The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh operates behind what can be called the saffron curtain. It is secretive, functions like a cult at times, boasts a mammoth number of members and has countless affiliates. Its ideology and politics have consistently triggered sharp social conflicts in the last 30 years. Through the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RSS also now controls the levers of power.

For these reasons, The RSS: A View to the Inside had stoked much curiosity even before its publication. Written by Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle, the book purportedly trains a searchlight on what is considered the shadowy world of the RSS. Many of its pracharaks or full-time workers spoke to the authors, provided them with insights into their functioning, and communicated a sense underlying their contentious political projects, such as ghar wapsi, cow-protection and, contradictorily, the wooing of Muslims.

In many ways, the book narrates the story of the RSS as told by its pracharaks. To critically examine A View to the Inside, met Andersen, who is Senior Adjunct Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He has also served the United States government in the State Department. In the 16th floor lounge of a hotel in Manesar, Haryana, Andersen took questions on his book. At times, he turned into a probing interviewer himself, demanding answers. The conversation was intense, even fiery, but was never lacking in warmth and respect. Excerpts:

From your book, it is obvious you met a lot of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharaks or full-time workers. What insights did you get into their psychology?
Almost all pracharaks tend to be college educated. That fits into their scheme in which education is a very important element. It is, in a way, very Brahminical. Most are high caste, but not all. Increasingly you have more pracharaks coming from the Other Backward Classes. This is anecdotal. They don’t keep records, which is bad for analysis.

In terms of personality, the younger of them have what you can call national idealism. Some have compared the RSS to a casteless Hindu monastic order. They give up on families, don’t have assets, and the organisation supports them. They have to have idealism to commit their entire life [to the RSS]. Family is such an important element in the Indian context. Some of them have been under pressure to have a career, to marry. They have to be rebels not to do what their families want them to.

But didn’t they come across to you as paranoid and persecuted? They see enemies all around them.
Not pracharaks, they come across as...

They are so full of grievances about the past, about the present.
Maybe lower members of the RSS, but not pracharaks. In my youth I was more of a Christian than what I am today. RSS pracharaks come across as missionaries who want to do good in the world. They are the messengers of dharma, which is the phrase I have used in my book.

They have problems with Christians, Muslims, sections of Hindus, communists; they have grievances about India’s past...
No, no. In my meeting with 50 pracharaks, these things barely came up. From the outside the RSS may look like that. You may come across these attributes among ordinary members, but not the pracharaks.

Yes, but in the politics of the RSS there is such a strong element of victimhood – like all those terrible things that happened to Hindus in the past.
The pracharaks we met were not politically inclined. Those assigned to the BJP were. But pracharaks from the south are more willing to accept homosexuality, tend to be more socially conscious, more flexible, and more accepting of innovations in social behaviour. These impressions are anecdotal. Perhaps they are different from pracharaks [belonging to other parts of India] because the south is better educated and also due to the [notion of] equality inherent in the Dravidian culture.

From the chapter, “The Muslim Rashtriya Manch”, it seems the RSS has two approaches towards Muslims – either Hinduise, or alternatively, Indianise Muslims. Why does the RSS think that Muslims are not Indian enough?
That is an old story going back to when the RSS was formed. Muslims were seen as having loyalty outside the country. This was also how Christians too were seen. But the RSS has slowly evolved on this question. We try to show in the book that [second sarsanghchalak MS] Golwalkar who identified Muslims and Christians as a threat...

Internal enemies, that is what Golwalkar called them.
Yes, but it changed under [third sarsanghchalak MD] Deoras, whose speech in Pune in 1974, RSS people tell me, was the most consequential speech ever made.

But that speech of his was on caste.
Caste was the theme of it. He said any text justifying untouchability has to be either thrown out or re-interpreted. For him to say that, it marked a shift [for the RSS].

