The brains of India's Right: Meeting with the Hindu nationalist BJP, RSS

Western legacy media portrays Indian nationalism as fascism, an imminent danger to Muslims and to world peace. What really is their vision for a new India?

 COMMUNAL POWDER keg? Protesting attacks on Muslim students of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), on the outskirts of Mumbai, Jan. 2020. (photo credit: Francis Mascarenhas)
COMMUNAL POWDER keg? Protesting attacks on Muslim students of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), on the outskirts of Mumbai, Jan. 2020.
(photo credit: Francis Mascarenhas)

On July 26, at a press conference in Washington, DC, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar slammed The New York Times and the Washington Post’s coverage of Kashmir, insinuating that they only report Muslim casualties in the disputed territory with Pakistan. This was not the first time the Times was accused of an anti-Indian obsession. 

Ashley Rindsberg, in his book The Gray Lady Winked, traces it to 1911, when the Times lashed out at Swami Vivekananda, one of the founders of New Age culture, for bringing his “strange cult” and “psychic conspiracy” (Hinduism) to America. 

But 2014 is far back enough. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP – Indian People’s Party) came to power with a resounding electoral knockout of the socialist Congress party, The New York Times went into full meltdown mode, in which it has remained ever since. 

India coverage is fixated on abuses, catastrophes and atrocities that are always just about to happen. Articles are penned by laymen who speak no Indian language other than English; by radical Indian academics in American universities; or by Muslims. A July 2021 employment ad for the Times’s South Asia desk basically read: “Modi supporters need not apply,” causing a media storm in India.

As an Indian studies student, I wanted to hear the Indians’ perspective firsthand. I contacted the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) national volunteer organization and toured India for a month. 

 RAPID ACTION FORCE personnel stand guard outside a mosque before the Supreme Court’s verdict on a disputed religious site in 2019 in Ayodhya – still haunted by the 1992 riots there. (credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters) RAPID ACTION FORCE personnel stand guard outside a mosque before the Supreme Court’s verdict on a disputed religious site in 2019 in Ayodhya – still haunted by the 1992 riots there. (credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters)

RSS is the parent organization of dozens of “nationalist” organizations, including BJP. Although RSS insists on remaining an ideological organization that does not endorse politicians, many of BJP’s top leadership come from RSS ranks, including Modi. 

Some RSS organizations have millions of members: the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student organization has three million members; the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) workers’ union has 10 million members. It has many other large volunteer organizations in fields as diverse as women’s rights, village development or religious services for the Hindu diaspora. 

I wanted to meet the “brains” of the Indian Right – intellectuals, journalists and researchers. I wanted to hear today’s thinkers on the cardinal questions of contemporary Indian politics and identity.

The most militant and inflammatory texts of RSS leaders – the kind leftist pundits love to showcase as flirting with Nazi rhetoric – were written in the stormy times of the carnage of the sub-continent’s partition in 1947 and have since been officially rejected by RSS leadership. It would be the equivalent of shaming Israel’s Labor Party for its praise of Stalin by long-deceased kibbutz movement leaders.

The two dominant political issues in India are the conflict with Muslims and caste discrimination. Others are the vocal resentment of nationalists for old Congress elites who are entrenched in key bastions of power; the role of religion in public life; and populism and political tribalism among Modi lovers and Modi haters. The most basic of all is: What is the nationalist vision for the future of 1.4 billion Indians?

Campus culture – should we be Indian?

Delhi, India’s sprawling capital, is the center of the country’s politics, bureaucracy and media. Suburbs like Gurgaon, Dwarka or Noida would be considered upper class in any Western country, but Delhi’s rundown neighborhoods are the stereotypical India that Westerners dread: filthy, crowded, with choking odors.

A few days after arriving, I traveled north of Delhi to Sonipat, Haryana, to visit a friend at O.P. Jindal University. This is a private university for very affluent Indians, and the best law school in the country. I was not prepared for what I saw.

For a few minutes after entering the university, I was not sure if I was still in India. Not one student was dressed in Indian clothing. Their standard cut-up T-shirts and ripped jeans were a garish imitation of America, almost satire. The dorms are gender-segregated, but couples kiss and caress in public in a way most Indians wouldn’t imagine trying. No house of worship may be built on any public campus, since the law forbids building temples on state-owned land. Jindal is private, but there is no demand for worship.

