the West, not too different from the traditional Congressite line exemplified by Nehru’s support to Nasser.
In the case of Hindutva, nationalism is proving to be the last resort of blockheads unable to construe conflicts and power equations in ideological terms. While Christianity has changed race several times in its history (from Levantine to North-African and South-European to North-European to non-white), and while most missionaries in India are now non-white and generally Indian-born, Hindutva polemicists keep on ranting against “white racist Christian missions”. This saves them the trouble of studying the scholarly critique of Biblical truth claims and the challenge of arguing the religious case for Hinduism and against Christianity with fellow Indians who happen to be Christian. One very useful experience of NRIs and PIOs in their non-Indic surroundings is that religious issues exist in their own right, by virtue of the distinctive mores inculcated and the truth claims of religions, and regardless of the ethnic origin of a religion’s followers. The modern identification of Sanatana Dharma with the geographical entity India, explicitly proposed by Hindutva ideologues, is negated by the NRI-PIOs’ experience, where Hindu traditions turn out to remain meaningful even after being severed from their geographical cradle. This makes them more receptive to the universalistic understanding of Hindu tradition as expounded by Goel’s mentor Ram Swarup and by some globe-trotting Gurus.
Most post-Sangh centres of Hindu activism avoid overdoing their quarrel with the Sangh. It just happens to be there, to be very large, and to attract the loyalty of numerous well-meaning fellow-Hindus. Also, its effectiveness in the many local centres of activity is highly dependent upon the individual qualities of the local Sangh workers. So, inter-Hindu infighting among activists is largely avoided. One prozaic reason is that criticism has never had a noticeable effect on the Sangh leadership, another is the common-sense realization that darkness is best fought not by decrying it but by lighting a lamp of your own. Extrapolating from present trends, the future is probably that alternative centres of Hindu activism will grow and prove successful in their respective fields of activity, and that the Sangh will transform itself and correct its course under the impact of their example.