From Pluralism to Exclusivism: RSS Racism in India


That the world is now home to competing and contradictory tendencies towards globalisation and isolationism is old news to us by now. Aggravated by the poorly regulated process of globalisation, which has brought into being a radically new form of communicative architecture hitherto unknown to us, the world seems split between those who believe in a future with no more political and cultural boundaries on the one hand and those who believe that the future depends on strengthening those frontiers even more.

The backlash against globalisation has led to the emergence of a number of ethno-nationalist and religio-political movements which have stepped into the vacuum once occupied by traditional opponents of Western liberal-capitalist hegemony. In many parts of the world, and in the developing South in particular, we can see the revival of culturally, racially and religiously exclusivist movements that have grown more vocal in their demands to police the boundaries of their society at all levels.

India today is a case in point, and the contradictions that exist in the Third World are manifest in the problematic domestic political situation of the country, particularly after the victory of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is now forced to contain the tide of religious and cultural exclusivism that was let loose into the open, party thanks to the political advances of his own party. But now comes an even bigger threat to the multicultural traditions of once-secular India- mainly from the BJP's parent organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

However, to claim that all of India's present day problems are due entirely to the advances of the BJP and RSS would be to put the cart before the horse in a sense. Both the BJP and RSS have been in India for decades, and the latter made the headlines of the world when one of its members assassinated Mahatma Ghandi in 1948. The RSS has been around for more than 75 years now, and its presence on the political landscape of India is hardly a novel development.

But what is new about the resurgence of the RSS today is just how popular and influential the movement has become, and how it has managed to tap into the collective anger and frustration of so many Hindus in India- after the apparent failure of so many secular democratic governments that were ostensibly dedicated to the modern developmental paradigm. What is also interesting is to see how and why the rhetoric of the RSS- which has always been predicated on a discourse of authenticity and notions of cultural purity- has made such an effective comeback on the Indian political scene.

At its massive nation-wide rally recently, where an excess of 75,000 members were said to have attended, the leadership of the RSS called for a return to the politics of cultural purity in no uncertain terms. Its main targets, as usual, were the non-Hindu minorities of the country who have always been blamed for India's internal problems and regarded as 'unpure' elements that are somehow alien to India's 'pure' Hindu culture in general.

The leadership of the RSS, beginning with men like K. S. Sudarshan, called on the state to force the country's Christian minority to break their institutional links with other Churches abroad. The RSS has always claimed that the Indian Churches have been funded and promoted by foreign interests that are opposed to Hindu hegemony in India, and that India's Christian minority are in reality a dangerous fifth column who are actually working against the interests of the country. In favour of a closed and controlled 'national' Church for India, the RSS now seem to be pushing for a local Church institution that is similar to that of the Church that is allowed to exist in China.

Apart from India's Christians, the RSS has also levelled its critique against the Muslims of the country. Long since cast as 'outsiders' and 'descendants of invaders', India's Muslims share a common fate with their Semitic brethren, the Christians. Like the Christians, India's Muslims have been accused of trying to undermine the socio-cultural and religio-political hegemony of the Hindu majority. Now the RSS plans to push through a series of cultural and educational reform measures that would force the 130 million Muslims of India to accept and acknowledge the fact that they were once Hindus themselves, so that they may 'Indianise' themselves further.

That a party like the RSS can speak of 'pure' Indian culture and 'Indianisation' programmes without flinching is in itself a reflection of the dogmatism and extremism of the movement, whose rhetoric is echoed in other far-right extremist movements elsewhere such as in Germany. Yet the RSS, committed as it is to its religio-political ideology based on a narrow reading of classical Hinduism (as well as an even narrower reading of Indian history) continues to launch its incessant polemics against the cultural and religious minorities of the country with impunity.

The root of the problem, however, is not so much prejudice, ignorance or a hatred of foreigners as such. True, these are all factors that have come into play and no other movement in India today is as adroit in manipulating these sentiments like the RSS and BJP. But apart from that there remains the fundamental problem of the fundamentalists themselves, and their discourse of cultural authenticity and purity.

For the underlying logic of the RSS- like many other extremist religious and political movements in other parts of the world- is based on categories of absolutes. From its inception, the RSS has been promoting the notion of a 'pure' India that was somehow untainted and uncorrupted until the coming of invaders who brought with them different ideas and values, as well as religious beliefs. This is how and why the Christians and Muslims of India are thought of as 'external enemies' who have come to defile the sacred precinct on Indian culture and identity.

Such a thesis works only because it is simple and wrong. Like all extremist organisations that preach a culture of intolerance, the discourse of the RSS is basically an instrumental fiction that is designed to secure specific political goals, regardless of the cost to truth and objectivity. The RSS fails to note, for instance, that India herself is more than a country: it is, in fact, a great continent whose greatness lies in precisely the melange of cultural, religious, economic and political influences that have come to find a home there. And in this process of cultural mixing, inter-penetration and cross-fertilising, it is the people of India as a whole who have benefited.

To claim that India's Hindus have not been touched at all by the process of intercultural exchange is a lie, and a dangerous one at that. It denies the centuries of cross-cultural borrowing which has helped to enrich the Hindus of the country and made them an open, tolerant and pluralistic community. The same could be said of the Muslims and Christians of the country, whose contact with the dominant Hindu culture has only enriched them in every sense. Today, the fruit of this lengthy (and at times problematic) process of cross-cultural interaction can be seen everywhere: from the myriad of influences evident in the films of Bollywood to the magnificent architecture of India.

Yet the RSS, if it were to have its way, is bent on ending all of this for the sake of returning to some mythical 'Golden Age' of India which never existed. The fundamentalists of the BJP and RSS would prefer to believe in fictions rather than address realities.

Under such circumstances, it can only be said that the prospect for multiculturalism in India seem bleak at present. India's liberal intellectuals and leaders are hard-pressed to defend the country's secular dem,ocratic institutions against the advances of the fundamentalists who have come to be known as the 'saffron menace'. The only way out of the present impasse would be to intensify the co-operation between progressive and liberal Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India in order to safeguard the institutions that have shielded them for so long. But during trying times such as these, the irony of it all is that truth and objectivity provide precious little solace in comparison to the lies of demagogues.

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Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian academic and human rights activist. He has written on the subject of inter-civilisational dialogue and is currently working on a book on the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS.


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