Examining Ram Guha's perception of Guru Golwalkar reveals not only the studied superficiality of Nehruvian secularists but also serious flaws in the strategic thinking of 'Hindu Nationalists'.
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.
In part 1, we saw Ramachandra Guha drawing grim conclusions from the supposed influence of MS Golwalkar’s 50-year-old book Bunch of Thoughts on the ruling party. Here we discuss some more aspects of Golwalkar’s vision that, in Guha’s understanding, should be cause for worry.
According to Ramachandra Guha, another “assumption that Golwalkar works with is that despite their fallen state today, Hindus are destined to lead and guide the world”. He cites Guruji as asserting that it "is the grand world-unifying thought of Hindus alone that can supply the abiding basis for human brotherhood", so that world leadership, no less, "is a divine trust, we may say, given to the charge of the Hindus by Destiny".
It is not as if other nations are waiting for India’s contribution. Then again, what they did take or accept from India was the most precious contribution. China had no mean philosophy sprung out of its own soil, but nonetheless accepted and integrated Buddhism. Among the Greek philosophers, Pythagoras and later the neo-Platonists were but the most explicit in copying Indian concepts and even practices, and they influenced the whole of European philosophy a well as a bit of Christian theology. A much later revolution in European thought was wrought by Immanuel Kant, who admitted the decisive influence (“awakened from my dogmatic slumber”) from David Hume’s sudden development of a quasi-Buddhist view. Hume doesn’t mention Buddhism, and would perhaps have been laughed out of court if he had, but recently we have discovered that his philosophical awakening had been triggered by his reading two detailed accounts of Buddhist thought by Catholic missionaries posted in Tibet c.q. Thailand. Modern thinkers like AN Whitehead, CG Jung and Ken Wilber tapped directly into Indian thoughts and practices, even if not always acknowledging it (an attitude discussed by Rajiv Malhotra in his innovative thesis of the ‘U-turn’).
On the other hand, translating this natural attractiveness of Indian traditions for outsiders into a missionary spirit is not very Hindu either. When real Evangelists meet someone from a different religion, immediately their missionary mechanic sets to work: what buttons are there in him that I can click to make him open to my message? Hindus don’t have this at all. When they meet someone from a strange religion, they become naturally curious. They feel no need to destroy that foreign religion and replace it with Hinduism, but assume that there must be a core of wisdom in it, something essentially the same as what makes Hindus tick.
Moreover, this international appeal as a “world teacher” sits uncomfortably with Golwalkar’s nationalism. It is now the need of the hour to stress that Indian contributions are really from India (against e.g. American attempts to obscure the Sanskrit terms and Indian references in yoga), and that in some respects India has indeed been a "world teacher". But apart from that, the further propagation of Indian contributions abroad, as of foreign contributions inside India, will go on for some time. In a footnote of their schoolbooks, the brighter among Chinese or European or Latin-American pupils will still learn that yoga originates in India, or that the zero originates in India, but otherwise it will simply be part of their own life, c.q. their own mathematics. Just like rocket science came from Germany, the train from England, gun powder from China, and mankind from Africa. So many world teachers!
The Buddha’s cosmopolitanism
Like most Hindus, Golwalkar praised the Buddha. The Buddhists, by contrast, he accuses of beginning to “uproot the age-old national traditions of this land. The great cultural virtues fostered in our society were sought to be demolished." It could have made sense to accuse the Buddhists of neglecting certain virtues because they emphasized other virtues more. A slightly earlier Hindu Nationalist, VD Savarkar, had already considered the Buddhist (but not Buddhist alone) value of non-violence harmful for India’s defence. But the destructive design of “seeking to demolish” anything of value is not normally associated with Buddhism. While there is no doubt that foreigners were important in the history of Buddhism, especially the Indo-Greeks (Menander/Milinda) and the Kushanas (Kanishka), Golwalkar surprises us with the information that "devotion to the nation and its heritage had reached such a low pitch that the Buddhist fanatics invited and helped the foreign aggressors who wore the mask of Buddhism. The Buddhist sect had turned a traitor to the mother society and the mother religion."
This is bad history and rather nasty towards the Buddhist fellow-Indians. But we can agree that Buddhism never set great store by defending India’s borders, which were not threatened in the north or east, where the Buddha lived and worked. The northwestern frontier was known to the Buddha, and indeed culturally familiar, not felt to be a foreign land at all, for his friends Prasenajit and Bandhula had studied there, at Takshashila University. (Yes, it existed before Buddhism: contrary to the Nehruvian received wisdom, the university as an institution was not a Buddhist but a Vedic invention.) But he was not in the business of defending it: at that very time it was not threatened either, and he indeed had other priorities anyway. But neither he nor his followers ever shot anyone in the back who felt called upon to fight aggressors.
