Noted columnist Ramchandra Guha completely misunderstands and therefore, misrepresents, the influence of Golwalkar's ideology on the RSS of today.
Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.
Ramachandra Guha’s column “A question of sources – The unholy holy book of the RSS” (The Telegraph, 17 Sep. 2016) draws attention to the fiftieth anniversary of a major ideological manifesto of Hindu Nationalism: Madhav Sadashiv ‘Guru’ Golwalkar’s book, Bunch of Thoughts. After the death of Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (1889-1940), who in 1925 had founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or “National Volunteer Association”, the BHU-trained biologist Golwalkar (1906-73) was the second Sarsanghchalak, “Chief Guide of the Association”, until his own death. He is credited with greatly expanding the RSS’s presence in Indian society by creating a Parivar (“family”) of specialized organizations, including a pan-Hindu religious platform, a trade-union, a student organization, a network for tribal welfare, and a political party.
This party, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS, “Indian People’s Association”), founded in 1951, was a venture into explicit politics which Golwalkar agreed to much against his wishes, after the Hindu Mahasabha (‘Hindu Great-Council’, °1922) had irredeemably fallen from grace with the murder of Mahatma Gandhi by one of its members. Reportedly, Golwalkar gave his consent to the party’s creation with the words: “Alright then, a house also needs a lavatory.” The party existed until 1977, when it fused with others to form the Janata Party (‘People’s Party’) and was reconstituted in 1980 as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the time of this writing.
The title of the book in question was inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s collection Bunch of Old Letters, effectively a ‘bunch’ or random collection of disparate writings. This was not the best choice for what was intended to be an ideological guidebook.
Place of books in Hindu Nationalism
Guha misrepresents (probably because he misunderstands) the role of books in the Sangh. His inference that the book somehow determines today's BJP government's policies is a typical secularist fantasy, if only because the BJP has emancipated itself from the RSS. Most BJP men today are not from the RSS, and even the RSS men inside or outside the BJP have rarely read this Hindutva manifesto. The short attention span of many Hindus (as an outsider, I would not dare to say this, but Hindu intellectuals themselves keep on bewailing this tendency) militates against reliance on hefty volumes like Bunch of Thoughts. Ploughing through demanding books is only given to few, among ethnicities mainly the Chinese, Northern Europeans and Jews, and even there not exactly the majority. Whenever you present a book to an RSS leader, he is bound to say: "Can't you summarize this volume to a small pamphlet?" (On the bright side, Hindu consciousness-raising is currently getting a tremendous boost by the developments in communication technology: through less demanding means like Twitter messages, and through the return to oral culture, as in webinars.)
This aversion to reading is especially true in the RSS. This has a historical cause as well as a conscious decision behind it. The historical cause is the circumstances of the RSS’s founding: Dr. KB Hedgewar came from the Bengal revolutionary faction of the Freedom Movement, and brought its secretive methods along. Like the revolutionaries wary of feeding written evidence of their designs to police informers, RSS men never communicated in writing but travelled around to pass information orally. Hence the enormous physical locomotion performed by RSS officers. As the wife of an RSS veteran confided to me: “It is a status symbol for them.”
The (indeed real) influence of Bunch of Thoughts in RSS discourse is mainly through oral sermons by bauddhik officers selecting a few nice passages. Most RSS men won't recognize the more difficult passages that Guha draws grim conclusions from. It is like the Bible in Roman Catholicism, where the raw passages are kept out of hearing distance: the flock is only fed the elevating passages through selected Sunday readings.
There is a big difference between BJP texts of thirty years ago and today, being now more sophisticated but also more secularist and less Hindu. In BJP discourse, pace Guha, the term Hindu Rashtra (‘Hindu State’), dear to Golwalkar, is now unthinkable. While Congress has evolved from secular nationalism to making common cause with the Breaking India forces, the BJP has evolved from Hindu nationalism to secular nationalism. (On the bright side, this makes it the natural party of government.) This is to a lesser extent true of the RSS, but it is still closer to Golwalkar. However, the person-cult of Golwalkar, still as strong as ever, is unrelated to the influence of ‘Bunch of Thoughts’. The RSS position regarding Golwalkar's ideas might well evolve, all while the devotion to Golwalkar remains the same. Secularist intellectuals like Guha may find this absurd, but it is the reality.
