Ratan Sharda’s RSS Retraces the Organization’s Footprints on India’s Social and Political Journey in the Last 100 Years

There are ideas that are widely understood and widely disliked, and there are ideas that are hardly understood but widely liked. The phenomenal rise and popularity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through the decades that culminated into BJP’s rise and ascent to power for the first time in 1998 and then (on its own) in 2014 have been discussed on several occasions through op-eds and prime time debates. However, most of such deliberations have failed to set the premise properly. As a result, even though the offspring has now come to power for a consecutive second term, the parent organization is not adequately understood. Part of the blame lies with the organization itself as it kept a conscious distance from the media for a long time. Much of the blame though lies with the chroniclers of our time who according to their self-interests, painted the organization either completely black or entirely white whenever they spoke or wrote about it. All such pursuits only resulted in a glacier of misinformation and a contagious borrowing of opinions to ‘fit in’ with the popular opinions.

Noted public intellectual and an RSS member who has also worked with most of the affiliate organizations of the Sangh, Ratan Sharda has authored RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement in his attempt to do a course correction. He has chronicled the history of this massive organization from an interestingly chosen vantage point – Sangh’s Sarsanghchaalaks (Head of the organization). By looking at their lives and their time in the organization, the author successfully encircles the birth and rise of the Sangh.

Starting from Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who was a Congressman before starting the RSS to its current day chief – Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, Ratan Sharda touches upon the most defining moments of this organization. As this movement began to take shape in the year 1925 and continues from strength to strength till today even in the face of tremendous hostility from the Congress party and the Left, the book also gives us a peek into modern Indian history. The repercussions of Congress’s support to the Khilafat movement, the makings and results of the Quit India movement, the partition and the freedom, China’s expansionism and the 1962 war, the freedom of Bangladesh, the corruption charges on Indira Gandhi, the emergency years, first elections post emergency, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the riots that followed, the liberalization years – the author takes us on a journey through all these events and also RSS’s position as well as response to these milestones of the last 100 years.

A subtle but important element of the book is the detailing of the working style of each of its Sarsanghchaalaks and the Sangh’s policies during their tenure. It is interesting to see how even though the unique personality of each of these chiefs influences and inspires the general working of the Sangh, the underlying vision of the organization as espoused by its founder remains the same. It’s not that there have been no departures in its working style. However, most of these tweaks have only helped the organization reach out to more people with its message and meaning.

The book is not intended for the followers or the converts who know everything there is to know about the Sangh. On the contrary, this book is intended for the readers who predominantly read in English and have a ton of questions in their minds about the Sangh while forming their opinions on any debate of national, religious, or social importance. It is also for the people who have always taken a tinted view of the organization, thanks to the negative press it has been given over the decades. When you read about how many congress leaders took RSS’s help or cooperated with the Sangh in different times, you also realize how much politics goes into winning the perception war in public view. The book is also a counter-attack on this perception war being waged by one faction within the Congress party that was once spearheaded by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and his blind followers.

I would like to congratulate Mr. Ratan Sharda for leaving a few debates open ended. For example, there is a constant reference to the question of Hindu versus Bharat for the nomenclature purposes in RSS’s vision. The author conveys that the word Hindu is not antithetical to the word Bharat and they are, in fact, interchangeable because of the meaning and origin of the two words. He also weighs in on the possibility of the word Bharat getting adopted by the Sangh instead of Hindutva in future for greater reach and acceptability but puts it on time to answer the question in future.

The book is not without its flaws. First and foremost, the book needs better editing. There are spelling typos as well as several repetitions. Although these repetitions are perhaps placed to reinforce the message, at times, they sound like a resume desperately trying to impress. These repetitions could have been avoided. There is one more error that this book makes. While the book sets out to clear misconceptions about the RSS, it ends up creating a few of its own for other organizations that are doing some great work and have empowered millions of individuals and thousands of smaller organizations in the social and spiritual domains. While the author takes Swami Vivekananda’s and the Ramakrishna Mission’s help to explain a few misgivings about the Sangh as well as explaining its core concepts, it also makes some sweeping observations about the Mission (page-340, RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement). While there is a scarcity of books in English about the Sangh from the Sangh, the Ramakrishna Mission has plenty of books, reports, and journals in the language for readers to understand their vision or scale of their activities. So, a bit of due diligence there would have helped the author avoid the mistake he doesn’t want others to commit while assessing the Sangh.

