The hyper-nationalism being fuelled by the government’s aggressive stand on the JNU issue is proof that the RSS senses waning support for the BJP across the country.

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Hindutva Undivided Family: Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the funeral of VHP leader Ashok Singhal. Credit: PTI

‘Something extraordinary is going on in this country’. So said two respected supreme court judges on the Kanhaiya Kumar bail issue. Supreme court judges are not given to expostulation. So when these judges brushed aside legal objections and decided to hear a simple bail petition in the highest court of the land, their decision to intervene expresses their mounting disquiet even more loudly than their words.

The ‘something extraordinary’ that has so distressed them is the re-emergence of a totalitarian threat just when most Indians have assumed that their democracy is finally secure.

These are some of the recent events that have made this threat apparent:

A small fringe group of students met  to protest against  “the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat” and  express  solidarity with “the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination”. The meeting  was cancelled by the vice chancellor at the last moment, but the students insisted upon their freedom of speech and went ahead with it nonetheless. Some inflammatory anti-India remarks were made by a small group of Kashmiris. A fracas ensued, at the conclusion of which the president of the main JNU students’ union Kanhaiya Kumar gave a fiery speech defending  freedom of speech and thought  but  explicitly condemning  “any act of violence, terrorism, any terrorist act, or any anti-national activity.”

Despite this, the Delhi police came to the campus four days later and arrested Kanhaiya on charges  of sedition and criminal conspiracy. It did so because Union home minister Rajnath  Singh received a phone call from  BJP MP Maheish Girri, and tweeted to the world that “anyone who shouts anti-India slogans & challenges nation’s sovereignty & integrity while living in India,  will not be tolerated or spared”.

Abuse of the law

Singh did this without bothering to find out what the demonstrators said and whether it qualified as sedition.  Had he been more circumspect  he would have found  that even the most extreme slogans raised on February 9 did not  qualify as sedition.   In five separate past judgments  the Supreme Court had drawn a sharp distinction between the advocacy (of) and incitement (to) violence, and defined sedition as an “incitement to imminent lawless action”. Based on this definition  it had rejected as sedition the slogans raised by some Sikhs on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated — “Khalistan zindabad, the time has come for us to expel  Hindus from Punjab and seize the reigns of power” — because it was an expression of desire  and did not suggest when or how it should be carried out.

But  Singh did not have the  patience to educate himself on  the finer points of the law, and instead issued the order to arrest Kanhaiya and other demonstrators, leaving it to  the police to  find sufficient grounds for doing so. In doing so  he  broke the boundary that  separates legal process from witch hunt and mob rule.  What followed shows how far we have fallen.

While Kanhaiya was in police custody three lawyers – Vikram Chauhan, Yashpal and Om Sharma – beat him mercilessly for three hours. The police watched the beating without raising a hand to stop it. In secretly filmed interviews with  reporters from India Today, the trio boasted  that they had planned the  beating  administered to journalists, students and professors who attended Kanhaiya Kumar’s bail hearing  inside the Patiala house court on February 15.

Via Facebook, Chauhan had issued nine appeals to ‘boys’ from all over Delhi to come to Patiala house and teach the traitors a lesson. The three  had  initially toyed with a plan to throw a bomb, but settled for administering a sound beating. The beating was watched by the police and CRPF on duty, several of whom  expressed their regret at not being able  to join in because they were wearing their uniforms.

Yashpal boasted  that he was looking forward to being arrested and would not ask for bail because he wanted to be in the same jail as Kanhaiya so that he could beat him up some more. Journalists present at the court and  lawyers who watched the many clips that went viral that same night identified several of the  lawyers who beat Kanhaiya as members of the BJP’s legal cell, the  Adhivakta Sangh.

That evening, on Rajdeep Sardesai’s prime time news channel, Sharma aggressively justified his actions  on the grounds that everything he had done was in service of ‘Bharat Mata’, and asserted five times that he would kill anyone who dared to speak against ‘Mother India’.

Silence on the part of the Modi government

What is most disturbing is the Modi government’s lack of reaction to the fracas at the courthouse. Police commissioner B.S. Bassi described it as a minor scuffle caused by students and professors who refused to vacate seats in the courthouse reserved for lawyers. When Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who had been in another courtroom emerged, the journalists who were being pummelled on the ground in front of him appealed to him for help, but he ignored them and walked away.

The judge could not spare 23.05 minutes to watch the video of Kanhaiya’s speech to decide whether or not to  grant him bail, instead  remanding him to Tihar jail for another 15 days. But the same court, if not judge, gave bail to Sharma, Yashpal and Chauhan within hours.

As for Prime Minister  Modi, he has  responded to the rise of mob rule on February 15 in much the same way as Hitler responded to Kristallnacht – the Nazi storm troopers’ attack on German Jews in  1938 — by completely ignoring it and everything that led up to it.

More than anything else, it is  this  calculated silence that makes it necessary  to face the possibility that the  Delhi incident is not an accidental confrontation that went  out of control but a first testing of the waters of Hindu chauvinism to see if it can be  harnessed to realising the RSS’s long-cherished dream of creating  a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. For,  with the BJP at last in unfettered power, and two devoted pracharaks at the helm of  party and government, it cannot but believe that its time has finally come.

