Disparate attacks on Dalits over the last three years read with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling switching off the automatic arrest of an accused in an Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Atrocities Act complaint, have had Opposition parties and political commentators jump to very facile and specious conclusion: that this is hardly surprising because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is anti-Dalit by its very nature of being an upper-case Brahmin-led organisation.
Rahul Gandhi, recently, branded Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally as anti-Dalit using some twisted logic he has derived from letters of caution and concern addressed to Modi by some of his party’s Dalit MPs. While it is par for the course for political opponents to stick whatever labels on RSS, BJP and Modi that might give them a perceived electoral edge, it is surprising how political commentators are jumping in to bolster this questionable character sketch of the RSS and dismiss Modi’s exhortation to his party men to spend two nights in Dalit homes as useless gimmickry.
Such an analysis suffers from a lack of understanding of the very mission statement of the RSS and its Hindu-unity ideal, necessitating a journey into the past. The first monograph on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, ‘Militant Hinduism in Indian politics: A study of the RSS’ by JA Curran (1951), has an interesting anecdote of a conversation between RSS founder Dr K B Hegdewar and Dalit icon Dr B R Ambedkar at an RSS shakha in the year 1936.
Curran’s monograph notes:
“When Dr Ambedkar, the famous outcaste leader, today minister of law in the government, presided over the Sangh celebration of the Hindu festival Makharsankranti in 1936, he is alleged to have asked Dr Hedgewar who was present at the ceremony, if all the RSS members were Brahmins. The doctor’s answer was that when swayamsevaks were spreading their ideals and recruiting new members – i.e. using their mind – they were Brahmins. When they were performing their daily exercises, they were Kshatriyas (warriors); whenever they handled money and other matters for the Sangh, they were Vaishyas; and when they did the sanitation work at their various camps and branches, they were Shudras. In other words, by naming the four traditional castes into which the Hindu society is divided, Dr Hedgewar made the point that the RSS was attempting to demonstrate that caste meant nothing.”
In effect, what Dr Hegdewar meant was that Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra were professions.
Every Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra is a Hindu and every Hindu could be a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra by the nature of the work they did at any given moment. It would be tempting to dismiss Curran’s anecdote as a clever formulation of the conventional response of the defenders of the caste system in Hinduism (because, while the Brahmin can become a Shudra at her/his choosing, the converse is nigh impossible) but it gives interesting insights into the manner in which the Sangh leadership has dealt with the caste conundrum in Indian society.
This well-researched document gives a unique glimpse of the formative years of the RSS, as well as insights about its ideological foundation. And Curran was unambiguous that the RSS’ social conduct and programmes were inclusive in nature in order to consolidate Hindu society. The RSS’ Hindutva project invariably included Dalits as its essential component right from the beginning. In its initial phase, the RSS emerged as an attractive proposition for young men from scheduled castes in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh precisely because it effectively demonstrated the lack of caste discrimination.
It was not without reason that a year after the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders held a meeting at Hanuman Garhi in the temple town, a portrait of Dr Ambedkar was placed along with those of Hindu gods. The RSS on its part included Ambedkar as a social icon of high significance who is to be remembered every morning (‘pratahsmaraniya’) for his contribution. This was followed by the then VHP chief Ashok Singhal and a retinue of VHP leaders lining up outside the residence of Dom Raja of Varanasi who presides over funerals at the ghats in the holy city.
The Sangh Parivar with its prime objective of consolidating the Hindus has grappled with caste conflicts within the society in its own way. Given its own image of being dominated by Brahmin leadership, its attraction to social elites, particularly upper castes, was far greater than to social underdogs. But that does not nullify the consistency with which the Sangh Parivar tried to expand its social base.
This is particularly significant in today’s context when a section of intellectuals tends to interpret some sporadic violent protests by Dalit organisations on the issue of the Supreme Court’s direction on the SC/ST Act as a sign of the Sangh Parivar’s anti-Dalit credentials. This wilful misinterpretation of the Sangh politics is not only flawed but deeply prejudiced.
Take the manner in which the BJP evolved itself from its earlier incarnation, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). While BJS was known to be a party with a bias towards the social elite, particularly Brahmins and Banias, the BJP is now largely represented by a huge group of OBC leaders — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who are deeply immersed in the RSS’ discipline and values. And not surprisingly most of these leaders from the OBC background represent far more aggressive Hindutva than that of Syama Prasad Mukherjee or Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Kalyan Singh was the BJP’s OBC face when the Babri mosque was demolished. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan pursues the Hindutva line that is quite consistent with the RSS’ overview of society and politics. In sharp contrast, Vajpayee, LK Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat more often than not fell out of line to adhere to political pragmatism.
In recent elections – especially the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of 2017 and the last four Assembly polls in Gujarat – the BJP support has expanded among the Dalits. The party has also been giving more and more representation to the Dalits, as seen in the spike in the number of MLAs and MPs from this segment.
The saffron brotherhood is seriously constrained by the fact that it has still not produced a scheduled caste or schedule tribe leader of stature like Kalyan Singh or Narendra Modi (among the backwards). But at the same time it must be borne in mind that the BJP has of late cultivated a large group of young SC/ST leaders who are rigorously trained in the Sangh Parivar’s school of thought. And as in the case of the emergence of the backward Narendra Modi as the most acceptable political face of the Sangh Parivar thus far, a similar emergence of a Dalit leader with Hindutva ideology cannot be ruled out in the future, even if that future might seem distant now.
It was in 1979 that Charan Singh, who was rebelling against the then prime minister Morarji Desai, famously told L K Advani (then Information and Broadcast minister) who went to broker peace: “Arre, Advani, you are a Sindhi. You don’t understand the play of caste in Indian politics. If you step out of line, the RSS will dump you, but if Vajpayee does that, nothing will happen.”
Charan Singh was telling Advani that he (Advani) as a Sindhi, a caste that has no heft within the RSS, was dispensable while Vajpayee, a Brahmin, was not. Advani saw Charan Singh’s prophecy come true in 2005 when he called Jinnah a secularist during his visit to Pakistan. He was dumped. But nine years later, Charan Singh’s theory got busted as well when Narendra Modi, a backward strode to national limelight and became prime minister with the full backing of the RSS.
If one goes by the RSS’ history and evolution of the Sangh Parivar, a Dalit head of the BJP (Bangaru Laxman has already been there) or a Dalit prime minister of the Hindu fold would mark the completion of the Hindutva project. And the RSS would not be averse to this idea. Perhaps those who take solace in sporadic protests of Dalits and see that as a challenge to Hindutva hegemony are blissfully oblivious to the gathering storm.