When we are discussing the RSS, it is important to remember that we are talking about a group of people who are some of the firsts to reach any part of the country needing support in the face of any calamity. It is the ideology that gave birth to a viable alternative to the Indian polity after the Congress. It is an organization that has constantly shunned caste divisions and discrimination in the Hindu community. They have also consciously evolved their position on matters of social importance, the latest one being on Homosexuality.

For us to understand the social and political path our country has taken in all these years before and after independence, and the RSS’s deep footprints on it, this book is an indispensable read for all Indians irrespective of their religious, social, or political beliefs. RSS has been an idea widely popular in one section of the society and largely misunderstood in other sections of the same society. Mr. Ratan Sharda hopes to change that and this book is a successful attempt at setting the context right. I’m sure there are more books coming up.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Rumble in a Village Underlines Several Unsolved Problems of Indian Villages Through a Murder Mystery

Indian villages are treasure troves of tales. There are a million stories buried within them, that are waiting to be unearthed. But, it is unbelievable that two foreign research scholars who spent only a year in one of those unrecognizable villages of India could spin such a brilliant tale about it. Palanpur, in the words of Jean Dreze, is a “nondescript village” in Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh. Jean is one of the two authors of the book, ‘Rumble in a Village’, published recently by Aleph Book Company. He along with Luc Leruth documents life as it was in the 1900s in the village of Palanpur where Jean stayed as a part of his research work. Both Jean and Luc are former scholars from the Indian Statistical Institute (New Delhi) and continue to be associated with India in many ways.

The story begins as a murder mystery which compels Anil Singh, a banker in London to return to his father’s village – Palanpur. The murder is only a premise to take the readers to Palanpur. The main plot unravels after you arrive in the village. The story jumps across different timelines as it traces the history of four families over three generations and the dynamics of three castes – the Thakurs, the Muraos, and the Dalits. What is more interesting is most of the characters lived and some still continue to live in Palanpur. The book retained the original name for some of the characters and even has a photograph featuring a few. 

I must credit the authors for their keen eyes which makes the book a very entertaining read starting from Anil’s train journey to Palanpur. Anil’s experience with the Indian railways will stir quite a bit of nostalgia in the readers. The unusual camaraderie, the unnerving questions from fellow travellers, the droplets of spit that hit your face from the window next are just too familiar. I was amused to learn how the railway station in Palanpur came to be named as Jargaon. The book brilliantly chronicles the arrival of the railways and how it changed the lives of the Palanpuris in some unfathomable ways.

The caste politics and the poverty that the book brings out will not surprise you if you are one of those who were raised in an Indian village. But you will be intrigued to learn what changed and what remained unaltered in this ugly game. While the Palanpuris evolved a little when it came to agriculture, they still preferred to have a temple built before fixing the dilapidated school. I can assure you, this mindset hasn’t changed even in 2020 in many of our villages. The worst part, however, was that the Palanpuris seemed to have remained immovable about educating and empowering their women. Like the authors’ rightly point out through Pat’s research, financial independence for women meant a degradation of their stature.

The book effortlessly documents the many little things that truly captures the spirit of Palanpur. The Thakurs and their love for guns, the obsession and the pride that came with becoming a soldier, their marriages and illicit affairs, the village council meetings and corruption that happens at various levels, child mortality and more. The story doesn’t do much about solving a murder mystery but it does in educating you about Indian bureaucracy. While the truth is rather disturbing, Jean and Luc get us through with a little humour. The whole episode of ADO, BDO, CDO, DDO, EDO and more is absolutely hilarious. And then there is Babu and his goat. The innocence and ignorance of these villagers offer you a hearty laugh, but you know that they aren’t as meek as you imagine them to be. Given the opportunity, they are quite capable of crime and treachery.