Guha’s critique is certainly not the lowliest kind of anti-Golwalkar polemic. In articles of that category, used unquestioningly as source in the majority of introductions to Hindu Nationalism, the targeted Golwalkar book would not be ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ but his slim maiden volume, ‘We, Our Nationhood Defined’ (1939). That attempt at ideological contemplation of the political challenges before Hindu society has earned notoriety because of two over-quoted passages. In one, Golwalkar is selectively cited as seemingly supporting Nazi Germany. I have analysed this passage in the context of the book and of its time (one chapter each in The Saffron Swastika, 2001, and Return of the Swastika, 2006, or online here), and found this common allegation, present in every introductory text on Hindutva, totally wanting. Thus, anti-Semitism was the core doctrine of National-Socialism, yet the Jewish people was the foremost role model upheld by Golwalkar for the “Hindu nation”. As for the Nazis’ militarism, he contrasts Germany’s champions of martial virtues with the sages who form the Hindu role models “in serene majesty”. This oft-quoted passage is irrelevant for the contemporary debates, except to show to what mendaciousness secularists and foreign India-watchers can stoop.
The other passage could have more to do with contemporary politics. It clearly distinguishes Christians and Muslims from the Hindus, as mere guests vis-à-vis the host society, entitled to protection and an honourable life, but to nothing more. Golwalkar proposes that they re-assimilate, or else accept a protected status as foreign residents “claiming nothing, not even citizens’ rights”. Yet, as the book disappeared from circulation in 1948 and Golwalkar vetoed its reprint for being “immature”, most Sangh members have never even seen that line. It doesn’t reflect the current party-line of the RSS, let alone the BJP.
The only incriminating fact that still attaches to ‘We’ is its disowning. RSS officially disowned the book in 2006, only confirming half a century of the book’s factual non-existence, and with that decision, we have no quarrel. But it also claimed, quite mendaciously, that the book had not been written by Golwalkar and did not reflect his ideas. Nobody got fooled except the most obedient among the RSS’s own volunteers.
Bunch of Thoughts
By contrast, the contents of ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ remain a central part of most Sanghis’ ideological formation. The only book to rival it, is Deendayal Upadhyaya’s ‘Integral Humanism’ (1965), adopted as official ideology by the BJS and (after some confusion with “Gandhian socialism”, finally agreed to be but another name for the same ideology) its successor body, the BJP. If you would want to honestly criticize the BJP through a book, it would be Upadhyaya’s ‘Integral Humanism’, but even the sheer mention of that book is absent from the immense majority of ‘expert’ publications about the BJP. ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ only plays a role for the party’s old guard that was groomed in the RSS. The party has moved away from its parent body and most members today don’t have an RSS past.
While Bunch of Thoughts is of limited consequence to our evaluation of the presently governing BJP’s policies, it has a historical link to the party and may, of course, be studied. Without being fooled by the secularists into thinking that any fault found in it can be applied to the party, we will nonetheless take note of the Hindutva gems that Guha has discovered in it.
Golwalkar does indeed remain “the chief ideologue of the organization”, meaning the RSS, and till today, his “bearded visage is prominently displayed” at RSS functions. It may also be true that as an RSS veteran, Prime Minister Narendra Modi “hugely admires Golwalkar”. Yet, in general, it is a big stretch of Guha’s to claim that Bunch of Thoughts is “of enormous contemporary relevance” and is for the ruling party what the Koran is for Muslims. Firstly, the RSS impact on the BJP is limited and waning. Secondly, Islam is a “religion of the book” and is heavily determined by the contents of the Koran, to which it explicitly pays obeisance; but Hinduism is not that book-oriented, even when it pays plentiful lip-service to the Scripture.
This counts even more for its Hindutva variety. Indeed, Golwalkar himself was emphatically anti-bookish and berated his volunteers when they were caught “idling” by reading a book. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the RSS’s anti-intellectual orientation, which has been very consequential:
(1) a complete absence from the public debate;
(2) a propensity to make fools of themselves with fantastic claims, e.g. that “ancient Indians had airplanes,” as if India’s real contributions to science and technology weren’t good enough;
(3) a complete passivity when Nehruvians and Marxists moved in to monopolize the cultural and educational sphere;
(4) to really drive the negative implications home, an utter inability to give a credible defence of Golwalkar’s own books.
