I hardly know Ram Madhav and I hardly know the RSS. But like anyone who knows India and respectfully understands how India sees the world, I can safely say one thing: only the most outlandish disconnectedness and ignorance would allow one to take the media spin around his Al Jazeera interview at face value.
The Al Jazeera show with Ram Madhav was fancied-up tabloid journalism, and regrettably, it is this same tabloid journalistic level that much supposedly serious analysis of South Asia in academic, journalistic and activist loops has been reduced to. The whole programme seemed less about understanding an important political phenomenon objectively and more about imposing a set of preconceived notions, if not a whole ideology altogether, which at its core believes that some people are less human than others because of their religion.
The Al Jazeera interview was framed, from the beginning, in the self-righteous language of a belief system that views the lives of Hindus as expendable and insignificant masquerading as objective journalism. I do not say this merely because the host of the programme has been known to say things like without the moral high ground, Muslims will become like non-Muslims, like animals.
I suppose he has regretted it, or at the very least introspected about how a belief like that might be at odds with his ability to be an objective journalist, much less a crusader for religious freedom and equality, in contexts where he considers people different from him as immoral and animal-like.
Whatever his personality, and whatever professional standards Al Jazeera thinks it holds itself up to, the fact is that the programme began very clearly with factual inaccuracies and omissions. It starts out blaming the RSS for the death of “2,000 Muslims” in Gujarat and instantly skews the debate. A less cowardly approach, frankly, would have honestly acknowledged the facts: at the very least that the figures in the Gujarat riot showed nasty violence committed by Muslims on Hindus as well as Hindus on Muslims, with the burning of the train carrying innocent Hindu pilgrims being the starting point for the conflict. A largely one-sided riot with more Muslim casualties, it undeniably was; but a “pogrom” or “genocide”?
After this skewed introduction, the interviewer and some of his guests go down the same allegations that have been echoed in the media in India and abroad the last few months: conversions (some conversions that is), “love jihad,” and the “destruction of churches.” We also hear the RSS’s early guiding-spirit, “Guruji” Golwalkar, being quoted to support the allegation about the RSS being a hateful group. An “expert” questioner also brings up a bizarre story about RSS workers desecrating graves of Muslim women and doing worse to the remains, an allegation whose truth the host seems to take for granted and does not question (around 22 minute mark in the show).
And finally, we get to the part where the host talks about his surprise at seeing a map of “Akhand Bharat” at Nagpur, in response to which Ram Madhav talks about unification as a goodwill-based ideal for the RSS, along the lines of the reunification of Germany and Vietnam. Naturally, the host views this as an imperial act, a desire to “wipe Pakistan and Bangladesh off the map.”
The truth, unfortunately, expressed itself only in parts during the interview.
In my view, Ram Madhav spoke accurately about the inclusiveness of RSS’s thinking, including examples of Hindu-Muslim equality from the words of the much-maligned Golwalkar, and about assuring Kashmiris that apart from secession, any demand within the Constitution would be considered favourably. He clearly refuted the ridiculous charge made against Narendra Modi before he became prime minister that he had somehow compared Muslims to dogs by expressing his helplessness during the riots, explaining how a person who feels sad about a puppy being hit by a car would feel even sadder about human beings being massacred (and ironic that Mehdi Hasan would try bringing this up since he seems quite open about believing that non-Muslims are like animals).
Ram Madhav also expressed a valid concern many in India and around the world have about ignoring the danger of really armed (as opposed to the allegedly armed RSS), beheading-prone, fundamentalist groups like ISIS getting hold of nuclear weapons — though his calling it “your ISIS” has spun the comment into a needlessly distracting tangent (I do not see why, frankly, it has to be misconstrued as a comment on religion when it could have been a geographical allusion as well, given that Al Jazeera and ISIS, though very different organisations, happen to be from what to an Indian observer might seem like the same part of the world).
