The portrayal of RSS and "Hindu Nationalism" in Western media has changed a little over the last couple of decades but the credit for the same does not go to the RSS itself, which remains indifferent to such challenges as before.
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.
On Friday 3 November, the Flemish broadcaster VRT Canvas, in its programme Terzake ("To the point"), presented a Dutch documentary from the series De Westerlingen ("The Westerners"), in which young Dutchmen meet youngsters in countries across the world to explore the differences in culture. In the past, the impression was that all cultural differences were on the way out because the non-Westerners were simply Westernizing. Now, it has become clear that some differences are here to stay, and that even in non-Muslim countries, there is a tough resistance against too much Westernization.
This time around, we were taken to India where a Dutch youngster called Nicolaas was meeting young Hindu Nationalists. According to the announcement on the TV station's website: "In India extremist associations acquire ever more influence. Nicolaas Veul meets activist young Hindu Nationalists in the holy city of Allahabad. He goes around with Divya, Ritesh and Vikrant. They fight for a Hindu India, and against influences from outside."
Not what it was: Hindu-baiting
At the outset, in the car on the way to an event of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha ("National Volunteer Corps", RSS), he was quickly briefed by an Indian secularist about the Hindu Nationalists. These were said to be "increasingly powerful", to be issuing for use in schools "textbooks rewritten in a pro-Hindu sense", and to be "openly linked with the Nazis".
This was a nice summary of the power equation in the reporting on India worldwide and in all the different segments of the media: all press correspondents in and "experts" on India look at Indian society and especially the communal conflict through the glasses that a handful of secularists have put on their noses, reproducing the latter's anti-Hindu bias and disinformation. For the average viewer, every topic in the ensuing meetings came under the cloud of these initial "revelations", even though nothing in the RSS performance, effectively filmed, confirmed or illustrated any of them.
Since the 1980s, I have never heard the term "Hindu Nationalists" without the addition that they are "emerging" or "increasingly powerful". They should have been all-powerful by now. The only (partial) exception was the few years after the 2009 elections when the BJP had been defeated even worse than in 2004, so that supporters of the socialist-casteist parties, including partisan experts like Christophe Jaffrelot, concluded that Hindu Nationalism was on the way out. However, instead of building on the existing power equation to push Hindutva deeper into oblivion, the Secularist Congress wasted its chance because it got too wrapped up in driving corruption to unprecedented levels, too much for the electorate to stomach. Once the next electoral campaign got underway, even the Secularists soon conceded that a BJP victory was becoming inevitable.
However, contrary to what the observers all think or say, the present BJP government under Narendra Modi, while numerically strong, is ideologically extremely weak. It is not in any way Hinduizing or "saffronizing" the polity or the education system. It is continuing the Congressite-Leftist anti-Hindu policies mandated by the Constitution, or at best looking the other way but not changing the Constitution to put a definitive stop to such policies. Thus, subsidized schools can be Christian or Muslim, but not Hindu: in the latter case, either they get taken over by the state and secularized, or at best, they have to do without subsidies. Temples are nationalized and their income channeled to non-Hindu purposes, a treatment against which the law protects churches and mosques. And this is no less the case in BJP-ruled states, where the Government could have chosen not to avail of the opportunities given to it by the Constitution.
Nowhere in this documentary would you pick up any hint to the main communal reality in India: the anti-majority discrimination. It is admittedly hard to explain to outsiders, and therefore easy to conceal or deny, but Hindus are indeed second-class citizens in their native country. I am aware that right now, many non-Indian readers will refuse to believe me, but it is really like that. Anywhere is the world you can download the text of the Indian Constitution, so please verify for yourself, starting with Art.25-30.
So, what did you get to see? Many people in the city were on the streets converging on an open ground where a meeting of a local RSS unit (shakha, "branch") with physical and ideological training was about to take place. They were wearing (or in the case of newcomers, buying) the RSS outfit with white shirt and black cap and trousers. It was the new uniform, for till recently the black trousers would have been brown knickers, even more colonial-style. Their military style was highlighted, though everyone could see for himself that all the "weapons training" they did was with sticks, rather harmless in the age of the Kalashnikov. Naturally, there was no hint that an endless series of murders of RSS men has been committed by Kerala Communists, Khalistanis in Panjab, and others. The RSS youngsters also did not bring it up, or if they did, that part was not shown. The persistent suggestion was that they were the perpetrators of violence, not its victims, though no such violence was actually shown.
When interviewing these RSS activists, Nicolaas repeatedly remarked that this or that guy was actually impeccably friendly and quite nice. Not at all how we would picture the fascists announced initially by the Secularist. Then what was wrong with them?
The real topic of this documentary series was the culture clash and the native resistance against Westernization. And indeed, these young people refused to absorb the flood of Westernizing influences. One example of a pernicious influence was Valentine, taken straight from the existing Western commercial pop culture. More ideologized people denounce it also as a "Christian" holiday. Valentine was a Roman priest who performed tabooed weddings, and when martyred and sainted, the Church gave him a day in the Saints' calendar, 14 February, coinciding with the pre-Christian fertility feast presided over by the goddess Juno Februa ("clean, purifying") of 13-15 February. It took a thousand years, to the age of the troubadours and courtly love, before he graduated to patron-saint of romanticism.
As such, commerce catapulted him to the fore, and made the saint's day into an occasion pious Christians would frown upon: the feast of sentimentalism and getting carried away with infatuation. Since the late 18th century, there is a whole literature, and later movies, about youngsters following their hearts and overcoming the resistance of their unfeeling narrow-minded parents. This is now re-enacted in India, where commerce and the Secularist-promoted fondness of all things Western is spreading the highly artificial celebration of Valentine's Day. This has become the symbol of Western decadence, in which the pursuit of emotional kicks takes precedence over long-term institution building, marriage, and the resulting children's well-being. Nicolaas's Indian interlocutor wants to spare his country the breakdown of family life that has come to characterize the modern West.
