Beyond RSS charm offensive: Time to bridge gaps between words and action

Taken at face value, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat's statements at a three-day brainstorming session in the national capital on Monday marks a welcome outreach by the organisation, which has provided the ideological underpinning for the extreme and exclusionary vocabulary that has dominated the public discourse in recent years. “Nobody is an outsider for the Sangh. Those who oppose us today are also ours,” Mr Bhagwat said in terms that almost matched the soaring tones of former US President Barack Obama. He even generously complimented the Congress for its role in the freedom movement, albeit in somewhat confusing terms, at the conclave titled: “The future of Bharat: An RSS perspective”. This is a remarkably emollient message from the combative head of an exclusionary organisation.

Obviously, a single speech cannot undo the damage that the RSS and its social and political affiliates have wrought on Indian society in the years in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power. Mr Bhagwat may be trying to soften hostility to his organisation as the deadline for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections approach. Cynics may even suggest that his statement amounts to little more than paying lip service to India’s diversity in the face of open dissatisfaction from wide sections of India’s multicultural society. This obvious reaction, therefore, makes it incumbent on Mr Bhagwat and the senior leadership of the myriad Sangh Parivar offshoots to ensure that the rhetoric is backed by genuine transformation. The “reform” package so far has been to emphasise RSS’ credentials as a progressive organisation devoted to such social work as building schools and hospitals for all Indians. The actual outreach has been limited, however. Apart from hosting former President Pranab Mukherjee, a vocal critic of the Parivar’s overt divisiveness, at the Nagpur headquarters and reportedly inviting Congress President Rahul Gandhi for a similar visit, there has been little sign of the new inclusive version of the RSS. Indeed, just last week, Mr Bhagwat obliquely referred to those who opposed Hindu society as “wild dogs” at a speech in Chicago last week. 

The real test of the veracity of Mr Bhagwat's statement lies in how far the Sangh Parivar in general and the BJP, in particular, choose to heed the message of inclusivity. From low-intensity communal riots, and BJP Members of Parliament who openly referred to Muslims in insulting terms (and apologised with conspicuous reluctance later), to serial lynchings where follow-up justice has been notably perfunctory, and the refusal to field a single Muslim candidate in state elections, the Parivar has done little to demonstrate the truth of Mr Bhagwat's claims of tolerant inclusiveness. Indeed, Mr Bhagwat’s inflammatory statement after the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015 over suspicions that he and his family had consumed beef makes it difficult to reconcile with his inclusive message in 2018. “Vedas order the killing of the sinner who kills a cow,” he said three days after the murder. No condemnation has emanated from the RSS for the murders of rationalists allegedly by Hindutva ideologues. The time for a conspicuous demonstration of this Parivar 2.0, thus, is already overdue.

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