Question: “How do you plan to treat the Mohammedans?”
Savarkar: “As a minority, in the position of your Negroes.”
Question: “And if the Mohammedans succeed in seceding and set up their own country?”
Savarkar: “As in your country…There will be civil war.”
– 1944 Interview with VD Savarkar by war correspondent Tom Treanor
As protests against the George Floyd killing gripped America in recent weeks, there was an outpouring of messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. One such message caught my particular attention for its brazenness: it was a post by the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh, the US arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, whose very raison d’être is hatred for India’s religious minorities.
I have no doubt that there are members of the HSS who genuinely wanted to reach out to Black America – a task that we Indian Americans as a whole have failed to pay much attention to until now. However, a message against anti-Black Racism coming from an organisation whose parent has normalised anti-Muslim bigotry in India, including mob lynchings, was a bit too much for me to stomach.
It made me wonder just how much American-born members of Hindu Nationalist organisations such as HSS, Hindu American Foundation and Hindu Students Council know about the ideological roots of their own organisations.
Do they not see the dichotomy between their lives here as a religious minority in a welcoming multi-ethnic democracy versus their organisations’ active support for the religious bigotry of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India?
Do they not understand that BJP and RSS are now working assiduously to bring about Savarkar’s dream of a Hindu majoritarian state, where Muslims and Christians would at best be second-class citizens?
Do our young Hindu lawmakers in the US Congress not see the moral chasm between their passion to defeat Trump for his mockery of our constitution versus their acquiescence to the Modi/Shah rule in India, which has already begun to dismantle India’s once-celebrated secular constitution?
Savarkar’s 1944 comment on how Muslims in a Hindu Rashtra would be treated just as “negroes” were treated in America wasn’t his first foray into the subject.
In his seminal essay, Hindutva, written in 1923, he had unhesitatingly equated Hindu Nationalism with White Nationalism:
“Take the case of America: When the German war broke out she suddenly had to face the danger of desertions of her German citizens; while the Negro citizens there sympathise more with their brethern in Africa than with their white countrymen. American state, in the last resort, must stand or fall with the fortunes of its Anglo-Saxon constituents. So with the Hindus…”
Leaving aside Savarkar’s shaky understanding of history, his call for a Hindu Rashtra to be built on anti-minority ideology became the under-pinning of his Hindu Mahasabha. Not surprisingly, it was a member of his organisation, Nathuram Godse, who in 1948 assassinated Gandhi, whom he saw as an enemy of Hindus.
A reenergised Hindu Mahasabha under the Modi government today openly worships Godse as its hero. BJP MP Pragya Singh Thakur, has taken anti-Muslim bigotry to a new height with impunity and is greatly admired by Hindu Nationalists in India.
The ‘dormant’ Hindu
When KB Hedgewar founded the RSS in 1925, Savarkar was his role model and “Hindutva” his roadmap. As its first sarsanghchalak, he continued to build on Savarkar’s project of portraying Muslims as an existential threat to all Hindus. His pejorative stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Muslims are well documented in his 1981 biography and are now finding increasing currency under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Hedgewar paid little thought to addressing the evils of the caste system as a means of uniting Hindus. Instead, he chided Hindu society for its “pitiable state” due to its tolerance for diverse peoples and ideas, and he seemed to justify violence as a means to the end:
“One may outwardly carry out certain acts which appear to involve physical violence, but if it is done in a spirit of detachment and without any selfish motive or hatred, then the act can no longer be termed violent.”
His biographer, HV Seshadri of the RSS, makes a particular point of eulogising Hedgewar’s fervour to “rouse the dormant manliness of the Hindus,” by citing several anecdotes from his early life:
He once walked up to the stage to slap a speaker whose views he did not care for. At another time, he and his friends beat up an innocent bystander in order to “send a message” to his community. And he would often goad bands leading Ganesha Visarjan processions to defiantly play louder whenever they passed mosques.
If we see echoes of such provocations and incitements by today’s RSS foot soldiers, it is because its shakhas have made it a point to repeatedly talk about such “patriotic acts” of its founder with young pracharaks. Were he alive today, Hedgewar would have been proud to see that his message of “violence in a spirit of detachment” is resonating well with Hindu Nationalists.
If Savarkar and Hedgewar were unclear as to how they would achieve their Hindu Rashtra, MS Golwalkar, the second and the longest-serving sarsanghchalak of the RSS, had a clearer vision.
During his long tenure from 1940 to 1973, he relentlessly pushed the envelope of hatred for the minorities and posited that they had no choice but to accept second-class citizenship in a Hindu state:
“…only a strong and resurgent Hindu Rashtra…can stand guarantee to the free and prosperous life of all so-called minorities…”
– MS Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts
Golwalkar had earlier in his life expressed admiration for Germany’s national pride and the “purging” of Jews as “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”.
His claim that the RSS does not preach hate, even as he continued to whip up anti-minority feelings, has become the hall-mark of RSS/BJP double-speak to this day.
Were he alive today, Golwalkar would have surely admired Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh for serving as laboratories for his dream. And he would have been proud of the most prominent of RSS alumni, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who seems eager to seize the moment to accelerate the timeline for a Hindu Rashtra.
In my view, it is the RSS’s single-minded focus on canny story-telling of Hindu “valour” and “defiance” in thousands of shakhas that has laid the groundwork for normalising violence against Muslims and Christians. And it is the same “character building” ideology that informs Hindu Nationalist organisations in the US, such as Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu American Foundation, and Hindu Students Council , who are now seeking to don the mantle of friends of Black America.
In their recent messages of solidarity with African-Americans, these organisations make all the right calls to end racism in this country and to reform the police and justice systems. But to be taken seriously as allies in the pursuit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the idea that the world is one family –they have a lot to answer for on their total silence on the surging anti-Muslim violence being fomented by their BJP/RSS/Vishwa Hindu Parishad allies in India.
They condemn police excesses and talk about the urgent need for police reform in the US.
Will they join us in condemning wide-spread police brutality against peaceful protesters in places like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, goaded on by BJP politicians like Kapil Mishra and Adityanath? Will they call out the Modi/Adityanath governments for encouraging forced entry of police into universities and homes?
They urge US authorities to cease arresting and targeting journalists in the protests.
Are they aware of the alarming decline in press freedoms in India and the harassment of journalists and activists whose only crime was to report and/or oppose unjust laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act?
Will they demand an end to archaic colonial era sedition laws and the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which has allowed the Modi/Shah government to label any of its critics a terrorist and lock him/her up without any due process?
They decry selective enforcement of the law in the US and call for an end to racial injustice.
Are they ready to oppose the troubling police tactic in India of filing false charges against victims of violence, even as perpetrators roam free? Will they demand an end to the so-called encounter killings, by the police, which are nothing but extra-judicial murders?
The Hindu Students Council ends its message of support for African-Americans with this noble thought: “protecting dharma… means fighting for the ability of all people – regardless of their ethnicity, gender, race, or sexual orientation – to enjoy the same freedoms as we do without fear of physical harm…We firmly believe that all lives are equal.”
I would love for Hindu Students Council and other US-based Hindu Nationalist groups to apply the same dharmic yardstick to the situation of the religious minorities in India, who are virtually under siege by the Modi government even under Covid-19 lockdown.
In our view, it would be the height of adharma for these organisations to use one definition of dharma to guide their actions in their pithrubhumi, while applying an entirely different definition of dharma to the dire situation in their mathrubhumi.
*I use the term “Hindu Nationalists” to describe the family of organisations inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Raju Rajagopal is co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based advocacy organisation working for the human rights of all communities in India, the US, and beyond. This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared on the organisation’s website.