On 14 October, 1956, Babasaheb Ambedkar, accompanied by lakhs of people, had embraced Buddhism. The place was Nagpur, and the venue is since known as Deekshabhoomi where a stupa was inaugurated on 18 December 2001 by then President KR Narayanan and is now a widely recognised heritage site in Nagpur. The day was Ashoka Vijayadashami, to mark the anniversary of the occasion when Emperor Ashoka is believed to have abjured violence and embraced Buddhism after being moved by the devastation caused by the Kalinga war. Incidentally, while Ambedkar chose the day to start a new Buddhist movement in India which has now given us a whole new community of Ambedkarite Buddhists, the RSS, founded on the same Vijayadashami day and headquartered in the same city of Nagpur, celebrates the occasion by organising public display and worship of weapons.
The two histories thus highlight two contrasting trajectories – while Ambedkar’s Dhammachakra Pravartan represented a determined quest for liberty, equality and fraternity, the militaristic and patriarchal culture of RSS has left a trail of hate, violence and oppression. The contrast acquired a new sharpness this year, right in the national capital in Delhi, when a few thousand people assembled at Delhi’s Ambedkar Bhawan, repeated Ambedkar’s famous 22 vows and took the Buddhist oath. The event irked the RSS no end and the Sangh brigade launched a vicious campaign against Delhi government’s Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam for his presence in the event forcing him to resign.
This incident also raises a serious question about the politics of the Aam Aadmi Party which has made it mandatory to put up Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar portraits in all Delhi and Punjab offices only to leave its own minister in the lurch when he is found following Ambedkar’s legacy. On several occasions the AAP in Delhi has also been found to ditch its own Muslim MLAs and leaders in the face of the Sangh brigade’s Islamophobic campaign of hate, lies and violence. Religious conversion is no crime but a constitutionally guaranteed right and Dalits have every right to seek a way out of the caste hierarchy and oppression by moving out of the Hindu fold. Incidentally, on the same day Mohan Bhagwat in his RSS foundation day address asked India to forget jati and varna as things of the past! If anything, the vicious RSS campaign against Dalits embracing Buddhism and repeating Ambedkar’s famous 22 vows showed us how much the RSS was still committed to defending India’s oppressive caste system. Caste cannot be overcome by just pretending that it is over, it can be overcome only by annihilating it as Ambedkar had asserted way back in 1936.
An impression is being sought to be created that RSS has evolved into a broad-based and inclusive organization. Events like the meeting between Bhagwat and five Muslim intellectuals which apparently signaled the ‘readiness’ of the RSS to accept Indian Muslims as Indian citizens, and Bhagwat’s visit to a mosque and madrasa, are all being propagated as signs of change. But nothing could be a bigger fake news! Bhagwat did visit a madrasa, but he went there only to ask students to read Gita alongside Quran. Will the RSS-run Vidyamandirs ask students to read Quran from now on? And if we needed his message to be decoded, it was done promptly in Bidar in Karnataka where a saffron squad entered a heritage mosque and madrasa to perform puja on Dussehra day.
There can be no mistaking the fact that the Sangh-BJP project is all about demonisation of Muslims and further exclusion of Dalits. Even as we hear Mohan Bhagwat talk about a ‘false sense of fear and insecurity being spread among Muslims’ we find a BJP MP in Delhi issuing an open call for total boycott of Muslims while another speaker repeats the call for genocide of Muslims from the stage of the same event. In the run-up to the impending Gujarat election, we also saw the Navratri celebrations and the Garba dance events in Gujarat being turned into a public display of anti-Muslim hate and violence with Muslims being debarred from taking part in social festivities and even publicly flogged by the police and goons with the crowd cheering in approval. Likewise, it should be abundantly clear that the ‘caste-is-past’ talk is only aimed at subverting the policy of reservation, trivializing caste atrocities and denying Dalits and Adivasis their constitutional right to religious conversion.
No less mistaken is the impression that the RSS is waking up to the deepening economic crisis and is exerting pressure on the Modi government for some urgent course correction. RSS General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale’s remarks about poverty and unemployment in a Swadeshi Jagran Manch were part of the same package as Modi’s frequent rants against ‘freebies’ and advice to job-seekers to turn into job-givers and citizens to focus on their duties instead of insisting on rights. In his Vijayadashami address, Mohan Bhagwat not only did the predictable drum-beating for the Modi government but also put the focus back on one of the Sangh brigade’s pet propaganda points – the presumed threat to India’s religious demographic balance, a dog-whistling euphemism to instigate the paranoid fear of Hindus becoming a minority in India or India suffering another partition because of an imaginary exponential growth in Muslim population! With the RSS only three years away from its centenary it is already celebrating with an escalation of its war on India’s constitutional vision of a sovereign democratic socialist secular republic.