This year’s National Teachers Day has acquired an entirely new meaning. First, we saw everybody who is anybody in this government, with sarkari power to walk into a classroom, live out their ‘main bhi teacher’ fantasy. Cruel truth to tell, this is among our least academically accomplished cabinets ever. But they love to teach. And they occasionally like to be taught—but only by their favourite teacher, the RSS, the guru of gurus. It was a fitting coincidence then that, at the same time, the Supreme Preceptor was also teaching—or rather, as we say in heartland metaphor, ‘taking the class’ of a government run by its shishyas. In full public view. It unleashed furious debates on RSS-BJP relations, on whether the RSS’s ‘moral’ authority over the BJP government overrides the Constitution. Sure enough, there are comparisons with Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC).
This also makes for perfect timing for me to make a belated admission, or rather, in today’s political environment, flaunt a fact from 50 years ago, and disclose a double favour granted to me by the RSS which my parents gratefully accepted. I have a faded group photo from my Class V at school in 1965-66. The school was a Saraswati Shishu Mandir, one of a chain of junior schools run across the country by the RSS, along with Vidya Mandirs for seniors.
Let me list the two favours conferred on me by the RSS: the first was in a tiny town called Palwal in Haryana (it’s about 60 km on way to Agra from Delhi on the Grand Trunk Road) which, in 1962-63, was just a large village with one distant cinema hall (we saw Dosti, Haqeeqat and Sangam there) and no MBBS doctor. The RSS set up Palwal’s first school, and for many years it was the only one. Until then, because there was no school, my mother and I had lived in Delhi, with her family, so I could go to one. So by launching a school at tiny Palwal, the RSS brought a family together—our family.
The second favour: they were never resentful that I, though just five yet, came with an English-medium sheen, having started out at a convent. In fact, they appreciated that and rewarded me with two double promotions—Class 1 to 3, and then on to 5. The RSS, therefore, was not merely my teacher those three crucial years, it also added two years to my life, enabling me to graduate from college when I wasn’t yet 18.
That it gave me two double promotions is a lesser fact, though. Of much more significance was this surpising hospitability—given their famed pro-Hindi-Sanskrit and anti-English bias—towards my “convented” (as Delhi’s matrimonial columns prefer to say) beginnings. This was the most fascinating thing. There was resentment and suspicion for English, and yet admiration for it. Schools in Punjab (Palwal was in Punjab then, and became part of Haryana only when the state split in 1966) were not only in the Hindi medium but did not begin to teach English until Class 6. And yet there was a reward for even basic knowledge of angrezi.
There was plenty of Hindi and Sanskrit, though. The school prayer was chaste Saraswati Vandana, even if it was brutalised in Punjabi pronunciation. Try getting a true Punjabi or Haryanvi to say, “Ya Brahmachyuta Shankara Prabhritibihi Devaih Sada Pujita....” But we tried, and sniggered on the side because none of us quite knew the meaning, not that it would have persuaded us to take it any more seriously. The headmaster’s pravachan (discourse) that followed was more testing, though even at that tender, innocent age, there was something salacious about being told that it is evil to eat egg as it is a mix of rajj (Sanskrit for ovum) and veerya (semen). I am not sure anybody was particularly impressed by that. We even continued to rear a dozen hens and a couple of roosters in our tiny, semi-pucca home, for eggs, not meat.
Attendance at the shakha was compulsory but achieved through encouragement. It was held right opposite where we lived, so many of us just sat to watch and listen, not old enough to be bought our khaki drill shorts, belts and sticks yet. Nobody complained either, for generally, the swayamsevaks were laughed at as caricatures, and there were dozens of jokes about them which I haven’t forgotten, but which aren’t polite enough to print even in these liberal times.
Shakhas involved mock battles between sher (lions) and bakri (goats), with a handful of fearless lions always decimating the more numerous, deceitful goats. You can guess which animal symbolised the Hindus and which the Muslims. There were no sports except kho-kho (tag), which we boys believed was a girls’ sport. Then followed the most interesting part, story-telling, and we waited for it. I recall many, but the most repeated was of Haqiqat Rai, a young boy who preferred to sacrifice his head rather than accept a Muslim tyrant’s demand that he shave his tuft or take off his sacred thread. There were stories also of Guru Gobind Singh and his sons’ sacrifice, of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh and Savarkar and their role in the freedom movement.
Gandhi-Nehru and other people were excluded, except to say that they allowed India to be partitioned despite Patel. Nehru was reviled as Macaulay’s favourite son. But his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri was quickly coopted, particularly with the war of 1965. He was also projected as a humble vegetarian, which Shastri was by preference, despite being a Kayastha. “Mung ki daal khane waale Shastriji ney sharabi-kababi Ayub ko maat di (The lentil-eating Shastriji defeated a kabab-eating, hard-drinking Ayub),” we were told. The music teacher composed a hilarious syapa (that loud Punjabi ritual where women mourners beat their breasts, sing praises of the one departed and lament the loss). The lines imprinted on my mind: ‘Kithe gaye Seato-Cento, mar gaye Cheeni yaar, haye main ki karan, mere tank hoye beemar, haye main ki karaan.’ This was mock wailing for Seato and Cento, the US-led defence alliances Pakistan had joined, for the Chinese, who failed to help Pakistan, and for the Patton tanks, which didn’t perform.