On the student bus back to Delhi, I sat next to a young law student, whose dream was to make it big as a lawyer. I asked her if Jindal students are foreigners in their own country. She admitted that her upbringing wasn’t typically Indian, since her parents were not religious.

I spent a day at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, the best in India for humanities and social sciences, and the most political place in Delhi outside the official branches of government. It was founded in 1969 by then-education minister Nurul Hasan, a communist, and its faculty and curriculum were aligned with his communist vision from the outset. BJP has already seized enough electoral power to begin replacing the socialist deep state entrenched in power since India’s founding in 1947. Universities remain a stubborn opposition, and JNU foremost of all.

Communist student organizations still rule the campus, but even here ABVP has a growing presence. As an Indian diplomat explained: “Kids at JNU are very bright, but they come with no ideology and soak up whatever is offered. It used to be communism, but the new generation isn’t buying it.” 

 GRAFFITI AT JNU supports the Marxist insurgents in Nagaland, in the ongoing conflict in northeastern India between the ethnic Nagas and the government.  (credit: Yeshaya Rosenman) GRAFFITI AT JNU supports the Marxist insurgents in Nagaland, in the ongoing conflict in northeastern India between the ethnic Nagas and the government. (credit: Yeshaya Rosenman)

The enormous campus is carved out of a jungle, with peacocks, monkeys and snakes venturing out of the thicket near roadside cows. The campus is full of protest graffiti and posters for protest events. A fashionable celebrity cause is Sharjeel Imam, one of several students tried for sedition and stirring up riots. 

My host is the daughter of a Mumbai-based banker. She is interested in politics, so she came to JNU to do a PhD in international relations. Like most female students at JNU, she is dressed in a long Indian dress. She is in a serious relationship with a young man she plans to marry, but in her parents’ generation it would have been an impossible match: He is from another caste. He is from another state, in a country where regional identity carries more weight than national identity. And it is not an arranged marriage, secured by families, but a “love marriage” with a fellow student.

Acceptance of such marriages is growing, she tells me, and she estimates that half of all Indians would accept them. Nevertheless, out-of-caste marriages still cause a few hundred honor killings annually in India. 

The most common grievance against Congress ideology centers around the term “secularism.” Unlike Islamic Pakistan, India has no official religion but allows space for every religious sect in the realm of family law. But in practice, secularism had a more dramatic meaning.

India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, ruled for 16 years and created a dynasty dominating the Congress Party until today. He was an Anglicized, Cambridge-educated socialist – Indian in name only. For him, “secularism” was an all-encompassing term central to his vision of transitioning India from a very religious, pre-modern, Asian society to the industrialized socialist state that British elites ruminated about. Beyond a centralized economy, in the realm of identity this meant an orchestrated effort to cleanse Indian education of any local identity, especially religion.

I was shocked to find out that Indians receive no religious education in public schools. In very religious schools, students recite a few mantras and prayers, but schools usually teach one brief prayer only, to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. 

The enormous classical library of India – mythology, poetry, theater, ethics, linguistics, musicology or ritual – is never opened. Most Indians know the central Ramayana epic poem from the 1987 hit television series.

I met with Makarand Paranjape, a literature professor, author, novelist and opinion columnist. Though he does not hail from an RSS family, he is an eloquent speaker for a generation of Indians who were fed up with decades of Congress mismanagement and became ardent BJP supporters. But even as a public nationalist voice, he refuses to conform to political tribalism and won’t shy away from criticizing Modi, an act that hardcore “Modi-Bhakts” (devotees) view as blasphemy.

His ire is usually aimed squarely at the Muslims and their leftist patrons. His book JNU: Nationalism and India’s Uncivil War, which came out earlier this year, is a critique of campus radicalism from a rare nationalist lecturer at JNU. Many colleagues stopped talking to him even before the book was published. 

Paranjape articulates the views of the masses as he rails against his colleagues for spearheading the deracination of India. To him, they are self-hating Indians, crudely assaulting a tradition they know little about, for the sake of cozying up to Western elites and New York Times editors. 