Something similar counts for other Indian sects. The Vedas and Epics report a number of wars, but never a defence against foreign aggression. Once there was real aggression, by Mohammed Ghori, defender Prithviraj Chauhan was betrayed by Jayachandra, the latter as much a Hindu as the former. They were aware of some cultural unity stretching from Attock to Cuttack, but politically they were attached to their own part of the Subcontinent, and to hell with the neighbours. The RSS notion of a Deshbhakt (‘patriot’, ‘devotee of the country’, meaning a devotee of the whole Subcontinent) did not exist in premodern Hinduism.
Sects with any kind of spiritual goal had another purpose than nationalism: Liberation, Self-Realization, Knowledge, Isolation (of Consciousness from Nature), Awakening, or anything the different sects chose to call the ultimate state of consciousness. None of the classical manuals for the seekers of the ultimate mention India. If in recent centuries it does come up by way of geographical detail, it is still not invest with value pertaining to their goal. The Motherland is where you come from, a natural given; not where you go to, not the norm you aspire to reach. It is just there.
Then again, you do get the notion of India as a Punyabhumi, a territory fit for earning merit, which you have to purify yourself to re-enter after a stay abroad. Here you get the bridge between Hindu spirituality and Hindu nationalism. In my opinion, like in that of cosmopolitan secularists, this was a degenerative trend, but as an outsider, I don’t want to tell Hindus what to do or to believe. So here we do have to admit that Golwalkar had a traditional basis for his assertion of India’s uniqueness.
Buddhism had come into the limelight in 1956, shortly before the book was written: with Dr. BR Ambedkar’s adoption of, or (in Guha’s borrowed-Christian construction of the event) ‘conversion’ to Buddhism. Ambedkar had wanted to show a fist to caste Hinduism, yet that did not make him into a "traitor to the mother society and the mother religion", on the contrary: he explicated that conversion to a foreign religion would harm the nation, which he did not want, hence his embracing a sect born in India. As Savarkar had commented: Ambedkar’s ‘refuge’ in Bauddha Dharma was “a sure jump into the Hindu fold”. That is why the RSS, thanks to advancing insight, has gradually included Ambedkar in its pantheon. But that development was not on the horizon yet under Guruji. Guha correctly notes that Golwalkar “does not so much as mention the great emancipator of the Dalits”.
For people involved in a crusade against Hinduism, like the Nehruvian secularists, it was a foregone conclusion that whatever a Hindu leader ever wrote, he would most of all be judged for his position on caste. That this will always be a negative judgment, is an equally foregone conclusion. Hinduism, for them, is “caste, wholly caste, and nothing but caste”. This implies that a nominal Hindu is deemed to have turned against his religion if he takes an approvedly egalitarian position; only then is he the good guy. If he spits on his Mother, bravo! But if he chooses to defend Hinduism, as Golwalkar does, every possible position he takes will always be deemed an intolerable discrimination on caste lines. Even if he pronounces himself in favour of full equality, he is still lambasted for being patronizing and exercising his ‘Brahmin privilege’.
According to Guha, “Golwalkar vigorously defends the caste system, saying that it kept Hindus united and organized down the centuries.” Yet, what follows is something else than a “vigorous defence”, it is a nuanced historical understanding that a social system at variance with modern homogenizing nationalism may yet have had its historical advantages: "On the one hand, the so-called 'caste-ridden' Hindu Society has remained undying and unconquerable... after facing for over two thousand years the depredations of Greeks, Shakas, Hunas, Muslims and even Europeans, by one shock of which, on the other hand, the so-called casteless societies crumbled to dust never to rise again." Whether a causal relation can be established between caste and the survival of Hinduism, should be investigated, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that deserves better than Guha’s blanket condemnation.
“Bunch of Thoughts altogether ignores the suppression of Dalits and women in Hindu society.” Look at these double standards. Pray, Mr. Guha, show me a book written in defence of Islam that expounds on the mistreatment of women in Islam. After you have done that, you may ask this very similar question about Hinduism. As a prolific writer, have you published anything about the oppression of women in Christianity, a critique developed by the very originators of feminism in the world? Why do you single out Hinduism here? We have never seen you ask feminist authors why they haven’t contributed anything to the struggle for Hinduism’s self-respect against its many enemies, so why the reverse? Further, we may speculate that the women’s viewpoint just didn’t occur to Golwalkar as a confirmed bachelor leading an all-male organization; and that in the India of the 1960s, women’s issues were not as high-profile as today.
