Our newly minted Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, a product of the elite South Point school in Kolkata, then Presidency, then JNU and Harvard, had some rather kind and heavily inaccurate words to say about the Rashriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) back in 2017 in the Indian Express.
Of course, this comes in contrast to the wild celebrations by liberals, patriots, the JNU/Bengal left on his award as well as Sourav Ganguly being handed the BCCI chiefdom along with Jay Shah (Amit Shah’s son – nepotism much?) by the ruling BJP, which is allegedly the arch nemesis of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yesterday was indeed quite the bumper deal for the average Bengali nationalist/fauxgressive’s ego. As Banerjee had once criticised the demonetization policy of the Modi government, quite a few ignorant leftists think he is politically on their side – even though economists abroad from the left to the right slammed it.
Why do I disagree with Banerjee’s characterisation of the RSS? Because for the past half a decade, my own painstaking research has been on the propaganda of the RSS from the 1940s onwards, and I truly wonder on which privileged savarna planet did Banerjee live on - that he found the RSS full of moderates, tolerance and Quranic scholars. It is truly a lovely way for an alleged progressive to talk about a right-wing fascist fundamentalist group such as the Sangh.
“I miss the old RSS. I never liked their views, but I appreciated the sophistication of their position. When I first arrived in the United States, I would try to explain to my new friends the fact that the RSS did not want Muslims to convert since they were already, in effect, Hindus who practiced Islam. All they wanted, my RSS friends would tell me, was that the Muslims accepted that there was no escape.”
The RSS wanted Muslims to not even have citizenship rights unless they Hinduized themselves, according to Golwalkar’s book from 1939, We Or Our Nationhood Defined:
“….the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment - not even citizen's rights.” (pg. 104)
The same argument was reiterated in 1966 in Bunch of Thoughts, another of Golwalkar’s books. That the RSS was not interested in conversion is a plain lie, coming from an academic who clearly knows better. A mere acknowledgment from Muslims was never enough.
“I understood why many Muslims found this offensive or worse, but it did stand in interesting contrast with the naked proselytising zeal that Christians and Mormons in Ronald Reagan’s America were awash with. “
For some reason, the Nobel laureate seems to think that the RSS (more or less the Indian version of the Klu Klux Klan) was more secular than Reagan and a lot less focused on conversion than Reagan. Sadly to say, it was grossly incorrect and the fact is that the RSS and the Arya Samaj joined hands during the same period to convert tribals back to Hinduism, and the huge boom of RSS funded schools sought to Hinduize every section of Indian society. How many people converted the Christianity in the US in the 1980s (the Reagan period)? The data itself proves Banerjee wrong.
Of course, he even goes on to praise Vajpayee as a moderate – despite the fact that he let Modi get away with genocide in 2002, despite the fact that Vajpayee was a great supporter of the Nellie massacre. Somehow, Reagan (who was not a fundamentalist or a fascist) was worse, to the economist.
“In my youth, the typical RSS representative I met was an intellectual; they quoted the Quran at me and I, who had not read it, could not respond. Much like the Communists, for the aspiring intellectuals among us, they provided a forum where one could discuss ideas and aspirations that went beyond the merely mundane; again, like the Communists, they tended to be generous with their support, psychological, pedagogical and economic.”
The RSS branded Gandhi a Muslim appeaser, their close ally Hindu Mahasabha had a role in murdering Gandhi, the RSS routinely branded Nehru a traitor throughout the 1940s and 50s till his death in 1964, asked for Nehru, Maulana Azad and Gandhi to be hanged, called socialists (not even the communists) foreign agents from RSS’s inception till well beyond the India-China war of 1962, and called Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism simply sub-sects of Hinduism. That the RSS led a campaign to evict ALL Muslim inhabitants from Delhi as if it were a partitioned province (no debate, only violence), the fact that RSS members have been found throughout history with illegal possession and usage of guns and bombs – not a word. Intellectualism was nowhere in sight.
Of course, the icing on the cake for Banerjee’s “tolerant RSS” was the fact that the RSS had been instigating communal riots and caste-based atrocities since its very inception in 1925 till this very date. But facts, for some reason, elude the empirical economist.
“But I can see exactly how a clever and intellectually voracious young man from a disadvantaged background, like Narendra Modi, became a swayamsevak.”
Banerjee decides to ignore the fact that Modi’s caste was conferred OBC status just a few months before he became Chief Minister of Gujarat, that his degrees are likely fake and that there are huge questions on his story of selling tea at a railway station that wasn’t even built during the period he claimed. Not to mention the fact that Modi has questioned climate change and even claimed that Taxila was in Bihar. A truly intellectually gifted man indeed.
“It is therefore probably no accident that Modi is the first Prime Minister of India after Mrs Gandhi to clearly try to project a vision of the India he wants. It is not a vision I like — Modi’s India is strong, modern and developed but not open, liberal or moral — but I appreciate his effort to inspire us to think beyond ourselves after the decade of silence with Manmohan Singh.”