Yes, but how does that speech connect to Muslims? It is 71 years since Independence and for the RSS to still believe that Muslims are not Indian enough is, frankly speaking, incredible. Where does this perception come from?
There is a divided opinion. As we were talking earlier [I joined two journalists who had lunch with Andersen before the interview], there is no such thing as Muslim. There are Muslims – there are Shiites and Sunnis and sects...The RSS has started to get some support of Shiite Muslims, but not of Sunnis. That said, Deendayal Upadhyaya, who is their intellectual guru, writes about what he calls the national soul.

He spoke of it in what is famously known as Four Lectures.
So what is perhaps meant is that they are not culturally acclimated. RSS people point to the situation in Indonesia where...

Yes, you write in the book saying that the RSS feels Indonesia has adopted elements of Hindu culture. But Muslims are in majority there; they weren’t forced to adopt it; what Indonesians are is a consequence of how they evolved culturally.
That is only partially true. In some parts of Indonesia, Hindus are in majority – in Bali, in Sumatra, which is 35% Christian.

Come on, overall, things in Indonesia are a little different from India. So when RSS pracharaks say Muslims are not Indian enough, I think they mean Muslims are not Hindu enough.
They mean Hindu culturally.

A ceremony to convert Muslims to Hinduism on April 23, 2017 in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh | Dhirendra K Jha

Don’t you think the RSS’s goal to Hinduise Muslims is reminiscent of many devastating endeavours in world history to create a new man? For instance, look at the erstwhile Stalinist USSR.
Yours is an interesting question. We actually used that illustration in some of our questions to [RSS pracharaks]. In my first book [The Brotherhood in Saffron, published in 1987] I go into the effort to create a new man. They do have it as a goal. But it has been much diluted, largely because the organisation has much expanded.

But you do think the endeavour to create a new man is, well, problematic?
Yes, definitely. The effort to create the new man was more real when we did the first book than it is now. In the first book, just about every pracharak brought this up as a goal. This time it was we who had to bring it up. They didn’t volunteer it themselves.

In your book you cite the Muslim Rashtriya Manch as an example of the RSS’s outreach to Muslims. You vividly describe meeting its head, Indresh Kumar. Did you know he was implicated in what are known as Hindu or saffron terror cases?
I do know that.

How come you did not mention that?
Was he held guilty of that?

No, he was not.
That is why we didn’t mention it.

Well, there is a background to it – the National Investigation Agency closed the investigation against him. [It was done after the Modi government came to power.]
Whatever be the reason, he was not convicted.

Well, I do think the fact should have been mentioned. Nevertheless, as a symbol, do you think Kumar heading the Muslim Rashtriya Manch is a terrible one?
It is. The Manch has not been much of a success. As I write in the book, there has been a debate [in the RSS] on it. There are those who feel Muslims will not be attracted to the ideology of cultural assimilation that they push.

But doesn’t cultural assimilation itself have dark connotations?
Of course it does.

At an iftaar party last year, Kumar said…
I must say when I met Kumar, I found it strange that the man committed to making Muslims look at the RSS sympathetically had [only Hindu] symbols [in his office]...

You describe it beautifully in the book. So at the iftaar party last year, Kumar said that the Quran prohibits cow-slaughter, that the Quran’s lengthiest chapter is titled Surah-e-Baqar (The Cow) because the animal is considered holy, that Prophet Mohammad refused to eat beef when it was once served to him, and that cow-slaughter is prohibited in Mecca and Medina.
I wonder whether any of these claims are true.

They are not. I did a story showing he was guilty of fabrication. Why would Muslims take such a man seriously?
Some do. My book mentions a group which does. His office, as I mentioned in the book, was filled with people seeking favours.

Indresh Kumar at an iftar party at Jamia Millia Islamia|Burhaan Kinu/HT

But that is existential – the capacity of power to attract people in need. But philosophically, when pracharaks say they want to make Hindutva inclusive, of which the RSS’s outreach to Muslims is an example, why have a person heading the Muslim Rashtriya Manch who feels the need to fabricate stuff?
For the same reasons, politicians fabricate to make a case. In this case it is probably not true. Anyway, let’s face it, his success is limited. Would you as a Muslim be attracted to him? Probably not.