Golwalkar was a nationalist, and the movement he led, is known worldwide as “Hindu Nationalism” till today. Contrary to what the secularists now allege, the RSS was very much rooted in the Freedom Movement, in anti-colonial nationalism. It started as a security force to protect a Congress meeting in 1925, and its founder, KB Hedgewar, had been trained by the Bengali revolutionary wing of the Freedom Movement. Its slightly older sister, the Hindu Mahasabha (1922), was originally a Hindu lobby within Congress.
This nationalism was a logical choice, at least in the 1920s. The immediate pressures from the anti-colonial struggle and the international after-effect of the national passions of the Great War made nationalism honourable and obligatory. Even associations for sports or music took the habit of marching in uniform as if they were armies marching to the battlefield. The RSS followed this pattern. It is another question whether it still is such a wise choice after 1945, when nationalism got a bad name through its identification with the losing side in WW2; after 1947 and the decades of independence, when India has other concerns than its relatively assured national freedom; after 1947 again, as the year when many Hindus became citizens of the suddenly separate countries of Pakistan and (what was to become) Bangladesh; after the resettlement of millions of Hindus abroad and their acquisition of a foreign nationality (apart from those already in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Afghanistan); and after quite a few non-Indians have become Hindu. As I have argued elsewhere, nationalism is a misstatement of Hindu concerns.
Thus, the reason why Muslim invaders destroyed Hindu temples, was not that they were “foreign invaders”, as claimed in most RSS pamphlets, for then they would have imposed “foreign temples” on the Hindu sites. No, it was because they were Muslim, a word avoided nowadays in RSS parlance, and they imposed mosques. In the discussions about Ghar Wapasi (‘return home’), the reconversion of Christian converts to Hinduism, promoted by the RSS, I often hear the justification: “Christianization also entails Westernization.” But that is not the problem: Hindus themselves are fast Westernizing (without the RSS-BJP doing anything against it), but this doesn’t make them non- or anti-Hindu. And at least the Catholic missionaries are responding to this complaint by ‘inculturation’, i.e. Christianization without Westernization. So that is alright for the RSS: dhoti-clad Indian Christians smashing Hindu idols? For “nationalists”, blind to the religious dimension, it is.
Why “Hindu” rather than “Indian”? In Hedgewar’s analysis, Hindu society constituted the Indian nation, while the minorities were mere guests. In older documents of the RSS and the Jan Sangh, you still find this idea of a “Hindu nation”, as evidenced by the oft-quoted Golwalkar sentence about minority inhabitants not having “even citizens’ rights”. However, even then the RSS and then the BJS adopted terms like Bharatiya (Indian) and Rashtriya (national), and thus prepared the ground for a more recent shift away from Hindu identity politics and towards “secular” or “inclusive” nationalism. This shift, very outspoken in the BJP but also affecting the RSS, leads to inventive constructions such as that of the Indian Muslims as “Mohammedi Hindus”. The rationale for this contradictory term is the post-Golwalkar doctrine that “Hindu” is synonymous with “Indian”. Earlier, “Indian” was reduced to “Hindu” (as in Golwalkar’s quotes above), but in the RSS discourse of the last decades, “Hindu” is being reduced to “Indian”.
Haven’t the “experts” on whom Guha relies, noticed this shift? It explains, to name a current and important example, the grim and determined passivity of the Modi government regarding specifically Hindu demands, such as the abolition of the blatantly anti-Hindu (so, communally partisan and hence anti-secular) Right to Education Act, which has forced hundreds of Hindu schools to close down. As a government advisor confided to me, the BJP now, as opposed to the AB Vajpayee government, wants to “keep the pot boiling”, throwing some crumbs to their Hindu constituency, such as a punitive strike against Pakistani terrorist camps, to buy sufficient loyalty from its Hindu support base; but without doing anything substantive on important Hindu demands. The most important of these is not risky projects pregnant with communal violence, such as the Common Civil Code dear to the erstwhile Jan Sangh, but the perfectly reasonable and secular abolition of all legal and constitutional discriminations against Hinduism. (I invite the BJP to prove me wrong, not with denunciations but with legislative action.)
