This Article is From Apr 07, 2023

"Rahul Gandhi Misinterpreted RSS Like Many In The West": Renowned Scholar

Known for closely studying the RSS for nearly five decades, Walter K Andersen has authored books such as 'Brotherhood in Saffron.'

'Rahul Gandhi Misinterpreted RSS Like Many In The West': Renowned Scholar

Walter K Andersen is known for his authoritative scholarship on contemporary Indian politics.

Renowned scholar Walter K Andersen, known for his authoritative scholarship on contemporary Indian politics, has said that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has misinterpreted the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a religious organisation like "many in the West and also in India". That approach, he said, may not help Mr Gandhi in his efforts to present himself as a Hindu and a nationalist.

Known for closely studying the RSS for nearly five decades, Mr Andersen, former head of South Asia studies at the school of advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, has authored books such as 'Brotherhood in Saffron.' He spoke about the perception of the RSS in the West, the challenges it faces such as dealing with the issue of caste discrimination, reaching out to minorities and gaining acceptance among the intellectual elite, and the future of the BJP as he sees it.

How do you see the growth of the RSS in the last 10 years? Do you see the BJP and RSS complementing each other now, or are there areas of differences?

I think they complement each other. They are not rivals. To understand the RSS and its relationship to the political system, it is important to understand the work each of its affiliates does. And there are dozens of them, and they approach every part of Indian society. For example, the ABVP is for students, BMS is for labourers, BJP is for politics and so on. So when people say the RSS is involved with the BJP, it is actually the affiliate organisation that is involved, and they are not necessarily involved in politics, but have ideas and want to get things done in their favour. For example, take the education system here that has been frozen for many years. They have been thinking about re-orienting it. But they have to approach the government for that. And it is not easy as the Indian government is pervasive, be it health or education, there are multiple regulations to follow and clearances that are needed. So one has to be careful how to go about it, and approach people in the government who can do it. Now that sounds like lobbying. Having worked in Washington, we have a similar system. Embassies and companies -- and even universities -- have lobbyists who can manoeuvre the system. The same is true here.

Does handling caste remain a conundrum for the RSS?

As we noted in our first book, the training system of the RSS in many ways tries to reduce or diminish the importance of caste in one's life. At RSS camps, for example there is a system of participants engaged in functions that cross traditional caste lines like people feeding someone else or cleaning latrines. As far as I know, they don't give you caste names or refer to you with caste names in the shakhas (branches). They try to leave it as ambiguous as possible. But that doesn't mean caste isn't there. Apart from caste, gotra and other factors play an important role in marriages in India, even now. Many of the highest ranks of the RSS are occupied by people from the upper castes. They don't see caste as a criteria, and because so many of its leaders come from a higher caste, the RSS is often -- incorrectly -- described as an upper caste group and/or favourable to upper caste interests.

RSS is often criticised for being all-male in their shakhas, which is their primary unit, and not letting it have women?

When people say this is an all-male organisation, it is an unfair criticism because there is a female equivalent to the RSS. When you look at the HSS (Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh), the American branch, it is organised around families. I am told reliably that even in India the RSS is going to place a lot of emphasis on involving families in its activities, particularly in urban areas and among professionals. There is a female equivalent of the RSS, the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti that is not nearly as large as the RSS or even as influential but the RSS people see it as a viable adjunct as they are increasingly doing activities together. An RSS person I asked this question on why don't they just amalgamate, he said in the social context, it is not possible unless in specialised cases when they have family-oriented shakhas, because in shakhas they play games and a 10-year girl and a 10-year-old boy playing them together will be frowned upon. Even in the US we have the boys scouts and the girls scouts that occasionally do things together but generally do activities separately, pretty much for the same reason.

How do you see Congress leader Rahul Gandhi going to temples and the party's increased focus on nationalism?

A couple of years ago I read of Rahul Gandhi visiting temples, and that was obviously an attempt to showcase himself as closer to Hindu traditions. Does he consider himself a Hindu? I have no idea, but he obviously sees it as an advantage. I find his attacks on the RSS a little strange and unusual though. How does this really help him, I wonder, particularly when it comes to Hinduism. The RSS and BJP have worked very hard in attaching themselves to the notion of nationalism, and appropriating it, and I suspect that for Rahul Gandhi too, unless you are seen as an Indian nationalist in this country, your chances of winning office are minimal. And he is in a dilemma to do that. On one hand he is attacking Hindutva which is in a sense, Hinduism. It is important to understand that the RSS is not a religious organisation. It has never been. Rahul Gandhi is misinterpreting the RSS as many others, including many foreigners and also Indians. They see it an Hindu nationalist organisation, but it depends on how you define Hinduism. Do you define it as the present head of the RSS does as a national group which is why he says Muslims and Christians here are also Hindus? Many people don't see it that way. Many people see it as a religious organisation, and that religion deals with the eternal. It does not. It really deals with the here and now. The first person to write systematically about Hindutva was Savarkar and he was aggressively an atheist. I have met many others in the RSS who are atheist or at best agnostic. Religion as a metaphysical issue didn't mean very much to them then or now.

VD Savarkar was never with the RSS, and in fact was critical of the RSS, but today it is Savarkar who is at the centre of debates and discussions around Hindutva. How do you see this?

Yes. I think there has been a re-evaluation, particularly after the death of MS Golwalkar. Savarkar was truly a revolutionary, who wanted a modern, aggressive and industrialised society who felt religion had held back the country. For years there has been contempt for Savarkar, he was demonized for being a Hindu nationalist, but that is changing now.  

How do you see the rise of Yogi Adityanath? 