By contrast, caste inequality has continuously been on the agenda in the Indian republic. Golwalkar was not silent about it, but gave much less prominence to caste than anti-Hindu authors do, who assume that “Hinduism is caste, wholly caste, and nothing but caste”. RSS veterans who still knew Golwalkar in person told me he took a nationalist and non-conflictual view of the issue: as a nationalist, he believed in the minimization of all divisive factors and in a large measure of equality for all members of the Hindu nation, but not in social engineering, much less in quota or reparative discrimination (‘affirmative action’). Thus, when a Brahmin neophyte at first refused to eat together with the other castes, he allowed him to eat separately, until he was familiar enough with the RSS attitude that he himself came around to eating with the others. That way, his acceptance of inter-caste commensality was much better anchored then if imposed on him. The RSS boasts of being the only caste-free civil organization in India. By contrast, the political parties that for historical reasons call themselves ‘anti-caste’ practise naked caste advocacy. They typically are informal or even self-designated interest groups of a particular group of castes.
Guha accuses Golwalkar of paranoia vis-à-vis Indian Muslims and Indian Christians, and quotes him: "What is the attitude of those people who have been converted to Islam and Christianity? They are born in this land, no doubt. (…) Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion to the nation."
The memory of the Partition was still fresh, and of the fact that a vast majority of the Muslim electorate had voted for it. The missionaries too had considered it likely that with Independence, India would lapse into chaos, so that some Christian-dominated areas in Kerala and the Northeast could declare their independence. It had also been noticed in the Northeast that non-Christianized tribals declared ‘Indian’ as their nationality to census officers, while Christians proclaimed their tribal identity. So, Golwalkar’s suspicion of the minority, while not to be accepted uncritically, still had a core of truth in it.
Then, Guha goes in for the kill: “There is a striking affinity between the questions Golwalkar asks here and those asked by European anti-Semites in the 19th and early 20th centuries. French, German and British nationalists all suspected the Jews in their country of not being loyal enough to the motherland.” Aha! So Golwalkar was a Nazi after all!
Well, not exactly. First of all, before the Jews became the object of World Conspiracy suspicions, the allegation of a foreign or international loyalty originally concerned not the Jews but the Catholics, with the Jesuit Order as their main weapon of aggression. The Protestants, somewhat like the Orthodox Christians, were organized nationally and accepted docrinal differences, at least within the confines laid down by the Bible; by contrast, the Catholic Church was a global monolith with aspirations for world domination. My own country, Belgium, was a Catholic frontline state, with institutions for Irish, English and Dutch Catholics to support them and eventually allow them to topple the Protestant domination of their countries. There were also real-life incidents that nurtured the suspicion of a Popish Plot, most famously the ‘gunpowder plot’ by Jesuit agent Guy Fawkes to blow up the British Parliament. So, there was a core of truth to those suspicions. Even in demography, these suspicions were not baseless. As late as the 1950s, Dutch Protestants used to warn: “Be careful with those Catholics, with their large families they may overtake our country.” And indeed, today the percentage of Catholics is larger than that of Protestants - only, between them, they are not even the majority anymore - and the Protestant-Catholic dichotomy has become irrelevant. Also, the Catholic birthrate has plummeted to the national average.
The suspicion of a Jewish World Conspiracy was mainly based on a forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, originally fabricated by the Czarist secret police, though disapproved of by the Czar himself. When Islam critics in the West point out that Islam has ambitions for world domination, the Guhas in our midst try to be funny and allege that we fantasize, after the same model, a ‘Protocols of Mecca’. But no: the Zion Protocols were a forgery, the so-called Mecca Protocols for world domination are real. The Quran itself, authoritative for every single Muslim (though ignored by many, fortunately but un-Islamically), says: “War will reign between us until ye believe in Allah alone.” The Jewish Bible has a doctrine of domination too, but only of the Promised Land; while the Quran speaks of world domination.
