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Precursors To The Bharatiya Janata Party History Essay

Hindutva, as envisioned by Sarvarkar and Golwalkar, sought to instate an idealized Hindu nation by hearkening back to the Vedic age. In post-independent India, the ideology is represented by a group of political organizations collectively known as the Sangh Parivar. [1] Not every institution in this formation considers the bolstering of Hindu identity its primary aim. [2] This pragmatic self-designation is precisely the electoral strength of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which appeals to the vote of both the Hindu masses and those sections of the elite who view the BJP as a modern, secular party that will not pander to minority demands. [3] 

This chapter analyzes the ideological orientations of the BJP’s precursors. It explores the discourse and activities of the organizations to determine how they have influenced the ideology and praxis of the BJP.

Of the several Hindu nationalist organizations that gained prominence in post-independent India, four hold specific relevance within the politics of the BJP. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) played instrumental roles during the 1960s and 70s. [4] Their missions and activities perpetuated the Hindutva cause, and consolidated an environment within which the BJP could thrive. While the first two organizations profess cultural and social objectives, their activities—both in conjunction with and independent of the BJP—have caused considerable political polarization in India. [5] The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, on the other hand, focuses solely on economic concerns. It is the institution from which the BJP borrows principles of statecraft. The Jan Sangh was created as the political arm of the RSS. However, the party’s inability to find following in the Indian electoral system grossly undermined Hindu nationalist efforts. Its collapse was the catalyst for the rise of the BJP. [6] 

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)

Founded in 1925 by ex-Hindu Mahasabha [7] member Keshavram Baliram Hedgewar, the RSS is the ideological fountainhead of contemporary Hindutva politics. With a membership base of nearly six million people, the Sangh is a formidable force in Indian society. [8] Given its outwardly cultural agenda, the organization does not contest in elections. Regardless, its indirect control casts profound effects on the electoral face of Hindutva politics: the BJP. This is evidenced by the fact that many BJP leaders are also members of the RSS. [9] 

The visible work of the RSS pertains to the management of educational and social institutions. However, these institutions are frequently used as centers to propagate anti-minority views among impressionable children. [10] The RSS’s claims of being a cultural organization should not blind us to its identity as a body that can disengage itself from the interests of Hindu minorities, should they refuse to comply with the Hindutva ideal of assimilation. [11] The organization’s emphasis on martial competence is equally worrisome. Dressed in khaki shorts, RSS cadres routinely engage in acts of communal aggression. [12] The next section of this chapter demonstrates the militaristic, hierarchical tendencies in the RSS.

Remapping Practices: Ideological Imperatives in the RSS

Dr. Hedgewar envisioned the RSS as a synthesis of Hindu elitism and the sangathan (brotherhood) methodology. [13] He argued in favor of the creation of a small but efficient organization of devoted men who could provide leadership to the entire Hindu community. Hedgewar therefore refashioned certain Hindu institutions, notably akharas (wrestling pits) and Hindu spiritual sects. [14] Though wrestling matches were popular forms of entertainment among both upper and lower caste Hindus, spiritual sects were frequented mainly by the elites. [15] In an effort to endear the Hindu masses, Hedgewar merged these two traditions; endowing akharas with spiritual content and religious sects with martial appeal. [16] 

Shakhas—institutions where young boys would meet for physical exercise and ideological training—became tools for promoting virtuous behavior (samskaras), [17] strong fraternal bonds, and a compelling patriotic sentiment among volunteers. Even today, shakhas function as ideological akharas. [18] 

Masculine power lies at the center of the RSS’s nationalist fraternalism. This notion of masculinity is based entirely on the consecration of warriorship. In one of his speeches to RSS volunteers, Golwalkar stated, “Let mothers bless and send their sons at this moment of trial. When the five Pandavas sought their mother Kunti’s blessings before war in the [epic] Mahabharata, she told them, ‘Go ye all to the battle.’” [19] Golwalkar’s stance is buttressed by a martial tradition wherein the RSS swayamsevak (volunteer) is the kshatriyaized [20] antithesis to Gandhi’s non-violent, effeminate Hindu. While sevaks are encouraged to act as youthful soldiers, pracharaks, or celibate cadres, are taught that asceticism is a way of reclaiming control and masculinity to counter the defiant and lustful Muslim foreigner. [21] Interestingly, while the RSS opposes the Gandhian notion of satyagraha, or passive resistance, its focus on chastity and solidarity parallels Gandhi’s vision of an independent India premised on moral supremacy vis-à-vis the modern world. [22] 

