It was an evening of pious homilies at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur where former President and now citizen Pranab Mukherjee was the guest of honour at a valedictory function.
While he dwelt on how pluralism and tolerance constituted the “soul” of India, the RSS sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, expounded on the organization’s vision which extended well beyond the Hindu samaj (society) with which it is usually associated to encompass all the children of Bharat Mata (Mother India).
There was no ‘paraya’ (outsider) in his view, nor any ‘dushman’ (enemy). Observers noted that there was no mention of a Hindu ‘rashtra’ (nation), the leitmotif of the RSS, in Bhagwat’s speech.
Was this a concession to a diehard former Congressman Mukherjee’s secular sensitivities or has there been a change of heart on the part of the RSS ? If the latter, it will mark a seminal change in the outlook of the 93-year-old organization and carries the potential of a political and social upheaval.
Arguably, Bhagwat’s claim about Mother India’s parentage of all Indians, irrespective of caste or creed, is on a par with Narendra Modi’s “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (For all, development for all) mantra. It is also the essence of the multicultural, multireligious secular concept, which is routinely derided as “sickular” by the saffron trolls.
However, just as the agenda of development for all hasn’t led to any marked diminution in the “darkness, fear and mistrust”, as Mukherjee said, in the minds of the minorities, as testified by, among others, former vice-president Hamid Ansari and the archbishop of Delhi, Anil Couto, it remains to be seen whether Bhagwat’s outreach to everyone leads to Muslims not being called “Babur ki aulad” (children of the Mughal emperor, Babur) by Hindutva activists or to Christian missionaries not being accused of a relentless engagement with conversions.
How difficult a transformation in the attitudes of the average RSS supporter would be might be gauged from the way a saffron commentator on television latched on to Mukherjee’s reference to Muslim “invaders” and British colonisers to note how the former President’s views differed from the benignity of the secularists in associating Muslims with biryani and the British with cakes.
Notwithstanding the time it might take for the Hindu Right and the secular camp to evolve some kind of a commonality, it goes without saying that the initiative taken by the RSS to invite a person from the opposing camp, so to say, and also by the latter’s acceptance of the invitation bode well for the country.
It will be a matter of great relief all around if last Thursday’s interaction in Nagpur leads to a reduction in the present atmosphere of bitter polarization. The process might be a long-drawn one considering how for decades the two lines of thought of a composite culture (of Hindus, Muslims and others) on one hand and of cultural nationalism (one people, one nation, one culture) on the other have battled one another.
But the endeavour towards a consensus will be worthwhile if only it dissuades an M.P. like Vinay Katiyar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from saying that Muslims have no right to live in India or for an arrested suspect to justify the journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder on the grounds that she was anti-Hindu.
The test of the Nagpur bonhomie, therefore, will be to see whether there has been a mollifying impact on the Hindutva hotheads.
It has to be remembered, however, that although the RSS is the paterfamilias of the saffron brotherhood, there are other organizations – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal (which are a part of the Sangh Parivar) and Hindu Mahasabha (which is not) as well as others – which are ardent votaries of a Hindu ‘rashtra’ by, of and for Hindus where the minorities have to live as second-class citizens.
It will take more than two speeches in Nagpur, therefore, to save the pluralist “soul” of India.
What is more, since fundamentalism begets fundamentalism, the stridency of the Hindu version even if only by outliers like the VHP can encourage the bigots among Muslims or the Khalistanis among Sikhs to up the ante at the instigation of Pakistan.
Another fallout of the Nagpur interaction will be for the Left-Liberals to interpret a toning down of the saffron rhetoric as victory for the secular camp and a defeat for the Parivar. The Congress is already gloating over how Mukherjee held up the “mirror of truth” to the RSS although the party was at first extremely nervous about what their old stalwart would say on entering enemy territory.
Now that his history lessons were seen to be in line with the authorized version favoured by the Congress as opposed to the saffron interpretations, the party has heaved a sigh of relief. But the battle of wits is likely to continue.