Every organisation needs a little make-believe sometimes, but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, it would appear, simply cannot do without it. With its contentious past and dubious present, the RSS has always found it difficult to capture the imagination of India’s Hindu majority. Which is perhaps why it has found it necessary to create and perpetuate myths in its quest for legitimacy.

One would expect research by serious scholars to explode such myths. But the book under review, The RSS: A View to the Inside, by Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle, disappoints on this score. This should, however, not be such a surprise for those familiar with the 1987 book by the same authors, The Brotherhood In Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh And Hindu Revivalism. In fact, one could go so far as to say that for the RSS, the new book is as important a milestone in its elaborate public relations campaign and outreach programme as the earlier one was.

This raises a question: Have the authors played into the hands of the RSS?

Although Andersen and Damle purport to offer readers a solid analysis of the RSS’s growth and expansion during the last three decades, their new book falls short of exploring several aspects of the episodes it has based its conclusions on. Far from questioning the organisation’s many problematic assertions and examining them threadbare, the authors actually present them as conclusions arrived at after thorough research and objective analysis. In many cases, they provide no source for their material, or use dubious sources.

Manufacturing a historical link

Take the Ayodhya dispute. It has undoubtedly played a crucial role in the growth and expansion of the RSS and its affiliates, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, since the late 1980s. But the fact is that the RSS took it up as a cause only in 1984, when it was made the central plank for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

But the critical turning point of the dispute – the planting of an idol of an infant Ram in the Babri Masjid on the night between December 22 and 23, 1949 – was the handiwork of the Hindu Mahasabha. The RSS had distanced itself from this organisation by then because of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse, in an effort to totally dissociate itself from him. It was this conversion of the mosque into a temple that led to the legal battle which is now being fought in the Supreme Court.

So, the RSS has long desired that its association with the dispute date back to 1949, even if that is not the case. Simultaneously, the greater Sangh parivar (which the Hindu Mahasabha is not a part of) wants the debate to focus less on 1949 and more on the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 – an event that the RSS and its affiliates can lay claim to.

The book successfully creates the kind of confusion required to secure these objectives. On page 192, it says:

“Controversy over this site dates back to the nineteenth century and it continued after Independence. The Babri Masjid was torn down by a Hindu mob on 6 December 1992. Since then, a drawn-out legal process eventually reaching India’s Supreme Court has delayed any action on the conflicting claims by Muslim and Hindu groups over the rightful possessor of the site.”

The text above would lead readers not conversant with the minute details of the title suit, which actually began after the idol was planted in the mosque, to believe that the legal dispute over the ownership of the land on which the Babri Masjid stood began following its demolition in 1992. To add to this confusion, the book offers a footnote to the paragraph (on page 376):

“Soon after the masjid was demolished, Hindu devotees constructed a temporary temple on the site containing idols of Ram as a baby. It has been open on an all-day basis ever since.”

Of course, it is not as though the book does not talk about the incident of December, 1949, stating on page 194 that “a statue of the Ram lalla (Ram as a child) appeared in the Babri Masjid”. But nowhere does it mention that this was the beginning of the legal battle, only saying that because of this move the local government decided on December 24, 1949 “to lock the masjid as a security measure against Hindu-Muslim confrontations”.

The impression created appears to match the objective of the RSS, even more so as the book says on page 194:

“Soon after the locks were installed, Deshmukh [Nanaji Deshmukh, who was the RSS’s division pracharak of eastern Uttar Pradesh at that time] organised non-stop bhajans (devotional prayers) in December 1949 at the Ram Janmabhoomi site, which impressed the religious leaders of Uttar Pradesh, including Digvijay Nath [the Hindu Mahasabha leader who oversaw the planting of the idol].”

The passage quietly seeks to link the RSS to the original incident, but offers no sources. It adds that, partly because of this development, the RSS and Digvijay Nath worked in close cooperation thereafter.

History, however, tells a different story. The “non-stop bhajans” in December 1949 were started not by anyone from the RSS, but by Shakuntala Nair, the wife of KKK Nair, who was deputy commissioner-cum-district magistrate of Faizabad from June 1949 to March 1950 and who was forced to take premature retirement because of his role in abetting the installation of the idol in Babri Masjid.

Shakuntala Nair was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha even when her husband was in service. Her role in starting an “akhand kirtan” a day after the idol was discovered in Babri Masjid has been described quite eloquently by Christophe Jaffrelot in his book, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to 1990s (page 93). She was elected to the Lok Sabha from Gonda in the very first general elections of 1952 – not as a candidate of the RSS’s political outfit of the time, the Jan Sangh, but on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket. Jaffrelot’s book is severely objective and lets the facts speak for themselves, noting the source for each, including the one pertaining to Shakuntala Nair. Her role is also documented in the “Hindu Mahasabha Papers”, which are filed in the manuscript section of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Andersen and Damle, however, make no mention of any of this, which allows the perception of the association of the RSS with the entire issue to persist. Such omissions and distortions end up legitimising the Sangh’s myths, aided by the fact that the authors appear to incorporate only the claims made by the RSS, without citing contrarian sources.