Unfortunately though, there are also some points on which the lack of connection between RSS discourse and the idioms and customs of today’s intellectual climate is in evidence. To anyone who has had any familiarity with people from the RSS, or has followed its leaders’ speeches, or read articles in its publications (and not merely media reports about them from Al Jazeera or other supposedly objective outlets), it is clear that they are not a militant, fundamentalist, or even supremacist group. Their hearts are in the right place, their hands are everywhere to help (has anyone heard of RSS volunteers discriminating between Hindus and Muslims and Christians while helping them during floods or other disasters?), but their thoughts and voices, we can say candidly, are firmly inside a 19th century bubble which they seem to have no desire to step outside of.
If one ignores the massive and mostly baseless demonisation campaign against the RSS based on random quotes from long-gone ideologues and unrepresentative fringe groups, and looks at how they view they world, we see a world which has been passed by in the 21st century in some ways, for good and bad. On the somewhat bad side (for its image), we find the RSS (and many non-RSS, ordinary Indians) too, resorting to a seemingly blind invocation of patriotism as their first and last ideal. However, this serves no purpose at all. The right answer to a false allegation has to be about establishing its falsehood, and not a blank complaint about “hurting India’s image.”
This is one reality about today’s culture that RSS leaders, activists, and even ordinary patriotic Indians have to understand. For many in the young urbanised and globalised middle class, blind nationalism is as mad as racism, sexism, or casteism. Nationalism may have been a legitimate and popular cause in itself when India was a British colony (a crucial fact about context that RSS speakers rarely seem to bring up when talking about the occasionally xenophobic sounding comments made by their early leaders), but appears only majoritarian, intolerant, and inauthentic in a country that has been quite free for over half a century. This is something that those still using the nationalist “defence” uncritically should understand. In the RSS family, Bharat may be as dear as one’s own mother, but in the heartless 21st century, that dearness has to better explained.
Conversely, the heartless 21st century (or at least its supposed watchdogs for freedom and justice like Al Jazeera), should also stop objectifying the culture and values of a selfless and simple set of people who live for the world than their own selves. I am not sure how many critics of Prime Minister Modi or the RSS have bothered to read Jyoti Punj or even if they have sought to understand the deeply felt emotions and values with which the volunteer-leaders of the Sangh lead their lives. To a modern observer alienated from millennia-old thinking about dharma and seva, the ideas of service that the Sangh takes as its goal may seem like a mere conspiracy to produce obedience and slavery. But the fact is that people like Narendra Modi, Ram Madhav, and many others like them have lived their life on the basis of sensibilities like the “body is a mere excuse bestowed on us for service” (a sentiment I recall reading from Jyoti Punj). They take little from the world, and give everything they can to others.
Now, as for the symbol that they hold dear, it is not just Ram or Krishna as those who portray them as religious fundamentalists make them out to be, but the idea of Bharat Mata. If they wish to remember a time when the whole of the subcontinent was revered as sacred by those who lived on it, every river, mountain, lake and tree, that is entirely their prerogative to do so. Their understanding of realpolitik and the present is also sound enough for them (and their supporters) to know that India could barely be bothered about annexing Pakistan and Bangladesh as a conquest-obsessed ideology masquerading as modernity might misconstrue it to be. The irony is that even as supposedly secular and progressive academics and activists are struggling to erase the word “India” from history books and replace it with a sterile and Eurocentric category called “South Asia,” an indigenously rooted ideal of South Asian unity and co-existence is being condemned by them.
As an organisation that survived stigma and persecution several times in the last century, including the Emergency, the RSS is understandably at a communication disadvantage, but its actions show that it remains committed in its understanding of India as a place where all religions and people can co-exist. Even though skeptics attack the idea of “cultural Hinduism,” the fact is that it marks a shift away from early colonial-nationalist terminology that equated religion and race, and marks perhaps an accommodation and growth, even if slowly, that the RSS does not stand in the least bit for what it has been made out to be: that it respects the rights of Muslims and Christians in India, and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in their nations, but equally respects the rights of Hindus around the world to stand up against an imperialist ideology of Hinduphobia that has no place in civilisation.
I hope the RSS will learn to speak, and its critics will learn to listen. It will be good for both.