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True Indology vs Devendra Fadnavis – The two ‘Hindutvas’ and why they clash

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Popular Twitter handle “True Indology” had, more than a year ago, tweeted some information and opinions about Savitribai Phule, who is often recognized as the ‘first female teacher’ of India. He argued how that claim – about her being the first female teacher of India – was historically not accurate and how the British missionaries had actively helped her set up the school.

Both of the above assertions were merely a matter of putting out pieces of information from the annals of history, but what caused it to become controversial was the mention of exploitation, including sexual, of young women in the schools that the British set up. Both these assertions placed together were construed as True Indology accusing Savitribai Phule of helping the British colonialists exploit Indian girls through her school – an allegation True Indology summarily rejected on social media before deactivating his account.

True Indology maintains that his ‘Twitter thread’ on Savitribai Phule was deliberately twisted to mean something he never suggested, that he merely put out various pieces of information with citations, which third parties went on to link with each other to insinuate something that was never his intention.

Merits of the argument and accuracy of the claims apart, it is interesting to note that the entire thing blew into a controversy more than a year after the Twitter thread and articles on it by a couple of websites were published. When the thread and articles were published, there was an MVA (coalition of NCP, Shiv Sena, and Congress) government in power in Maharashtra, but the MVA constituents decided to make it an issue only after they were kicked out of power. Cynical politics can’t be ruled out behind the entire controversy.

However, the response of the BJP to this cynical politics is being seen as equally cynical by a section of BJP supporters, or rather, a section of ‘Hindutva’ supporters. On Friday, in the Maharashtra assembly, senior BJP leader and one of the deputy CMs of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis reiterated that he wants to punish True Indology for his remarks.

Fadnavis was responding to a statement by a Congress leader who demanded that True Indology should be tied up and ‘publicly paraded’ – Please note, a ‘progressive party’ demanding Taliban-like punishment, which also brands India Lynchistan when public ties up and parades thieves. Fadnavis topped this stupid statement with something that can be loosely translated to “forget parading, I say hang him publicly, but nothing will be achieved by just saying, we have to abide by laws of the land”.

Not the best of the words in the best of the order, even though it was said to underline the importance of following laws as against giving in to mob justice, and for which Fadnavis is getting all the flak on Twitter from a section of Hindutva supporters. Even if we forget the semantics and syntax of Fadnavis’ statement, the question being raised by those outraged is ‘what kind of Hindutva is this?’

Sangh and ‘Sanghis’

RSS has been branded in a certain way by those who had the power of branding – the media, academia, the ‘activists’, et al. i.e. those who shape the narrative. People subscribing to the communist and broadly ‘anti-Hindu’ ideologies have always had the upper hand in shaping the narrative. RSS has been branded fascist, fundamentalist, conservative, orthodox, communal, regressive, violent, patriarchal, casteist, Brahminical, and what have you. They have been bestowed with all kinds of labels, the kinds the Left likes to put on others to feel superior.

RSS, on its part, didn’t lose much sleep on these labels as they thought it a waste of energy to do so. Their policy has to ‘continue doing ground work’ and ignore much, almost all, the criticism. This led to a peculiar situation where the haters of the RSS as its admirers, who were not swayamsevaks and did not work closely with the Sangh, conjured up an image of RSS that was far disassociated with reality.

The anger and frustration of a certain section of Hindutva supporters over Fadnavis’ remarks, as well as the confusion over what BJP/RSS stands for with respect to Hindutva, is a manifestation of this phenomenon.

This section warmed up to the RSS thinking what the RSS was accused of by the Left could possibly be true! No, that’s not counterintuitive, that’s how narratives work. They believed in the narrative shaped by the Left. Now that doesn’t mean they thought that being fascist, regressive, violent, patriarchal etc. were good things – well, a very small section might even think so – but that their own understanding of these labels, when bestowed by the Left, was very different. Because the Left, in its love for using labels to win arguments, would put similar labels on them too.

Left will brand anyone fascist merely for disagreeing or casteist merely for challenging certain interpretations (and on occasion downright fabrications) of Hindu scriptures. In fact, the Left will randomly label people ‘Sanghis’ to win arguments. RSS should actually be thankful to the Left for creating many ‘Sanghis who never went to a shakha’.