Out in the Field: RSS Activities

A staunch proponent of activism, Hedgewar avoided the RSS’s involvement in political agitations during its early years, so as to bolster its image among the moderate members of the Indian National Congress (INC). [23] On assuming his predecessor’s position, Golwalkar sought to ascribe a nuanced cultural character to the Sangh. This pitted him against those in favor of Hegdewar’s militaristic stance. [24] 

The birth of Pakistan gave RSS members a renewed sense of purpose and unity. For RSS cadres, the Partition was the outcome of a mistaken soft-handedness towards Indian Muslims. [25] They therefore sought to present communal atrocities during the Partition as instances of patriotic baptism; initiations through blood and sacrifice into the nationalist cause. [26] Despite Golwalkar’s efforts, the strategic pendulum of the RSS swung from character-building to activism. For their role in M.K. Gandhi’s [27] assassination in 1948, close to 20,000 RSS workers were imprisoned along with the chief suspect, Nathuram Ghodse. The RSS was banned. [28] 

After the ban was lifted in 1949, those in the RSS worked to overcome their tarnished image. Shedding militarism temporarily, the organization focused on four specific projects during the 1950s. First, it established the Akhil Bharati Vidhya Parishad (All India Student’s Organization), which encouraged India’s youth to combat “leftist” influences on education. Today, the organization supports the BJP in its electoral rallies. [29] Second, the RSS focused on strengthening its women’s wing, the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti (RSS*), which was founded in 1936. Hindu nationalists’ simultaneous emphasis on masculinity and women’s connection with Bharatamata, or “Mother India,” is perhaps the most striking contradiction in Hindutva ideology. Regardless, the BJP consistently appeals to this dichotomy in its electoral endeavors. [30] Third, the RSS made a conscious attempt to connect with India’s urban working class by creating the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (Indian Worker’s Association) in 1955. [31] The Mazdoor Sangh is a visible voice among the several labor organizations in contemporary India. The RSS later established a rural affiliate: the Bharatiya Kisan Sabha was created in 1979. [32] Fourth, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashrama was formed in 1952 with RSS support. By 1980, it had become the leading re-conversion body, and sought to counter Christian and Islamic missionaries [33] by working closely with India’s tribal communities. [34] 

Organizing the Brotherhood: Home to Hierarchies

In addition to widening its outreach through subsidiary institutions, the RSS also strengthened its internal organizational structure during the 1950s. To institutionalize authority and order, RSS leaders created a rigid hierarchy system. [35] 

The entire structure of the RSS rests on permanent gradations. It is comprised of elite swayamsevaks or volunteers, who are ranked by education and age; gatanayaks or squad leaders; mukhya shikshaks or superior instructors; karyavahas or secretaries; pracharaks or celibate staff commanders; and sanghchalaks or directors at regional, local, and national levels. Each of these individuals is subordinate to the sar sanghchalak, the RSS’s supreme leader and guide. [36] 

While hierarchical relationships govern a vast majority of RSS activities, Hedgewar and Golwalkar understood that the organization’s standing depended, to a large extent, on free information exchanges. They ensured that tacit, informal channels were established in their regional and local constituencies. [37] The existence of informal communication in an intensely hierarchical setup has lent charisma not only to the RSS as an organization but also to individual leaders like L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee, who now play conspicuous roles in the BJP. [38] 

Second Wave of Activism: Reconfiguring India’s Educational System

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the RSS engaged in a massive outreach effort, creating once again, a host of organizations that served as subsidiaries to the RSS cause. [39] The Bharat Vikas Parishad was formed in 1963 to work with poor communities. The Bharat Shikshan Mandal was created in 1969 to promote Hindu values in the education system. The Vidhya Bharati was created in 1976 as the RSS’s formal educational wing. It caters to primary and elementary school children, imparting them with the Hindutva view on history and social organization. [40] The RSS also has an international wing called Sewa International, which organizes funds for the Sangh Parivar by identifying Hindutva supporters outside India. Through the Deendayal Research Institute, and its journal Manthan, the RSS ensures the dissemination of Hindu nationalist ideas. [41] 