The RSS’s hyper-nationalism

The RSS stoutly claims that it is nothing but a social organisation that leaves politics to the BJP. Over the 68 years that have passed since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi – culminating in the benign tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister from 1998 to 2004 –  we have lulled ourselves into believing this.

But the RSS  has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. By an extraordinary feat of intellectual gymnastics, it remains convinced that snatching independence from the British was not a triumph for Hindu India. Not even the partition, which removed two-thirds of the Muslims and gave the Hindus an 83% majority was sufficient to create a Hindu Rashtra.  For the RSS, the Hindu Rashtra must be  a country purged of all ‘impure’ elements.

With non- Hindus still making up almost a fifth of the country’s 1.3 billion population, this purging cannot be physical. So, it must be cultural. But as the European nation states have found to their immense cost, cultural homogenisation cannot be achieved without the sustained use of force.  The RSS is therefore not only a totalitarian organisation, but also one that cannot afford not to be one.

One has only to read Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to chief  ministers  in 1947 and 1948 to see how little the RSS has changed. On December 7, 1947 he wrote: “We have a  great deal of evidence to show the RSS is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding along the strictest Nazi lines, even following the techniques of organisation. It is not our desire to interfere with civil liberties. But training in arms of a large number of persons with the obvious intention of using them is not something that can be encouraged”.

Similarly, on January 5 1948 he wrote: “The RSS  has played an important part in recent developments and evidence has been collected to implicate it in certain very horrible happenings. It is openly stated by their leaders that the RSS is not a political body but there can be no doubt that policy and  programme are political, intensely communal, and based on violent activities. They have to be kept in check”. That was 25 days before Mahatma Gandhi was  assassinated.

On December 5 1948, looking back on that tragic year,  he wrote: “The RSS has been essentially a secret organisation with a public façade, having no membership, no registers, no accounts… they do not believe in peaceful methods or Satyagraha. What they say in public is entirely opposed to what they do in private.”

Reading these excerpts 68 years later,  one is overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. For the  RSS is still a ‘social’ organisation that  operates through more than two dozen shadowy, unregistered organisations. Of these the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Dharma Jagaran Samanwaya Samiti, the Hindu Dharma Sena, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, the Durga Vahini,   the Adhivakta (lawyers’) Sangh, and of course the ABVP, are the most aggressive.

It is we who constitute the rest of the nation who persuaded ourselves that Vajpayee and Advani were not an aberration and that the entire Sangh Parivar had changed. And we were not entirely wrong. For, responding to the inexorable pull of the simple majority voting system, which forces all political parties  to moderate their ideologies and woo  centrist opinion if they wish to capture power,  Vajpayee and Advani  had pulled  the BJP a long way away from the RSS, and made it entirely acceptable to other parties as a coalition partner.

This enabled them to give India one of its best governments since independence. But the RSS had only gone into hibernation and, as his ‘new year musings’ show, no one knew this better than Vajpayee himself.

Step-by-step descent

Had the NDA won the 2004 elections, both the economics and the politics of India would have taken a different turn. But the RSS was able to seize upon its defeat to discredit  not only Vajpayee, but also his message. With Modi as prime minister and Amit Shah as BJP president, the four-decade long attempt to distance the BJP from the RSS has been reversed. As of today, the chain of communal provocations and cultural onslaughts that began with ‘love jihad’,  ‘ghar wapasi’ and the casual dismissal of the Agenda for Alliance signed with Mufti Sayeed,  has shown that it is the RSS that is in the driver’s seat.

Throughout this step-by-step descent into mob rule Modi, Shah and Singh have maintained a studied silence. But  the administration and the police have already learned the lesson it is meant to convey. In Ahmedabad on the evening of February 27 2002,  TV channels showed clips of charred corpses being removed from the Sabarmati express at Godhra. The next day, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad called a bandh and Modi announced state sponsorship for it. This handcuffed the police and prevented them from rounding up ‘history sheeters’ in Ahmedabad and other cities, to prevent riots from breaking out the next day. The result was some 2,000 dead in terrible communal riots. Today, state sponsorship of violence is no longer needed. Modi and Shah are achieving the same goal through their silence.

The most puzzling feature of the RSS’s campaign is that it seems utterly unfazed by the inevitable  loss of  electoral support that will follow the resurgence of ideology within the BJP. In 50 assembly by-elections in 2014, held to fill seats whose incumbents had moved to the Lok Sabha, the BJP was able to hold on to only 19 of the 40 seats it had  held before. This was followed by its shattering defeats in the assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar.

To stand a chance of winning the 2019 general elections, the BJP must widen its appeal and actively court the support of coalition partners. Under Modi and the RSS, it is doing the opposite. Could this mean that the RSS is planning to ‘derail’ democracy once more? The possibility is no longer remote, because hyper-nationalism  has been the final card played by governments of other countries that have felt their  support waning. Delhi shows that the BJP is beginning to play it too.

Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.