I was 9 years old in the summer of 1992, in my ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh for my summer vacations. Most evenings my father would take me to the nearby town of Ayodhya. On one such evening I met an old man named Parshuram sitting on a chauki on the banks of the river Saryu — flowing white beard, short white dhoti, a white cotton drape around his bare body and a very kind face.
Across the river, the message of karseva was resounding on loud speakers. I asked him what they were saying. His reply was obscure: “There is an eternal truth, a truth of the present times and an exceptional truth of difficult circumstances. One can only hope these people are responding to what is true.” Seven months later ‘these people’ demolished the Masjid that housed Ayodhya’s patron deity, Ram Lalla, altering, in part, the course of India’s history. One month after that, Parshuram died. He was the first ‘Sanghi’ I ever met; a member of the RSS, whose affiliate organisations, were spearheading the Ram Mandir movement.
More was lost in those cold months that followed the demolition of the mosque structure. The quaint temple town I grew up in became the catalyst of extreme polarisation within intellectual circles. Ayodhya, of my childhood, of pink winters, saints, seers, stories and besan ladoos collapsed into a grim battleground of competing ideas of India. Over time, the word ‘Sanghi’ began to be used pejoratively to refer to all kinds of right-wing trolls and extremists — bringing to mind the sort of venom, misogyny and bigotry my memory does not associate with Parshuram.
During the elections of 2014, as the divisive political discourse became more fraught than ever, I found myself thinking often about the smiling old man, my home town, Ayodhya, and a bygone era when personal idenitity and belief systems weren’t ideological, or worse – political pulpits. With these thoughts in mind I decided to step out of the cosy consensus of my left liberal world and visit Nagpur, the centre of the RSS universe. Uneasy with the alleged clash between my identity as a Hindu, a liberal and a nationalist on my own terms, I was looking to step across the divide between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ before it becomes non negotiable and reach out to lakhs of women and men from my country who have been a part of or associated in some way with the RSS.
The idea simply was to ask questions of the deeply committed leadership in order to understand a stream of ideas and scholarly work on cultural identity, religion and nationhood from a standpoint I have not been familiar with. As also, to explore the different contexts in which RSS carries on its incredibly widespread social work.The journey that started in the eventful months leading up to the last general elections over two years ago has continued unabated in the aftermath of its monumental verdict. Through the course of this journey I have listened to and debated with ground workers and thought leaders from within the RSS working in very diverse fieldsall over India. I have also gained access to volumes of writing about the RSS, by those from within the organisation that is nearly impossible to source otherwise.
As with any quintessential Indian experience this journey has been rich and rewarding but never uniform or predictable. The only consistent takeaway is that the RSS has in one way or another partially or completely misunderstood in the dominant narrative and mainstream media. This is not to say that I find myself agreeing with or supporting every idea I come across but I do not find it difficult to engage. And I find it valuable to engage – to take my time over understanding seeming contradictions within the RSS’s own goals and values; between the Dharma of eternity, present age and exceptional times, that Parshuram alluded to. Similar prejudice and judgment exists about mainstream ‘left-liberal’ discourse and intelligentsia within the RSS. But shorn of cookie-cutter constructs, and outside the bounds of manufactured consent, a new ground for conversation and debate has begun to present itself. Through my writing I hope to invite at least some of my readers to visit this ground.
That I have been able to carry on is to a large part the result of the openness I have been met with by the RSS. Through my journey I have met men and women who have a little of Parshuram in them and nothing of the rabid intolerance one is faced with on social media. Through the process of studying an alternative idea of society, history, policy and country the artifice of binaries has fallen away, reaffirming the possibility of multiple points of intersection in personal identity.
The writer is a journalist who writes on
politics, culture and public policy