No former President has accepted an invitation to address such a batch of ideologically-committed activists.
Harsh though this sounds, specially when he is in the vanprastha stage of life, preparing for sanyas as former Presidents eventually must, but by accepting RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s invitation to address the valedictory session of the third and final year of the RSS’ Sangh Siksha Varg, Pranab Mukherjee has undermined his entire political career. The RSS is not a cultural body as is often claimed. It is the ideological fountainhead of a phalanx of organisations which have consistently attacked the India of the dreams of the founders of the Congress Party in which Mr Mukherjee spent all but few years of his political career. By providing legitimacy to the RSS at this critical moment when a concerted bid is being made to emasculate India’s pluralistic character and heritage, the former President has cast himself in poor light.
While Mr Mukherjee’s decision to engage with the RSS in private previously could be explained as part of the Indian tradition of tolerance of and dialogue with all ideas, even if it was the adversary’s, by agreeing to address swayamsevaks “graduating” as pracharaks, Mr Mukherjee has exposed himself to the accusation of having been hypocritical in censuring the RSS and its ideology. It needs recalling that Mr Mukherjee was not just critical of the RSS as a minister or member of Parliament, but as President too he performed the role of the nation’s conscience-keeper, seldom wasting any opportunity to remind people, and specially those in the government, of India’s tolerant past and the dangers of straying.
Mr Mukherjee will redeem his reputation if in his address, he treads on the track laid by Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, who was invited by then RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan in 2007 for the same occasion. The much-eulogised former Indian Air Force chief had not so gently chided the RSS for its failure in reviewing its agenda and provided perspectives on secularism, tolerance and the Constitution. Much to the discomfort of the assembled RSS leaders and swayamsevaks, he affirmed that any institution could “decay, become dogmatic, narrow and lose its social relevance” if it did not evolve with the times.
The air chief marshal had, in fact, prodded the RSS to adhere to the Constitution. He had implied that the “RSS doesn’t obey the Constitution”, and this was tantamount to being labelled as “unpatriotic or traitor”. The speech barely concealed ACM Tipnis’ impression that the RSS was anti-social, and that its methods were against the interests of India. The incident caused huge embarrassment and forced Mr Sudarshan to provide a counterview by defending the RSS viewpoint. A similar path is open to Mr Mukherjee, but the RSS, after being chastened by past experience, would have sought assurances, possibly securing these, that the former First Citizen would not upset its applecart in a year when the countdown for the next parliamentary elections have begun.
Significantly, when the Sangh Siksha Varg was started in 1927, two years after the inception of RSS, these were called “officers training camp”, the nomenclature revealing the organisation’s militarist ethos. The RSS also did not believe in direct participation or launching mass movements as part of the freedom movement and was institutionally absent from the Civil Disobedience and Quit India Movements. Instead, the RSS from inception focused on militarist training of its cadre, propelled by belief that “invaders” had conquered India because Hindus were weak. The RSS was quasi-military in character and the drill at the daily shakhas aimed to harness physical strength and impart discipline. The OTCs were conceptualised to select the crème de la crème of swayamsevaks so that they could be assigned more responsible positions.
The OTCs are three-year “courses” and the number of swayamsevaks who attend its higher levels diminishes with every year. Moreover, there is only one third-year camp or varg held every year during the summer months, that too in Nagpur. This is the final training programme and attendees thereafter are ready to spread the gospel according to the RSS. No former President has accepted an invitation to address such a batch of ideologically-committed activists. Even today, government employees are prohibited from enrolling in the RSS. It has also been banned thrice in independent India.
Traditionally, the RSS, for the past several decades, has invited people from outside its close-knit folds to address not just this valedictory function but also to preside over the annual Vijay Dashami function, where the sarsanghchalak delivers his most important political public speech of the year. However, Mr Mukherjee is certainly its biggest-ever “catch” and cannot claim that he was unaware his decision would stir the hornet’s nest.
Much is made of Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to a RSS camp in 1934 and his interactions with RSS leaders, including its founder K.S. Hedgewar. However, it is often disregarded that he was non-committal at end of the visit and that in 1946, when India was sharply polarised due to communal riots, when an aide praised the RSS for efficiency, discipline, courage and capacity for hard work at Wagah, Gandhi had retorted: “Don’t forget, so had Hitler’s Nazis and the Fascists under Mussolini.” Gandhi also characterised the RSS as a “communal body with a totalitarian outlook”. He was also critical of the Hindu Mahasabha, whose leader, V.D. Savarkar, is an iconic leader of this ruling establishment. Gandhi wondered how the Mahasabha, established to strengthen Hindus, could stoop so low to advocate the evacuation of Muslims to Pakistan. He had also argued “Hinduism cannot be saved by orgies of murder” and “public opinion was more potent force than a thousand swords”. Gandhi waged a life-long battle for inclusive nationalism as against the RSS’ and the Mahasabha’s Hindu nationalism.
In the absence of concrete evidence or development, it would be premature to read political motives behind Mr Mukherjee’s move. Developments over the coming year will reveal if a precedent has been set to expand the possible roles of former Presidents. There is, however, no doubt that a “certificate” from Mr Mukherjee will somewhat insulate the RSS from the charge of polarising society. This will be of critical significance in an election year. Unless, of course, the “Congressman” within Mr Mukherjee gets resurrected.