Historical pedagogy of the Sangh Parivar
THE Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is a cadre-based organisation with decided hegemonic aims. It seeks to politically educate its chosen cadres so that they can, in turn, disseminate select portions of the message among the various mass fronts that they might work with: electoral constituencies, students, women, tribals, slum dwellers, trade unions, religious bodies. The cadres develop different addresses for the different fronts, the accents and emphases varying considerably from the one to the other. Cadres thus are, in relation to the mass fronts, teachers, and, indeed, the affiliates of the Sangh call the Sangh itself their classroom. Teaching, therefore, is crucial to the agenda, evident in the fact that the human resources ministry is reserved for a RSS hardliner.
Fully trained cadres, moreover, are the brahmans within the combine – in functions and, very often, in caste terms too. In any case, they are drawn from educated middle class, upper caste areas, and RSS shakhas too are mostly concentrated in similar spaces. The mass fronts, in contrast, are more diverse. They came up only after independence and with the appearance of universal adult franchise which necessitated a programme of going to the masses. The bifurcation in levels of education and training, related closely to caste and class divides, expresses a novel plan of hegemonic control, modifying, but not entirely replacing, older Hindu structures of inherited power and privilege. The older modes of leadership are now supplemented with educated, trained cadres who derive their ascendancy from acquired authority rather than from mere inherited status.
If pedagogy is crucial, within it history commands a very special distinction. Almost all of the Sangh’s present politics uses images of the past as both referent and justification: that is, most recommendations for present-day activity are projected as responses, reactions to the past. Elements of the past need to be recovered and applied, other elements need to be replaced, while past events need to be revenged continuously. There seems to be, thus, an unbroken, living dialogue with the past.
The intensity of the engagement is, however, simulated as much as are the images of the past. The whole purpose of the lived relationship with the past is to overwrite an engagement with the present, especially with its problems of Indian poverty, social oppression, popular resistance and neo-imperialism.
The past that is constructed out of present interests and needs of the Sangh, the past which is an instrument in its present politics must, therefore, be an usable past rather than a real one, in so far as it is knowable through serious investigative methods. In order to be usable, it needs to reorient much of the knowledge of our past, as well as the epistemological and methodological bases for the construction of knowledge. No wonder that research organisations and teaching material are now controlled by Sangh-related teachers and historians, sometimes by Sangh pracharaks.
It is by now abundantly clear that the teaching of history is an arena of urgent concern and anxiety. I would like to argue that the anxiety arises not only because the educationists of Hindu rashtra must align their image of the past to the politics of the present, but also because all known and accepted disciplinary conventions create a tough impediment to that effort. What is more of a problem for the Sangh is that most variants of historical scholarship, the world over are, despite considerable internal differences, concerned with understandings of various configurations of diverse kinds of power: whether they are Marxists or post-structuralists, feminists or new-historicists, they engage in unpacking class, caste, patriarchal, colonial, post-colonial, discursive and cultural operations of power.
The Sangh is deeply uncomfortable with the entire exercise, since the only operation of power that it tries to identify is that of non-Hindus over Hindus – an identification that becomes untenable in the Indian situation where the Hindu majority is overwhelming and the religious minorities vulnerable in terms of material and political resources. The Sangh’s relationship with history is therefore particularly fraught. It needs to possess the past, yet the accepted methods of representation are anathema to it.
The Hindu rashtra presupposes great excisions in collective memory as well as the production of counterfeit historical memories: experiences of poverty and exploitation to be overwritten by narratives of foreign conquests, military defeats and the ills that rulers of a different faith had allegedly done to Hindu temples, women and cows. Beyond a point, actual historical evidence for all this is thin, patchy or absent. There is, on the other hand, embarrassingly strong historical evidence to confirm the absence of the Sangh from the ranks of anti-colonial movements, of transactions with Italian fascism and self-modelling on the politics of Nazi genocides which Golwalkar much admired. Professional expertise in historical investigations thus becomes an area of acute suspicion, even as the historical past becomes an essential commodity for possession.