So, the difference between the anti-Jewish and the anti-Islamic suspicion is one between a falsity and reality. I am aware that for propagandists, reality doesn’t count, only perception does. With the studied superficiality typical of Nehruvian secularism, the seemingly similar perception of the anti-Jewish versus the anti-Islamic suspicion is enough. They can throw that around as a grave allegation, as here in Guha’s article, and be confident that no one will step in to correct them. The endless mendaciousness of the secularists would have been remedied to a large extent if there had been a counterparty capable of responding to them and diagnosing their errors. But the only counterparty to be reckoned with was the Hindu Nationalists, and they had been fixed in argumentative impotence by Golwalkar himself.
Christians have a similar doctrine of world conquest, though less confrontational. In its formative first centuries, Christianity lived as a minority in the vast Roman Empire, and unlike Islam, it had to accommodate national laws not of its own making. This fitted Saint Paul’s repudiation of the Biblical Law: it is the spirit (viz. of charity) that counts, not the letter of the law. This means that Christianity became naturally secular: it separated the religious sphere, thoroughly Christian, from the worldly and political sphere, dominated by non-Christian forces. During the heyday of Christian power, Christianity impinged ever more on the political sphere, but in the modern era, it did not have too much difficulty returning to its original ‘secularist’ position of accepting the separate identity of the political sphere. A telling criterion: comparatively few people were killed in the struggle to wrest worldly power from the Churches, compared e.g. to the struggle between secular ideologies in the 20th century. And in this struggle, the secular forces were more violent than the Christian forces; witness the French Revolutionary genocide in the Vendée or the persecution of Christianity in the Soviet Union.
However, in a more moderate and sophisticated way, Christianity does have an ambition of world domination too. Like in Islam, all non-believers are deemed to go to hell, though few Christians now take this seriously anymore. Jesus’ injunction to “go and teach all nations” means that India too is on Christianity’s conversion programme. When the Pope came to India in 1999, he said openly and in so many words that his Church wanted to “reap a great harvest of faith” in Asia, which implies destroying Hinduism the way the native religions of Europe and the Americas were destroyed. He thereby badly let his secularist allies down, for they had always ridiculed the Hindu Nationalist suspicion that Christianity only meant destruction for Hinduism. Yet, after being put in the wrong so bluntly, here is the secularist Guha again shamelessly ridiculing Golwalkar’s suspicion against Christianity.
On one point, though, Golwalkar is blatantly wrong: it is not India that the Christians want to destroy, but Hinduism. Here again, nationalism is a misstatement of Hindu concerns. Not the nation is their target, but the religion. Christians were loyal to the Roman empire, of which the 5th-centuriy Germanic enemies were already Christian too, but when the Empire fell apart, they adapted: after all, their main loyalty was not a political structure but a religion. And then they became loyal citizens of Wisigothic Spain, of Ostrogothic Italy, of Frankish France, a political loyalty that was inevitably secondary. They were not Deshbhakt, they were Yesubhakt. And similarly, they sing the Indian anthem with as much conviction as their Indian compatriots. And they will do so even more when they come to live in a “post-Hindu India” (of which Christian convert Kancha Ilaiah dreams). But if a different political structure comes to replace the Indian Republic, they will effortlessly adapt to that too. Defending the nation against the Christian onslaught leaves their real target undefended: the Hindu religion.
Guha quotes Golwalkar as asserting that "the foremost duty laid upon every Hindu is to build up such a holy, benevolent and unconquerable might of our Hindu People in support of the age-old truth of our Hindu Nationhood". This was never said in the Upanishads, it is not part of the fabled Hindu spirituality. But then, Hinduism has survived because of other factors than spirituality. At times it is simply right to emphasize the martial virtues. Proof a contrario: Buddhism was purely about spirituality and didn’t practise self-defence, so when it was really attacked, during the Muslim invasions, it was wiped away from Central Asia and India in one go. In spite of Golwalkar’s unhistorical view of ‘Hindu Nationhood’, he was right to extol the project of “unconquerable might”.
Guha compares this “supremacist point of view” with what M.K. Gandhi regarded as the duty of Hindus: “to abolish untouchability and to end the suppression of women”, and to “promote inter-religious harmony”. Indeed, Mr. Guha, “there could not be two visions of what it takes to be a Hindu, or an Indian, that are as radically opposed as those offered by Golwalkar and Gandhi respectively”.
There are several things wrong with this picture. Factually, it is not true that the Mahatma opposed “suppression of women”; on the contrary, he notoriously practised it. Perhaps his wife Kasturba accomodated the arrangements Gandhi imposed on her, but there cannot possibly be an illusion that their relation was one of equality. Towards his wife as well as his children, he was an unmitigated family tyrant. His relation to the young women with whom he carried out his “experiments with chastity” was also perversely exploitative.