After a few chapters, I was confused with who is who thanks to the non-linear narration and characters from three different generations. I also did not see any value in the character of the Captain who is shrouded with mystery. But I didn’t need to bother too much about these difficulties because they didn’t matter. What mattered was Luc and Jean transported you to Palanpur and let you live among the Palanpuris and witness it all for real. I didn’t feel the urge to rush through the pages as one would do with murder stories. Instead, I soaked myself in every page, with every detail and the experience that the book had to offer. To me, it felt and read like a bright morning in a beautiful village.

Did Nehru Reject Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council? Rajiv Dogra’s India’s World Answers Many Such Questions

I had never read any of Rajiv Dogra’s works until last week, not even his critically acclaimed Durand’s Curse. However, a few days ago, when I began reading his latest book, India’s World, published by Rupa Publications. I only regret having not read him until then. My reasons are many. I will start with the thing that struck me first – the language. Even for non-fiction, the words are mellifluous. One might as well call the book a ‘poetic’ account of the foreign policy choices of India’s prime ministers. How can one ever put down something that is written so beautifully? I cannot wait to read his other books.

Coming back to ‘India’s World’, Rajiv Dogra talks about how eight out of the fourteen Indian Prime Ministers shaped the foreign policy of India. In the prologue of the book, Rajiv states that his book doesn’t intend “to airbrush the warts of these eight leaders or to exaggerate their abilities. It is to present the leaders as they were and to reflect on their policies as they affected the country.” That is precisely what he does in the chapters that follow. Starting from India’s first prime minister Nehru to the current Prime Minister Modi, he discusses the successes and failures of each of these leaders and their policies with much candour. He credits Nehru for his statesmanship that guided India towards a secular democratic set up, unlike Pakistan. However, he doesn’t mince his words when he explains how Nehru ignored the advice of Vallabhbhai Patel and Ambedkar to only complicate the Kashmir issue for decades to come.

Rajiv acknowledges that all these leaders were handed over a country that had a plethora of socio-economic problems. Add to it the unstable power dynamics across the various groups of countries and the mistakes of their predecessors. While some learnt from the mistakes of their predecessor and tried to fix it, they then made mistakes of their own. Each one had their distinguished style when it came to foreign policy. While Nehru was a man of ideals, Shashtri was a more practical leader. Indira was the Goddess and Modi, the Rule Maker. This also meant that India lacked a “well-drafted long term approach” towards foreign policy which leads to the next question. Did our leaders ever have a shared vision of India’s role in the world’s affairs?

Rajiv picks some of the most commonly debated decisions of these leaders and critiques them. This is not merely based on his rich experience and expert opinion, but is also supported with archival documents, quotes from direct sources, books, articles and more.

The book traces the foreign policy decisions of India from the time of Independence to date. That way the book is a good starter to anyone who wants to understand the history and evolution of some of the most significant topics like the Kashmir Issue, India’s relationship with the USA, China and Russia, Non-alignment movement, Bangladesh war, India’s relationship with South-East Asia and more.

The book ends with an unusual epilogue featuring Narendra Modi as its protagonist. The title of the epilogue says it all – The More it changes the more it remains the same. Rajiv warns us of the grim realities like the never-ending Pakistan troubles and the increasing Chinese aggression in our neighbourhood. He adds that India must set its internal affairs in order if it aspires to be a stabilising power in world affairs.

While the earlier chapters of the books are very exhaustive, I find the latter ones rushed and lacking specifics in comparison. Yet, the book answers many questions and busts many myths with factual evidence. The books also feature several interesting tidbits like how P.V. Narasimha Rao was packing for a life of retirement when he was called on to become the Prime Minister and why Atal Bihari Vajpayee called him the true father of Shakti Nuclear Test. So if you are wondering if India rejected a permanent seat in the UNSC, or why Indira did not attack West Pakistan while our troops were already winning, or if the many international trips that our current Prime Minister undertook strengthened India’s place in the world, pick this book up.