The RSS realises that with a majority BJP government at the Centre and in several states, now was the best time to undermine and perhaps outdo the Congress-Left ‘stranglehold’ over campuses and young minds. Radhika Ramaseshan reports.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
- Why is Napoleon not known as France’s Samudragupta, instead of the other way round?
- Why is Chanakya doomed to bear the label of India’s Machiavelli, instead of swapping the honour?
- When other ‘swords’ (notably the sword of Tipu Sultan) have become the staple of legend, why did it need Bollywood to unsheath to Indians the ‘Dandapatta’ carried by Peshwa Bajirao as he sallied forth against the Mughals?
- Why is Vivekananda relegated to a ‘brief’ in India’s history texts while Karl Marx gets ‘acres of space’?
These questions were debated over two days at a conclave that drew around 700 academics, convened by Prajna Pravah, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh think-tank, on Delhi’s periphery.
The gathering, held on March 25 and 26 in the presence of RSS ‘sarsanghchalak’ (chief) Mohanrao Bhagwat, marked the start of a gargantuan project called Gyan Sangam (confluence of knowledge). It apparently left little room for a co-mingling of ideas, since it was underpinned on one goal.
Which is the ‘de-colonisation’ of learning, with academia in India to unshackle these from the legacies bequeathed by the British, ‘mental slavery’ to the RSS.
Vidya Bharati: Established in 1942, it runs the Saraswati Shishu Mandir (primary) and Saraswati Vidya Mandir (secondary and senior) schools and colleges.
It also has Saraswati Sanskar Kendras working among the poor. It aims to develop a ‘national system of education’ and raise cadres of young men and women committed to Hindutva and infused with patriotic fervour.
Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana: Set up in 1979 by Moropant Pingle, a key strategist in shaping the campaign for a Ram temple at Ayodhya. Its objective is to write ‘Bharathiya’ history, from a nationalist perspective, purging it from ‘distortions inflicted’ by the British.
Akhil Bharatiya Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh: Its objective is to propagate an ideology of ‘cultural nationalism’ in education and society, and to safeguard the interests of teachers.
Vigyan Bharati: Started as a Swadeshi Science Movement in 1982 by the RSS and some scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Renamed in 1990 as Vijnana Bharati or Vigyan Bharati. Its aim is to champion the cause of the ‘Bharatiya’ heritage, attain ‘synthesis of the physical and spiritual sciences’ and rejuvenate the ‘swadeshi’ movement in science and technology in the cause of ‘national reconstruction’.
Sanskar Bharati: Established in 1981 to work in fine arts and culture, the idea being to ‘prevent cultural pollution’ and ‘foster patriotism’.
‘Our biggest mission’
“This is our biggest mission, to confront and end the cultural onslaught caused and perpetuated by pseudo-cultural theories that have passed off as certitudes since after Independence,” said J Nandakumar, Prajna Pravah’s national convenor.
He cites the ‘proclivity’ among the ‘liberal elite’ to run down Sanskrit as an example of ‘pseudo-cultural’ behaviour.
“Anyone who talks of Sanskrit is branded a fundamentalist and an obscurantist,” he stated.
To Sunil Ambekar, organising secretary of the RSS’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the ‘mission’ marked a form of ‘dissent’.
“The colonial mind and identity that were synonymous with the establishment for decades after Independence looks down on anything Indian. Our aim is to create spaces for the common person to dissent against issues like de-recognition of Sanskrit in schools, making fun of sadhus and sants (saints), and obliterating the fact that before the invasions, India was a prosperous country, with unique economic systems,” he contended.
That India was not a modern nation-state until the British conjoined its several parts into a geographical and administrative entity was a proposition rejected out-of-hand by the proponents of de-colonisation.
“We were always one people, one religion, one way of life and one identity. That is how we understand a nation to be. Otherwise, why would people from the southern states go on a ‘char dham yatra’ (pilgrimage to Gangotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Yamunotri in the north) if they did not share a Hindu identity?” asked Manmohan Vaidya, RSS’s chief spokesperson.
In framing the debate on de-colonisation, for once the erstwhile British rulers were painted as the arch villain, instead of their predecessors from the medieval and Mughal eras.
Ambekar said, “The Mughals broke down the Takshila and Nalanda centres but they were not focused on education. They fought political wars. The British waged a war to colonise our minds permanently and it began with the schools.”
The RSS says it drew inspiration from various personalities, starting with Vivekananda who ‘changed the discourse of the freedom movement by emphasising India’s potential for self-rule’, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and his call for ‘swarajya’, and Subhas Chandra Bose to contemporary individuals like Dharampal, the thinker whose works led to a reappraisal on conventional notions of India’s scientific and technological achievements in the pre-colonial period.
Also Ravinder Sharma, whose ‘gurukul’ in Telangana’s Adilabad propagates the use of traditional rural Indian skills and arts, and David Frawley, the American ‘Vedacharya’ who the Sangh has adopted as its Max Müller.
Amalgamating the ‘nationalist’ perspective with a celebration of the past as it existed in myth and history underpins the RSS’s latest preoccupation in education.
Expectedly, Mahatma Gandhi merited an ephemeral mention, while Jawaharlal Nehru was blanked out.
Rakesh Sinha, a political science professor at Delhi University and a director of India Policy Foundation, an RSS think-tank, explained why.
