The Men in the Tree
98 minutes, Hindi/English/Marathi/Sanskrit
with English subtitles, 2002
by Lalit Vachani
As Kali, a young ex-swayamsevak (volunteer) from Nagpur is asked, “Who was Shivaji?” we see him struggling to come up with an answer that gives the familiar-sounding name a place in history. The film then cuts to a moment, 10 years ago, when Kali, then a young school-going boy, is being instructed in his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha (branch) about the greatness of Shivaji, a Maratha (Hindu) ruler famed for his defiance of Aurangzeb, the (Muslim) Mughal. The shakha’s venue in a public park offers welcome distraction for Kali who spends his time playing with pebbles and pulling at grass while the session continues. The next shot takes us to the more ‘formal’ classroom where, in English, his teacher’s inspired lesson is on how Shivaji fought Muslim rulers on behalf of the oppressed Hindus. As is customary, Kali is asked to recount the instruction at the end of the lesson. Clueless, he gets up and stares into space, pretending to think hard. Cut to the present, as the older Kali wracks his brain yet again for that elusive answer. “I don’t know”, he says finally, “but I think he had something to do with the Shiv Sena”.
Kali features in The Men in the Tree, a 98-minute documentary on the RSS by Lalit Vachani. If the title is a little confusing, that is because the film is a sequel to Boy in the Branch, a much shorter film made in 1992. The earlier film documented the activities of one RSS shakha in Nagpur, where the organisation is headquartered. From the commentary, we know that Vachani went to Nagpur expecting to witness grandiose spectacles of fascist indoctrination commonly reminiscent of Nazi Germany. What he saw instead was simple in its ingenuity. Young boys came to the shakha and, under the watchful eye of the shakha pramukh (branch leader), they played games. These games were the first step in an elaborate chain of RSS training. One game began with the children shouting: “Kashmir belongs to us!” Another, a name game, is interesting in how certain names from Indian history were included (Sardar Patel, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Rana Pratap, Gandhi), how some were excluded (Ashfaqullah Khan or Akbar), and how some names were juxtaposed (Gandhi and, say, Golwalkar). These games helped create a sense of belonging to the RSS parivar (a ‘family’) and its extensions in the Hindu community. Through not-so-subtle means, the games also imparted other RSS ‘virtues’: discipline, obedience, reverence of authority, and hatred of the ‘enemy’ (which may be constructed as Muslim, Christian, or communist).
The Men in the Tree addresses the crucial question of how much of this indoctrination survives among the boys as they become older. Taking Kali as a representative, very little. For Kali, the demolition of the Babri Masjid is wrong, he has a complete disregard for the purported rights and wrongs of history, and he does not think Muslims are enemies. Unfortunately, Kali is perhaps atypical. When Vachani went back to Nagpur in October 2000 to track the boys who had formed the central characters of Boy in the Branch, he found that Kali had attended the shakha for about two years, and then the shakha itself had wound up and Kali had drifted away from Hindutva into the more benign occupation of running a small shop. This was not the case with Sandeep, who sells ayurvedic medicine today after having worked six years as an RSS pracharak (fulltime propagandist). Sandeep is the archetypal neighbourhood man: a gentle and affable family man with a winsome smile. The Men in the Tree takes its time to establish the ‘ordinariness’ of Sandeep as the person who does not seem the kind to engage in fundamentalism, quite unlike Shripad. Shripad is a building contractor, who used to be the physical instructor in Kali’s shakha. Shripad fits the stereotype of the ‘Hindu fanatic’. He tells us proudly, eyes gleaming, that he was among those who stood atop the dome of the Babri Masjid on that fateful December day 10 years ago. Sandeep had not been among those who razed the mosque to the ground. He was one of those, he tells us with his easy smile, manning the ‘base camp’. Along with better-known national personalities like Arun Jaitley and Vinay Katiyar, Sandeep and Shripad, with their otherwise varied worldviews, stand united in allegiance to a fascist organisation.
Vachani also interviewed two other ex-RSS members. Des Raj Goel, author of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, one of the few books by an ‘insider’ that exposes the truth about the extremely secretive organisation, talks in the film about his years in the RSS. The other ‘insider’ testimony is provided by Purushottam Agarwal, who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and who was a member of an RSS shakha in Gwalior as an adolescent. On crucial issues, their evidence is remarkably similar, though they were RSS members at different times and in different cities. On the question of Gandhi, for instance, whatever it may claim in public, it is clear that the RSS is ambivalent. There is antipathy on the one hand. Thus, the ex-sarsanghchalak (supreme commander) of the RSS, Balasaheb Deoras is reputed to have said that while Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse used the incorrect method, his concern itself was quite valid.
