ABOUT 60 years ago, Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras convinced his mother, an orthodox Brahmin, to accept the fact that the Hindu shastras give no sanction to untouchability. He told her that he would never invite his friends home if her treatment of 'untouchables' was different. She ultimately gave in, even washing their plates, as the young Deoras would often dine with them.
In 1974, a year after he became chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)—viewed as an obscurantist organisation by liberal Hindus and non-Hindus—Deoras declared: "If untouchability is not wrong, nothing in the world is wrong." The passion almost equalled Abraham Lincoln's when he said: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing in the world is wrong."
The upper caste Deoras' protest against untouchability was an act which only a few of his kin and friends knew about but never publicised—'self-publicity' is a taboo in the Sangh. But what he said as the RSS chief in 1974 became a mantra for millions of Sangh volunteers. Deoras died a content man on June 17 at the ripe old age of 81. For, during his 21-year stint as steerer of the RSS, he saw his dream moving positively. A dream, which unfortunately, refused to incorporate the other sections—Muslims, Christians—which make up the Indian nation.
But the Sangh has, to some extent, shed its image of being a fief of Maharashtra Brahmins—the first three chiefs, K.B. Hedgewar (1925-40), M.S. Golwalkar (1940-73) and Deoras (1973-94)—belonged to the sect. Deoras was the first to announcea successor while he was alive, giving up the practice of the 'will' being made public posthumously. On March 11, 1994, Deoras declared that Prof. Rajendra Singh, his assistant for years, would succeed him. Singh, who was in favour of some young man succeeding Deoras, is the first non-Brahmin and non-Maharashtrian to make it to the top. The same evening, Deoras joined ranks with a couple of hundred volunteers to 'salute' the new chief. Heavy doses of insulin, a restricted diet and round-the-clock care from fellow disciple Srikant Joshi had kept Deoras alive for 16 years despite suffering from acute diabetes.
Though Deoras formulated the Sangh's response in support of the V.P. Singh government's reservation policy in 1990, it was more out of political compulsions. He did make a few characteristic fiery speeches. He silenced hostile voices which claimed that reservation would drive merit to the backseat and that society could not afford to have bad doctors and bad professionals. "This society can afford to have bad doctors for some years, but it cannot afford to break. Think for a while and tell me what would have been your response if you belonged to the deprived caste," Deoras asked. He knew the Sangh would die if it became an instrument to serve only upper caste interests.
Deoras must have been upset with the bans on the Sangh—during the Emergency and in the aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition—during his tenure. But the prospect of Dalits and backward castes, both dominant components of Hindu society, getting alienated from the Sangh in the event of its opposing the reservation policy put him in a spot.
The Sangh's decision to support the Mandal Commission Report and to have the foundation stone of the proposed temple at Ayodhya laid by a Harijan in November 1989 was part of a larger campaign. The pro-reservation move and the Ram plank paid rich dividends to the BJP in the 1989-91 elections.
Consolidating Hindu society as a goal was as much a conscious decision on Deoras' part, as not opening the Sangh's door to the Muslims despite appeals from social reformers like Jayaprakash Narayan. Atal Behari Vajpayee's statement on May 27 as prime minister—that India remains a secular country because 85 per cent of the population is Hindu—is essentially the Sangh line. "It's our national duty to have the barriers of caste, region, language among the Hindus eradicated," Deoras would often say.
From a much hated organisation, the RSS has grown fast—it has about 30,000 shakhas, each attended every day by 50 to 100 volunteers. It also has a sizeable presence in slums, Harijan bastis and communities in about 25,000 of the 67,000 tribal villages. This also explains why the BJP did well in the recent Lok Sabha elections in constituencies reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Besides, Deoras involved his volunteers in the field of education under the aegis of Siksha Bharati, and floated Seva Bharati, a missionary outfit to counter Christian missions.
Deoras was no doubt an inspiration for the band of his supporters. But his dedication and commitment only to the Hindu cause often led his critics to point out that taking politics away from the people and their problems would not bear fruit. And that anti-communalism rhetoric would work only if it's followed by matching action.