The Cultural Campaign of RSS: War Over the Mind of India

Even as RSS tries to add new icons to its intellectual history, it wants to redeem scholars denigrated by the leftist establishment.


Illustration: Saurabh Singh / Open magazine

Last year, on September 16th, the RSS and BJP in Kerala referred to the great social reformer Sree Narayana Guru (1856-1928) as a ‘Hindu saint’, setting off a slugfest between Leftists and the Hindutva brigade. The latter has lately been making an all-out effort to appropriate the man who had successfully fought social ills in the caste-obsessed Kerala of his time, a place that Swami Vivekananda had referred to as a “madhouse”. Guru, who demolished deeply entrenched social equations in the early 20th century, is widely credited with breaking the backbone of Brahminism in Kerala through a renaissance movement that uplifted marginalised communities and contributed to the state’s high social awareness and perhaps its much-touted indicators of progress. A tweet on the official BJP handle recently said, ‘Sree Narayana Guru was a Hindu saint who worked towards reforming Hinduism staying w/in the frames of the religion.’ Straitjacketing the Guru as a ‘mere Hindu’ attracted ridicule. One scholar drew a parallel with Jinnah’s description of Gandhi as ‘a great Hindu’, words that are remembered as an attempt to confine a great soul of India to the religion of his birth.

It is no secret that Sree Narayana Guru was a complex figure who cannot be gauged by the Left-versus-Right yardsticks of today. He had disapproved of conversion and set up numerous temples—all of this was lapped up by Hindutva activists to slap a ‘Hindu’ label on him. RSS cadre also brandished an old newspaper clipping of an article on him titled ‘Bourgeois Narayana Guru’ by EMS Namboodiripad as an indication that the late Marxist patriarch had tried to run him down.

A year earlier, ahead of the 125th birth centenary of BR Ambedkar, the RSS and BJP had begun projecting the leader as a nationalist Hindu, notwithstanding his 1956 embrace of Buddhism—along with half a million followers in Nagpur—in protest against Brahmin supremacism and caste repression. The RSS even brought out a pamphlet on the ‘friendship’ between Ambedkar and its founder KB Hedgewar, arguing that the key architect of the Indian Constitution believed in the Sangh ideology. Also revived for airing were forgotten aspects of history, such as Ambedkar’s presence at the funeral of VD Savarkar, the man who coined the term ‘Hindutva’, and his criticism of Gandhi, whom he never called ‘Mahatma’. While Leftists and others have invariably fallen back on his book Annihilation of Caste to explain the core of Ambedkar’s views, right-wing scholars prefer to highlight portions of his Pakistan, or, The Partition of India to claim him as their own. Pundits, meanwhile, attribute such tactics to the fact that various OBCs and Dalits are no longer constrained by their identities and ideologies and that their votes are up for grabs.

J Nanda Kumar, convenor of the Prajna Pravah, which for all practical purposes is the intellectual wing of the RSS, steering several think-tanks, has a long list of names of luminaries that he believes were denigrated by the Congress-Leftist-Academic establishment over the past many decades. Kumar, who holds significant clout within the top echelons of the RSS, has almost single-handedly turned a largely local issue—violence in northern Kerala—into a national debate. As Akhil Bhartiya Sah Prachar Pramukh, he has displayed exceptional skill as a propagandist. The current violence in Kannur is all about a fight for supremacy between Marxists and RSS cadres, but Kumar launched a vigorous campaign projecting the RSS as the victim, attracting nationwide sympathy, much to the anguish of Leftists. As his sphere of activity shifts to the intellectual realm, it would be no surprise if intellectuals, social reformers and writers seen to be ‘victimised’ by Leftist historians and Congress politicians are ‘rehabilitated’ as the country’s thought leaders. Avers Kumar: “So far, there has been a concerted effort to silence the voice of the nation… We don’t want to commit the same mistake.” Accommodating and championing academics and historians, he says, is a high-priority task on the agenda. He also expects to bring on board competent scholars with non-partisan views. “We are approaching this exercise as a massive project of streamlining the Bharatiya knowledge about Bharat,” he offers.

The Sangh has often come up with suggestions on rewriting history, even science. Several right-wing historians—including former chief of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) Professor YS Rao—believe in the literal historicity of such epics as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Some claim a Hindu origin of many famous medieval-era monuments across the country. Most of them have attacked historians such as Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and others for allegedly tweaking history to suit their ideological interests.