As for untouchability, Gandhi made it his priority, and at that junction in history it was indeed a necessity; but to make it a defining trait of Hinduism is simply wrong. For thousands of years, Hindu society didn’t know of hereditary untouchability, which is not mentioned in the Rg-Veda (and no, you shrill screamers out there, not even in the Purusha Sukta). Later it did, and was comfortable with it. For opposite reasons, Hindus in those periods were not preoccupied with abolishing untouchability: first because it wasn’t there, then because they thought it was alright. One can be a Hindu without practising untouchability, but also without being fired up to abolish untouchability. Today’s Hindu communities I know in Holland (Bhojpuri-speaking Rama worshippers from Surinam) have only the faintest notion of caste and none of untouchability, but are very much Hindu. In the same spirit, the RSS ranks were not tainted with untouchability either. In that respect, Golwalkar’s vision was different from but by no means “radically opposed” to Gandhiji’s.
Abolishing untouchability is a good thing to do, but it is not the essence of Hinduism, nor of anti-Hinduism. Hinduism is a lot more and a lot bigger than caste. It is only the ignorant Nehruvians who can’t pronounce the word ‘Hindu’ without manoeuvering the word ‘caste’ into the same sentence. If Gandhi put an unusual stress on this, it may have been a necessity of the times, and that is not what I want to hold against him. What was wrong with him, however, was that, regardless of caste, he had a very warped view of Hinduism.
Thus, Gandhi was wrong to equate Hinduism with non-violence, which is extolled as a virtue on the spiritual path, but not a virtue for the warrior. No matter how the warrior class is recruited, at any rate it is deemed necessary in the real world. Hinduism is a complete system: it accounts for society’s needs as much as for the requirements of the spiritual path. Gandhi’s version of Hinduism was very unbalanced and morbidly moralistic. It ought to be a warning sign for Hindus that the secularists are so insistently dangling Gandhi as a role model before them.
Likewise, “interreligious harmony” was a natural practice between the many sects within Hinduism, and partly even towards Christianity and Islam. When Muslims pass a mosque, they greet it, but not a temple or church. It is only Hindus who greet any building or object that is deemed sacred to anyone. This was the practice long before Gandhi. But these Hindus, or certainly their intellectual vanguard, had the power of discrimination, sharpened by their many debates between the different sects. Being nice to Muslims and sympathizing with the piety that finds its expression in prayer or fasting, is different from assenting to the illusory Islamic doctrine, starting with the funny belief that Mohammed was God’s exclusive spokesman. In Gandhi’s days, this critical role vis-à-vis Christianity and (at the cost of a number of murders) Islam was taken by the Arya Samaj, which Gandhi lambasted. His role in this regard was entirely negative, abolishing the power of discrimination in the Hindu worldview. He thus prepared the ground for the wilful superficiality characteristic of the Nehruvians. He also, through his wider inflence on all Hindus, prepared the ground for the complete ideological illiteracy among RSS men, along with Golwalkar.
The differences between Gandhi and Golwalkar are dwarfed by one overriding influence on their Hindu contemporaries that they had in common. It is that both of them sold a voguish Western import as quintessentially Hindu. Gandhi’s view of non-violence came from some quietist Christian sects. Remaining unmoved and without fighting back when thugs manhandle you, is typical for the Amish and similar Christian pacifist sects. Through Tolstoy and other exalted Christians, Gandhi inserted a lot of Christian influence into Hinduism. Similarly, Golwalkar’s nationalism was a belated import of a 19th-century influence, particularly through the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, whose political manifesto had been translated by VD Savarkar. Today in the West, nationalism has gone out of fashion; but in India, nothing ever dies, and so nationalism keeps on working its distortive influence on the movement for Hindu self-defence.
What Hindus should urgently do, is to forget both Gandhi and Golwalkar. (That means two idols less on Narendra Modi’s house altar.) Gandhi is now only artificially kept alive by the secularists and some sentimental Hindus, purely for Hindu consumption. (Nobody is telling the Muslims that Gandhiji was there for them too, and that they should emulate his very Christian message of turning the other cheek.) The problem is not that what they imported or what came from abroad. As the late Bal Thackeray said: “You cannot take this Swadeshi [= own produce, economic nationalism] thing too far, for then you would have to do without the light bulb.” So, if Gandhi’s moralistic sentimentalism or deliberate lack of discrimination had something positive to offer, we shouldn’t mind it being of Christian origin. If Golwalkar’s nationalism helped in properly diagnosing the problems facing Hindu society, we should not complain of its Italian origin. But the thing is that they are not beneficial at all; or if they ever were, they definitely have outlived their utility.