He writes about “Swaraj (Independence) of Ideas” –  the notion that India should end its servitude to intellectual colonial masters. He thinks India has its own rich intellectual tradition that should form the basis of a proud local discourse on par with Western discourse and in dialogue with it, but not subservient to it. Parting ways with Western elites is exactly what Congress elites fear the most.

Regarding colonialism, he relays the common viewpoint in India: The first colonialists were neither British nor Portuguese, but Muslim. Islam is a belief system that originated outside of India and, over a millennium, converted millions of Hindus. Originally, Indian Islam had its own tolerant, syncretistic character, and Muslims and Hindus celebrated each other’s holidays. But in recent decades, Islam has become Arabized, intolerant and aggressive. 

All my interlocutors pointed to the same smoking gun: the black Arab dress and veils worn by Indian Muslim women. “Their mothers wore saris, not niqab,” they lament. 

The professor does not espouse expelling Muslims or waging war on them. Hinduism is deeply tolerant, he insists. Muslims are welcome if they do not view Hindus as enemies. Fearing the creation of Muslim states within a state, he favors the long-debated Uniform Civil Code (UCC – a proposal in India to formulate and implement personal laws of citizens which apply to all citizens equally, regardless of their religion, gender and sexual orientation). 

He wants no legal status for any religious court – Hindu, Muslim or otherwise. He is amazed that Western writers can consider the UCC as an attack on Islam. “Is this not the system in all Western countries?” he retorts.

WE MEET Govind Dangi, the leader of ABVP at JNU. Today, he is a PhD candidate in American studies, who grew up in a village. 

His story represents millions more. He says that in a typical village, there is usually no modern education. His luck was that a branch of Saraswati Vidya Mandir (SVM), an RSS organization for village education, opened and offered a full education through high school. SVM also preached an ethos of character and nation building, and public activism. The downsides of Indian socialism are obvious, but the benevolent side is that university education is free, and a village boy like Dangi can get into JNU if he has the talent and stamina for the exams. 

Student politics in India are the entry point to state and national-level politics, and I try to understand what Dangi believes in. His worldview has an aura of simplicity and innocence that only someone from a background like his can have. He is deeply patriotic, quoting slogans like “Nation First” and “Worshiping Bharat Mata (Mother India),” and speaking passionately of nation-building and a Hindu foreign policy based on the Sanskrit aphorism “The world is one family.” He admires Modi as a strongman and statesman, a man of principle who gets things done. 

Village life has violent sides built in, and Indian villagers migrating to the cities are responsible for a large part of any mob violence featured on international media. But Dangi was neither taught violence nor militarism – only to pursue his unique talents for Mother India. 

Like many young Indians, he has polite reservations about Mahatma Gandhi and rejects his pacifism as political weakness. ABVP has clashed on campus with communist student groups, but even so, Dangi insists that ABVP campus protests will be victorious without violence. He was never taught to hate socialists nor to view Muslims – whether Indian or Pakistani – as enemies. 

Caste and political tribalism

Subramanian Swamy is sharp and witty as ever at age 83. A former Harvard economics professor and veteran BJP politician, he has seen it all in India and fought with them all. He gained political popularity for battling Indira Gandhi when she suspended democracy and declared a state of emergency in 1975. He was influential in parliament until his recent battles against Modi gained him notoriety in his own party. 

Even as a BJP member, he was instrumental in the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991 under Congress’s rule and was always active in foreign policy-making. He was a staunch lifelong ally of Israel – one of the first Indians to champion full diplomatic relations with Israel, in an era when Yasser Arafat took summer vacations near Delhi, and Moshe Dayan came to India only in disguise.

I ask Swamy if the Muslims are a threat to India. “The main problem in India is not Muslims, but caste. How can the Muslims threaten us? We are so much more powerful than them.”

“The main problem in India is not Muslims, but caste. How can the Muslims threaten us? We are so much more powerful than them.”

Subramanian Swamy

He then expounds on BJP’s view of caste: “In our classical texts, the upper caste title of Brahmin was not hereditary but acquired through scholarship, religious devotion and exemplary behavior. When it became hereditary, not meritocratic, it was corrupted from its proper meaning. This has led to all the injustices, and this must be undone.”

