Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to address graduating swayamsevaks at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur this month ruffled feathers at his alma mater, the Congress, while bringing great joy to members, brethren and sympathisers of the Hindu Right. Congress members, caught unawares, were aghast and some went to the extent of publicly pleading Mukherjee to withdraw. The RSS used the opportunity to present itself as an open and catholic organisation that has been historically wronged.

Before I proceed I would like to place on record my strong objection to the use of the word “untouchable” by many RSS backers and journalists while describing the organisation’s status in India’s socio-political landscape. This word has place only in relation to the social exclusion forced upon the Dalits or similar inhuman acts across the world. When used inappropriately or opportunistically, as it was here, it becomes a dangerous, equalising metaphor that trivialises the struggles of the oppressed.

The RSS has rarely been weak. Other than for a short period following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, it has courted and enjoyed the support of sections of middle class upper caste Hindus and upper caste Hindu politicians. Irrespective of party loyalties, many of these politicians have been sympathetic to the RSS’s Hindutva agenda.

Should Mukherjee have attended the Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg? As a citizen of India he has every right to go where he pleases, and, after all, the RSS is not an illegal entity. But, as former head of the state, was he ethically right?

There is a difference between a politician and a former president. In my mind, there is no doubt that Mukherjee should have stayed away, for it wasn’t just any event. It commemorated the completion of an RSS course designed to brainwash young Indians into accepting a myopic, divisive view of Indian history and society. It is, in effect, a course in Hindu superiority. All talk of equity that RSS members spout is lined with the basic belief that India is Hindu land, a land where Hindus have been gracious to others and the “rest” need to follow or submit to the Hindu way. Irrespective of what Mukherjee said, his very presence gave legitimacy to the RSS school of thought. He signed off on a course that postulates an idea of India that is the antithesis of our Constitution. If he thought of this as an opportunity to influence young minds within the RSS, then this was just naive, not a word I would associate with him.

One argument that seems to justify the former president’s participation in the programme is the need for dialogue, conversation and debate with opposing viewpoints. This need is unquestionable. But the problem lies with the belief that the RSS is representative of conservative Hindu nationalism. In fact, the RSS has vulgarised Hindu thought. With all its flaws, its casteist and patriarchal inners, this religion, like any other, allows for the distinct possibility of inquiry, questioning, equality, care and universality. Whether I believe in religion or not, it would be grievously wrong to ignore the fact that people have been moved and transformed by immersing themselves in religious faith. But the RSS and its friends have systematically morphed Hinduism into an arrogant, condescending, violent faith overflowing with a superiority complex. Their social outreach programmes are similar to brownie points-earning Corporate Social Responsibility activities carried out by exploitative corporations. This is not the Hindu conservative that seeks dialogue, it demands capitulation. If our former president wanted to initiate a conversation, he should have engaged with the multiple socio-religious groups that dot our landscape. There are many Hindu mutts, and Christian and Islamic centres of power that need to be spoken with. It is essential that we make an effort to wean the conservative Hindu away from the clutches of the RSS.

And what did Mukherjee really say?

Nothing of substance

Some liberals and relieved Congressmen rejoiced in his words. I heard the entire speech and read the transcript, and I was disappointed to say the least. To find glory in the fact that he mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi, the Constitution, inclusion and tolerance is nothing but grasping at straws. Everything he said was run of the mill, just comforting platitudes. Our respected former president did not feel the need to openly celebrate the contribution of Islam or Christianity to the fabric that is India. Muslims were only referred to as invaders and Babar as the person who established Mughal rule. If anything, he established the outsider-insider demarcation that the RSS ferociously propagates. That there is no India without Islamic and Christian cultures was entirely missing from his speech, there were only generalities of fusion, confluence, assimilation, co-existence, synthesis and unity. His use of the word “foreign” was intriguing since it raises questions about the identity of the authentic Indian.

More than anything, the fact that he did not mention Babasaheb Ambedkar – and in Nagpur – spoke volumes of the timidity, or astuteness, with which he had prepared his speech. The one person who took on the entire Brahminical Hindu establishment with courage and gumption was not among the pantheon of leaders he mentioned. At a time when right-wing forces are trying to lay claim to this unwavering critic of the Hindu, Mukherjee saw no need for him.

I regret to say that Mukherjee failed us.

Maybe we were expecting too much from him. Mukherjee has been a Congressman for most of his life and to believe that every Congressman is an embodiment of secularism in its truest sense is a mistake. The Congress had, and has, members who are conceptually not opposed to the ideas propagated by the RSS and its friends. They hope for a gentler version of the RSS and would gladly become members if it were possible. I cannot go into the former president’s mind and understand his reasons for attending the event or for the lack of any substance in his speech. But his actions make me believe that lurking in this eternal Congressman somewhere was that same hope. It is unfortunate that this sagacious politician has not yet figured out that this notion is an oxymoron. Or, may be, there were other persuasions of which I know nothing that lured him to 1465, Ayachit Rd, Mahal, Nagpur.