I would not be attracted anyway to Muslim leaders using Muslim symbols.
(He laughs heartily)

Since you have done so much work on the RSS, I want to understand why it resorts to fabrication. For instance, in the chapter, “What Does Hindutva Mean?”, you write at some length on the incident at Jawaharlal Nehru University in which anti-national slogans were allegedly shouted, and how it was used to promote the idea of nationalism. It is more or less established that the alleged anti-national slogans were inserted into footage that some TV channels beamed.
On this issue, there is a lot of ambiguity on who said what [at JNU].

We asked some 200 people on what Hindutva means and we got some 150 different replies. But what runs through all these answers is the issue of patriotism. This also true of RSS affiliates – patriotism tends to bond them. The narrative that they pushed on the [JNU] issue is patriotism.

That I understand. But why fabricate?
I am not sure whether all think it was fabricated. The JNU senate did not think so.

Forget the JNU episode, the RSS’s tendency to fabricate is very much there with elements of India’s past. I want to figure out from you why do they fabricate.
A famous western culture writer, whose name I am forgetting now, wrote that much of cultural artefacts are made up to tell a story. You have many religionists arguing that the narratives of the Old Testament and the New Testament were probably made up. Why do people do this? They want to advance some kind of message.

In this case [the RSS wants to advance] the message of nationalism. Are much of them made up? Yes, I have no doubt about it. Do people believe in the message [the made up stories communicate]? Obviously, they do.

Look at what happened in JNU. When it ruled on it [that students shouted anti-national slogans], many people believed it, although I do agree with you that much of it was perhaps made up...I don’t have a way of knowing how much of it was made up.

So what you are saying is that artefacts have to be created to tell a story.
Of course, it happens all the time. It is somehow a psychological relief to believe in something. As a young man, I was a very devout Christian. Now I wonder how the hell I believed in the notion of god. Does god ever speak to me? I haven’t heard messages from him. Yet I recall firmly believing that there was such a thing. Did Christ do the miracles? I doubt it. But it built a narrative.

But the narrative around Christ is a very benign one.
Not totally. He was crucified. If you go to some churches, they get very dramatic about it. You see blood on the cross and...

But that drama is self-inflicted.
No, no, crucifixion was not self-inflicted.

No, I didn’t mean that – when the church gets dramatic about crucifixion, they are not inflicting hurt on another group, another person...But the narrative of hyper-nationalism invariably ends up targeting certain groups. That is the problem.
At that point in time, Christians were in a minority, who were themselves victims. They later imposed, soon after becoming the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, restrictions on non-Christians.

I hope there is no parallel here [for India].
You had Christian persecution, but they have gone beyond that, partly, because of secularism.

Nevertheless, the fabrication of hyper-nationalism does hurt many.
Of course, it does. It is universal. The creation of national myths, and the stories around it, provides a coherent set of ideas to believe in. I guess the problem starts when real life begins and those views start to get threatened. War time brings out the worst of it, but also depression...

'The RSS: A View To The Inside', Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle, Penguin

The chapter A Rebellion in Goa” is fascinating and...
A lot of people have told me that.

In 2015, your co-writer Sridhar Damle gave an interview to Akshaya Mukul in which he said the new book on the RSS will have a lot of details on the differences that surfaced between Eknath Ranade, a highly revered figure among pracharaks, and a section of the RSS leadership during Emergency days. Many RSS leaders suspected that Indira Gandhi was using Ranade to split the organisation. I was consequently surprised that the book glossed over the marginalisation of Ranade in the organisation post-Emergency.
There was a debate [in the RSS], no doubt, about Ranade and his functioning.

You mean to say whether he was indeed playing the Congress game.
He had friends in the Congress. He belonged to the same school of thought as Deoras that the RSS had to look outward [in contrast to being inward]. He approached me when I was a student in Delhi University.

You were a student in Delhi University?
I was here in the late 1960s. Down the [corridor of Jubilee] Hall was Kapil Sibal. I was here as an exchange student. Someone, obviously, told Ranade that I had been a student of Leo Strauss, several of whose classes I had attended in University of Chicago. Strauss was one of the greatest political philosophers. We as students would meet to discuss issues. One of these students is now the finance minister of West Bengal – Amit Mitra.