Another very important thing they had in common, was their emphasis on emotions, as opposed to thought. As RSS activists are wont to say: “Do you need to read a book to love your mother?” Working on the emotions quickly creates a popular appeal: both Gandhi and Golwalkar were hugely successful at getting crowds marching. The Marxists were never equally popular, but more successful in determining actual policies. They worked on people’s minds instead, and that had a more penetrative and lasting effect.
Instead of following false prophets like Gandhi and Golwalkar, Hindus had better return to their real role models: to Dirghatamas and Vasishtha, to Rama and Krishna, to Canakya and Thiruvalluvar, to Vishnu Sharma and Abhinavagupta, to Ramdas and Shivaji. Their contribution in ideology and the art of living should be made relevant to the present; they had everything in them that we need. Hindus should not follow Western categories, like ‘national’ vs. ‘anti-national’, or like ‘Left’ vs. ‘Right’, not because they have been imported, but because by now they have been sufficiently put to the test and found wanting.
Vanguard of Hindu society
According to Ramachandra Guha, the RSS fancies itself the vanguard of Hindu society: “Golwalkar further assumes that if Hindus are destined to lead the world, the RSS is destined to lead the Hindus.”
In better days, and even recently, the rest of the world has eagerly drunk from Mother India’s nipples. In spite of all her defects, she has a lot to offer, and this has been proven already from the distant past onwards. This much is indisputable. By contrast, the RSS’s claim to leadership over the Hindus (or more up-to-date, over the Indians) is a tall claim that deserves to be put to the test.
Certainly, the RSS does a lot of good work at the basic level. Best known in India, though passed over in silence by the world media in emulation of the English media in India, is their disaster relief work. This indeed cannot be praised too much, if only to compensate for the culpable silence about it in every anti-Hindutva article, including this one by Guha. Whenever a flood or earthquake strikes, RSS men immediately come on the scene and do the thankless jobs that secularists feel themselves too precious for.
It is all the more tragic that all these constructive energies of millions of ordinary Hindu volunteers are not channelled towards a higher goal. The RSS at one time wanted to serve Hindu society; today it is only busy perpetuating itself. The RSS leadership has failed to set useful and attainable goals for Hindu society. It has failed to map the Kurukshetra or do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of the different forces in the field. According to the ancient Chinese strategist Sunzi, knowing both your enemy and yourself yields constant victory, knowing only one of the two sometimes yields victory and sometimes defeat, and not knowing either will end in assured and ignominious defeat. By this criterion, the RSS, in spite of its size, is headed for complete defeat.
And effectively, for advertising itself as the ‘vanguard’ of Hindu society, the RSS has little to show. Is India more Hindu today than in 1925? Several parameters show a definite decline: demographic percentage of Hindus; percentage of Hindu-controlled schools (not to speak of the hard-to-quantify degree of ‘Hinduness’ of those schools); percentage of the subcontinental territory where Hindus can live with honour; percentage of soil and other assets controlled by Hindu temples; percentage of men who wear dhotis or of women who wear saris; and the proportion of conversions to the different religions relative to their demographic weight.
Ah, the RSS will say with a triumphant smile, at least we managed to bring our political party to power! Yes, they did, and that precisely is where you can see their failure. Just compare the programme with which the BJS started in 1951 and the actual policies of the BJP in power. Rather than ‘Hindu-izing’ secularist India, the Hindu party has been secularized. In 1947, the Hindu forces deplored the inclusion of the green colour in the Indian flag; but by 1980, they themselves put green into their party flag. This is a visual symbol of how they now wholeheartedly support what they originally condemned as ‘minority appeasement’.
Let me state at this point what has made me write this article. A BJP worker of RSS background asked me to write a reply to this article by Guha. In response, I pooh-poohed Bunch of thoughts: while not endorsing Guha’s critique, I still expressed my skepticism of Golwalkar’s worldview. He got angry with me, a case of “turning a good man into an angry man” by banking too much on his goodwill and understanding. I owed this man a lot, and it was rude and inconsiderate of me to belittle his Guru like that. I sincerely apologize for it, and I hope to repair it a little bit by writing this counter-critique.
