In the Belly of the Beast: The Hindu Supremacist RSS and IMP of India—An Insider’s Story
by Partha Banerjee
Ajanta Books International, New Delhi, 1998
164 pp, INR 195
A convert from the Hindutva ideology eagerly tears into it but does not tell us the secret behind its popular appeal.
The phenomenal growth of the Hindu fundamentalist right-wing in the 1980s and 1990s and its significant political repercussions on the day-to-day, lived practice of secular politics have spawned a virtual cottage industry of scholarship in India. In recent years, concerned scholars and activists have attempted to interrogate this nascent Hindu revivalist consciousness, its growth as an ideological formation, and the role played by the RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh) in organising and fomenting daily communal practice and prejudice.
While approaches and answers have varied, most of this writing has shared the characteristic of being acutely critical of the RSS and Hindu fundamentalism from a position outside, so to say, the “belly of the beast”. It is against this backdrop that Partha Banerjee’s book promised to be a fascinating and unique intervention. Banerjee spent 15 years working as a dedicated swayamsevak, while also being the joint secretary of the BJP’s student wing, ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), in West Bengal before breaking away and renouncing the RSS ideology as “fascist, supremacist, divisive and therefore, harmful to mankind”. The intentions of the author are courageous and admirable: to challenge the orthodoxies of an organisation to which he had once belonged at the risk of alienating old friends and making new, often dangerous, enemies.
The loosely structured chapters in In the Belly of The Beast provide a brief historical background to the RSS and its setting up of allied parties and organisations — the BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal; the structure of the Sangh Parivar and the off-shoots of the RSS (the ABVP, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, and so on); daily socialisation and indoctrination of RSS recruits in its shakhas (branches) and in the OTCs (Officer Training Camps); an account of the festivals that the RSS celebrates; its role in stoking communal violence and its patriarchal, backward-looking mindset with ominous consequences for the Indian feminist movement.
Of great interest are the appendices dealing with the dissemination of Hindutva ideology via the Internet along with a listing of relevant websites, as also excerpts from an article by Atal Behari Vajpayee in which the supposedly moderate Hindu ideologue adopts a strident anti-Muslim stance. There is also an autobiographical essay by the author’s father, Jitendranath Banerjee, who continues to remain a staunch swayamsevak even after his son’s breaking away from the organisation.
The book is a very competent and contemporary overview of the activities of the RSS, its organisational structure and linkages, its intolerant ideologies, and the missionary zeal with which it promoted Hindutva in the post-Emergency era. The subject matter that Banerjee chooses to draw upon is huge, but his canvas, a slim 164-page book, is perhaps insufficient to ‘tell all’. Ironically, the book suffers from a tendency towards excess — it is almost as if Banerjee has taken it upon himself to disavow and debunk every conceivable myth that the RSS seeks to inculcate in its recruits. This more often than not leads to a polemical review of recent RSS activities and refers the reader back to already existing scholarship on the RSS, as opposed to providing fresh insights based on the experience of having been an RSS volunteer.
In fact, the most insightful moments occur when Banerjee dispenses with the polemical, and brings to the fore his own experiences as an RSS man. In the chapter, “Beyond the Sanghsthan: my days of politics Indian style for the ‘non-political’ RSS”, Banerjee describes his work for the RSS during the turbulent years of the Emergency from 1975-1977, providing a fascinating glimpse into the organisational strategies and modus operandi of the swayamsevak. The author’s experience is substantiated by his father’s essay, which at one point says, “All can be sacrificed for ideals but ideals are not to be sacrificed.”
This is one of the most interesting sections of the book, suggesting the tantalising possibility of an autobiographical narrative by an insider. The dialogic interplay between the author’s explanatory commentary in the footnotes and the original text allows the reader to enter into a conversation between two generations of swayamsevaks: the older, who still is a staunch believer, and the younger, who writes from the reflective vantage point of critical distance.
In sum, Banerjee gives out a great deal of information about the ‘beast’, its growth and development, and its menacing demeanour. However, there is little of the insider’s story, a perspective that would have helped flush out invaluable details of the ‘belly’, its inner workings, its processes of assimilation and reproduction. Certain key questions remain, which activists like Banerjee who have seen the underside of the RSS are best equipped to discuss: How do fundamentalist organisations like the RSS make intra-organisational ideology compelling for their own recruits? How can we explain the phenomenal growth of the RSS cadres? What is the role of the RSS shakha in providing the lure of a playground for young children and establishing community networks in middle and lower middle class neighbourhoods? What is the sense of empowerment that participation in RSS activities seem to provide to disenfranchised groups and individuals?
In his efforts to justify his disenchantment with RSS ideology and practice, Banerjee neglects the crucial question of ‘enchantment’ or attraction —i.e. what exactly drew him (and continues to draw others) to the organisation in the first place? The process of indoctrination of the swayamsevak entails the acceptance of the benevolent mask of the RSS. It is both the playground and the social club, which ultimately takes over the swayamsevak’s world, his life and his common sense. The organisation and practice of communal politics in the form of Hindu sangathah then begins to function semi-autonomously.
It is vital to explore the foundations of the RSS’ popular appeal and ‘success’ if we are to move beyond a mere expose or negative critique of the organisation. Only then can concrete strategies be formulated for secular intervention. One sincerely hopes to hear more from Partha Banerjee in the future; and that In the Belly of the Beast will only serve as a first work —an invaluable compendium of background information on the RSS — for the personalis-political insider’s’ story that will follow soon.