Revisiting Hindutva Ideology

The RSS has worked for nearly seven decades to strengthen its position in Indian society. Through its organized and informal networks, the RSS structure grew

from a single shakha in 1926 to over 25,000 shakhas in 1989. [42] 

While hierarchical organization remains a crucial aspect of the RSS’s success, ideology is by no means unimportant. The primary objectives of the RSS are succinctly illustrated in its constitution. The document states that the RSS seeks to “eradicate differences among Hindus; make them realize the greatness of their past; inculcate in them a spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to Hindu society as a whole; build an organized and well disciplined social life; and bring about the regeneration of Hindu society.” [43] Rejecting secular ideas, the RSS constitution posits: “We make war or peace, engage in arts and crafts, amass wealth and give it away—indeed we are born and we die—all in accord with religious injunction.” [44] 

The RSS works through multiple layers of symbolic integration. Ironically, symbols of purity are frequently used by its members to perpetuate irreligious acts. [45] Saffron flags, for example, are used to demarcate Hindu territories during communal riots. Other symbols and events, such as the celebration of specific festivals [46] during the year, serve to enhance unity and reinforce ties of brotherhood within the RSS. [47] 

The ritualization of Hinduism through insignia rests on a form of masculinity that draws from militancy and monastic existence. [48] Though it opposes Semitic traditions (Christianity and Islam), the RSS tries to overcome the supposedly effeminate state of subjugation by emulating the aggressive foreigner (both Muslims and the British). [49] Yet it simultaneously presents the Hindu capacity for endurance against subjugation. It follows that the RSS envisions the sevak (volunteer) as a liminal figure capable of transcending between celibacy and warriorship. [50] 

Like Sarvarkar, RSS leaders maintain that masculinity provides the link to India’s grandiose and paradoxically victimized past. Accounts of ancient Aryan heroes and medieval Hindu warriors figure extensively in the rhetoric of present-day RSS members. [51] The sanctification of manhood in these accounts provides an avenue for uniting factions in Hindu society. In eulogizing the idea of a nation to be defended, RSS leaders convince lower caste communities that external domination and not caste segregation is solely responsible for their fate. [52] 

Images of power and strength within the RSS reflect a complex interaction between three forces: the structural logistics of a hierarchical environment; the perpetuation of heroic mythology in an ordered institution; and the indoctrinated psychological need among rank-and-file workers to revere their leaders. [53] RSS leadership expresses these ideas in a single statement:

The ultimate vision of our work, which has been the living inspiration for all our organizational efforts, is a perfectly organized state of society where each individual has been molded into a model of ideal Hindu manhood and made into a limb of the corporate Hindu society. [54] 

The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)

The Vishva Hindu Parishad came into being under the auspices of the RSS in 1964, following a movement to ban cow slaughter. [55] A recent incident in the Indian state of Haryana effectively represents the explosive potential of the cow slaughter issue. [56] On the morning of July 20, 2002, five men suspected of cow slaughter were encircled and lynched by VHP volunteers. The men turned out to be dalits, low caste Hindus, whose traditional work entailed laboring in tanneries. [57] People of this community obtain raw material for their work from the carcasses of cows that have died of natural causes. In a revealing clarification, VHP members brushed aside the incident as one of “mistaken identity,” in which dalits were taken to be Muslims. [58] The revelation clearly indicates the anti-Muslim orientation of the Parishad.

On Hinduism and Hierarchies

The VHP’s charter outlines the following as it core objectives: to consolidate Hindu society, to spread Hindu values, to establish a network comprising all Hindus living outside India, and to welcome back to the Hindu fold all those who had left Hinduism. [59] In accordance with its agenda, the VHP enunciated five requirements for being a good Hindu in a conference on religion in 1967. These included regular worship, visits to temples, basic knowledge of the sacred geography of India, knowledge of mythical epics, and loyalty to Hindu culture. [60] 

Estimates hold that the VHP’s membership base ranges from two and a half to four million persons. [61] The Parishad is organized on a state by state basis. It is divided into zonal branches or vibhaags, district branches or prakhands, and sub-district units or upkhands. The supervisors at each of these levels ultimately report to two shankaracharyas or spiritual leaders. While the VHP draws extensively from the hierarchical structure of the RSS, interactions between volunteers at the civic level and leaders at the spiritual level are much stronger in the framework of the former organization. [62] 

Defining an Agenda

The Vishva Hindu Parishad was founded as a religio-cultural institution. Its cadres serve as intermediaries between Hindu religious institutions and the RSS establishment. The VHP’s activities are, therefore, dedicated to producing a Hindu ethos that is divorced from the prescriptions of caste and sect. [63] To achieve this end, the organization has constructed a series of rashtra mandirs (national temples). Drawing upon the Indian tradition of sadhus (holy men) heading religious institutions, the VHP relies on gurus (guides) to oversee its discourse on spirituality. [64] 

Global in reach, the VHP’s international profile, not surprisingly, is one of promoting Hindu culture. The Vishva Hindu Parishad of America and other related organizations, such as the Hindu Student Council, focus specifically on garnering financial support from the overseas diaspora community. [65] Proceeds from these organizations have supplemented VHP activities in India.

From Words to Action

VHP efforts to promote a Hindu nation commenced as early as 1966, with the first International Hindu Conference in Allahabad. [66] During the next decade, the VHP pursued the strategy of uniting Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains by promoting a common understanding of each religious tradition’s beliefs and practices. The organization’s professed syncretism was limited in reach (focused only on Hindu sects) but strategic in form (endeared more supporters). [67] The far reaching significance of this strategy was demonstrated in the late 1980s, when the VHP and RSS used their version of Hinduism for rallying the masses during the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation. [68] 

VHP endeavors during the early 1970s reflected a broader activist agenda. The organization embraced social causes, instituting schools, medical centers, and hostels all over the country. [69] Like the RSS, the VHP set up reconversion units, or Vanavasi Kalyan Ashramas, to encourage adivasi (tribals) Christians to embrace Hinduism during this period. It conducted thousands of shuddhi (purification) ceremonies under the auspices of these ashramas. [70] To enhance Hinduism’s appeal among those who had converted to other faiths, the VHP engaged in a rationalization of ritual practices. By stipulating that only three rites, birth (namkaran), marriage (vivah), and death (antesi), were integral to Hinduism, the VHP sought to convince low castes that Hindutva would rid Hindu religion of excessive ritualism. [71] A VHP pamphlet from 1972 indicates the urgency with which this project was pursued: “The VHP is dedicated to preventing the apprehensions amongst the have-nots [from leading] to a storm of hatred which will destroy the whole structure of society. [72] 

The rhetoric on the need to educate India’s youth was another compelling aspect of the VHP’s agenda. After initial difficulties in convincing parents to send their young sons to ahramas (places of worship and learning), the VHP succeeded in promoting Hindutva’s cultural and spiritual values. [73] Language (Sanskrit), tradition (Vedic culture), and Hindu religion became instruments for promoting ordered relationships in society. [74] 

The organization’s experiments in the social sphere, though momentous, were short lived. Like the RSS, the VHP assisted the BJP during its communal campaigns in Ayodhya (1992), Mumbai (1993), and Gujarat (2002). In consonance with the Hindutva ideal of a unified India, VHP members organized several Ekamata (unifying) processions between 1980 and 1999. [75] Mythological accounts of Hindu warriors like the Pandavas in the Mahabharata and Lord Rama in the Ramayana continue to characterize the VHP’s discourse. It is important to note that the VHP’s emphasis on cultural goals veils its identity as an elitist organization. [76] The mere presence of women and low caste Hindus in the VHP does not prove its sincerity towards the masses. In reality, the VHP seeks to acquire mass support by unearthing local myths and casting them in the masculine, martial framework of the aforementioned epics. [77] 

Saints and Swords

While the RSS regards both warriors and monks as symbols of masculinity, the VHP bases its masculine agenda solely on the premise of martial expertise. The Bajrang Dal, which was founded in 1984 as the VHP’s youth wing, is a fitting example of this tradition. [78] Men in the Dal are always armed with trishuls (tridents), and openly resort to violence during times of communal tension. Members of the organization played visible roles in both the 1992 Ayodhya riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots. Since the RSS and VHP plan communal violence under cover, their links to militant bodies like the Bajrang Dal are hard to establish. [79] 

It is important to note that the similarities between the RSS and VHP are not accidental. Like other Sangh Parivar members, the latter enjoys little autonomy. Constant RSS oversight ensures that VHP members conform to its hierarchical and majoritarian nationalist framework.

Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM)

The SJM was founded in 1991 with the exclusive agenda of opposing economic imperialism. [80] Since its inception, the organization has actively promoted the slogan of swadeshi, “Of one’s own land,” which originated during India’s nationalist movement against the British. Perceptibly, the SJM stands against contemporary corporatism and foreign economic assistance. It opposes International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO) sponsored Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in India, arguing that their inbuilt conditionality imposes significant costs on the Indian poor. [81] 

The SJM repudiates Western aid and promotes instead indigenous economic models of statecraft [82] contained in works like the Arthashastra, a treatise compiled by Kautilya in 300 BC. [83] The organization frequently assists the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, an RSS-oriented trade union, in its campaigns against multinational institutions in India. [84] 

As noted previously, the BJP employs the SJM’s principles to articulate its economic position. Despite its professed allegiance to economic self-sustenance, the BJP has emerged as a visible agent of liberalization. The party’s reign at the union level between 1998 and 2004 resulted in market reforms, and paved the way for international developmental initiatives. [85] The most contested of all BJP endeavors was its decision to commission a dam on the Narmada River. In this case, the drive for development led to large-scale displacement of tribal communities in central India. The party’s stance raised concerns over its implicit urban bias. [86] 

Though the BJP’s orientation during the 1990s caused RSS leaders and leftists to accuse the party of hypocrisy, the former’s move towards economic interdependence did not undermine its “Hindutva” plank. On the contrary, the BJP’s version of liberalization has augmented the fortunes of its upper class supporters. And globalization has won the BJP new adherents. [87] The middle class in urban and rural India have benefited from the influx of entertainment, economic opportunity, and a higher quality of life. [88] 

The Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS)

While the VHP was instituted to the RSS’s cultural agenda, the vision of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee led to the birth of the political affiliate of the RSS. The BJS was formed during an RSS consultation in October 1951. [89] The party’s stated objective was to rebuild India on the basis of four ideals: one nation, one culture, one country, and rule of law. The Jan Sangh embodied an eclectic mix of tradition and modernity, and while it proclaimed open membership and sought a populist stance, it possessed a covertly communal character.

The BJS began its political career by securing three Parliament seats in the 1952 general elections. [90] Its strongest electoral performance came in the 1967 elections, when the Congress majority was the thinnest. Between 1967 and 1971, the BJS participated in coalition governments in five states. [91] It played a vital role during the National Emergency between 1975 and 1979, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the second ban on the RSS. The party was left to monitor the Sangh Parivar’s agenda in the absence of key RSS leaders. [92] 

The BJS’s performance during the 1960s and 1970s impressed conservative members of the Congress Party, as well as elites (merchant and landed communities) in urban and rural India. [93] Despite its populist activism during the period, the BJS was unable to establish a national presence. [94] Through the 1970s, the party oscillated between Hindutva’s ethno-religious orientation and the need to integrate itself with mainstream politics. [95] The problem was that the BJS could never establish its legitimacy as a progressive political entity. The party depended on RSS support for all its electoral endeavors. [96] To make matters worse, RSS volunteers sensationalized their role during the Emergency by equating themselves with mythical heroes in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. [97] This proved to be a major setback for the Jan Sangh’s progressive economic campaign.

Taking cue from ex-RSS member Jay Prakash Narayan’s Total Revolution, the BJS eventually joint forces with the Bharatiya Lok Dal, the Socialist Party of India, and Congress (O) [98] to form the Janata Party. [99] Strong at the outset, the Janata government failed to harmonize the goals and aspirations of its disparate political actors. The party remained active on the Indian political scene for scarcely three years, during which time internal controversies weakened its electoral capabilities. [100] The Sangh Parivar’s diminishing political presence demanded the creation of a cohesive and stable organization that would fill political lacunae in Hindutva politics. The BJP was instituted to achieve this goal.

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