What the Hardik Patel 'sex CD' tells us about the Sangh Parivar's (and Gandhi's) views on celibacy

For the Mahatma, celibacy was a personal spiritual quest. For the RSS, a pracharak who breaks the vow of celibacy is a fallen man.

Hardik Patel is not the first leader in Gujarat his rivals have tried to knock down by releasing a secretly taped sex CD. Twelve years ago, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Sanjay Joshi was similarly waylaid; his rising graph in the Bharatiya Janata Party plummeted, never to recover.

Joshi, like Patel, was a bachelor when a CD purportedly showing him having sex was released in 2005. It is puzzling that Joshi was removed as BJP general secretary. After all, he was a 39-year-old single man and entitled to consensual sex.

But this wasn’t the argument former RSS pracharak Sheshadari Chari made to defend Joshi. He told Rediff.com: “RSS pracharaks give five to 15 years of their lives to the Sangh. Then they can marry and get settled. Marriage is not denied to us…The issue here is that he allegedly had a sexual relationship with a woman who is not his wife.”

Chari did not think a person of Joshi’s stature would have sex with a woman who was not his wife. Many would find this idea flawed but Chari was proved right: the CD that nixed Joshi was found to be morphed.

In 2014, KC Kannan, then 52, was one of the four joint general secretaries of the RSS. He was removed from his post, ranked third in the RSS hierarchy, after his relationship with a divorcee became known. Although the RSS spokesperson claimed Kannan had been relieved of organisational responsibilities because he wanted to return to Kerala to take care of his ailing father, other leaders confirmed his affair had been the reason for his ouster.

“For the RSS, the post of pracharak is an institution,” an RSS official told The Indian Express. He should remain single and celibate. By maintaining a secret relationship, Kannan has insulted that institution. If he wanted family life, he could have given up the role of pracharak in a transparent manner much earlier.”

The Sangh ideologue KN Govindacharya was transparent about his affair with Uma Bharti, now Union minister, but it still led to his marginalisation. The affair was revealed, rather courageously, by Bharti in 2002. “Yes, I was in love with him,” she said. “I wanted to marry him. I used to chase him everywhere and I feel that he also loved me though he never told me so.”

Bharti claimed Govindacharya had revealed his feelings for her to BJP leader LK Advani and Bhaurao Devaras, the younger brother of late RSS chief Balasaheb Devaras and an influential pracharak in his own right. “Bhaurao advised me that I should not marry for the sake of the masses and the country,” Bharti said. “So I gave up the idea.”

Still, his relationship became a weapon for the rivals of Govindacharya, whose brilliance awed as much as his candour alienated. After he described then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as the BJP’s mask, his affair with Bharti was used to launch a vicious campaign against him – and he too was divested of RSS responsibilities.

Unwritten rule

Why does the RSS insist its pracharaks practise celibacy? Do pracharaks deem it necessary for doing their work? In 2005, rss.org conducted a poll: Should Sangh pracharaks be allowed to marry? At the time The Telegraph reported the poll, 708 votes had been cast, of which 57.2% answered yes. Ram Madhav, RSS spokesperson then, said the poll wasn’t the Sangh’s idea and the link to “our website” would be removed.

He went on to explain the rationale behind the RSS insisting its pracharaks be celibate. “The order of brahmacharyas [celibates] is part of Hinduism,” he said. “Several religious missions practise it. Not just the RSS.” He added that brahmacharya was an “unwritten rule” of the Sangh because it was “impossible for a householder to devote full time and attention to a pracharak’s job”.

In 2009, no less than RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat weighed in: “If any pracharak wants to marry, he is always welcome to do so. However, he will not work as a pracharak.” Why so? Because “marriage demands responsibilities of running a family”. Nobody thought to ask Bhagwat whether pracharaks were allowed to have sex outside marriage.

Such statements of RSS leaders make it easy to decode the Sangh’s celibacy norm. A pracharak is required to be celibate. If he marries, he will be demoted to ordinary member, barring a handful of exceptions. After rising to the higher echelon, marriage or sexual relationship is a strict no-no. A pracharak succumbing to the temptation is usually shown the door.