Yet, at the same time, I cannot help noticing that this incident at the personal level is a very small part of the very large tragedy wilfully wrought for decades on end by the RSS leadership, including Golwalkar. There cannot be two opinions about the idealism and loyalty of numerous RSS men; but the leadership has channelled this enormous reservoir of constructive energies towards nothing better than the RSS itself. What their own rank and file had assumed to be a service to the Hindu civilization is diverted away from that goal. If the RSS had not existed, many of those activists would not have found an outlet for their dedication to the Hindu cause. Yet, many others would have set up their own initiatives, and the net result is that the Hindu cause would have advanced much further than where it has landed under RSS tutelage.
India’s unitary structure
Ramachandra Guha raises the issue of the Constitution’s place in the Hindu Nationalist scheme of things: “Narendra Modi may swear that the Indian Constitution is his only holy book, but his guruji, Golwalkar, believed that document to be deeply flawed and that it must be rejected or at least redrafted”. The logical conclusion would be that after fifty years, Golwalkar’s ideas have given way to new ideas. That Modi, in spite of his personal veneration for his Guruji, had evolved away from Golwalkar’s opinions. But instead, the same way committed Muslims always go back to the Quran and live as if in 7th-century Arabia, Guha expects Modi to live by the old book, without any changes.
Guha quotes Bunch of Thoughts: "The framers of our present Constitution also were not firmly rooted in the conviction of our single homogeneous nationhood." He thinks Golwalkar “was angry that India was constituted as a Union of states, for in his view the federal structure would sow ‘the seeds of national disintegration and defeat’.”
The framers did indeed sow the seeds of divisive politics steered by sectional interests, though not with their purely symbolic definition of India. On the other hand, their responsibility should not be exaggerated: a good political structure is not all-powerful and cannot indefinitely prevent the eruption of divisive tendencies. Golwalkar’s obsession with this “single homogeneous nationhood” is historically incorrect, but so is the Constitution’s claim that “India is a Union of States”. An example of a union of states is the European Union, where separately existing countries threw in their lot together. Or the budding United States, where thirteen separate British colonies, upon their gaining independence, formed a union. In India, even the nominally independent princely states were effectively part of British India, so the Indian Republic was but a continuation of an existing unitary political entity.
According to Guha, “Golwalkar wanted the Centre to be all-powerful. Modi may now speak of the virtues of co-operative federalism, but his guru, Golwalkar, wrote of the need ‘to bury deep for good all talk of a federal structure of our country’s Constitution’.” Here again, we see that Modi simply, and quite normally, doesn’t follow the Book written by Golwalkar. In this respect, though, Modi does stand in a Hindu tradition and even a BJP tradition, from which Golwalkar was deviating. Ancient Hindu empires had to respect each vassal-state’s swadharma: it had its own ways, and even the inclusion in a larger political structure should not interrupt that vassal-state’s attachment to its distinctive ways.
As for modern India and the BJP, the AB Vajpayee government split the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to give political expression to the relative distinctiveness of the Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand areas. It also extended recognition as official language to several ‘tribal’ languages. Like in some other respects, Golwalkar’s and the RSS’s view deviates from the wise Hindu attitude encapsulating the wisdom of millennia. Modi sets an example for all RSS followers by abandoning the pro-monolithic Golwalkar view and re-embracing the Hindu tradition of pluralism and differentiation.
An unexpected positive side to Golwalkar’s stand is that it is more democratic in spirit than Modi’s or anyone else’s veneration for the Constitution: "Let the Constitution," he insisted, "be re-examined and re-drafted, so as to establish [a] Unitary form of Government." Regardless of his doubtful concern for the unitary form of government, he very correctly refused to worship the Constitution. In a democracy, laws are a human product, which we can choose to keep unchanged or to amend. They are not above us, we ourselves make them. Modi had better stop treating the Constitution as holy writ and give it a critical look to see for himself that some articles in there are undesirable and in dire need of being amended.
Ramachandra Guha concludes thus: “No one who reads Bunch of Thoughts can reach a conclusion other than the one the (entirely representative) quotes offered above suggest -- namely, that its author was a reactionary bigot, whose ideas and prejudices have no place in a modern, liberal democracy. If ever the prime minister has the courage to give an unscripted, no-holds-barred press conference, the first question an honest journalist should ask him would be, ‘Sir, how do you reconcile your (long-standing) admiration for Golwalkar on the one hand with your (new-found) respect and regard for Ambedkar and Gandhi on the other?’"