But in the documentary, in the interview with the RSS activist, we only see a humourless spoilsport's jaundiced rant against a day of innocent fun. The Dutch lad just doesn't see that there is another side to it, and that the Hindu critique of Valentine has its legitimacy. This RSS fellow was voicing a very positive viewpoint, one in favour of the precious fabric of traditional social values, of the time-tested mos maiorum ("ancestral custom"), which is being undermined by modernist influences symbolized by Valentine's Day. Possibly it is not good enough to overrule modernization, but that remains to be seen, and the traditionalist view deserves a proper hearing.
In the streets, the Dutch newcomer to India saw Westernization all over the place. Western fashion, neon lights, shopping malls, Kentucky Fried Chicken, young couples kissing in public. Even an RSS spokesman admitted he sometimes goes to the Mc Donalds. So, the final impression that the viewers will take home is that, in India at least, Westernization is unstoppable. It is not uncontested, true, but the nativists, though not convincingly put down as "fascists" anymore, are not very competent and are at any rate unable to stop it.
But then, come to think of it, the RSS fellow didn't have the required communication skills to overturn an anti-Hindu bias instilled in the Western public for decades. And by "anti-Hindu", I do not mean the kind of grim animus seen in the Missionaries or the Secularists, but a background conditioning: Nicolaas has no quarrel with the Hindus as such, and he is probably not even aware of his implicit anti-Hindu bias, but like most Westerners with an interest in India, he has innocently absorbed the partisan view of India fostered by the really hostile people.
It is unrealistic to expect this one fleeting television conversation to change a bias built up over decades. Still, the RSS spokesman could have defended his position better. On the other hand, his peaceful and civilized but weak argumentation was a logical illustration of a deliberate policy pursued since the 1920s. It was in line with the old RSS's boy-scout mentality of disdain for all communication ("do well and don't look back"). Founder KB Hedgewar, who had started out as a member of a revolutionary wing of the Freedom Movement, with secretive and purely oral communication to avoid discovery by the police, installed in his new organization a hostility to any concern for outside approval, and to the media and their narrative. A consequence today is that RSS spokesmen are gravely lacking in communication skills. On average, they have a far better case than their clumsy performance in interviews and TV debates would suggest.
Twice the RSS refused a media presence. I was somewhat surprised to see this. In the early nineties, when I went around to RSS/BJP centres to interview Hindu Nationalist leaders, there was still plenty of distrust for outsiders, and communication was largely excluded. I knew then that I was exceptionally privileged to be allowed access, as a result of my lone pro-Hindu conclusions in my book on the Ayodhya temple/mosque conflict. But then private TV stations conquered India, gaining entry in the remotest villages, and finally the internet made communication unavoidable, even for the RSS. I had thought that this seclusion had by now become a thing of the past, but the RSS appears to have retained some of it.
The result is that RSS spokesmen, while not at all the "fascists" of Secularist mythology, come across as village bumpkins. In this case, an interviewed RSS man suffered from a lack of serious historical knowledge, or of a chauvinist type of gullibility. He explained that India has invented plastic surgery and, as proven by the Ramayana, the airplane. This story has two related drawbacks: as far as evidence can tell, it is not true; and it is bad publicity, for while it may make a handful of gullible folk admire Hindu culture, it turns Hinduism into a superstitious laughing-stock for many more. When the Dutchman brought up homosexuality, the RSS man said: "That doesn't exist in our country." Just like it didn't exist in the Soviet Union ("a symptom of bourgeois decadence") nor in Africa according to Robert Mugabe ("they may be gay in America, but they will be sad people in Zimbabwe"). Again, even those Westerners who condemn odd sexual behaviour will laugh at these clumsy attempts to make it stop at your country's border. This way the RSS tendency is particularly weak in the prime precondition for communication, viz. seeing things also through the eyes of your interlocutor.
Today, the image of Hinduism is less grim than when Hindu Nationalism realistically coveted power or for the first time came to power (1990s). One reason is reality: all the grim Doomsday predictions about the Hindu Nationalists "throwing all Muslims into the Indian Ocean" and "turning the clock back regarding Dalit emancipation", failed to come true. Recently, Narendra Modi has conducted a very successful foreign policy, and the Western powers can only dream of the economic growth figures India takes for granted. Less importantly but tellingly, the Hindu parents are making progress in the California textbook affair, where some negative portrayals of Hindu culture will be amended, contrasting with the total defeat inflicted on the Hindus in 2006. The anti-Hindu lobby in American academe, largely consisting of NRIs and Indologists, has lost considerable steam.
(The same impression could be had from Sona Datta's documentary about Hindu art and temple architecture, broadcast a few days later. Over-all quite informative as well as full of awe for Hindu brilliance, it nonetheless started out with familiar secularist lies about pluralist Moghuls who "built their magnificent mosques next to Hindu temples" and presided over a peaceful and tolerant empire "when Europe was ravaged by wars of religion". But unlike in the recent past, this propaganda was not that obtrusive.)
And so, this Dutch young man approached the RSS men with an open mind, in spite of the hateful briefing he had initially received from a secularist. He had good things to say about the nativists he met. But he also carried his prejudices with him, less against the "Hindu" than against the "Nationalist" element, and less intense than 10 or 25 years ago, but still palpable. Conclusion: the power equation on the publicity front is still favourable to the secularists but not unfathomably desperate for the Hindus anymore.
The documentary is going to be accessible on this website until 3 December 2017. (Dutch subtitles but all the talking is in Hindi or English)