“The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan was targeted early on by Nehru because K M Munshi (its founder) prevailed over Rajendra Prasad (the first President), Kakasaheb Gadgil and Sardar Patel to rebuild the Somnath temple. Since then, Nehru stopped patronising the Vidya Bhavan,” said Sinha.
Away from the ‘ideals’ advocated at the Gyan Sangam, practical exigencies weighed with the Sangh’s other members.
They realised that with a majority Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre and in several states, now was the best time to undermine and perhaps outdo the Congress-Left ‘stranglehold’ over campuses and young minds.
If appointing faculty members in sync with the RSS’s ideology was one aspect of the agenda, the other was gaining of converts.
The RSS and its student front Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad work independently on campuses. And, occasionally, in tandem.
The ABVP says it had 3.1 million members in 2016.
It was officially founded in 1949 by Mumbai academic Yashwantrao Kelkar, two years before the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the BJP’s predecessor) came into being. It is the RSS’s oldest front organisation.
A favourite ABVP slogan is 'Bharat mein rahna hai to Vande Mataram kahna hai (If one wants to live in India, one must say Vande Mataram)'.
Displacement of Kashmiri Hindus, separatism in the Valley, ‘illegal’ immigration in Assam, cleaning of rivers, regulatory authority to oversee private and deemed colleges and universities, re-start holding student union elections in universities, subsidised coaching centres for those wanting to enter professional universities, setting up more state universities for Dalits, OBCs, women and first-generation learners.
Agitations and violence
January 2012: Protested screening of Sanjay Kak’s film on Kashmir, Jashn-e-Azadi, in a Pune college, seminar on ‘Voices of Kashmir’.
April 2012: Attacked beef festival in Osmania University, Hyderabad.
September 2013: Attacked a Kashmiri film festival in Hyderabad.
December 2014: Protested Hindi film PK.
August 2016: Police complaint against Amnesty International for hosting an event on violation of human rights in J&K.
July-August 2015, December 2015 and January 2016: ABVP and Ambedkar Students’ Association members clash in Hyderabad Central University over screening of film on Muzaffarnagar communal violence ; Rohith Vemula and five other ASA members suspended; Vemula commits suicide.
February 2016: JNU students protest hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted in 2001 Parliament attack and Kashmiri separatist Maqbool Bhatt; ABVP protests; JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar arrested; accused of sedition with Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya.
February 2017: The ABVP clashes with Delhi University students over invite to Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid from JNU to speak at Ramjas College.
Then and now
Vaidya cited the Indian Institute of Technology-Mumbai campus as an example of how the Sangh worked in three tiers to woo members.
The first was to hold daily ‘shakhas’ (meetings). The second was hosting the Vivekananda Forum to encourage ‘intellectual and ideological’ exchanges with students and teachers. The third was deploying students in service work with the poor.
Vaidya said from the 1980s, the RSS -- as distinct from the ABVP -- worked in colleges independently; he himself was in charge of colleges in Gujarat and Nagpur.
"Some of the students who attended our shakhas might not have become lifetime volunteers. But, whenever I meet any of them, they praise us for the discipline we imparted. Sangh leaders are invited by management schools to talk about our work culture,” he said.
For Sinha, the concerns are about acquiring greater legitimacy for the Sangh and ‘unfolding its ideology at length’.
“The RSS is spoken of in clichés, like it is communal and fascist, as anti-RSS intellectuals enjoyed State support. The 2014 mandate signalled a change -- it was an ideological mandate where you cannot make a distinction between (Prime Minister) Modi and the Sangh. The RSS is nationalist, pro-India and anti-appeasement; Modi attacked the roots of appeasement,” he said.
The Lok Sabha mandate, he added, ended decades of confrontation the RSS had with the State, enabling it to set the agenda instead of being reactive.
“In academe specifically, the intimidation is far less, the discussions are open and inclusive, and there are professors willing to guide students on topics concerning the RSS. I recall that when I was writing my thesis on (RSS founder Keshav Baliram) Hedgewar, I was advised to change the topic or risk becoming persona non grata,” said Sinha.
Did the RSS hope to benefit from the political patronage that embedded the Left in academe for decades? Predictably, the answers were ambiguous or a straight no.
Prafulla Ketkar, editor of the RSS-aligned weekly Organiser, and an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies, said: “The Sangh is against political patronage because it believes education must be autonomous.”
Sinha’s response was tangential. “There was a concerted effort to exclude the RSS after Gandhi’s murder from academic and intellectual discourses by State and private forces. The RSS worked on the ground among common people but no lasting attempt was made to unfold its ideology,” he said, indicating the damage caused to its image might be deeper than it believed.
A look at the academic tweaks carried out by the BJP-ruled states show the RSS is playing the patron.
In Haryana, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, produced from the RSS mint, appointed a consultative committee headed by Dinanath Batra, a Sangh associate, to ‘guide’ teachers and transform the school curricula.
In Rajasthan, two members of the state university’s syndicate are part of the RSS-backed Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh, though Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has fended off the Sangh’s alleged interference.
Nandakumar said the Gyan Sangam had steered clear of government representation, including that of the human resource development ministry.
That apart, former HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi was present at the valedictory session; incumbent HRD minister Prakash Javadekar had addressed a Sangh sitting in January on ‘correcting the discourse’ in J&K.
Javadekar’s predecessor, Smriti Irani, was closely watched by the Sangh when she took over the ministry. The Sangh despatched emissaries to the meetings she held with academics to watch how she conducted herself.
A Sangh leader says, “We must be flexible about accepting State patronage. There are no dos and don’ts.”