So when Ranade heard that I had attended [those] classes, he invited me over. We would meet every two-three weeks, initially to just talk about Strauss. I gave Ranade some books I had and he gave me some books he had. Three months later, he asked me whether I would want to meet Golwalkar. I said yes. He asked me to be ready for a meeting in two weeks.

As predicted, someone knocked on the door, obviously an RSS type. He took me to the Delhi railway station. There was someone else on the train with whom I went to Bombay. We went third class. I stayed overnight in Bombay, from where someone else took me to Nagpur. I was taken to Abhaynkar Nagar and then to the RSS headquarters.

There was Golwalkar having his breakfast. He said that he wanted me to come over at 6.30 am [the next day]. He said a bicycle would be loaned to me and that someone would take me to Abhaynkar Nagar. He said I was to come on my own the next day. I think it was a test for me, whether I could make it on my own. [Laughs] I suppose it was like the [ancient] Hindu custom of having the girl play chess to judge whether she was intelligent enough to be married.

So did you meet Golwalkar the following day?
Yes, I did and we met on other days as well. I realised it was not a universal idea that he should meet me [meaning a university boy]. I wrote to Lloyd and Susanne [Rudolphs; reputed Indian scholars], who were my advisors. They said I should make use of it. They said the key to understanding the RSS is to have access to it. So I said, OK. That is how I stumbled into working on the RSS.

So you did not believe Ranade was playing the RSS game.
There were people in the RSS who had suspicions about him. But I don’t think it was true. He was collegial and charming, and a bright thinker. There were some, though, who thought he was too outgoing when the RSS was inward looking.

But don’t you think more new stuff on the differences between Ranade and others in the RSS would have been a very interesting addition to the book?
We covered it in our first book. When two people construct a book, as it was true for us, we did talk about including Ranade. But then we checked on the other book, and decided to leave it.

Why did Deoras apologise to Mrs Gandhi at the time he was in jail during Emergency?
It was an effort to protect the organisation. That was rejected. The RSS then built an underground system where much of the conveying of messages was done through swayamsevaks. It re-politicised the RSS in the way it had never been political before.

Deoras allowed the RSS to engage in Opposition politics. It was a huge turning point in how the RSS looked at politics. Deoras shifted the RSS in a way that it became involved in the political process, not politics, mind you. There is still much suspicion in the RSS about the deep state.

Except that they are now the deep state.
They are not. It is the dilemma it has – if the BJP stays in power long enough, it will become the deep state.

They have already become the deep state, at least to an extent.
It perhaps takes 10-15 years to penetrate the various parts of bureaucracy. So when they become the deep state, they will have a crisis. That is a potential one. But they already face three broad crises – caste, the urban-rural divide, and violence.

Your book does show, very interestingly, how the RSS manages the affiliates and...
They don’t manage the affiliates. If anything, it is the other way around. From the very beginning the affiliates have been independent – that is one of their strengths. People tell me that one of the unusual unique things about the Sangh family is that it has not split apart.

That is because of the control the RSS has on them.

I am sorry it is not that. The one reason why the affiliates have stayed together is that the RSS has given them a kind of self-governance. The RSS very seldom gets involved in decision-making. Only when there is a crisis and the RSS is approached do they get involved. I have met almost all their leaders and they all say they do not [interfere in the decision-making].

Would you agree that they don’t get involved in the decision-making process as long as they adhere to the larger policy framework of the RSS?
Well, if the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh decides to support the Congress, they will be upset with that.

Don’t you think the other idea of having so many affiliates is to have control over both the Opposition and ruling space of India’s political spectrum, which, on the face of it, seems a smart strategy? It is like controlling the discontented masses and those who benefit from government policies.
I am not sure whether such a sharp distinction can be made. There is an interesting story behind how these affiliates have proliferated. Normally, the model is that a group of people would come to the RSS and say these are our interests that need to be addressed, that this is a space that needs to be occupied.