One liability he has is that he is not from the RSS and his inner circle is also not exclusively RSS. There is a reason for that, because there is training that goes on and social experiences you get from one another, and he does not have that. That said, has he ruled well? He has done things that are positive for Uttar Pradesh. And in the current BJP, under Modi's leadership, development is the all important criteria. He knows that and he has worked hard to develop UP.

What about Home Minister Amit Shah?

Amit Shah is obviously number two. (PM Narendra) Modi trusts him implicitly. And he does that because he knows (Amit) Shah is not trying to undermine him. Every national leader in most countries has a tough guy, and he is that for (PM) Modi. There are situations that arise when a leader has to be tough. He is the Prime Minister's man, first, second and third. From what I have seen of him in action and read of him, I think he is the man who understands the process, has a sense of who can get the work done and applied pressure to get work done, and Modi knows that.

In the last one year, we have also seen external affairs minister S Jaishankar emerge as a powerful articulator of India's foreign policy. He does not have an RSS background. What are your thoughts on his rise?

I know the PM admired his father. K Subrahmanyam who was a tough-minded intellectual and administrator. I have never asked (S) Jaishankar what it was to grow up in a household where a father demanded that his children do well in studies. So I think a part of (PM) Modi's attraction for (S) Jaishankar comes from that. Also Mr Jaishankar himself is a tough guy, and he knows how to represent the Indian interest. I have known him for a long time, and he has always been a great debater. He has been very conceptual, and while he is academic, he knows to put things in a logical context that is understandable to the general public. He knows how to put things well, in an organised and systematic way. I think (PM) Modi likes that and thinks it is oriented to making developmental changes. The other thing is Mr Jaishankar, as he has earlier said, the focus of any successful diplomacy has to be economics. And that is interesting, foreign service officers have very little training or background in economics and that has been true in the US as well, though there is an effort to change that in both countries. I felt he was saying we have to try and change the way we look at the world.

What are the challenges that you see for the RSS and the BJP now?

One area I see is the Muslim-Christian outreach, and they have been making attempts. While I don't have the statistics with me, I don't think they have been all that successful, because there is somehow the image of the RSS being anti Muslim and anti Christian. They need to have more leadership from these two groups. Leadership would mean pracharaks or full time workers. They need that to get more acceptability. Other than that, they have a new general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale who wants to expand the network of the RSS in the rural areas, and has ideas to strengthen the family system, which is another key focus area of the RSS. Another area of challenge for the RSS is the intellectual elite that still has some suspicion of them. The so-called "Khan market crowd" and all that, but that is a very small part of the Indian population, and moreover they are not organised as a group. In the forties and fifties many of them were pro-communist but the major communist parties are not nearly as influential as they once were. 

Recently, in the UK, Rahul Gandhi said that the RSS has become an extra-constitutional authority. Do you think that is true, or even possible in the future?

I personally don't think so. It doesn't mean there are no individuals there who are extremists. If you look at the leadership, they tend to be well educated, they work with the government through their affiliate organisations. They are not revolutionaries and this was one of the problems they had with VD Savarkar who wanted the RSS to back him. And one of the arguments we hear is that the RSS did nothing during the independence movement which is not quite true. They were not revolutionaries but that was the argument used against them. On the other hand, the same people opposed to the RSS portray it as revolutionaries. You can't have it both ways. The leadership of the RSS tends to be somewhat cautious, and they have a lot of these affiliates that work with the government trying to get it to do things favourable to what they have been trying to achieve. You see the country changing all around you. This is a country developing at 6-7 percent a year, and look at the many high-rises here where we are talking in this area, close to Manesar in Haryana, with a couple of hundred units in each of those many apartment houses. I am curious to know how many of the people living here are first generation graduates and new entrants to the rising middle class. Their numbers are increasing, and if the RSS has to be influential, it has to appeal to them which is a major reason why they are putting increased emphasis on family-oriented shakhas, particularly among engineering and other professionals.

RSS general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale recently talked about a generational shift in the RSS. How important do you think that is for the organisation?

I think it is very important. There is a whole new set of leaders that is emerging, and one of their concerns is they need to have the right orientation to take the country forward. They don't see themselves as part of the government but they see themselves in a kind of an advisory capacity. When Rahul Gandhi says the RSS is everywhere, he is not wrong, because they have many affiliates that work in different areas and are "everywhere."

You were one of the first foreign academics to meet the second chief of the RSS, MS Golwalkar. Tell us about the impressions you carry of him and the RSS at that time.

My advisers at the University of Chicago (Professors Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph) were among the first set of American scholars to meet him. I was thinking of a topic for my own dissertation and I wanted to do something on student politics. But they said why don't you do something on the RSS. No one had done a comprehensive study on the RSS then, and partly it was the fault of the RSS because they were so inward looking. This is something Ram Madhav (senior RSS leader) has written so perceptively about. When I met Mr Golwalkar, there was hardly any foreign scholar who had tried to find out about the RSS and how it functioned. There was nevertheless a lot written about the RSS but it tended to be impressionate and filled with factual inaccuracies. In fact, some of them even wrote that the RSS was the youth branch of the Hindu Mahasabha which was not true at all. In fact, Savarkar and Golwalkar were not friends. A lot of people didn't know that. There were many misconceptions and I confronted them myself. Mr Golwalkar obviously agreed to see me because he wanted to talk about the way the RSS operated. We were almost socratic in our approach to each other. I would ask a question, and he would respond. It was like a graduate seminar. I found him forthcoming, open and willing to talk. I even asked some very direct questions, to which he in a very academic way tried to find out how I got the idea. A lot of people think of the RSS as a military organisation, but I thought a more accurate description was that it was more like a monastic organisation. And that I think is true of the RSS even today although it has expanded and become far more complex. At that time, it was heavily upper caste in orientation -largely Brahmin, and suburban, very weak in the countryside.