Recent events in Gujarat well illustrate the Sangh methods of using and invoking the past. Narendra Modi’s action-reaction thesis sought to legitimise anti-Muslim carnage on the grounds of Godhra events which, moreover, were ascribed to terrorists employed by Pakistan. However, Muslims who were massacred were obviously Indians, most of them so far removed from Godhra that they could not possibly have had a hand in those atrocities. A very large number of them were, moreover, children and babies, even unborn foetuses, not conceivably connected with Godhra, terrorism or Pakistan. Shrines of Muslim poets and musicians of the past were obliterated and desecrated, even though they too could not have contributed to Godhra. Muslims of the present, past and future, therefore, become exchangeable signs and anyone at any time can be seized upon in revenge for anything that Muslims have done, are doing, or can do. Both revenge and Muslim become mobile terms.
If the past, present and future can freely change places, the very location and meaning of the past has to change too from all its known uses and connotations. The Sangh not only aspires to fill popular commonsense with its own reading of history, it also desires to fill up academic historical productions with methods and meanings that it generates. For, popular understanding as hegemonised by the Sangh cannot afford to be interrogated by more professional constructions, since the boundaries between professional and popular are permeable and porous.
They break down especially at the school level where students, carrying with them popular legends and myths about the past from the media, family memories and cultural representations are confronted with serious acadamic modes of ascertaining past events and processes. This very age group, moreover, is the primary target group of the ideological training that the shakhas of the Sangh provide. Consequently, competing images of the past become a risky venture since students are also taught to value a certain professionalism and acadamic canon.
There is, moreover, an organisational imperative conjoined to the ideological one. The Sangh, as I remarked earlier, is itself structured as a teacher for a range of mass fronts, electoral party and religious organizations that make up the Sangh combine. It teaches all the leaders of the BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal. Its daily shakhas are meant for training in combat action and ideological lessons. The message that it teaches to its cadres, and to members of other fronts, is entirely a historical narration which features only its own preferred version of ancient Hindu glories, Muslim atrocities and Hindu suffering in later periods.
Equally significant are the silences about internal power lines that run within the Hindu community. Again, this narrative cannot afford to be entirely out of sync with standard academic histories. If the latter proved inhospitable to Sangh instructions, then state power now gives the Sangh the authority to supplant the older acadamic canon with those of its own making; censoring research publications and archival compilations, withdrawing textbooks and ordering new history writing. In all the states where it has held power, history teaching and textbooks have been altered dramatically.
How does the Sangh propose the simultaneous demolition of accepted historical knowledge and construct its own version as authentic scholarship? Above all, the Sangh has founded schools. The first school emerged in a significant context. It was during the partition riots and their aftermath that the Sangh made its real breakthrough in North India. However, its rapid expansion was briefly stalemated as it came under a cloud of suspicion after the assassination of Gandhi. Moreover, independent India began to function with universal adult suffrage, a development that the Sangh regarded with dismay.
Golwalkar had been brutally explicit in his condemnations of democracy and was especially critical of the power it would provide to labourers and low castes. Such frankness became muted as the Sangh too founded an electoral organ, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, to contest elections and woo mass constituencies that would inevitably be made up of precisely those people. In the 1952 elections, however, the left emerged as the major parliamentary opposition to the centrist politics of the Congress. At the national level of political decision-making, the Sangh vision found little purchase.
To vault over the impasse, the first thing that the Sangh did was to found a primary school at Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh in 1952 which rapidly spawned other Saraswati Shishu Mandirs in its wake. A Shishu Shiksha Parabandh Samiti was set up to coordinate the primary schools while bal mandirs began to develop for high school levels. The efforts were repeated in Delhi, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
In 1977, Vidya Bharati was institutionalised to coordinate schools at the all-India level. By the early 1990s, it was running the second largest chain of schools in the country, controlling about 4,000 schools, 40 colleges, a total of 36,000 teachers and about ten lakh students. It developed the Haflong Project for the North East where Christian educational consolidation had blocked their spread. It also reached out beyond the regular school and college circuit. There are shishu vatikas for pre-school infants, to orient their physical, mental, social and spiritual qualities in tune with Sangh sanskaras or dispositions.
The other project is that of sanskar kendras in geographically remote or socially marginalised areas; in tribal belts, rural pockets and urban slums. Here once-a-week lessons are provided by single teachers to generate training in ‘religion, patriotism and Indian culture.’ Whereas in its regular schools, middle class, upper caste children are given the full paraphernalia of modern education along with Sangh values, for the socially marginalised, Sangh values make up the entirety of educational efforts. While the poor are ideologically coopted, they are not socially empowered through a full-scale education.
Everywhere, teachers are recruited from RSS families, thus creating employment prospects for itself. To domesticate teachers who may come from other backgrounds, there are training camps that are organised several times in the year, widening the ideological net considerably. In general, the regular schools are located in areas which have an RSS centre and a VHP-controlled temple, usually attached to the school premises. There are evening and morning shakhas that the RSS runs for local children. The school is thus embedded within a tight and comprehensive range of institutions that would, in calibration, coordinate the child’s leisure, education, ideological growth and religious understanding.
The cohesion is further consolidated by the fact that the regular schools are founded in neighbourhoods that share a fairly homogeneous caste-class and community profile. The bonds are strengthened by the teachers who make a point of regular home visits and dialogue with parents outside the school premises. The boundaries between the school and the family, between students and parents, are fluid, and Sangh teachers carry forward the school pedagogy beyond the school into the familial space. The school thus functions as a pivotal point within a larger envisioned community that aligns neighbourhood ties to Sangh influence.
Sangh schools follow the regular school board curricula and examination system, even using the older NCERT history textbooks since no better alternative could be found that would enable their children to compete with other schools. Little wonder, then, that it sought to change the curricula and textbooks for all schools as soon as it acquired state power: its own children could not be protected from ideological contamination otherwise.
However, their schools left their own distinctive inscription on education in a variety of subtle ways. Significantly, an entire apparatus of audio-visual and pedagogical operations was developed to intervene in remaking historical understanding in opposition to older textbooks. First, the walls displayed maps of undivided India as the true shape of the nation, imparting in students a refusal of the historical reality of the Partition and visualising the country as inclusive of the states of Pakistan and Bangladesh. The refiguring of the map, moreover, requires explanations that inevitably provide an opening for accounts of the Muslim League plan for partition, of tales of Hindu sufferings in the holocaust, the mutilation of the land – all of which inculcate the desire for revenge.
The walls are also festooned with pictures of Hindu heroes like Shivaji and Rana Pratap, visually invoking legends of Muslim tyranny and Hindu royal-heroic resistance. A continuous narrative of Muslim wrongdoing is immediately and imaginatively disseminated while the idea of resistance is ineffably associated with royal figures rather than with common people. Distinctive notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, enemies and defenders of faith and nation are produced and instantaneously conjoined. In this Manichaean world, Hindu princes appear noble saviours while Muslims defile country and religion and this provides the only possible history of the country.
In school assemblies, principals address students frequently on themes of Hindu patriotism, Babur and his mosque that allegedly destroyed Ram’s temple, the saga of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and its martyrs. Many principals had participated as karsevaks in the two attacks on the Babri mosque, and those recollections are renewed routinely to link up with histories of Rajput and Maratha wars against Mughals. The aim is to build an undying thirst for revenge. A headmaster of a primary school related to me how proud he felt when, in response to his description of the Babri Mosque demolition, little children of five were inspired to clench their fists and swear revenge.
To shortcircuit the effects of the pre-BJP curriculum, schools provided a special course on Bharatiya sanskriti which was graded according to classes. All students of all classes have to study and pass examinations every year. The course has a series of graded textbooks which have provided the model for the revamped history syllabi in the BJP-ruled states, and are no doubt the paradigm for the new NCERT syllabus that the BJP plans.