Kumar, for his part, does not agree with unscientific posturing and the blatant disregard of facts. He feels that the undeserving of both the Right and the Left have to be ejected from positions of influence. He calls for a ‘surgical strike’ in knowledge, the turf of Goddess Saraswati, just like those carried out in two other areas by India, one commandeered by Goddess Lakshmi (demonetisation) and the other by Goddess Durga (cross-border military action). Lest he is misunderstood, he qualifies the imagery he uses: “I said it figuratively rather than literally.” He goes on, “We need to usher in a new academic environment wherein Indian philosophers like Shankara and Abhinavagupta are taught along with the thoughts of Plato, Spinoza, Descartes, etcetera, with equal importance. That doesn’t mean that we should stop teaching Western philosophy in our universities. But we must inculcate the fundamentals of Bharatiya thought in our academic realm with due recognition.”

His assertions on culture and sociology are in line with that of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who had said, “Everyone born in the country is a Hindu—of these, some are idol-worshipers and some are not. Even Muslims are Hindus by nationality. They are Muslims by faith only. Just as the English live in England, Americans in America and Germans in Germany, Hindus live in Hindustan.”

THE RSS HAS a list of those it believes have been wronged by Indian historians. It seems to have two sets. One of these is of people whom no one, even among those with an unbiased view of India’s past, seems to remember. These persons somehow also happen to figure in the RSS pantheon. The other set has scholars and cultural figures with remarkable contributions that have been elided from historical memory. This is not a matter of historical contingency where some figures are forgotten due to a random lapse of memory—and history is full of such persons. In the case of three, at least, there has been a deliberate effort to either paint them as ‘communal’ or simply let their memory fade away by not saying anything about them. Jadunath Sarkar, Sardar KM Panikkar and Prafulla Chandra Ray are emblematic of this list of forgotten Indians.

Kumar offers a plethora of names: Nimbarka, Utpal Deva, Nimbarka, Chaitanya, Ballabhacharya, Shri Harsha, Bhartruhari, Yogacharya Vasubandhu, Mallisena, Sree Narayana Guru, Sri Aurobindo, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Surendranath Dasgupta (in philosophy); PC Ray, RC Majumdar, Sardar KM Panikkar, Sita Ram Goel, KP Jaiswal, Prof MM Shankdhar, KM Munshi and so on. Besides, there are prominent right-wing leaders such as Savarkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya.

There are few who remember Jadunath Sarkar’s The History of Aurangzeb. Written in five volumes and running in excess of 1,700 pages, the book is more or less ‘extinct’. Written between 1912 and 1924, it brought its author either fame or infamy, depending on your perspective, in its wake. Sarkar is one historian who India’s cultural Right feels has been wronged by modern, Leftist historians. Both the subject (Aurangzeb) and his historian (Sarkar) evoke unease or consternation in the Indian Academy. It took more than half a century after Sarkar’s death in 1958 for the first scholarly biographical appreciation of the man to appear— published in faraway Chicago in 2015. It is not unusual to hear of Sarkar being referred as the ‘doyen of communal historians’ in Indian universities. This was largely on account of his treatment of Aurangzeb’s character as a ruler.

Anyone who has bothered to leaf through the first volume of Sarkar’s book cannot but admire the drive and energy of Aurangzeb as a prince in this portrayal. Further, his treatment at the hands of Shahjahan and the emperor’s favoured son, Dara Shikoh, can anger anyone with a dispassionate sense of history. It is only in the last volume of Sarkar’s work in a single chapter on ‘Aurangzeb and Indian Nationality’ that you find critical references to the ruler’s bigoted religious ideas. But that was enough to condemn this historian who prized factual history over the contemporary fashion of interpretative work. In modern, secular India, there was plenty of room for bigoted rulers but none for a historian who said as much. It speaks volumes for Indian history writing that no Indian historian has written a history of Aurangzeb that comes close to what Sarkar achieved. The RSS’s protest against the elision of Sarkar from the ranks of respectable historians has ample merit to it.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Lawrence A Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago, is the one who rescued Sarkar from Leftist vilification with his The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth. Notes Chakrabarty: “Sarkar was criticised in his own lifetime by both those who made a hero out of Shivaji and who thought of him as a pro-Muslim historian and those who found Sarkar’s criticism of Aurangzeb’s Islam ‘communal’ or ‘Hindu’.” He adds, “Later on, as economic and institutional factors came to be emphasised in post-1950 analyses of why the Mughal Empire crumbled, historians found Sarkar wanting. They thought that his emphasis on ‘character’ as a motive-force in history was simple-minded and was of imperial vintage. Again, the weight he placed on Aurangzeb’s orthodoxy and [Sarkar’s] unkind comments on Islam in the third volume on Aurangzeb may have also lent to his ‘reputation’ as ‘communal’… No one, however, was interested to ask: why did ‘character’ as an analytical category make so much sense to a historian of Sarkar’s generation if not his abilities? I try to answer that question in the book.” According to him, a true rehabilitation can happen only if we engage—with both distance and empathy—with Sarkar’s understanding of history (both the past and the discipline documenting and analysing it).