From this perspective, violating the celibacy norm leads to the person’s fall, analogous to how the Biblical Adam and Eve were banished from Eden for biting the forbidden apple.

Conflicting worldviews  

Contrast the RSS’ advocacy of celibacy with why MK Gandhi chose it. After siring five children, Gandhi, at the age of 36, took the vow of celibacy. It was in keeping with the Hindu tradition that retention of semen bestows supernatural power, which is considered feminine. Celibacy is thus the path to acquiring spiritual power, to bringing to fore the feminine aspect of men.

In his book Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, Peter van der Veer argues that while celibacy glorifies the idea of the self-sufficient male, “Gandhi’s satyagraha also exemplifies another important theme of Hindu devotionalism, namely, that true selfless devotion is feminine”. This is what made Gandhi focus on passive resistance, for which, Veer says, the Mahatma believed women were better suited than men.

“Gandhi’s political articulation of this theme brought him into conflict with other Hindu nationalists at the height of Hindu-Muslim conflict during Partition,” Veer writes. The Hindu nationalists were represented by the RSS, which is where Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse won his initial spurs before joining the Hindu Mahasabha. Godse, like many Hindu nationalists, thought Gandhi’s pacifism threatened to make Hindus effeminate.

By contrast, Gandhi believed non-violence was a signifier of fearlessness which, as Veer points out, the Mahatma believed could only be “attained through chastity”.

Unlike the pracharaks who struggle against their instinct, succumbing to it in secrecy, Gandhi was quite open about his experiment. After the death of his wife, Gandhi took to sleeping with naked women to test his detachment. His shocked followers persuaded him to abandon the exercise. But the outbreak of the pre-partition Hindu-Muslim riots saw him resume sleeping with his grandniece Manu.

On his 1946 tour of Noakhali, which had witnessed a communal bloodbath, Gandhi ruminated, “Ever since my coming to Noakhali, I have been asking myself the question: ‘What is it that is choking the action of my ahimsa [non-violence]? Why does not the spell work? May it not be because I have temporized in the matter of brahmacharya.’”

For Gandhi then, celibacy was a personal spiritual quest that would simultaneously transform a violent society, turn it pacifist.

For the Sangh, though, celibacy is a code of discipline imposed on the pracharak: he must be a celibate or he would be too distracted to focus on organisational goals. The individual pracharak must subvert his desires for the greater good of the organisation. In case he falters, he must accept his fall, his banishment.

Pracharaks, unable to control their basic instinct, must indulge in romance and sex in secrecy, for the price to be paid otherwise is high. A man in his 40s or 50s who has devoted all his life to the RSS is unlikely to be skilled for a life outside it. For instance, Govindacharya’s fate perhaps inspired Kannan to conduct his romance clandestinely.

Political weapon

Thus, celibacy can and does take the form of repression in the RSS. For Gandhi, it was an attempt to sublimate his sexual drive. These two contrasting perspectives create two worldviews – thus, for instance, the staff for Gandhi was a device to help him walk; for the RSS, it is a weapon of self-defence, the art of wielding it taught in shakhas, subconsciously transforming it into a symbol of manhood and aggression.

No doubt, celibacy inspires awe in many. At least in the Sangh Parivar, the celibate-pracharak is the model of perfection, both feared and respected. Because his actions and orders have to be selfless, the celibate is to be trusted and, therefore, followed. A pracharak who breaks the vow of celibacy undermines the institution he represents, betrays the faith reposed in him. He is, symbolically, a fallen man.

It may seem strange for selfless celibates to engage in a struggle for power. But the repressed sex drive gets transformed into the will to power, at times in inimical ways. Sex CDs then become the deadliest weapon in factional feuds in the Sangh. To show rivals having sex is to script their fall from the organisation’s grace.

Consequently, they think the society at large too reveres the celibate-leader. It is difficult to quantify how many subscribe to such a model of leadership, but a segment certainly does. It is to this segment the sex CD of Hardik Patel seeks to address. Those who deny themselves sex can see it only as a weapon of political war, to be wielded against even a 24-year old leader, who, unlike them, isn’t required to repress his desires.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

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