The Rise Of Sangh Parivar: A Counter-Revolution To Roll-Back Democracy, Secularism and Social Justice

V Ramachandran

From the time when India’s struggle for freedom from British colonial rule started gaining momentum in the early 1920s, there was a confluence of different streams:

a) the religious stream (which should include the various terrorist groups in their formative years)

b) the Gandhian stream (from 1920 onwards the Gandhian ethos dominated the Indian National Congress with the Socialists coming within the Gandhian camp and

c) the radical stream, viz. the Left spearheaded by the nascent communist groups sprouting in various regions of the country and organisations like HSRA and Bharat Naujavan Sabha led by Bhagat Singh and his associates

The forerunners of the present day Hindutvawadi Sangh Parivar – the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha – since their early beginnings in the 1920s, were not even part of the religious stream of anti-colonialism as they chose to pit themselves against the entire spectrum of the anti-colonial front; and this is evident from their writings, speeches and activities in the pre-Independence period.

It was quintessentially, ‘the Gandhi moment’ when ‘India was born in those immense moments of three subcontinent wide mass actions (1919-1921, 1930-33, 1942) that paralyzed the British Raj, which Gandhi was fortunate to lead a population that had already chosen for itself that prize’. The high point of anti-colonial struggle in the Indian sub-continent was surely the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, who nurtured a dream of building an impregnable united front of peoples of the sub-continent belonging to diverse religions, caste and creed for overthrowing British rule and building a democratic, secular, egalitarian new India.

If ‘the Gandhian moment’ is considered to have subsumed the entire period from 1920 to May 1947, when Mountbatten’s ‘Plan Balkan’ was revised to ‘Plan Partition’; the years 1929, marking the launching the Meerut Conspiracy against the nascent yet surging communist movement, to 1931 Karachi Congress surely belonged to ‘the Left moment’. This was the most crucial phase in the national struggle threatening to rupture the general Gandhian consensus; when Nehru, the safe socialist, emerged as the most reliable successor to Gandhi. The 1931 resolutions of the Karachi Congress session condensed the broad socialist demands that had become common sense in India by 1931 and provided the horizon of possibilities for the national struggle and for the republic to come. Congress garnered the benefits of the 1929-1931 ‘left moment’ profusely in the 1937 provincial elections, held with restricted franchise (based on a narrow electoral college – only 3 percent Indians could vote after 1919) and registered a massive win. The Congress began to be increasingly influenced by rightist and revanchist elements, more particularly in the conduct of the Congress ministries in 1937; and it effected a course correction of sorts for the national movement, purging the fall out of the 1929-1931 ‘left moment’. This was followed up by the launch of Quit India struggle with the adventurist line of ‘Do or Die’, in the midst of the Second World War.

In the provincial elections held in 1946 after the war, again on the basis of a very narrow franchise (only about 15 percent Indians could vote after 1935), the Muslim League – almost a non-entity in 1937 – triumphed in nearly all the constituencies reserved for Muslims, barring the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). These results came to be deliberately construed as popular consent for the partition. In the years 1945-46, in the background of post-war wave of workers’ strikes, a series of militant peasant struggles sprang up in different regions; these were accompanied by popular resistance in the princely states, the revolt of Naval ratings (in Bombay), strikes by Air Force men (in Karachi) and the agitation for the release of INA (Indian National Army) prisoners signifying widespread disaffection among the armed forces and rebellious mood of the people. This period saw a new resurgence of the ‘Left’. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now easier to discern that the bourgeois and imperialism were several steps ahead of the communists. The ascendancy of the bourgeoisie from the initial phase of the national movement, rendered possible by the particular circumstances of the period, contributed to this denouement and led to partition.

The very fact that the World War-II was fought and won on the slogan of democracy against militarism contributed to a great awakening in the minds of the common people and a better understanding of their rights leading to a global mass upsurge of sorts. The British saw the writing on the wall and chose to decolonize, i.e. grant independence to their colonies, in order to safeguard their future interests in the colonies and the region. The native elites in the colonies were also eager to take hold of the reins of power. In this milieu the British ‘divide and rule’ dictum flowered into the ‘divide and depart’ policy. The Muslim League led by MA Jinnah was handed over the control of randomly chosen Muslim majority areas in the West and East of the subcontinent, a moth-eaten Pakistan, as Jinnah himself chose to refer to it after the fate accompli. The right to rule the rest of British India minus the 500 odd princely states was ceded to the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi, who was averse to partition but could not overrule his colleagues in the Congress who were eager to accept this offer. This denouement caused untold suffering through massive displacement and relocation of population bartered like cattle as well as immense collateral damage in terms of human lives snuffed out in the ensuing violent tide of rioting, arson and carnage.

Gandhi tried valiantly but in vain to stem the horrendous fratricide in the aftermath of partition and transfer of power and was felled by an assassin’s bullet at point blank range. This was Gandhi’s last stand and here he remained true to the promises made to the people in the course of freedom struggle. The RSS openly flaunted their defiance and rejection of the ‘imagining of India as a nation’ implicit in the minds of the people participating in the independent struggle through their murder of Gandhi; and paid the political price of being pushed to near oblivion. Immediately after the assassination of Gandhi, the RSS was banned; the ban remained in force for a few years and from there on the RSS had to operate clandestinely from within the Congress, following the advice of Vallabhbhai Patel.

Gandhi had chosen his successors well –Vallabhbhai Patel to unify the scattered princely states and the rest of British India, minus the Pakistan region, Jawaharlal Nehru to guide the destiny of India and BR Ambedkar to draw up the Constitution of Independent India. The aspirations of the people who had participated in the struggle against British rule, the promises that Indian National Congress – as the dominant force within the freedom movement – made to the people in the course of this struggle all came to be enshrined in the Constitution, encapsulating the idea of India as a nation. The Republication Constitution of India ushered in a veritable ‘social revolution’ through universal adult suffrage and the principle of ‘one-person one vote’, and the promise to enable ‘one person one value’ as well in future, in the Directive Principles.

The outfits like Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) put themselves firmly on the side of the British colonial masters, by harping on the sanctity of religious and caste fault lines in our society; and adding teeth to the British divide and rule policy through their campaign of hatred against particular castes and communities living in India and their readiness in fomenting communal riots on the flimsiest pretexts. These outfits remained antagonistic towards reformist movements ranged against upper-caste hegemony, like the those led by Jyotiba Phule (in the then Bombay Presidency – now Maharashtra), starkly revealing their upper caste bias. Add to this the fact that their baggage of ideology of nationalism had ample inputs from the fascist organisations of Germany and Italy. Evidently, the vision that shaped the writing of the Constitution of India, drawn up under the guidance of BR Ambedkar, was not the vision of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha; and they did not share the perspective, the promises and the idea India, enshrined in our Constitution.

At every point in India’s independent history the big bourgeoisie has been able to drive its stake into the heart of Indian policy making. The Congress accepted the 1944 Bombay Plan, formulated by the big bourgeoisie, which called upon the state to use its limited resources to fund the groundwork for largely private industrial expansion, ensure all round protection of the interests of the big bourgeoisie and soft pedal on land reforms. The policy framework set by the Indian government after 1947 policy remained wedded to this vision and allowed the big bourgeoisie to make excessive gains, quite disproportionate to its presence in the Indian economy. Rural power remained with the old social classes, who drew on their own forms of social power (via the vectors of caste and gender). This policy incubated the power of the big bourgeoisie and by the 1960, it was able to throttle any attempt to shift course.

The bad crop years of 1965-66, plummeting industrial growth, together with the oil crisis of the 1970s and reconstructed rural production relations premised on technological inputs rather than land reforms- under the aegis of Green Revolution – manifested in food-shortages and inflation tearing at the heart of the state’s fragile liberalism. Signs of Congress impatience with political protest came in its dismissal of the Communist ministry in Kerala (1959), the crackdown at the Communist-led food movement (1965) and the immense violence to be visited on the railways workers (1974). No less important was the use of state power to shut down worker unrest and peasant insurgency.

The RSS, which had been operating in the shadows since the murder of Gandhi, slowly resurfaced in the 1960s and began to operate openly, as the Congress was losing its appeal in the minds of the people and celebrated their re-entry with a string of communal riots across the country.

The Emergency (1975-77), during which Indira Gandhi’s government suspended the Constitution, marked the moment of frayed Congress hegemony. The actual policies in the Emergency period hastened the transition of Indian capital from the Bombay Plan to the era of liberalisation to produce an economy susceptible to the whims of foreign trade; Industrial and financial capital benefited handsomely from the Emergency. The period from 1977 to1998, ‘remained a period mired in the massive ambiguities of the JP movement and the post-Emergency Janata government’; which only served ‘the function of legitimising the RSS as a respectable force in Indian politics giving its political front a significant place in government’. Between the Emergency regime (1975-77), the Janata government (1977-80), and then the return of Indira Gandhi in 1980, the one constant feature was the orientation of the liberalisation policy, whose consequence was a crackdown on the workers and their unions. The capitalist class’ political commitment to the Congress-run consensus withered as the party’s monopoly on power frayed.

The ‘left moment’ resurfaced again, in the 1980s, when the Left succeeded at least momentarily in bringing together disparate anti-Congress parties on the common theme of federalism and proactive anti-communalism against the machinations of BJP. Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 dismembered the emerging left alternative. Rajiv Gandhi took over from where Indira Gandhi left and wanted to turn India into an American suburb. By the late 1980s, a social basis for Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘liberalisation drive’ emerged out of the advantages given to the newly moneyed middle class – not more than six per cent of the population. By 1991, the bourgeoisie was much more confident and impatient. It walked with deliberate steps on the grave of the Bombay Plan. It was Dr Singh’s IMF-induced shock therapy of 1991 that brought to fruition Rajiv Gandhi’s dreams. India’s ruling class foisted its ideas for the country as the ideas of India. With globalization’s the workers’ culture took a turn from popular secularism to virulent communalism.

Democracy-Human-RightsReligion as a social force has always had an important role in India. The Congress tried to exploit the religious fissures between caste Hindus and Muslims across northern India. The only beneficiaries of this raw communal politics were the Sangh Parivar, the RSS and its political arm the BJP. They had sharpened their claws during the anti-Emergency regime of the Janata Pafty (1977-1980), conducted a series of planned thrusts and assaults on the fundamental principles and institutions of our Constitution in classic fascist militarist manner – through their Ram Janmabhoomi struggle, their Shilanyas, rath yatras and finally the demolition of the dilapidated Babri structure in Ayodhya – all of which led to communal riots and consequent polarisation along the marks of communal identity. All these facilitated their rise to wielding executive power in Independent India, under the cover of National Democratic Alliance headed by Vajpayee in the late 1990s – the epitome of new ruling class consensus ‘in favour of a closer alliance with imperialism externally and the imposition of neoliberal order domestically’.

The return of the right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) to power at the pan-India level, through the 2014 parliamentary elections, is the coming of ‘revolution of the far Right to erode from inside the values’ of democracy, secularism, social justice taking roots in popular consciousness of the people’. It is a continuation of the process of rolling back the ‘long social revolution’ that has been under way ‘in India over the last one hundred years’. The events since 2014 have all gone to confirm this assessment. The counter revolutionary insurrection of the Sangh Parivar is now in full flow.



1 No Free Left By Vijay Prashad

2 Lineages of the Present by Aijaz Ahmad

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