As the authentic history of Indian civilization, such textbooks are faithful to Savarkar’s definition: Hindutva, as a continuous, historically stable cultural essence, unifies India. All those who live outside its orbits – Indian Muslims and Christians, for instance – are non-Indians, enemies. The very land, in these books, is defined by a Hindu essence. There are no mountains or rivers as such, but all geographical features are depicted as objects of Hindu worship. Place names are fleshed out by pointing out their contiguity to Hindu pilgrimages, to sites where Hindu heroes fought against Muslims. Modern or medieval cities are identified by their ancient names. All past achievements – literary, artistic, architectural, musical, spiritual and scientific – are referred back to ancient, pre-Islamic eras.
The landscape is bereft of all Muslim or Christian cultural or religious presence. Nor do they figure as historical actors except as fifth-columnists for foreign powers or as invaders. There is a significant economy in the narration. History is shown to develop around a single axis which neatly bifurcates Indian people into true Indians and alien, as Hindus and others, as victims and tyrants, as invaders and vanquished.
The past, moreover, is used not as process, overdetermined and multifaceted with internal dialectical contradictions, nor does it have a synchronic unity or connectivity. It is a whirling pool of images and allegories, and events and figures can be pulled out of it at random, violating historical sequences at will to illustrate the same point across time and space. This methodological violence is imperative if a present politics has to convince people that Ram, an epic hero, was humiliated by Babur, a medieval emperor, and that present-day Muslims must be killed and humiliated to avenge that past.
Muslims and Christians are not simply invaders and conquerors of the past, they are fixed in eternal postures of aggression which, today, translates as insidious and covert gestures of hidden expansionism and conquest, carried on through conversion and terrorism. Histories of communities are not just unchanging and repetitive, they are, moreover, singular. History becomes emblematic, congealed into an array of postures, each summing up a whole community across the ages. The past is a museum of a few signs.
While ancient Indian glories are iconised, little is made available from the rich classical sources. The school hymns and mantras, invoking a militant and militarised nation worship, are modern ones, though composed in Sanskrit, and Sanskrit lessons teach spoken and modernised Sanskrit, not the literary or religious texts of classical Sanskrit. Even the devotional music that is taught is modern Hindi and Sanskrit hymns rather than the classical traditions. There is little actual knowledge of ancient Indian history or conditions, which are congealed into stylised icons.
Myths, epics and select fragments of historical episodes are joined together, again traversing chronological sequences freely and obliterating generic boundaries. Babur becomes the enemy of Ram, displacing Ravana, and the history of the demolition of the Babri Mosque is attached, with illustrations, to form a sequel to legends of Rajput and Maratha valour against Mughals. Demons and Mughals flow into each other and the Muslim becomes a free-floating signifier completely detached from concrete historical contexts. Patriotism, is entirely identified with hatred and revenge, the country with threatened borders. People, land, water and air, their survival and their welfare, do not form any part of patriotism. Nation figures as death – the courting of it, the infliction of it.
The silences are resounding. There is no analysis of caste, poverty, gender abuses, no mention of what Hindus have done to Hindus. Nor, for that matter, of what Muslim emperors have done to Muslim peasants. Power, historically, seems to generate from Muslims as a homogeneous bloc directed at a seamless mass of Hindus. So students are not insulated from violence; rather they are flooded with a surfeit of violent tales, demanding violent reflexes in response. But anger or even critical introspection into histories of internal, social violence is carefully excised.
Finally, a word about the Sangh’s pedagogical methods in conveying a sense of the past at shakhas and schools. It uses to a large extent oral tellings and the story format. This is a peculiarly effective mode, making as it does the past vivid, colourful, immediate, full of human interest and possibilities of emotional identification and imaginative participation. As a pedagogical tool, especially for very small children, its value is great and we all need to use it more, to integrate it with dry factual accounts or analysis.
At the same time, the mode cuts both ways. While it makes the past interesting, it also compels imaginative partisanship with figures and events which are part-invented, filled with vicious political values. Again, its dominance as a tool helps fore-close critical enquiry into the source, provenance, motivation, mode of construction of the narrated tales. Stories demand a suspension of critical faculties, demand a reception that is warm, partisan, accepting of the narrative thrust. Before they can be opened up to re-reading, re-evaluation, a search for elements that are suppressed or distorted, the communal message has settled and struck roots, creating imaginative reflexes in lieu of critical rethinking.
