From Pluralism to Exclusivism: How the RSS's Politics of Purity is
Destroying India's Multicultural Heritage.
By Farish A. Noor.
That the world is now home to competing and contradictory tendencies
towards globalisation and isolationism is old news to us by now.
Aggravated by the poorly regulated process of globalisation, which has
brought into being a radically new form of communicative architecture
hitherto unknown to us, the world seems split between those who believe in
a future with no more political and cultural boundaries on the one hand
and those who believe that the future depends on strengthening those
frontiers even more.
The backlash against globalisation has led to the emergence of a number of
ethno-nationalist and religio-political movements which have stepped into
the vacuum once occupied by traditional opponents of Western
liberal-capitalist hegemony. In many parts of the world, and in the
developing South in particular, we can see the revival of culturally,
racially and religiously exclusivist movements that have grown more vocal
in their demands to police the boundaries of their society at all levels.
India today is a case in point, and the contradictions that exist in the
Third World are manifest in the problematic domestic political situation
of the country, particularly after the victory of the Hindu fundamentalist
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The government of Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee is now forced to contain the tide of religious and cultural
exclusivism that was let loose into the open, party thanks to the
political advances of his own party. But now comes an even bigger threat
to the multicultural traditions of once-secular India- mainly from the
BJP's parent organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
However, to claim that all of India's present day problems are due
entirely to the advances of the BJP and RSS would be to put the cart
before the horse in a sense. Both the BJP and RSS have been in India for
decades, and the latter made the headlines of the world when one of its
members assassinated Mahatma Ghandi in 1948. The RSS has been around for
more than 75 years now, and its presence on the political landscape of
India is hardly a novel development.
But what is new about the resurgence of the RSS today is just how popular
and influential the movement has become, and how it has managed to tap
into the collective anger and frustration of so many Hindus in India-
after the apparent failure of so many secular democratic governments that
were ostensibly dedicated to the modern developmental paradigm. What is
also interesting is to see how and why the rhetoric of the RSS- which has
always been predicated on a discourse of authenticity and notions of
cultural purity- has made such an effective comeback on the Indian
At its massive nation-wide rally recently, where an excess of 75,000
members were said to have attended, the leadership of the RSS called for a
return to the politics of cultural purity in no uncertain terms. Its main
targets, as usual, were the non-Hindu minorities of the country who have
always been blamed for India's internal problems and regarded as 'unpure'
elements that are somehow alien to India's 'pure' Hindu culture in
The leadership of the RSS, beginning with men like K. S. Sudarshan, called
on the state to force the country's Christian minority to break their
institutional links with other Churches abroad. The RSS has always claimed
that the Indian Churches have been funded and promoted by foreign
interests that are opposed to Hindu hegemony in India, and that India's
Christian minority are in reality a dangerous fifth column who are
actually working against the interests of the country. In favour of a
closed and controlled 'national' Church for India, the RSS now seem to be
pushing for a local Church institution that is similar to that of the
Church that is allowed to exist in China.
Apart from India's Christians, the RSS has also levelled its critique
against the Muslims of the country. Long since cast as 'outsiders' and
'descendants of invaders', India's Muslims share a common fate with their
Semitic brethren, the Christians. Like the Christians, India's Muslims
have been accused of trying to undermine the socio-cultural and
religio-political hegemony of the Hindu majority. Now the RSS plans to
push through a series of cultural and educational reform measures that
would force the 130 million Muslims of India to accept and acknowledge the
fact that they were once Hindus themselves, so that they may 'Indianise'
That a party like the RSS can speak of 'pure' Indian culture and
'Indianisation' programmes without flinching is in itself a reflection of
the dogmatism and extremism of the movement, whose rhetoric is echoed in
other far-right extremist movements elsewhere such as in Germany. Yet the
RSS, committed as it is to its religio-political ideology based on a
narrow reading of classical Hinduism (as well as an even narrower reading
of Indian history) continues to launch its incessant polemics against the
cultural and religious minorities of the country with impunity.
The root of the problem, however, is not so much prejudice, ignorance or a
hatred of foreigners as such. True, these are all factors that have come
into play and no other movement in India today is as adroit in
manipulating these sentiments like the RSS and BJP. But apart from that
there remains the fundamental problem of the fundamentalists themselves,
and their discourse of cultural authenticity and purity.
For the underlying logic of the RSS- like many other extremist religious
and political movements in other parts of the world- is based on
categories of absolutes. From its inception, the RSS has been promoting
the notion of a 'pure' India that was somehow untainted and uncorrupted
until the coming of invaders who brought with them different ideas and
values, as well as religious beliefs. This is how and why the Christians
and Muslims of India are thought of as 'external enemies' who have come to
defile the sacred precinct on Indian culture and identity.
Such a thesis works only because it is simple and wrong. Like all
extremist organisations that preach a culture of intolerance, the
discourse of the RSS is basically an instrumental fiction that is designed
to secure specific political goals, regardless of the cost to truth and
objectivity. The RSS fails to note, for instance, that India herself is
more than a country: it is, in fact, a great continent whose greatness
lies in precisely the melange of cultural, religious, economic and
political influences that have come to find a home there. And in this
process of cultural mixing, inter-penetration and cross-fertilising, it is
the people of India as a whole who have benefited.
To claim that India's Hindus have not been touched at all by the process
of intercultural exchange is a lie, and a dangerous one at that. It denies
the centuries of cross-cultural borrowing which has helped to enrich the
Hindus of the country and made them an open, tolerant and pluralistic
community. The same could be said of the Muslims and Christians of the
country, whose contact with the dominant Hindu culture has only enriched
them in every sense. Today, the fruit of this lengthy (and at times
problematic) process of cross-cultural interaction can be seen everywhere:
from the myriad of influences evident in the films of Bollywood to the
magnificent architecture of India.
Yet the RSS, if it were to have its way, is bent on ending all of this for
the sake of returning to some mythical 'Golden Age' of India which never
existed. The fundamentalists of the BJP and RSS would prefer to believe in
fictions rather than address realities.
Under such circumstances, it can only be said that the prospect for
multiculturalism in India seem bleak at present. India's liberal
intellectuals and leaders are hard-pressed to defend the country's secular
democratic institutions against the advances of the fundamentalists who
have come to be known as the 'saffron menace'. The only way out of the
present impasse would be to intensify the co-operation between progressive
and liberal Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India in order to safeguard
the institutions that have shielded them for so long. But during trying
times such as these, the irony of it all is that truth and objectivity
provide precious little solace in comparison to the lies of demagogues.
Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian academic and human rights activist. He
has written on the subject of inter-civilisational dialogue and is
currently working on a book on the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS.