With help from RSS and affiliates, the Modi government is slowly yet steadily institutionalising a right-of-centre approach in governance and culture
On September 22, more than a dozen members of the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas (SSUN) met Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar to give suggestions for bringing a “nationalistic” perspective into the proposed New Education Policy, likely to be unveiled by December. When they pointed out the “factual errors” in school textbooks, Javadekar asked them to write to him with specific examples and assured them that after bringing out the education policy, the Union government would start working on a national curriculum framework to look afresh at textbooks.
Based in Delhi and headed by retired schoolteacher and RSS ideologue Dinanath Batra, SSUN had led the campaigns that resulted in the banning of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and the removal of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayan from the curriculum of Delhi University. “Earlier we had to fight our battles through courts for getting things done,” its general secretary Atul Kothari told THE WEEK. “Now, the government listens.”
Halfway into its tenure, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government is focusing on reshaping the Indian knowledge and governance ecosystem. And it is all ears to suggestions from outfits such as SSUN. The big difference is that, unlike in the times of the previous NDA government, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the approach this time round is subtler and more effective. “Unlike earlier times, the government has not been defensive about working with the RSS. Modi, whom former Vishva Hindu Parishad president Ashok Singhal hailed as a Hindu king after 1,000 years of foreign rule, is trying to leave his mark by replacing the Nehruvian model of governance and culture,” said an RSS leader.
The RSS is leveraging the huge majority of the Modi government in Parliament to push the projects that are close to its heart. It has set up six committees, with members drawn from its affiliates, the BJP leaders and the Union cabinet, to coordinate on specific areas like education, security and culture. It has held a series of samanvay baithaks (coordination meetings) with BJP leaders and ministers to ensure that the government takes up its suggestions in a serious manner. Ensuring greater synergy between the government and the saffron camp are RSS joint general secretaries Dattatreya Hosabale and Krishna Gopal.
The suggestions made at the coordination meetings are decided on at various levels. Some are readily accepted for implementation by ministers, while some others are conceptually accepted to be implemented when conditions are conducive. The rest, which are deemed impractical, are politely put aside.
During the samanvay baithak in Delhi in September last year, RSS-affiliated groups proposed to work with the Army in border areas and help local people gather intelligence. It was during the same meeting that the RSS top brass pushed the government to speed up the implementation of the ‘one rank, one pension’ scheme. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar announced the government’s decision to implement it on September 5, the final day of the three-day meeting.
An objective of these coordination meetings is to ensure that Hindu icons feted by the RSS find their place in the cultural mainstream. In September last year, a year after the RSS celebrated Rajendra Chola’s 1,000th birth anniversary, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis unveiled a portrait of the emperor at the Mazagon Dockyard in Mumbai. In recent times, the Union culture ministry has celebrated the birth anniversaries of erstwhile Mewar ruler Maharana Pratap, Gaudiya Vaishnavism founder Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Jan Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya.
Education is another focus area. The RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal has proposed several changes in curriculum, from primary to higher levels of education, that are in line with the ‘Indian knowledge tradition’. According to joint organising secretary Mukul Kanitkar, some of its suggestions have been accepted by the government. “IGNOU [Indira Gandhi National Open University] had shut down its centres abroad during Kapil Sibal’s tenure [as HRD minister],” Kanitkar said. “We pushed the government to restart 28 centres. We held workshops in 26 universities for PhD guides, and 55 vice chancellors were invited to Nagpur for a conference on ‘Research for Resurgence’ so that research be used to promote the Indian knowledge system.”
Promoting Hindi and regional languages is also high in the list of priorities. Kothari says SSUN’s next campaign will be for the introduction of Hindi and regional languages in the functioning of courts, legislatures and professional colleges. The campaign will be under the aegis of the Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch.
Countering the left-liberal narrative in politics is, perhaps, the biggest of challenges being tackled by the saffron camp. The RSS has been using tools perfected by its opponents towards this end. From hosting literary and cultural festivals to organising seminars and discussions, bodies affiliated to the RSS have been building a new ‘intellectual ecosystem’.
As the recent protests by dalits threatened to undermine RSS efforts to erase caste barriers and homogenise the Hindu society, efforts were on to rally intellectuals who supported the saffron camp. More than 250 writers, teachers and television debate panellists have now been tasked with presenting a coherent, right-wing view on various issues. Coordinating their efforts is RSS office-bearer J. Nanda Kumar. The RSS is also grooming its own set of dalit intellectuals. Prominent among them, say sources, are Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce, and Narendra Jadhav, MP and scholar.
Several think-tanks are propagating right-wing views on security and foreign policy. The India Foundation, run by BJP general secretary Ram Madhav and Shaurya Doval, son of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, has emerged as one of the foremost think-tanks in this area. It held its third India Ideas Conclave at Goa in November, where the invitees included Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, BJP chief Amit Shah, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and US Ambassador Richard Verma. In September, the foundation held a major conference in Singapore that was seen as an attempt to counter China’s aggressive stance in maritime affairs. It saw the participation of leaders from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Think-tanks like FINS (Forum for Integrated National Security) and Bharat Niti have been actively engaging with students of major universities and institutes to create a new breed of intellectuals trained in the right-of-centre school of thought. To catch them young, the RSS even runs a coaching institute for civil service aspirants. Called Samkalp, the institute claims to have trained thousands of students since 1986. “The purpose of the RSS is to train and create volunteers,” said Kanitkar. “These people then go and work in different fields and formulate ideas.”
Cultural organisations and advisory committees have been witnessing intake of right-wing stalwarts. Those who subscribe to RSS views have been appointed to government bodies like the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Prasar Bharati, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and the Central Board of Film Certification.
Sanskar Bharti, the cultural wing of the RSS, is planning to institute an international prize that will rival the Nobel Prize in prize money. “We are working out the modalities of the award, which can become India’s signature award,” Chetan Joshi, secretary of Sanskar Bharti told THE WEEK. “The idea is to celebrate Indian-ness, establish India’s prestige as a knowledge society and reward the best talent in the world.”
Filmmaker Chandraprakash Dwivedi has been tasked with preparing the governing principles of the award. Sources said the prime minister could be made the patron of the Varanasi-based award foundation. As the award is set to offer more prize money than the Nobel, a corpus of 01,000 crore is being proposed. An international jury for deciding awards in categories like peace, literature and science will also be set up.
Buoyed by its successes, the RSS is planning to expand its role in governance as a “direct interventionist”. “If RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Vijayadashami speech is analysed, it can be understood that the RSS is gearing up for a bigger challenge to bring about change in society,” said Prafulla Ketkar, editor of Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece.
Apparently, the change process has just begun. For it to become more visible, the RSS is counting on Modi getting a second term as prime minister.