For an economist like Banerjee, it is a bit shameful that he refuses to note the free market vision of Rajiv Gandhi, which led to the opening of imports. He ignores the fact that fellow economist Manmohan Singh was a leading free marketer since the days of Singh’s PhD back in the 60s, and that Singh’s dream/vision actually came true in 1991. He openly buys into the RSS-BJP propaganda that Manmohan Singh was a silent PM, while former NAC member Harsh Mander’s writings show that Singh was as assertive if not more than UPA Chair Sonia Gandhi – and the fact that the first NDA government also more or less followed the economic policies of Manmohan Singh. Decade of silence indeed.
“What worries me is that Modi is the only one among those who wield power in the BJP today who is still a chip off that old RSS block. The rest are either men of action — administrators or party men — or straightforward thugs. The historian Ram Guha made the point to me that in the previous NDA government, almost all the top ministers were very well-read and had written books — think of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh or Arun Shourie — which is obviously not the case now.”
Banerjee’s false characterization of Modi as an intellectual and an “old guard” of BJP notwithstanding, he is perfectly willing to whitewash history yet again in favor of the BJP by making intellectual, moderate gentlemen of bloodthirsty fascists. Vajpayee spent most of his early career making sexist speeches against Indira Gandhi and writing semi-seditious editorials in Panchjanya, who also distinguished himself by taking zero action against Modi. Advani was the Modi of the 90s (and had a major role in the Babri Masjid demolition – tukde tukde gang indeed) but appears respectable enough in Banerjee’s eyes, who also choose to ignore the fact that Jaswant Singh (beyond his open communalism) openly bribed voters with opium water, and the erudite Arun Shourie that Banerjee and Ram Guha admired sold off the most profitable public sector undertakings at the bidding of his corporate cronies. Not to even mention the fact that all of them played a huge role in demodernising and communalizing education in India.
“That distinction is crucial in politics because it changes the nature of the conflict. Once it is about whether I have the right to beat you up because you ate or sold beef, rather than about whether there should be a debate about what Indian-ness constitutes and whether it should proscribe the consumption of beef, I am afraid we are lost.”
When was there a “debate” on cow slaughter except in the Constituent Assembly? The “debate” Banerjee talks about were mostly rabid communal agitations and riots led by the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Jan Sangh and the BJP. One wonders whether Abhijit Banerjee grew up during the age of Akbar – that he saw respectful debates on religion.
“My problem with Modi is that he stays silent so often as to allow the worst of his party to drive the agenda. This may be strategic, but it is a dangerous game to play. The Republican Party in the United States is now paying the price of a two-faced approach, where the top leaders of the party would talk about shared American values, but allow a coalition of racists, misogynists and people obsessed with not paying taxes to set the actual agenda. At some point, that coalition decided there was no reason to keep up the façade any more — hence, Donald Trump.
Something similar could happen to the BJP. Sooner or later, someone in the BJP who is much more openly hostile to the minorities will realise that they could be a more credible standard-bearer for the extreme right than Modi; if the party continues to indulge that wing rather than reining them in, they might have the legitimacy to take on Modi and win. It is time we start paying attention to what is happening within the right. And maybe Modi should as well.”
The biggest whitewashing of all occurs when Banerjee accuses Modi of being simply “silent” in the face of BJP extremists. One is astounded. Almost as if Modi himself was not accused of instigating the Gujarat massacre/pogrom in which over 2000 Muslims were killed. In Abhijit Banerjee’s eyes, Sanjiv Bhatt must be a liar, as were all the victims. If Modi is a “moderate”, then Advani must have been a communist by that skewed, unintellectual logic of Banerjee’s. The entire premise is that the old RSS was not filled with thugs (false), and that it wasn’t a coalition of upper caste sexist communalist men to begin with (false again).
If the BJP wanted to rein in the extreme right, they would not have nominated Modi for PM or Amit Shah for Home Minister and BJP President. Even Sambit Patra and Arnab Goswami don’t give Modi this much benefit of doubt as the newly minted progressive icon Banerjee does. And on Trump – Trump won the nomination by earning the hatred of the entire Republican leadership, unlike Modi, who was always acceptable to his own party.
Maybe in his era it was acceptable to have lots of friends from the RSS and still call oneself liberal, but in today’s day and age, having RSS friends is not exactly a badge of honor, considering the fact that the RSS treats Muslims, Christians, Dalits, tribals, Kashmiris, people from the north east, and people from the LGBTQ+ community as inferior in status based on birth. Perhaps in Calcutta, being from a noted bhadralok family made the local RSS more intellectually charitable to the then-young Banerjee – and perhaps other savarnas did not look down upon such associations. Brandishing old ties with bigots means enabling them in the realm of political acceptability, and it is legitimacy indeed that he provides to Modi and the RSS in his piece.
While today, he does call out the actions of the BJP – it is almost as if he was blind to their past actions, that he finds a certain nostalgia in the Sangh of old, while at the same time refusing to differentiate between the pre-neoliberal and post-neoliberal Congress party – a stark omission indeed for a leading economist. Youthful naivete becomes historical fact to him – which then leads him to write an essay on the RSS which was ahistorical par excellence – indeed a work of fiction. Perhaps the RSS piece should have been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature too.
He may be a competent economist, but his article on the RSS shows that when it comes to history or politics, there is a lot left to be desired, quality and objectivity-wise. The RSS has been a private army since its inception in 1925. Sadly enough, Banerjee instead chose to see it as some kind of think-tank and friend circle he could dabble in.
The author is a PhD scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His area of research is the propaganda of the RSS in modern India.