The historical tales, moreover, are subtly assembled. They are often made up of fragments from myths, genuine historical accounts, popular memories that are restricted and one-sided in their scope, for they ignore other memories. As part myths they command sacred meanings; as snatches of history they can be verified and authenticated; as memory they impel immediate recognition and acceptance. So, as a totality, they acquire multiple authorisation.
There are often strong anti-communal temptations to counter the plundering of genuine historical accounts by the Sangh in ways that certainly oppose the ultimate communal message, but which nonetheless replicate Sangh methods and attitudes towards history. One very obvious response is to fill up the crucial gaps left in historical memory by Sangh narrations, but then refuse to go beyond providing counters. For instance, manufactured tales of Muslim tyranny or exaggerated and partial narratives of Muslim separatism and violence may be countered by accounts of tolerant Muslim emperors, of Hindu Mahasabha espousal of the two-nation theory, or of Hindu violence in Partition riots. This is an absolutely necessary endeavour, urgent today as never before, since these facts will now face official suppression.
At the same time, while they may balance the perspective, trim off exaggerations, correct distortions, it is dangerous to reduce secular history to rebuttals and rejoinders to Sangh historical claims: to get trapped eternally into a closed circle of charges and counter charges, for that forces history into the crude and empty polemical slot where the Sangh has placed it. There is a similar Manichaean divide into good and bad, authentic and inauthentic, black and white, the same disregard for an understanding of internal contradictions, and impatience for ambivalences, ambiguities, complications.
Again, the urgency of building up counters to the Sangh entails the construction of alternative histories that the Sangh cannot accommodate, that provide the vital lie to the Sangh’s monochromatic narrative of Hindu community and its others. We can – and we ought to – build up narratives of other struggles that will empower subaltern agency so that it will not be coopted by the Sangh’s communalism and will recognise the crucial importance of histories of power in the realms of class, caste and gender. Yet, the very desire to have empowering narratives that celebrate subaltern agency can leave gaps and steamroller complexities in the interests of easy and simple celebrations.
The very burden of historical narration – and its real interest and excitement – lies in that it must acknowledge a past that does not always yield up edifying tales, a past that is difficult and painful for us because we find in it not merely Hitlers but also Stalin, not simply peasant resistance but also peasant patriarchy, or working class racism. This perpetual shock treatment may stimulate a kind of despair that dismantles the very desire for historical truth claims as old-fashioned positivism, scientism. The disavowal of the historical truth claim or truth aspiration simplifies the rich difficulties of serious investigation and narration.
We engage in such debunking of serious history, however, only when we are ignorant of the practice of history, of the spectrum of theoretical debates that emerge from an experience of that practice and which place historians within a creative and complex ambiguity that grapples with the inherent limitations and provisionality of the truth claim and the necessary discipline that still compels us towards accuracy and precision in investigation. It is out of this continuous, painful and necessary tension that rich historical understanding and thick descriptions emerge.
More than a commitment to the subject itself, it is also politically urgent to refuse to replace communal fables with anti-communal ones, or with tales that empower the right kinds of agencies. It is precisely in these times that we need to desperately assert the importance of being true to ascertained, verified, cross-checked evidence, academic and professional training, accountability and openness, that distinguish serious history from nice stories. It is precisely in these times when the VHP thunders that faith is higher than serious accounts of what actually happened, that we need to proclaim that we search for the latter, knowing its ultimate elusiveness in any closed, final sense, and knowing the constructed nature of our own accounts.
We need to court the label of being dated, unusable brands in the marketplace of saleable ideas to make that claim, knowing all its methodological risks and limits. It is a fidelity to what actually happened in Gujarat that makes our accounts of Gujarat’s recent past different from Sangh histories.
* The research on RSS schools, reported more extensively elsewhere, was done together with Tapan Basu.