This makes electoral sense. BJP leaders know Muslims won’t vote for them, so they court lower caste votes. The climax was when in July, Modi’s government elected Droupadi Murmu, a tribal woman, president of India. This was seen as a brilliant cultural move, bringing tribals into the orb of Hindu nationalism, when many Hindus debate whether tribals are Hindus or animists

The kind of tribalism Swamy can’t stand is political tribalism. His newfound enemies in BJP portray him as self-aggrandizing and jealous of Modi’s fame, pointing to his rambunctious Twitter account, where he has compared himself to Donald Trump and Modi, and flirted with conspiracies about China. 

But one thing Swamy has on his side – a career as a leading economist. He is one of few people in parliament who can easily do the numbers, and point out, chart after chart, the Modi government’s lackluster economic performance. His 2019 book on India’s economy was a bestseller. He sneers at Modi’s economic populism and calls out the economists surrounding him as sycophants who know the truth but won’t say it. Swamy dreams of Indian grandeur, but his activism leads him not only to champion the rights of Hindu temples but also free market economics.

Ayodhya – Religious politics and violence

The RSS organization most notorious in the eyes of Western academics is Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP – World Council of Hindus). Their mandate is kindling the fire of the Hindu religion among the Indian diasporas. They also finance social work in India and convene pioneering ecumenical conferences for religious leaders from across the vast range of Hindu denominations. 

They gained notoriety for being the driving force behind the 1992 riots around the events at the Ram Janmabhoomi temple at Ayodhya. Hindu nationalists had demanded the demolition of a 16th-century mosque built at the birthplace of the god Rama, and the rebuilding of the temple. In their view, the site, one of India’s holiest, was an icon of Hindu humiliation by Muslims. 

A mass movement was created, and between 1990-1993 the mosque was demolished by a mob. Waves of riots and retaliation broke out across the country, killing more than 2,500 people, mostly Muslims. In later retaliation, dozens of Hindu temples were destroyed across South Asia. A 2019 high court verdict finally gave a green light for rebuilding the Ram temple at the site, which is scheduled to open in 2023.

I met Ashok Chowgule, a shipping magnate and vice president of VHP, at a colonial-style country club in Mumbai, where we discussed international relations, history and religion. He sees no problem with the final outcome at Ayodhya. Hindus got their temple fair and square in court. He said was not just a legal victory, it was historical justice. 

I asked him about the riots. The BJP president at the time, L.K. Advani, wrote in his memoirs that it was the saddest day of his life when they erupted. Harsher critics add that the way events occurred, the riots were a forgone conclusion that should have surprised nobody.

 AT O.P. Jindal Global University: Still in India? (credit: Ekaterina Svetlichnaya) AT O.P. Jindal Global University: Still in India? (credit: Ekaterina Svetlichnaya)

But Chowgule sees it differently. The battle between Hindus and Muslims did not begin then nor end then. Indian religion is tolerant by nature, he says, and this good nature was abused by an increasingly aggressive Muslim leadership who first partitioned India, and then continued on within independent India, aided by Congress policies of appeasement

He believes that the mass movement began to stop the creeping Muslim domination. Only then did Hindus begin to openly protest the demolition of Hindu holy sites by Muslims and stopped trying to explain things away. Hindus then began to speak openly about injustices perpetrated by Muslims.

Historically, he was right. The Ayodhya affair was the turning point that eventually brought the nationalists to power. The majority of Hindus feel aggrieved and are voting for BJP in growing numbers.

Much of my conversation with Chowgule was decidedly liberal: He voiced criticism of the vast affirmative action schemes in India, identity politics, and elite abuses. Tradition is also very important to him, and he wants India to remain traditional, mildly conservative regarding cultural issues, tolerant and non-coercive, which are all part and parcel of Indian tradition.

Who will bring peace between Hindus and Muslims? I would sooner bet on BJP than on Congress. On September 20, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat met with prominent Muslim leaders. All defined the meeting as positive and reconciliatory. Both sides spoke sincerely of community issues. 

Bhagwat requested that the consumption of beef be discouraged, since it offends Hindu sensibilities, and that Muslims cease using the word “kafir” – a pejorative term that refers to non-believers. The Muslims voiced concerns about being smeared as terrorists loyal to Pakistan. 

The Muslim leaders praised Bhagwat for listening at length. Bhagwat emphasized the common ancestry of Muslims and Hindus, and called for unity and all-Indian harmony. Fascist duces don’t talk like that.■