Even historian Audrey Truschke, who has been critical of the man in her recent work on Aurangzeb, says, “Dismissing Sarkar’s oeuvre as entirely worthless would be an error.” She agrees, “I think that Sarkar needs to be studied in order to ask certain questions. If one is interested in debates about public history, especially in the late colonial period in India, then Sarkar is a crucial figure. Sarkar’s exchanges with [Maharashtra-based historian Sakharam Govindrao] Sardesai are notably enlightening on the topic, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has written about.”

Something similar happened to the Malayalee scholar and diplomat KM Panikkar. On the surface, he did not meet the fate that befell Sarkar. Panikkar was a successful diplomat and academic in independent India. But if there is an art that has been perfected in modern India, it surely is that of making a person’s ideas vanish. His memory will follow in short order.

The RSS’s championing of India’s first ambassador to communist China and a person with alleged communist sympathies makes for strange reading. But that is only if you engage in a selected reading of a person’s output and work. The fact is that when one reads Gulab Singh: 1792-1858 and India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History, one comes across a deep strategic mind and not a communist sympathiser. In retrospect, both works must have made Panikkar an embarrassment for Congress governments. Gulab Singh is not a panegyric on the founder of the Kingdom of Kashmir, but an appreciation of strategic problems on India’s northern borders. It is no secret that the first Prime Minister of India, Nehru, and the last ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh, could not stand each other. If anything, Nehru was on good terms at the time with a man Hari Singh had once imprisoned: Sheikh Abdullah. Is it any surprise that our obsequious historians quickly took a cue? Panikkar’s book on the Indian Ocean has enjoyed a bloom in recent years, not in universities but in think-tanks and among diplomats who recognised its value when India began a ‘Look East’ policy during the PV Narasimha Rao years. In the Nehru years, words like ‘strategy’ and ‘profit’ were wretched expressions. Books based on these themes stood no chance.

If Sarkar and Panikkar occupy some historical space, very little is known about Prafulla Chandra Ray, founder of Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works (BCPW). The RSS dubs him the ‘father of Hindu chemistry’, an incongruous and infelicitous expression. Ray was, after all, trained as a chemist at the University of Edinburgh where he was granted a DSc, a wholly Western signifier of learning. BCPW was established in 1901 with a capital of Rs 700. This was four years before Bengal was partitioned, an act that precipitated India’s first organised anti-colonial movement of the 20th century. The Swadeshi Movement was not only about throwing the British out of India, but also creating indigenous industries, institutions and ideas essential for giving content to freedom. Ray’s company was for a long time considered a good example of what Indians could do in scientific innovation, if given a chance. Many of the ideas that Gandhi later borrowed—especially self- reliance—were first tried and tested during Ray’s period. But because the Swadeshi Movement had ‘Hindu overtones’, virtually everyone and everything—ideas and personalities alike—were erased by independent India’s historians. It is another matter that ‘self-reliance’ took a statist meaning in Nehru’s India, a caricature of the first burst of creativity experienced in 20th century India.

IF THESE NAMES—Sarkar, Panikkar and Ray—have an aura of authenticity about them, there is also a list of people the RSS champions that one isn’t sure about. Examples like the historian RC Majumdar, who wrote about ancient India, are problematic on many counts. So who should be celebrated and who makes it to the list of ‘important intellectuals’ appears a superfluous question at one level. For a modern mind, this is equivalent to reducing ideas and personalities to a pantheon meant to be deified without any critical gaze. Ordinarily, these are matters best left to historians, the exemplar being how the late Isaiah Berlin dealt with the question of ideologies and their bearers. On plain reading, there’s no room for a ‘political’ solution to the problem of ideas and intellectuals. “Should universities and academics not be brought under the ambit of a ‘social audit’?” asks Kumar.