This shift also means that both organizations, the BJP formally and the RSS effectively, have renounced one of Golwalkar’s core ideas: Hindu Rashtra, the “Hindu state” (though the RSS used to fussily insist that it means an ill-defined “Hindu nation” instead). It was an un-Hindu idea to start with: the Gupta or Chola empire or any other premodern Hindu political entity was coronated with Hindu rites and facilitated Vedic and Puranic traditions, but never called itself Hindu Rashtra. Further, Hindu states have always been pluralistic, regardless of the ruler’s personal orientation.
In India this is now termed ”secular”, an infelicitous term deviant from its original meaning of “non-religious” or “not acknowledging as consequential any religious identities”; but one that has been accepted by the RSS itself in its 1990’s slogan: “Hindu India, secular India”. By the RSS’s own post-Golwalkar logic, Hindu Rashtra, when analyzed, would only mean: “a (genuinely) secular state”. Why then uphold a Hindu Rashtra as a distant goal in contradistinction to the present principle (admittedly very imperfect in its realization) of a secular republic? Golwalkar’s and the present RSS leadership’s positions on this question, and the probable difference between the two would make an excellent topic for a thorough intra-RSS debate, followed by an authoritative publication explaining the whole question in detail and finally offering clarity. Are they capable of doing this?
Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, Golwalkar didn’t see this nationhood as a project, a “nation in the making”, but as an ancient heritage: "Long before the West had learnt to eat roast meat instead of raw, we were one nation, with one motherland." Indeed, in many RSS writings, it is claimed that the Vedic expression matrbhumi, ‘motherland’, means India, in the sense of the Subcontinent.
That is not true, but the belief has a long tradition. A close reading of the Vedas shows a geographical horizon stretching from roughly Prayag to the Afghan frontier. The only Vedic seer credited with crossing the Vindhya mountains was Agastya, and that was noticed precisely because it was an exceptional adventure, not a visit to a province of his familiar motherland. In the Mahabharata, an epic based on a historical war of succession in the Vedic Bharata dynasty ca. 1400 BC, the geographical ambit of the events and persons involved is similarly limited. Yet, by the time of the final editing, around the time of Christ, dynasties from the farthest ends of India had had themselves written into the narrative. They wanted to belong to the expanding Vedic civilization, which is also why they invited Brahmin families and donated land to them, in order to have them confer Vedic legitimacy on their dynasties.
Not since a God-given eternity, but at least for more than 2000 years, all of the Subcontinent has had a sense of unity. This is far more than most countries can say, and it is enough to justify its political unity today. The pilgrimage cycles, the narration of the same epics in village squares all over the country, and the visible presence of the otherwise self-contained Brahmin caste and the monastic orders, created a degree of self-conscious cultural unity. This sometimes approached but never fully reached political unity, which at any rate only concerned the elites: changing borders made little difference to ordinary life. Clearly, political unity existed at least as an ideal.
Fact is that here, Golwalkar gave utterance to a feeling common among Indians. Whatever the details about the past, Indians believe in national unity. And this is not a nationalism “in the making”, on the contrary: the Nehruvian elites dish out all kinds of reasons why not Indianness but the separate communal identities are “real”, yet when push comes to shove, Indians stand united. Before the Chinese attacked in 1962, Tamil Nadu was in the grip of separatist fervour; but when the invasion came, the Tamils, all while remaining wedded to the Dravidianist cultural demands, abandoned the separatist camp and threw their lot in with India. Also, history shows that the surest way to win an election lies in winning an Indo-Pak war. The local and communal identities are real, but so is the “national” identity.
Hence Guha’s Golwalkar quotation: "Hindu Society developed in an all-comprehensive manner, with a bewildering variety of phases and forms, but with one thread of unification running inherently through the multitude of expressions and manifestations." Here Golwalkar’s observation is impeccable, though I would call this unity “civilizational” rather than “national”. Guha comments: “What precisely this unifying thread was is never defined.” Well, it is Hinduism. This is a vague and capacious notion, but adequate enough to explain India’s self-conscious unity.
Continued in part 2...