Conflict Resolution: The RSS Way. Ratan Sharda and Yashwant Pathak. Garuda Prakashan. 2021. Pages 492. Rs 549.
What exactly is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) about? Until now, the world’s largest volunteer organization has been largely defined (or rather demonized) by its enemies. Is it a social institution, a cultural institution, a kind of Hindu samradaja with its own traditions and practices, or a leviathan with greater plans for India that is Bharat?
The enemies of the RSS range from “secular” individuals (including self-loathing Hindus) to various religious and communist organizations who see it as a threat to their own hegemony and an obstacle to the advance of their divisive and/or violent ideologies in India. Critics of the Sangh see it as an evil organization that wants to establish a Hindu theocratic state in India that will not stop using violence to achieve its goals.
This is a travesty. An organization with an estimated membership in excess of six million—a population larger than Singapore today—and whose mass-based affiliates (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh) will have many, many more millions than their own direct ones Members, should have been studied more and understood on their own terms.
Just three years short of its centenary (the sangh was founded in 1925), the sangh should have received much more scholarly attention than it has. Compare that to the kind of coverage the Catholic Church gets with just 414,000 priests but a larger flock of 1.34 billion believers.
In part, this reluctance to understand or study the RSS is largely the result of the organization’s own reluctance and lack of concern to document its views and actions. His political opponents, of course, have no reason to understand it, because then they would not have the privilege of abusing it.
But this situation is slowly changing as the RSS has been more open to interactions with the media and authors since 2014. He also has some new chroniclers who know the organization inside out and can speak about it with some authority. The best-known studies on RSS are undoubtedly those by Christophe Jaffrelot (The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics) and Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle (RSS: A look inside), these books suffer from the fact that they attempt to place the Sangh within a Western paradigm built on an Orientalist understanding of India as a nation in the making rather than a civilization that has been around for 5,000 years – and always will be still developed.
As a corrective, we might benefit from reading books by Ratan Sharda, who has been a Sangh insider for decades. Two books by Sharda, RSS360; Demystifying the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghand RSS: Evolution from an organization to a movement (Read the reviews here and here), have begun to fill the gap in the literature on the Sangh. Now a third, and possibly more explanatory, has been co-written with Yashwant Pathak, who happens to be Sharda’s doctoral thesis guide, on three of India’s biggest uprisings in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and the Northeast.
The book is titled Conflict Resolution: The RSS Way, but it is less about the Sangh’s own conflict-resolution efforts and more about how the Sangh interprets these uprisings and their causes, and how its own various resolutions on these issues explain its handling of them. The book offers, probably for the first time, an analysis of the different resolutions of the RSS on different topics of national interest.
The book is logically divided into three parts with Book 1 focusing on Jammu & Kashmir, Book 2 on Punjab and Book 3 on the North East, with the last part further divided into two sections, one focusing on uprisings in the smaller ones States centered on Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura and Manipur (Arunachal and Meghalaya were largely free of this malaise) and the second on Assam, where the uprising was largely sparked by the huge influx of Bangladeshis persecuting both Hindus and Muslims seeking a better life .
Using resolutions from the RSS’s top policymaking bodies, the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (consisting of the Sangh’s all-India delegates) and the Kendriya Karyakarini Mandal (its working committee), Sharda and Pathak provide explanations for the J&K crisis, the violence the Khalistani, and the Northeastern uprisings. They are aware that the primary responsibility for the separatism lay in Nehru’s decision to undermine Maharaja Hari Singh’s belief that Sheikh Abdullah should rule the state and in India’s lack of strategic clarity on how to prevent outside interests from interfering fishing in the troubled waters of the state.
The trust gap between the former ruler of the princely state and the newly formed Union of India was at the root of Nehruvian’s ruinous decision to take the issue of the Pakistani invasion to the UN, thereby giving global interest groups a role in the “solution”. the cashmere problem. It took Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war and the Modi government’s decision to repeal Article 370 to bring Jammu and Kashmir back within the purview of India’s full constitution.
Going back to Punjab and the Khalistani uprising in the 1980s, Sharda and Pathak trace their origins to two post-partition developments: the decision of many Arya Samaj-Hindus to declare Hindi their mother tongue instead of Punjabi, leaving Sikhs as the sole protectors of Punjabi -Language in PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union), the state formed after eight princely states merged between 1948 and 1956. As the states were reorganized linguistically, modern-day Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were excised from PEPSU, leaving Sikhs feeling inferior.
The second reason for the Khalistani uprising was the Congress party’s efforts to deny the legitimacy of the Akalis in Punjab, often by fostering internal divisions, the most dangerous being its covert support of Sant Bhindranwale in the 1980s. It ended with the attack on Harmandir Sahib, the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, and KPS Gill’s valiant efforts to eliminate terrorism with crude and handy methods over the next few years.
However, Sharda and Pathak readily admit that the RSS’s narrow view of Sikhism as merely an outgrowth of the larger Hindu Dharmic tradition increased hostilities between extremist Sikhs and the RSS. The RSS is hated by many Khalistanis, although they have now become more sensitive to Sikh feelings on the subject.
In the Northeast, the uprisings relate to Church support for separatist movements in Baptist-dominated Nagaland and Mizoram, the huge influx of Hindus into Tripura which reduced the local tribal population to a minority, and the efforts of Nagaland, large parts of Manipur to claim where the majority are Hindu Meiteis.
The various uprisings of which Sharda and Pathak’s book speaks are far from over, but there is little doubt that the RSS’ efforts to consolidate and strengthen Hindu interests are now largely mainstream. No wonder the RSS is now directly in the crosshairs of evangelical groups, Islamist and left-wing organizations, and their international allies.
This book is more than a useful addition to the slowly growing literature on the RSS and their Rashtra Hindu philosophy.
The question asked at the beginning remains: What exactly is RSS and what does it intend to do?
The answer lies in applying the principle of Occam’s razor – that the simplest explanation is probably the most likely. Perhaps what it says and what it does explains most of its attitudes and approach to problems.
Sharda and Pathak say in the foreword to their book that “The RSS works to unite Hindu society for a stronger India, ie Bharat. It wants to create citizens of high character and with greater discipline and high values… The RSS philosophy asserts that disunity, orthodoxy and lack of national pride have led to the problems we face as a nation.” His idea of Hindu Rashtra or Hindutva is not theocratic or religious, but cultural (samskrit) in the nature.
This is not to say that some of its offshoots are not concerned with Hinduism as a religion (the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, for example, is clearly a religio-political movement), and some of its key leaders have umbilical ties to the RSS, but the Sangh itself is not religious in character , which can be seen from the fact that it rarely celebrates major Hindu festivals such as Holi or Diwali. Its DNA is cultural Hinduism, not religious.