In the film, one of the few times that Sandeep looks distinctly uncomfortable is when he speaks about Gandhi. He tells us that Gandhi committed many mistakes, and while to err is human, when one’s errors affect the whole society, it becomes a problem. Agarwal tells us that in his shakha, they used to be told that if Gandhi is the ‘Father of the Nation’, he is the father of Pakistan, not India. On the other hand, though, there is also an attempt by the RSS to co-opt Gandhi to the extent that RSS comic books show Gandhi saluting the RSS flag. Yet, the duality of the RSS attitude to Gandhi is clearly a front. Goel recalls how, in the late 1940s, as a young RSS activist, it was his duty to report Gandhi’s speeches to his bosses. But the young Goel hated Gandhi so much that he listened to the speeches on the radio, rather than see the man’s face. The only day that he planned to go to Gandhi’s prayer meeting was on 30 January 1948, when the Hindu Mahasabha office was abuzz with expectation that something big was going to happen. When Goel reached Birla House, where Gandhi spent the last few months of his life, he saw people running out of the gate – Gandhi had already been shot. Goel was destined never to see his face live.
The real insight into the RSS mind, however, comes when Goel asserts that the killing of Gandhi was the first step towards the creation of the fascist Hindu rashtra (nation). The statement is significant. He does not single out the demolition of the Babri Masjid as the first step. What this confirms is that Godse was not a lunatic, but the logical product of the RSS propaganda against Gandhi. It tells us that the RSS has a vision. The RSS project, ultimately, is not about its political front, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), coming to power. Indeed, the RSS was quite happy to even dissolve the precursor of the BJP, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, when it was given the opportunity by Jai Prakash Narayan to enter the national political mainstream as part of the Janata Party. So the electoral or other fortunes of the BJP do not per se form the main concern of the RSS. Essentially, the RSS is concerned with the refashioning of Indian society along exclusionist lines. As part of that, it eventually wishes to dismantle the very democratic set-up that has enabled the BJP and, through it, the RSS to rise to power in the first place. That is the real meaning of the Hindu rashtra. Though the term ‘Hindu rashtra’ has entered mainstream political consciousness relatively recently, it is of fairly old vintage.
Sandeep reveals how the electoral performance of the BJP is only one amongst many concerns of the RSS. When asked about the strength of the RSS, he replies without hesitation: “the shakha and the parivar”. The greater the number of shakhas, the deeper the penetration into individual minds, and the more inclusive the span of the member-organisations of the parivar, the fewer the areas immune to RSS influence. Sandeep affirms that the BJP is only, one, and not even the most important, member of the family.
To its long-term end, the RSS focuses, most of all, on the young. Sudarshan, the current sarsanghchalak of the RSS, told Vachani in 1992 that the RSS inducts children into the shakha because they are at an impressionable age and easy to mould. For this, doctrinaire history becomes crucial. For instance, Sandeep informs us how we have only heard so far the distorted, Marxist notion of history and therefore are not aware that Akbar was actually a lascivious man who did many unmentionable things with women at Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Only through the creation of heroes and villains can the future be secured through remedial action in the present. Perhaps Kali’s two-year stint with the shakha did not leave him with much because he did not pay attention to history lessons.
The strength of Vachani’s film is that it lets the RSS expose itself. The Men in the Tree is a powerful work of political anthropology. While the filmmaker’s ideology frames the film, it does not impede the procurement of rich footage. The footage of RSS activists on a house-to-house campaign in New Delhi is priceless. As a man opens the door of his house, the RSS activist begins: “We are from the RSS. We do not kill Muslims and Marxists”. With footage like this, who needs commentary?
More significantly, Vachani gets both Sandeep and Shirpad, two RSS activists, to share on camera quite candidly their respective roles in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The careful planning that went into the demolition of the structure is evident to all viewers. It exposes the portrayal to the Liberhan Commission and to the public, as a spontaneous act of devout Hindus, a case of the ‘mob going out of hand’, to be the falsity it is. The Men in the Tree underlines the RSS’ emphasis on organisation and discipline. These two are indispensable to the cause of an ideology. Every detail of the demolition was obviously calibrated. The RSS has figured out that social change is only possible if led by an organised power. While the film does not overtly advocate this, it makes clear that anti-communal forces need to organise themselves if they are to keep societal space free from fascistic encroachment. Simplistic talk of ‘secularism’ is not going to defeat a well-ordered attack.
By the logic of the film, its ending is unconvincing. After having shown how the RSS is organised, to then conclude that the RSS is a self-limiting phenomenon, that the essentially tolerant Hinduism of the masses – or Gandhi’s Hinduism for that matter – will eventually assert itself, is naive. While the number of shakhas may not have grown to the extent the organisation intended, there are still too many of them to justify optimism.