The marriage solemnized between such ‘Sanghis’ and Sangh was bound to go through ‘the seven-year itch’. That is what has been happening. The understanding and approach of RSS (and by extension the BJP) towards Hindutva is proving to be different than that of its new admirers and sympathizers.

Truth is – that difference was always there. BJP/RSS hasn’t totally changed track due to politics, but just that most of the sympathizers assumed RSS to be what it was not. There are just three words that prove it – Sita Ram Goel.

Most of the criticism of RSS from this section is in line with the criticism Sita Ram Goel had to offer about Sangh, almost four decades ago. So honestly, you can’t really accuse RSS of losing or changing the track after some recent events (political victories of BJP under Modi to be precise). You can at best accuse it of being on the wrong track, for decades now. It won’t be wrong to say that ghost of Sita Ram Goel has come back to haunt the Sangh.

However, there is a new line of criticism too, which is different from Sita Ram Goel’s, and that is the rediscovery of traditionalism, or let’s say scripturalism. New eloquence and articulation in defence of traditional Hinduism and Hindu scriptures are there, which appeared a lost cause for many decades.

While Sita Ram Goel broadly found fault with RSS for not having developed a native and robust framework that could help them counter ideas of Marxists, Islamists, and Macaulay-shaped systems, the second section of critics expect RSS to adopt the framework they have been articulating.

As always, RSS reaction to these sets of criticism is to ignore and continue doing what they do – again – not something they have started doing only recently, but something they have adhered to historically.

RSS and Ambedkar/Phule

One can very well ask that if RSS can ignore criticism by these groups, why can’t it ignore what was said about Savitribai Phule? Now there one has to make a distinction between RSS and BJP. It’s the BJP that can’t ignore because Phule is supposed to be a big draw in Maharashtra and no political party can afford to ignore the issue.

However, this particular approach by BJP is not pure cynical politics either and it is also not completely divorced from what RSS believes. The truth is that RSS, especially in Maharashtra, had accepted Ambedkar and Phule in their pantheology way back, again almost four decades ago. It is not that the organization rejected them earlier, but they started appearing regularly in Sangh discussions and literature.

I got to know this recently when I was gifted an English translation of a Marathi book “Me, Manu Ani Sangh” (I, Manu, and Sangh) that has been written by Mr Ramesh Patange, a senior journalist and RSS ideologue. He was awarded with Padma Shri earlier this year.

The book was published in 1994 in Marathi. It recounts Patange’s days as Swayamsevak and offers a commentary on incidents in those years, including the days of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi when he was jailed along with other political dissidents. He writes that that is when he started reading more about Ambedkar and Phule and got drawn towards their struggles.

The book tries to explain how the lives and deeds of Ambedkar and Phule are not in conflict with the missions and objectives of the RSS. In short, Sangh sees them as reformists who tried to do away ills of Hindu society, primarily untouchability and caste hierarchy, which Sangh sees as an obstacle to ‘Hindu unity’.

Just to show that I’m not paraphrasing to mean something else, the following is a paragraph from the book, which follows after the author talks about after talking positively about Ambedkar:

“Disunity or lack of integration in the Hindu society is projected as a major weakness by the Sangh. This weakness was responsible for the domination of this country first by Muslims and then by the British. Our glory and affluence faded and poverty set in. Our compatriots were converted to other religions. That is why there is a great need for unity and cohesive organisation in the Hindu Society. Unity means strength. Strength helps us to win freedom and defend it after it is won. We can recapture the lost splendour. That is how the Sangh puts it.”

The book further mentions that RSS ideologues have written many articles and books that highlight the common cause of the Sangh and of ‘reformists’ like Ambedkar and Phule. Let me again reproduce two paragraphs from the book below:

“Thereafter, we started trying to harmonize the Phule-Ambedkar thought with the Hindutva philosophy. That was not difficult. Balasaheb Deoras had often said from public platforms that both Phule and Ambedkar were concerned with the problems of the Hindu society. The problems they took in hand belonged to the entire Hindu society and therefore, it would be quite appropriate to call them Hindu reformers. 

