By Ayan Guha
The 21st century modern Indian proudly claims to be argumentative. Armed with the intellectual diagnosis of arguably the most globally renowned Indian economist and political philosopher of contemporary times, he rarely misses an opportunity to immerse himself into the self-gratifying glory of belonging to a cherished cultural and civilizational tradition which profusely celebrates public debate and intellectual pluralism. But is he really prepared to shed all political correctness to engage in debate on all kinds of contentious issues? This tricky question is suddenly demanding our attention.
Mohan Bhagwat, Sarsanchalak (chief) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), recently gave a call for a nation-wide debate on the contentious issue of reservation. This sparked off a huge controversy fuelling misgivings about the impending annulment of reservation. However, to be fair he only proposed initiation of a debate and stopped short of suggesting any action on the part of the government. And interestingly, he seemed to be advocating a rational critical mode of deliberation, proposed by eminent sociologist Jurgen Habermas for building true deliberative democracy by facilitating genuine democratic dialogue. Bhagwat suggested that both the advocates and critics of reservation should speak on this issue keeping in mind the interests of each other. Hence, Bhagwat’s proposed mode of debate apparently approximates the requirements of Habermasian rational critical mode of deliberation which aims to achieve a universally accepted and rationally motivated consensus by facilitating mutual understanding through free and democratic conversation.
Still, apprehensions about possible abrogation or roll back of the scheme of caste based reservation are still looming large. Revocation or roll back of currently existing reservation scheme would be an extremely bold and risky political endeavour if implemented. But the government has already shown the resolve to carry out courageous measures by de-operationalising Article 370. This has contributed to the misgivings that debate is only an eye-wash to lend some legitimacy to the eventual plans of revocation of reservation. As a result, Bhagwat’s call for debate has so far been greeted with widespread suspicion. Is such suspicion justified or unfounded? It is difficult to provide a definitive answer to this question. However, it is possible to draw some insights by looking at the way the Hindutva philosophy and politics have historically approached questions of caste and reservation.
Historically, the leadership of the Hindu nationalist movement has mainly been provided by the upper castes, particularly the Brahmins. Apart from Dr. Rajendra Singh who was the RSS chief from 1994 to 2000, all the RSS chiefs so far have come from Brahmin families. Moreover, a large number of Brahmin leaders of the RSS and Hindu nationalism at various levels have come from Maharashtra. V. D. Savarkar and the first three RSS chiefs, Dr. Hedgewar, M.S Golwalkar and M.D. Deoras belonged to Maharashtra. The current RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat is also from Maharashtra. According to Christophe Jaffrelot, the dominance of the Maharashtrian Brahmins was due to the fact that they embodied a culture which suited Hindu nationalism. They adopted martial values apart from religious values by acting as the warriors of the great Maratha Empire. Though the RSS has been drawing cadres and members from lower castes in increasing numbers, the upper castes have dominated the higher echelons of the leadership. Because of the primarily upper caste social background of its leadership, a public perception has crystallized over the years that the RSS and Hindu nationalism are supportive of caste divisions. But this perception does not stand the test of an objective scrutiny.
The proponents of Hindutva have always advocated abolition of caste hierarchies. In fact, the elimination of caste divisions has so far remained as one of the principal goals of the Hindutva movement. This is because in the eyes of the Hindutva ideologues caste divisions militate against Hindu unity, which is the main objective of Hindutva movement. V.D. Savarkar spoke firmly against caste discrimination and untouchability. He also tried to fight against caste discrimination while being interned in Ratnagiri for thirteen long years between 1924 and 1937. He tried to promote temple entry of the lower castes and facilitate collective celebration of Hindu festivals by members of all castes. He also tried to arrange for the education of the children belonging to lower castes. The RSS seems to have accepted Savarkar’s approach towards caste system. Hedgewar introduced the practice of inter-caste dining in RSS training camps. Golwarkar rejected the caste system as inimical to the realization of Hindu unity. M.D. Deoras, who succeeded Golwalkar as the RSS chief, gave a famous speech in 1974 calling untouchability a sin and re-assessment of scriptures which justify caste hierarchy. This speech led to renewed efforts by the Hindu nationalists towards social activism against caste system. Thus, the advocates of Hindutva ideology have rejected caste system out of their concern for Hindu unity. It is this concern for Hindu unity that has also prevented them from wholeheartedly embracing caste-based reservation as a device to fight caste-based discrimination and social inequality unlike all the mainstream political parties including the BJP.
While independent India adopted reservation for the Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes, till the time of the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in 1990 there was no political unanimity as to whether reservation should be provided to backward classes identified on caste basis. Identification of the backward classes on the basis of caste identity for the purpose of reservation was often dismissed as socially divisive. However, with the political mobilization of the so-called backward castes and their consequent political assertion since the mid-1970s, all mainstream political parties gradually came to endorse the idea of caste-based reservation for the backward castes. The BJP also came round to the idea of caste-based reservation for the backward castes recognizing the constraints of electoral politics. The election manifesto of the party of 1991 Lok Sabha elections stated: “Rreservation should also be made for other backward classes broadly on the basis of the Mandal Commission Report, with preference to be given to the poor among these very classes.” But the RSS did not support the Mandal Commission Report which recommended caste-based reservation for the backward classes. In August, 1990, Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, argued that V. P Singh’s decision to implement reservation for the backward classes would lead to a caste war. Dr. Rajendra Singh, who was the RSS chief between 1994 and 2000, had also called for gradual reduction in job quotas. But, gradually the RSS changed its attitude shying away from outright rejection of caste-based reservation to avoid embarrassment for the BJP. But its frequent recent flip-flops on the issue suggest that it is still not fully convinced of the idea of caste-based reservation.
In 2016 just before the Assembly elections in Bihar, Bhagwat himself had suggested review of reservation policy. The publicity chief of the RSS, Manmohan Vaidya, too, said that reservation should have a time limit, while speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2017. Every time such remarks created backlash and controversy leading to clarification from the BJP that it supported reservation. The RSS also gave clarification each time saying that reservation should continue till the prevalence of caste discrimination. But such frequent flip-flops have created enough room for the misgivings that the RSS is pushing for abolition of caste-based reservation. But the BJP’s endorsement of reservation has remained quite consistent. Far from suggesting any rollback of reservation it has extended reservation facility to new groups such as Marathas in Maharashtra and Gujjars in Rajasthan keeping in mind electoral calculations. In this context, Bhagwat’s proposal for a debate on reservation has the potential to throw up interesting possibilities. It may pit the BJP against the RSS and expose the inner contradictions within the Hindu nationalist fold. Hence, Hindu nationalists have more reasons to be wary of such a debate than the non-BJP political actors and beneficiary groups. Conversely, the anti-BJP and anti-RSS forces who are vehemently opposing Bhagwat’s call for a debate may actually gain political mileage by encouraging such a debate. So far Bhagwat’s proposal has been analytically filtered solely through hardened ideological prisms. As a result, its tactical implications have escaped the attention of people on both sides of the ideological divide.
Note: This is the first piece in Ayan Guha’s regular column, ‘Ayanalysis’.
Dr. Ayan Guha is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Jamia Hamdard (Deemed to be University), New Delhi, India.
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