So, what I said is true?
Yes, partly it is. Take Stree Shakti. There was a group of women who came forward to say that there are problems that Indian women face – equal pay, time off – that need to be addressed. The RSS said, go ahead. The model is to give a group time – five, six, ten years – to see whether the group can work on its own. If it works, it gives the group the status (of an affiliate) and may loan a pracharak or two to it. The model is that these pracharaks sit on top of the group and engage in its administration.

Why do you then say the RSS does not control them?
That is because those pracharaks become independent.

Oh, really?
I can tell you, yes. The pracharaks tend to completely identify with the group. For instance, the pracharaks of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh totally support its opposition to FDI. We have met them...

Sure, but that is the fascinating part of the book I wanted to interrogate. For instance, you have the BJP representing the interests of big business and, on the other hand, you have a body representing the workers’ interest. Consequently the RSS is able to control both.
They don’t control either. They try to mediate between interests. At the launch of our book, [journalist] Rajdeep Sardesai asked that with the RSS being a multi-headed group, how come they do not bite each other or undermine each other. I am glad that [the BJP’s national general secretary] Ram Madhav was there. I know he was involved in some of the meetings that had been called for the RSS to mediate. One such meeting involved the land and labour issues.

These two issues haven’t gone to the Central level – but not, as some people have argued incorrectly, because the Opposition is against it. The real reason is that the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch are against it.

Tell me, what has the Swadeshi Jagran Manch succeeded in achieving?
You haven’t read my book.

I have. I would not have asked you so many questions based on your book.
The chapter on FDI where we have gone...

You aren’t getting it. It isn’t just the BMS which represents the interests of workers. To say that the government did not take certain decisions because the BMS or the SJM were opposed to it, I don’t accept that. There are many other organisations which would have opposed it.
It is not just because of them. But when they had these meetings, what the RSS wanted was to reconcile interests and work out a compromise that everyone could live with. So what they did was to allow the issues to be decided at the state level. So states have passed legislation on land and labour. It has not been done at the Central level, not even now even though the BJP has enhanced its strength in the Rajya Sabha. So the real reason was that they could not handle the internal differences and allowed the states to do it.

Doesn’t the relationship between the RSS and the BJP mimic the kind of ties that Sonia Gandhi had with Manmohan Singh when he was the Prime Minister? Many, including those in the BJP, would accuse Gandhi of exercising extra-constitutional authority, that she was wielding power without responsibility. Isn’t the RSS doing the same thing now?
There is some truth in that. [But there is also a difference.] Sonia Gandhi was then the president of the party. She was a part of the political process. [RSS sarsanghchalak] Mohan Bhagwat is not a member of a party.

But he calls the shots.
No, he doesn’t.

When AB Vajpayee as Prime Minister wanted to appoint Jaswant Singh as Finance Minister, the RSS chief of the time vetoed it.
But he appointed him.

That was later, not at the time Vajpayee began his innings.
What was the difference – a year?

No, it was more than that.
Two years then.

What about the marginalisation of [BJP leader LK] Advani after he went to Pakistan and said Muhammad Ali Jinnah was secular?
That was an interesting issue.

You can’t defy the RSS beyond a point.
It has never called the shots. It does not. Does it have influence? Yes, it does. Bhagwat’s Vijayadashmi speech of last year was very critical of [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi. I have been told to watch for the one this year – it will be even more critical of Modi. That is because their information network is picking up discontent. They are now broadcasting that discontent. If it had been calling the shots, it could have told Modi that you have to do this and you have to do that.

Why was Advani marginalised?
You can always have exceptions.

To what extent is the RSS dependent on Modi?
You are looking at a wrong place. I think you should be looking at the affiliates. That is why the next book should be on the affiliates, which is where, in my view, the power nexus will be. They are making decisions which affect people like you and me. A Marxist friend of mine said that the Communists once had the same [kind of] network. It has disintegrated. Why has it not happened with the Sangh? That is why I say the next book should be on that. Why don’t you write it?