Guha’s passing assurance of representativeness is false. Just as has happened in the usual references to Golwalkar’s book ‘We’, here too passages have been cherry-picked for the virtue of making him look bad. Bunch of Thoughts is a repetitive and mediocre book, but is on the whole rather harmless. It rarely raises the reader’s indignation. If it were not like that, i.e. if things with the book were as bad as Guha claims, then this indictment of the book would at once be a serious indictment of its faithful readers. And not just of its actual readers, a minority of RSS activists, but of everyone alleged by Guha to be an obedient reader, including Narendra Modi.
Now, to the contents of Guha’s advice to Modi, it is a doubtful trait of Hinduism that in can reconcile contrasting entities. At best, this means finding common ground underneath a seeming opposition. But often it means untruthfully papering over real conflicts of interest. Hence Guha’s suspicion that Modi juxtaposes these three characters on his home altar yet is unable to reconcile their worldviews. To reconcile Golwalkar with Gandhi is not so bizarre, they actually have fundamental traits in common, as argued above. To reconcile Ambedkar with Gandhi is already harder, though this is a couple whose like-mindedness Guha seems to take for granted; in fact, they had a sharp conflict between them, which neither of them had with Golwalkar. Not only was their outlook on both religion and modernization very different (rationalist versus crassly sentimental), but they actually clashed on what to Guha is clearly the most important topic in the universe: caste. However, the real challenge here is to reconcile Ambedkar with Golwalkar.
Well, first off, they were both ardent nationalists. Even when Ambedkar collaborated with the foreign occupiers of his country by serving on the Viceroy’s Council, he did so because in his judgment, British rule was best for his country, and in particular for his own Depressed Castes constituency. It is to Jawaharlal Nehru’s credit that he took Ambedkar, who had been his opponent during the Freedom Struggle, into his first national cabinet so that the country could avail of his service. His rejection of the Christian missionary seduction in favour of Swadeshi Buddhism was nationalist par excellence. It did not endear him to Golwalkar in so far as we know, but it won him the sympathy of the later RSS including Narendra Modi. To some, this element of nationalism is less essential, but to RSS men, it is all-important.
Secondly, while Ambedkar was more emphatically egalitarian than Golwalkar, the latter’s nationalism equally had egalitarian implications. In the feudal system, the nobility was not tied to a nation. Till today, the remaining royal dynasties in Europe are biologically the most pan-European families. By contrast, the commoners were mostly tied to a particular nation and easily rallied around the banner of the modern nation-states. Moreover, nationalism allowed those commoners to feel equal to their upper-class compatriots. And historically, it is nationalism, first through the initiative of Otto van Bismarck, which created a social security system and its consequent strong bond of self-interest between the commoners and their nation. Likewise, even if Golwalkar was a Brahmin (and already for that reason fated to be forever hated by the Ambedkarites and the foreign India-watchers in their pocket), he advocated a common identification of everyone with the nation, regardless of caste.
Contrary to the secularists’ hazy assumption, Hindu Nationalism is distinct from Hindu Traditionalism, and the central point of contrast is precisely caste. Genealogically, in the 1920s Hindu Nationalism sprang from Hindu reformism as incarnated in the Arya Samaj, intended as a stalwart Hindu movement (“back to the Vedas!”), but emphatically anti-caste. The foundational insight of this Vedic egalitarianism was that Vedic society had no castes, which is accurate at least for the age of the Rg-Vedic Family Books. Several leading early Hindu Nationalists had been Arya Samajis. The main self-imposed task of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS was Hindu ‘self-organization’ or Sangathan. This was the practical application of Swami Shraddhananda’s book ‘Hindu Sangathan’, Saviour of the Dying Race (1924). If one book can make you understand modern Hindu activism in general, of which Hindu Nationalism and a fortiori the RSS is only one current, it is that one, far more than Bunch of Thoughts. But Swami Shraddhananda, murdered by a Muslim in 1926, had been a radically anti-caste Arya Samaji.
Undoubtedly, Ramachandra Guha’s comment has the merit of drawing attention to Guru Golwalkar’s main political manifesto. However, to a moderate extent, it suffers from the main flaws of the Nehruvian depiction of Hindu Nationalism. Based on a very hazy knowledge of the facts on the ground within the Hindu movement, it cultivates a stereotypical enemy-image. It also conflates very distinct strands, such as Hindu traditionalism vs. Hindu reformism, and anachronistically takes past states of affairs to be still in force. It further imagines the Hindu movement to be a powerhouse and fails to realize its weaknesses.
This is part 2 of the commentary. You can read part 1 here.