I studied Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Phule on my own, in the light of the viewpoint expressed by Balasaheb Deoras. Sukhadev Navale, and Bhikhu Idate also studied them. Damuanna Date too is well-versed in the subject. Our studies prompted us to find out what were the timeless thoughts in the writings of Phule and Ambedkar, what were purely topical issues, and to analyze their thoughts in the context of time. Along with others, I developed a habit of reflecting on these questions.”

Remember, these are words written more than 30 years ago and deal with incidents even older. The 70s and 80s were also the time when Ambedkar and Phule became hugely mainstreamed in Maharashtra politics as ‘anti-Brahmin’ rhetoric gained currency. Almost every party employed this rhetoric to some or the other extent, including Shiv Sena. Later the Hindi belt saw the same thanks to the Mandal Commission.

One can argue that instead of countering the anti-Brahmin rhetoric, RSS simply decided to co-opt some elements of it to its stated objective of ‘Hindu unity’. Essentially, this is not something recent and the result of any political needs of the BJP, as many critics claim. Funnily, despite this approach, RSS would still be called ‘Brahminical’ for decades to come, and maybe many of the sympathizers too believed that.

Hindutva of the RSS

Hindutva of RSS does not follow any strictly codified framework; it’s mostly circumstantial with the stated objective of Hindu unity and samrasta (harmony) in the society and thus it keeps adapting to changes. In that sense, it has been a reformist organisation (belief in change with times) from the word go – something that will fill its haters as well as the sections I mentioned earlier with horror.

And RSS will continue to be like that. “Do not fix if it is not broken” is an accepted wisdom and RSS doesn’t feel the need to ‘fix’ what others see as broken in its approach. They have been like this for decades now and they can very well argue that they have only grown thanks to this approach. The number of Shakhas is reported to have gone up while its sister BJP has gained impressive political dominance. So what is there to fix?

Obviously, for both the groups – Sita Ram Goel redux and the scriptural Hinduism activists – this is very frustrating, and I personally agree with many of their arguments, but I don’t know what is the solution.

On a side note, an incident similar to True Indology’s comments on Savitribai Phule had already happened in Maharashtra. The same is mentioned in the aforementioned book by Mr Patange. I’m reproducing two paragraphs below:

“Even as the Samarasata conference was just ending, an article on Mahatma Phule by Dr. Bal Gangal, a writer advocating Hindutva, published in the December issue of the ‘Sobat’ weekly, once more created a kind of upheaval in Maharashtra. “What sort of Mahatma is he? He is a stench called Phule”, was the heading of the article. Dr Gangal had taken strong exception to Mahatma Phule’s abusive language and his statements culled from his writings. The ‘Sobat’ weekly was in no way related to the RSS. Though Bal Gangal was a swayamsevak, he was not a spokesman of the Sangh. Even then, a violent commotion was created, needless to say by progressives, with a view to maligning the Sangh. 

The progressive gangs who called themselves champions of the freedom of writers, freedom of expression, freedom of the individual concertedly stood up to gag the mouths of Editor G V Beherey, the Editor of a famous Marathi weekly “Sobat” and Dr Bal Gangal. I too, was encountering the ferocity of intellectual terrorism, cunning, and double-dealing. The jealous and the rancorous hypocrite had ganged up. They were blessed by the high priest of progressives, Sharad Pawar. Copies of ‘Sobat’ were consigned to flames at various places. Threats were hurled at Bal Gangal. It was made difficult for him to move in public places. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Progressives did not believe in religious edicts as Khomeini did, but in all other aspects the mentality of both appeared identical to me. Mahatma Phule can criticise our religious scriptures, he can interpret them as he likes. In the same way, if somebody criticizes Phule, why should he be subjected to intellectual terrorism? Why is an intellectual answer not given to him?”

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Rahul Roushan
Rahul Roushan
A well known expert on nothing. Opinions totally personal. RTs, sometimes even my own tweets, not endorsement. #Sarcasm. As unbiased as any popular journalist.

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