But on another plane, the questions raised by him deserve a better answer. What if those tasked with sifting ideas and personalities from the chaff are compromised by circumstances and political winds of the day? This is not a conspiracy theory, as the cases of Jadunath Sarkar, KM Panikkar and PC Ray show. In mid-20th century India, these subjects were treated with a cavalier attitude that seems breath-taking today. What is worse, the compromised gatekeepers of that age, and their successors—historians of modern India are the best example here—even refuse to acknowledge, let alone make amends, for cherry-picking friends and foes from what was otherwise supposed to be neutral history-writing. When the RSS points to the continued vilification of historical personages, there is substance in that allegation.

Yet if this is how India’s past has been dealt with by politicised historians, what the BJP and its cultural affiliates are doing is no better. The party’s appointment of scholars to institutions of learning—such as the ICHR, an old battleground for culture wars—is a good example. What Congress governments did in the past is now being done by today’s regime, though from a different direction. Only the process is sought to be speeded up: what was done by the intellectual Left over a course of 50 years—beginning somewhere in the 1950s—is now sought to be ‘undone’ in far less time. Meanwhile, Kumar says the RSS wishes to include in school curricula the names of a large number of Hindi writers. They include Ayodhya Singh Upadhyay ‘Hari Oudh’, Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Maithilisharan Gupt, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’, Bhavani Prasad Mishra, Siyaramsharan Gupta, Sohan Lal Dwivedi, Mahadevi Varma, Jaishankar Prasad, Narendra Kohli, Kunwar Narayan, Nirmal Verma, Shyam Narayan Pandey and Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, among others. He feels that their contributions are not “properly mentioned” in our syllabi.

Scholar Ram Puniyani sees all this as “saffronisation” of Indian academia. He elaborates, “My understanding is that in India, roughly three versions of history came up. One was rooted in Indian nationalism. We get a glimpse of this in Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and Nehru’s Discovery of India. Marxist historians pursued the same with a slight bent, making it more based on historical materialism. The followers of the Muslim League pursued a history where Muslim nationalism begins with Muslim kings, and so on. The RSS brand of history is the base for Hindu nationalism and they want to restore the historians who have a slight bent towards the Sangh.”

The Sangh has often hit back at such Leftist pronouncements as illiberal and rigid. Argues Kumar: “The RSS envisages changing this status quo of culturally insensitive and philosophically barren academic content in disciplines of the humanities. This is not a negation or aversion to Western theories, nor a government- operated programme of ‘academic reforms’, or an offering of ‘alternatives’ in a narrow sense… The RSS will engage and inspire resourceful scholars and subject experts having an unbiased view of any ideology from all over the world.”

The trouble for the BJP and RSS is that the intellectual Left is entrenched in the country’s learning ecosystem. From university professorships to the kind of topics that fresh scholars pursuing PhDs are directed towards, the manner in which these subjects are treated is biased against alternative interpretations and methodologies. The conservative school, so to speak, has very few persons in this system and has so far been unable to develop alternative paradigms of interpretation and creative ideation that can withstand scholarly scrutiny from elsewhere—for example, the Western academy where differences in scholarly opinion about India’s past are tolerated, if not welcomed. Instead, there is a constant desire to seek ‘Indic’ methodologies to take a re-look at India’s past. In a scholarly canon that is largely based on Western conceptions of rationality, this does not stand a chance. It does not help history-writing or the understanding of India’s past in any way.

Troubling as it may sound, this is one reason why India’s cultural institutions are under such stress. If on the one hand, the cultural and intellectual Left continues to brazen it out—and lose credibility in the bargain—on the other hand, the cultural Right is in a hurry to ‘fix’ things without undergoing the motions of scholarly rigour. The RSS is increasingly under attack now— not entirely without reason—for appointing people of disputed scholarship to key positions of power at cultural and research- oriented institutions.

The Sangh also talks about the need to ‘normalise’ the ‘intellectual arrogance’ of our ‘eminent’ historians. Which only means its celebrated intellectual fellow-travellers of the past—like Arun Shourie, besides others—may have to be taken to task for their acerbic views on its new icon, Ambedkar. Equally damaging for its stance as a guardian of Dalit and underprivileged interests are the past pronouncements on the age-old varna system by none other than Deendayal Upadhyaya himself.

Forget polished cultural products (fine history that not only educates but also enthrals), the end result is a culture war that only serves political ends. A surgical strike on academia to neutralise the ‘incompetent’ and the intellectually ‘dishonest’ is easier said than done.

First published in Open magazine

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