“I Could Not Be Hindu” is a Unique testimony to the Sangh’s’ casteism


I Could Not Be Hindu’s author Bhanwar Meghwanshi who is a Dalit PHOTO/Sabrang

This book, ‘I Could Not Be Hindu’, is unique in many ways. First, it is written by a former RSS member who has become a radical critique of the organisation and who explains why in detail. Till date, few ex-swayamsevaks had narrated what had been their experience in the Sangh and presented the reasons why they had left it. I know only three other such testimonies. The oldest one was published by Secular democracy in 1970, the most recent one came out almost two decades later and – probably – sometimes in between Ram LallDhooria published I was a Swayamsevak an undated text. Few people leave RSS and when they do, they do not necessarily write their memoirs.

Second, this book has been written by a Dalit, Bhanwar Meghwanshi, who enlightens the reader about the situation of the Scheduled Castes within the Sanghparivar and in today’s Indian society at large. In this preface, I will focus on this second dimension of the book which makes it most valuable.

The RSS and Dalits – Dalits in the RSS

Created by Maharashtrianbrahmins, the RSS has gradually tried to attract Hindus from all kinds of caste backgrounds in order to be the “Hindu Rashtra in miniature” its founder, K.B. Hedgewar longed for. The shakhas were supposed to welcome youngsters from all social origins, including Dalits, and that was one of the reasons why it was so important that all the participants should wear the same uniform, in order to erase socio-economic distinctions.

In fact, the RSS was partly a reaction to the rise of Dalit politics under the aegis of Ambedkar whose first anti-caste mobilisations (including the Mahadsatyagraha and temple entry movements) also took place in what is today Maharashtra. For the RSS, to include members of the Depressed Classes (as the Scheduled Castes were known in the 1920s), was a good way to defuse anti-Brahminism and to maintain social hierarchies.

Indeed, the RSS has never explicitly denounced the caste system but attempted to reform it in order to preserve its basic structure. In 1939, for instance, in We or our nationhood defined, M.S Golwalkar, who was to take over from Hedgewar the year after, considered that it was “none of the so called drawbacks of the Hindu social order, which prevents us from regaining our ancient glory”. Deendayal Upadhyaya defended the original varnavyavastha even more explicitly, in Integral Humanism, a text that is still considered as its ideological charter by the Sangh parivar. He wrote in 1965:

In our concept of four castes, they are thought of as an analogous to the different limbs of Virat-Purusha […] These limbs are not only complementary to one another, but even further, there is individuality, unity. There is a complete identity of interest, identity of belonging. […] If this idea is not kept alive, the castes instead of being complementary can produce conflict. But then this is distortion.

The resilience of caste in the RSS is evident from the lucid and poignant testimony of Bhanwar Meghwanshi. He tells us that, like so many other Swayamsevaks, he joined the RSS at a very young age, mostly to exercise and play traditional games. But he was gradually presented the history and the culture of his society in a manner which made him proud of being a Hindu and angry because of the decline of the sons of the (sacred) soil of Hindustan – which was largely attributed by his teachers to the “Muslim invasions”.

These “gurus” were pracharaks who were almost venerated by the young swayamsevaks, including Bhanwar because of their dedication to the sacred Cause of Hinduism. They carried with them the prestige traditionally attached to asceticism:

In my time the district pracharak was an extremely principled man, Shiv-ji bhaisahab, who maintained strict discipline and lived a life of simplicity and frugality. He possessed only two sets of kurta–pyjama, and a small cloth bag. He slept on the ground, ate modestly, and was extremely punctual. He had no personal life, and spent most of his time touring the region. Always dressed in white, he lived austerely. Unlike the pracharaks of today, he did not get involved in politics, business and other such crooked schemes. Most pracharaks of the town were like Shiv-ji bhaisahab. Of course, at the time I had boundless respect for RSS pracharaks.

Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s ethnographic account is very revealing of the RSS’s modus operandum. On one hand, its pracharaks, because of their life style, attract support from all quarters, including the local notables (mostly traders); on the other hand, they related actively to others – virtually every body, including Dalits: pracharaks are not only always touring their constituency, but they visit the homes of the swayamsevaks and other sympathisers. To be directly in touch with the largest number of people, to maintain close relations, to enquire about their family and their personal problems is clearly part of the RSS’s modus operandum.

Dalits and low caste Hindus particularly appreciate this attitude because they are usually ostracised. Not only are they segregated topographically in some neighbourhood, but upper caste people are not supposed to meet them – even less to share meals with them. The willingness of pracharaks to interact with Dalits was especially well received by those who pursued a strategy of sanskritisation consisting in emulating the brahmins instead of being proud of their Dalit identity – and fighting the upper castes. In the shakha, low caste swayamsevaks were shown forms of respect they were not used to, as evident from Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s description of the branch of the RSS that had developed in his village:

We came from all castes, even those who considered people of my kind to be beneath them and wouldn’t even talk to us properly. But here we all addressed one another as ‘ji’. From plain Bhanwar I too became Bhanwar-ji, well on my way to becoming Bhanwar-jibhaisahab

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