The school, an RSS-run school, even bussed us all to Delhi one day in early winter of 1965 to meet the prime minister, and with the national mood still warlike, my mother gave me a half dozen pyjamas she had stitched for “wounded jawans” and a bag of homegrown spinach for Shastriji—remember, these were famine years and the prime minister was asking us to miss a meal a week and to grow kitchen gardens.
Much is known about the RSS and its thinking, but I will highlight three things from experience. One, our teaching involved a heavy emphasis on the freedom movement without mentioning any of its heroes except the revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Azad, Savarkar and Netaji. It was evident that the RSS did not have many of its own, but was feverishly coopting the revolutionaries. Music classes were filled with the notes of ‘patriotic’ songs based on what was popular then: Manna Dey’s immortal ‘Nirbal se ladayi balwan ki, ye kahani hai diye ki aur toofan ki’ (This is a ballad of the struggle of the feeble against the sturdy, the lamp against the tempest) was transformed into ‘England se ladayi Hindustan ki, yeh kahani hai amar balidan ki’, and the rest of the stanzas spoke of Indian sacrifice and British perfidy—‘Aisa chakkar chalaya, kiya dhan ka safaya, England ka khazana bharne laga, tabhi Bharat abhaga apni neend se jaaga, aayi yaad use bhi nij shaan ki’. Briefly translated, it goes: ‘Britain looted Indian wealth to fill its treasury, but finally unfortunate India woke up to fight back)’. No, the Congress had nothing to do with this awakening.
Two, while there was condemnation of the English and the videshi, the only ones feared and disliked were the Muslims. There were stories of awful atrocities during Partition, threats in Kashmir on the Yudh Viram Rekha, or Cease Fire Line, as the LoC was then called, and of the excesses of Muslim rulers over Hindus and Sikhs. Earlier last week, when controversy erupted over Aurangzeb, one of the points made repeatedly against him was that he beheaded the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur. I was surprised by the zero reference to Aurangzeb’s grandfather Jahangir, who wasn’t such a nice guy either, like all medieval rulers the world over, and who had had the fifth Sikh Guru Arjan Dev killed through slow torture, scalding him on hot sheets and by pouring hot sand over his body. Why was Aurangzeb demonised for the same crime and Jahangir not quite so, I’ve been thinking. And the penny dropped as the arrival of the RSS for this “coordination” meeting with the government and the 50th anniversary of the war took my memory back to my Shishu Mandir. Aurangzeb killed the ninth guru because he had come pleading to him to stop the forced conversion of Kashmir’s Hindus. The fifth guru, on the other hand, had refused to take out from the Guru Granth Sahib verses from the Holy Quran that he had incorporated. You know the difference between one’s sacrifice for a Hindu cause and the other’s for his insistence on incorporating wisdom from Islam into his own spiritual worldview.
And the third flowed almost naturally from it, the fear and loathing of Pakistan and, more importantly, the terminal linkage of the Indian Muslim with that nation. The classical RSS view of Indian Muslims is as a permanent fifth column. By now, there is an acceptance of the inevitability of India having a large Muslim population, but the thinking is that it has to be ‘persuaded’ to live by ‘our’ rules. And yet, just as a strange blend of deep suspicion and great admiration attaches to convent education, there is even greater admiration for the Muslim who passes the test of ‘patriotism’ and ‘Indianness’. That’s why Kalam—not just for the missiles he made, but also for his love of shloka and veena—becomes such a great hero, and the perfect antidote to Aurangzeb. Or Havildar Abdul Hamid the greatest 1965 war hero.
Vajpayee and Advani are rare RSS leaders to have outgrown this organisational mindset, to varying degrees, while remaining loyal to the RSS. That is why the BJP under them attracted and embraced so much non-RSS talent: Jaswant Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and more. Advani also has the intellect to understand that this ideology won’t change. His formulation, that the key to improving Hindu-Muslim relations in India is to normalise India-Pakistan ties, is sound but it got him into trouble. The RSS attacked him as a Jinnahite-come-lately. Secularists didn’t understand or appreciate this complexity either.
But the current lot of BJP leaders are still swayamsevaks, and pupils of Shishu Mandir-Vidya Bharati at heart. That is why the clergy of Nagpur can land in Delhi to “take their class” in a flaunting of extra-constitutional power that is breathtaking but a true mirror of the facts. I would, however, avoid a hasty conclusion on where Narendra Modi stands on this. He is a swayamsevak for sure. But he is also not given to allowing his authority to be suborned like this, and if he is true to his political character, he will assert himself. It is tough to predict guru-shishya fighting. But if they do, it will be a hell of a fight.
(Shekhar Gupta is former editor-in-chief of The Indian Express.)