Wow [laughing]. I will not get the access to the RSS as you did. But getting back, the RSS defines ghar wapsi, you write in your book, as the return of non-Hindus in India to their indigenous cultural roots. What do they exactly mean by that?
They aren’t too sure what they mean by that. I was always amazed at the ambiguity about that. For example, when a person converts, where does he go? Since most of them [converts] are low castes, do they become Dalit?

You write in the book that one of the options they suggested was to convert to Buddhism.
But Buddhism in India also has a caste. I have heard various figures for ghar wapsi. But these are grossly exaggerated. In my view, ghar wapsi hasn’t been all that successful.

How do you look upon the spate of lynching on the issue of cow and the violence meted out to inter-faith couples? In these incidents, RSS affiliates too have been involved.
I am not sure about the degree of involvement.

Bajrang Dal?
Sure [they are involved]. Vishwa Hindu Parishad? Maybe. But the more interesting question is how does the RSS respond to lynching. A couple of days ago, I told a very senior RSS official that this question has come up in just about every interview I have had. He said, “It is a law and order issue.” I said that it is insufficient to say it is a law and order problem. That is because it involves assistance from the community. My wife [who has a garment factory in Manesar, Haryana] says that when these things happen, some of her Hindu workers say, “Yes, they deserve it.” Is this view widespread? I think it is very widespread.

To what extent is the RSS culpable?
I have no way of knowing it.

Haven’t they created an ideological justification for lynching on the cow issue?
There are certainly people on the far Right who...

I am sorry, but I am talking about the RSS. You don’t include RSS members in the far Right, do you?
There may be some members who are, but there is no way of judging who is and who isn’t. There are seven million members. But there is no doubt that there are membership elements of the RSS who have engaged in it [lynching]. Their response [for tackling it] is that it is a law and order problem. I think that is insufficient. You need to go beyond that. For example, when a lynching happens in an area, you need people to testify in court. People are not willing to do that. They basically agree with what has been done (lynching). My wife says that is one of the biggest problems. I think she is absolutely right. You don’t have a consensus on the issue. How do you build that consensus?

Bajrang dal activists protest against cow slaughter in Jammu | Hindustan Times

Well, how did America tackle lynching?
It took about 50 year from the time lynching was relatively prevalent.

Hopefully India will not have to wait that long.
There has been a lot of research on this issue. According to it, most of the lynching was done by people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. I am sure it is true over here as well. It is only when the economy began to improve and institutions began to project themselves on these issues (that it began to decrease and stop). In the state of Mississippi, there were horrible incidents of lynching as late as the 1950s. There were people involved in the lynching who were interviewed. They said it was an awful thing. How come they are saying it was an awful thing now, but did not feel so then? That was because there was a kind of national consensus [on lynching in the past].

I want to ask you whether you get the sense that there is a consensus emerging that attacks involving violence is immoral and that it damages society. Is there a narrative of that kind taking hold here? What do you think?

It is hard to tell. You see, it is very smart of the RSS to go to the Northeast and say it isn’t against consumption of beef. Even you point that out in your book. But here in the North, where the RSS is very strong, it plays another game. When elements in power are justifying lynching, then even a person who wishes to testify in a court will not. He knows cops will be against him. And cops will be against him because they have a career to protect, because they cannot annoy political bosses.

NDTV secretly taped a man who killed a person on the cow issue and he said, yes, he did it, and that nothing would happen to him because the government is with him. I think a consensus is consciously being built the other way round [for lynching people].
How do you build a consensus that lynching is an immoral act and it should be stopped?

I think you need to ask the RSS that question.
No, I think you need to ask the larger society. The RSS is very weak at some places where it is happening.

I think you have got it completely wrong. It is happening in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand – these are all states where the Sangh is in power.
The RSS is barely represented in rural Haryana.

Come on, it is happening on highways, it is happening in areas contiguous with urban sprawls, and it is often orchestrated. Really, the RSS has to ask itself whether or not it thinks this violence is immoral.
On the face of it, they say it is. All the national leaders we interviewed said that. The point we raise in the book is whether law and order is sufficient. It is not. The RSS and its affiliates need to do more on that, particularly in schools.