L’affaire JNU

The book’s handling of the 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University episode is another case in point. The authors say that “the issue of patriotism burst into the public arena” after students associated with left wing groups organised a march on February 9, 2016, protesting against the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, who had been convicted for the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. On page 85 the book says:

“In the process, these students raised slogans that RSS-affiliated student groups at JNU (the ABVP and the Bajrang Dal) argued were in violation of India’s subversion laws, the laws that are in fact rooted in legislation passed during the colonial period. The president of the JNU Students Union, Kanhaiya Kumar – a member of the Communist Party of India’s All India Students’ Federation – was arrested on 12 February, 2016 along with two other JNU students; they were charged with organising a march on campus in which anti-national slogans were raised. Kumar was given a six-month conditional bail on 2 March by the Delhi High Court, on the condition that he not engage in any anti-national activities. He and his supporters argued that they had not engaged in seditious speech, and that the issue at hand was one of free speech rather than sedition, claiming further that they did not know those who had shouted the anti-national slogans.”

The book then refers to a JNU administrative committee’s finding of March 16, 2016, “that the march had been held without permission and indeed involved people shouting anti-national slogans”. However, it says nothing about the report of the magisterial enquiry instituted by the Delhi government. This report, which came over a week before the JNU administration announced the results of its probe, did not find any evidence of Kanhaiya Kumar’s shouting anti-India slogans.

Importantly, it also emphasised that the forensic examination showed that some of the videos aired on news channels were doctored. That these videos were doctored is not mentioned anywhere in the main text of the book. Only in one of the footnotes on page 331, which many readers may not bother to read, do the authors admit that “the issue is complicated by the apparent doctoring of at least some of the videos of the event”.

Furthering an agenda?

Such examples crop up frequently. The authors do not feel it necessary even to mention that the head of the organisation’s Muslim Rashtriya Manch, on whom they have a longish section, was implicated in what are known as Hindutva terror cases. When asked about it, the reason offered is that it is because he was not convicted.

Is this book then actually a scholarly exercise in publicity for the RSS in establishing its agenda? Consider, again, a passing remark on page 97, which says that the RSS “played a significant role in organising Hindu migration from Pakistan [at the time of Partition] and in settling those Hindu refugees in India”. That the RSS also played a significant role in the post-Partition riots – established by a series of scholarly works on the Partition, the latest being Secularism, Decolonisation and the Cold War in South and Southeast Asia by Clemens Six – is something that the book remains silent on.

Concealing this aspect of its association with the Partition has always been a major preoccupation of the RSS. But it did not succeed. The “Delhi Police Records” files in the manuscript section of the NMML includes a report filed by the CID on October 24, 1947, which says:

“So far the Sangh workers were acting in their individual capacity and were indulging in a sort of guerrilla warfare as was done by them in the recent disturbances in Delhi. [….] According to the Sangh volunteers, the Muslims would quit India only when another movement for their total extermination similar to the one which was started in Delhi sometime back would take place.”

— Delhi Police Records, V Inst., File No. 138, p. 28, NMML

The unwillingness to provide the complete picture in such cases makes the book a continuation of the authors’ previous work on the RSS – The Brotherhood in Saffron. It was this book that seems to have made the first serious effort to narrate history according to the RSS, sanctifying several myths by presenting them as metamorphosed history. Did the events of the past three decades, which took place after the publication of the older book in 1987, require similar treatment, prompting this book?

Examples of such mythmaking abound in The Brotherhood in Saffron. On page 31, for instance, the book helps create a backstory for RSS founder KB Hedgewar that shows him to have connections with revolutionary freedom fighters. This, presumably, was meant to counter the charge that the organisation was founded without any relationship with the anti-British freedom movement.

The book asserts that before forming the RSS, Hedgewar had established close contacts with the revolutionaries in Bengal when he went to study medicine at the National Medical College at Calcutta in 1910. “During his six years in Calcutta, Hedgewar joined the Anushilan Samiti, a revolutionary society based in Bengal, and rose to its highest membership category,” the book claims while citing two specific sources – NH Palkar’s book Dr KB Hedgewar, which was first published in 1964, and the “Maharashtra State Gazetteers: Nagpur District” which was published two years later in 1966.

Now, Palkar was a loyal RSS cadre and his biography of Hedgewar – the first such biography – is hagiographical in nature, citing no documents or testimonies in support of its claims. No objective researcher would use the information without verifying it from independent sources. As for the “Maharashtra State Gazetteers: Nagpur District”, it draws all its information about Hedgewar from Palkar’s book.

A claim based only on the hagiography, despite Hedgewar’s figuring nowhere in contemporary accounts of the Anushilan Samiti – as has been pointed out by several researchers and scholars including DR Goyal – is hard to accept as a rigorously researched assertion. But it misled many independent writers into believing it.

Writer and RSS official

If the authors of the two books appear suffused in awe for the RSS, it should not come as a surprise. As mentioned here, one of them, Shridhar D Damle, is the Sanghchalak of Chicago branch of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh – the overseas version of the RSS – but this is something readers will never know, as he is presented as “a freelance journalist and scholar of Indian politics based in the US”. This concealment is particularly strange because he saw no reason to hide his identity while talking to The Times of India on the sidelines of an RSS event held at Meerut in February 2018.

Not only did Damle participate in the event – called the Rashtrodaya Sammelan – along with a large contingent of US-based NRIs, but he also included two photographs of what he called “the biggest convention of the RSS” in his book, which was published a few months later. The question, then: Why has Damle not revealed this particular identity in the book?

The best way to understand the fountainhead of Hindu supremacist politics and the trajectory of its growth is to study it objectively and comprehensively. This book does not offer that distance or neutrality.

The RSS: A View to the Inside, Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle.