After watching the last of the films I had chosen to during the recently-ended Bangalore International Film Festival, I was walking back home and on a large playground southeast of the mall where the week-long event was held, I felt what struck me as something akin to dread and even terror.
An RSS man, khaki knicker-clad, was standing and addressing a group of about 35 to 40 young boys, including some who seemed to be five- or six-year-olds seated on the bare ground. As I walked by, on the road, some distance above the playground, I could make out some faint sounds of chants or prayers.
Why do I say "dread" and "terror"? The thought that lingered in me was this: apart from prayers and stuff, what sort of Hindutva poison – and how venomous – was he funnelling into those young kids? As a late riser and not given to morning walks, I am spared the sight of RSS "shakhas". And so this was a relatively unusual spectacle for me even though I am aware that tens of thousands, if not more, of such "shakhas" plague many parts of India.
Also, it brought back, rather vividly, memories of an incident from when I was ten or 11 years old: on a side-street near where I lived then and live now, I had been accosted by a man who asked me whether I played anywhere and invited me to join other kids at a playground next to a temple nearby. I did as bidden. On that playground, I was told at the outset to hold my right hand at a right angle just below the heart, with the palm facing down and salute a triangular saffron flag that I was seeing for the first time.
Unlike in the case of US nationalists who merely hold their hands covering the upper left part of their chests but keep their heads high, the RSS volunteer is expected to duck his head. HIS obviously, there being no female RSS members. I thought that odd.
And the next day I narrated the experience to someone who was either a schoolmate or friend. How I wish I knew and remembered who that good soul was and could thank him deeply for a query of his that was life-altering!
"Don't you know they killed Gandhi?"
If anyone has doubts as to Nathuram Godse's membership of the RSS and the culpability of his co-conspirator VD Savarkar, whose portrait now hangs in the central hall of India's Parliament, to its shame (it was put there during the first NDA regime), kindly consult Google or some good library. AG Noorani's brilliant writings in this regard need to be savoured both for legal acumen and argumentation.
Now, there are several opinions on Mahatma Gandhi and especially after the recent researches and books focusing on his South Africa years, his reputation has taken a bit of a beating, especially his failure not only to identify with the black majority and siding with the white colonisers. Quite apart from his casteism, that is. Be that as it may, for a young person in the 1960s, Gandhi was "Father of the Nation". Period.
During my stint in the Kannada-medium school situated right behind a block housing a Ganesha temple and a Rama temple as well as an Ubhaya Vedanta Pravarthana Sabha (an outfit dedicated to propagating Vedanta), I began to note that fervent devotion to assorted deities had little correlation to the results obtained at the end of annual school exams.
Seeds of unbelief got sown.
And then my father shifted me overnight to an English-medium Central School (since renamed Kendriya Vidyalaya), reserved for children of Central government employees. Among the texts we had to read in the late 1960s were those by Bertrand Russell, Fred Hoyle, George Orwell, JBS Haldane (the last named had become an Indian national), assorted Tagores and others in English.
Predominantly male authors, needless to say. But there were a few female ones as well among the poets included in English, and in Hindi that was imposed on us south Indians despite the heroic resistance by many Tamils who martyred themselves in opposing it in the mid-1960s. Exposed to such sceptics at an early age, I naturally turned towards a sceptical view of the world.
Now, whenever I see men in khaki knickers I feel uneasy. When I was very young, khaki knickers were a subject of much ridicule and snide remarks. The police in Mysore state (renamed Karnataka) then wore khaki knickers: baggy ones about five or six times the circumference of the wearer’s thighs, heavily starched and ironed. Sensibly, they were dispensed with in favour of trousers, perhaps starting in the mid- or late-1960s.
The cops had and continue to have a reputation for squeezing anyone and everyone for massive bribes, so much so that many circle inspectors' jobs are said to be auctioned by politicians for astronomical amounts. "Thiganemari", the Kannada for bed bug, was the name we had for cops then.
And no, it was not as if I was a kid living among ne'er-do-wells or slum-dwellers: I was very much from a savarna or dominant or oppressor caste, living in a well-established locality that is home to a range from lower-middle-class to upper-middle families.
Meaning, we had no trouble from the cops except the traffic ones who twice dragged me and my bicycle to the police station and made me cough up Rs 5– a tidy sum in the early 1970s while I was riding to college. A teenager living in a tiny, single-income home with five others, riding a bicycle and getting squeezed by a cop for a “transgression” that got overlooked most of the time except when it came to filling the particular police station’s monthly quota.
My disgust and pity for the cops is combined with a need to understand what turns them into monsters, and living as I do back in Bangalore after a gap of several decades and knowing how they behave with street vendors, women seeking to complain of attacks, indigent sex workers, African students and others, it is a work in progress.
No, the khaki knickers that terrify me are the ones now worn by reportedly increasing numbers of the brainwashed boys and men of the RSS, mostly dominant/oppressor caste people but there are major and quite successful efforts underway to recruit Dalits and adivasis by injecting anti-Muslim and anti-Christian poison into their innocent brains.
For the record, my now 89-year-old father had once been an RSS member: whenever I mention this while introducing him to friends of mine who visit us, he unconvincingly and somewhat under his breath intones, “Once an RSS member, always an RSS member”, which is obviously incorrect as quite a few members have woken up and smelt the decaf over the decades and years, including SH Deshpande, whose most balanced essay on the issue was once published in the now defunct journal, Quest (and included in the anthology, "Best of Quest", coedited by the Sanskrit scholar Arshia Sattar, author of Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish and translator of Valmiki’s Ramayana and Kathasaritsagara into English).
In fact, my father has been, over the past few years, quite critical of the BJP’s corrupt rule in Karnataka (as well as that of the Congress) and I believe he voted for other – losing – candidates in the past two or three occasions.
However, during and immediately after visitations by a couple of his friends from the same sub-caste and who are virulent khaki knicker types, his and my 86-year-old mother’s opinions turned rightwards.
The question for those with faculties about them and not completely conked out on the Sanghi kool-aid is this: does India want to remain a mostly peaceful, tolerant, accepting land as it has been for millennia or do the khaki-knicker-wearers have other plans for it?
Going after Dalits as in the case of Hyderabad University or Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students with violent attacks mounted by Sanghi students and lawyers might be minor and hopefully temporary nuisance seen from a historical perspective but do they want to try doing what was attempted in Germany and Italy in the last century?
The Germans and Italians have spent decades cleansing their body politic of the effects of a few years of storm-troopers’ marauding. Should the Sanghis impose that kind of fascism on India, they can forget about the country emerging as an influential power in the comity of nations.
A number of countries are trying to move away from narrow nationalism and towards coalitions of nation states: people in Europe have been trying to squeeze out of narrow national confines through the European Union (EU) – and occasionally failing spectacularly as has been shown up in the recent crisis over Greece’s debt, not to mention narrow nationalist sentiments as displayed on football fields – and a far more modest experiment is underway in Asia – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Take a look at the political map of Africa and note those straight lines dividing some of those “countries”.
Who drew those lines and when and with whose permission or lack thereof, and why should peoples living on either side of those lines be obliged to owe allegiances to anthems, flags and football teams based on the accident of residence a kilometre/mile or more on this or that side of those lines?
Getting back to Europe, incidentally, the last film I saw during the film festival mentioned at the outset was 'Corn Island' (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1863192/), a gently flowing tale of toil by a farmer chancing upon an island formed seasonally in a river dividing Georgia and Abkhazia and working hard to grow corn (maize) there and building a cabin to help guard it, eventually joined by his young granddaughter who draws unwelcome attention from men in uniform – khaki, obviously – passing by in motorboats or on a nearby river bank.
What stands out in the film is the near total absence of dialogue. And when the characters speak at all – very few minutes in total in the whole film – they are in Abkhaz, Georgian and Russian languages. Russian, because Abkhazia is something of a Russian protectorate, though the real situation is more complex than that. The now defunct Soviet Union’s last foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze was Georgian as, more importantly, was Joseph Stalin – real surname Djugashvili.
In the film, the old farmer and his granddaughter are Abkhaz. They suddenly find a Georgian soldier washed up on their tiny island, nurse him to health and get visited by both Georgian and Russian patrol boats full of well-built khaki-clad men who speak to the old, harmless farmer minding his own humble business in offensive tones.
What I am getting at is the meaninglessness of nationalism, let alone jingoism around the globe where changing courses of rivers intervene as question marks over our allegiences and where landmasses now named China, India or Iran have been homes to rich and continuing civilisations but in each of which there have been and still are mind-numbing attempts at suppressing what had stood them in great stead earlier – acceptance and inclusion.
Our non-human fellow beings, not only migratory birds but other species as well, have perhaps a wiser understanding of the way Mother Earth works than the khaki knicker crowd whose professed love for Mother India papers over blind hatred for far too many of its daughters and sons based on which imaginary god they worship or don’t.