In fact, in the chapter, “Protecting the Cow”, you have written: “What sets the VHP apart tactically from the RSS (and the BJP) on cow protection is that it seems more willing than the RSS or its other affiliates to engage in agitation, and possibly violence, to enforce the bans against cow slaughter and the consumption of beef.” When you say the VHP is more willing than the RSS, you are implicating the RSS in the violence as well.
At least the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

No, if you read what you have written, you are indeed suggesting that the RSS too is involved in violence.
Well, you have members who consider the slaughter of cows to be a bad thing.

And they are willing to resort to violence for the sake of it?
They certainly have members who are willing to do that. At the leadership level in the VHP, for instance in Goa, you had people threatening to take action. I am told pretty authoritatively that it was one of the reasons why [former VHP president Pravin] Togadia was shoved aside. It will be interesting to see a difference in tactics with the VHP imposing discipline.

The one running theme in the book is that the RSS wants to paper over caste differences and establish Hindu unity. Don’t you think the othering of the religious minorities is the other side of the process to unite Hindus?
The biggest problem they have in the context of Hinduism is the caste structure. If the RSS stands for anything in terms of ideology it is unity. The very notion of caste hierarchy undermines the very notion of Hindu unity. It is structural. It is a question the larger society has to ask: When you have affirmative action based on caste, it strengthens caste. These structural problems are not getting removed because people don’t want it to be removed.

Sure. But my question was that the othering of the religious minorities is part of the process to unite Hindus.
Yes, there is a certain amount of that going into it. Is it a problem? Yes. In the conclusion of our book we spell out that one of the challenges that the RSS faces is to how to integrate the minorities. There is some effort but it has not been terribly successful.

When you have Indresh Kumar heading the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, it is not going to take their efforts anywhere. I was also struck by the fact that you keep using the phrase unifying Hindus, why didn’t you use the word homogenising?
That will never work – and they know that. Hinduism is instinctively divisive. They are not looking for a common Hindu religious corpus. Many of the RSS people are not religious themselves. The one who first defined Hindutva, [VD] Savarkar, he was an atheist. It is a bigger social issue that has to be addressed.

So you think “unifying Hindus” fits better?
Yes, it does. Bhagwat has started to use Hindu to include everybody. Obviously, not everybody thinks that. I suspect a lot of RSS people are not inclusive.

You have written that Deoras created a wave by publicly criticising the caste system as one of the significant factors that had kept Hindus divided since the arrival of Islamic rule. What is being suggested here – that Hindus were actually united before Islamic rule?
It is part of myth-making, about the Golden Age and that Hindus were united in the Golden Age. Of course it was not true.

The bigger issue is that if you want to unify, you have to approach the issue head on. [Political psychologist] Ashis Nandy has talked about it at great length. He says Hindutva and Hinduism will clash at some point.

In fact, Ashis Nandy has a theory that those who are not religious tend to use religion for political ends. To what extent does his theory apply to the RSS?
It does apply to certain elements, of course.

What is the scale like? I get the sense that the RSS uses religion as a means to an end, that religion is used for instrumental purposes.
Not everybody. I interviewed many. There were at least a hundred definitions of what Hinduism means. If you read the RSS’s constitution, I think it has been left ambiguous, deliberately so. How do you define Hinduism which has god knows how many divisions and has no overarching ecclesiastical organisation.

Did you meet Modi for the book?
Yes, I did. My wife was with me. I first met him in Gujarat Bhavan in 2014 during the election campaign.

You didn’t meet him after he became prime minister.
Yes, I did in the United States, when he was visiting there. But it was not a long meeting. When I met him in Gujarat Bhavan, my wife was with me. What struck me was that the setting was almost monastic – a bed, a desk, a computer, a few plates and a few books. It was quite an austere setting. His clothes were starched.

It is different now.
The suits he wears...Well, he came from the bottom up. People have done psychological studies of those who had to make it on their own – they seem to be very concerned about the dress they wear. But I have no idea why.