From ‘strong support’ to ‘let’s debate it’: The shifting stance of RSS on reservations

The discourses around reservations, a cornerstone of affirmative action, by the RSS are skillfully manoeuvred so that it does not impact the Hindutva cause of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Mohan Bhagwat
Mohan BhagwatRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)/Facebook Page
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Over the years, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has displayed a fluctuating stance on the issue of reservations. Despite its historical opposition to caste-based quotas it often engages in a cat-and-mouse game of ambiguous public statements and subtle shifts in rhetoric. Leaders affiliated to the organisation often invoke the necessity of a national dialogue.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently ‘assured’ support for reservations on Sunday, April 28, reiterating statements made in recent years. He stated, "The Sangh has always supported reservations as provided by the Constitution. Reservation should continue as long as it is necessary for those who need it. Until discrimination exists, reservation quotas should remain."

The discourses around reservations, the cornerstone of affirmative action, by the RSS are skillfully manoeuvred so that it does not impact the Hindutva cause of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Support with conditions

Bhagwat has had to provide such reassurances multiple times due to conflicting statements from him and other RSS leaders. In 2015, Bhagwat himself called for a review of the reservation policy, criticising its politicisation. In an interview with Organizer, he said, "We believe that a committee comprising individuals genuinely concerned about the nation's interests and committed to social equality, including representatives from various sections of society, should decide which categories require reservation and for how long."

He proposed the formation of a non-political, autonomous commission to review the policy.

His remarks sparked a significant controversy at the time. In 2017, RSS leader Manmohan Vaidya also called for a review of the policy, stating, "Reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were introduced in a different context... Even Ambedkar has said that this continuing indefinitely is not advisable. There should be a limit to it."

Two years later RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, during a three-day conclave of the organisation in Pushkar in 2019, said the organisation supports reservations as per the Constitution and stated that they should continue as long as beneficiaries feel the need. He reiterated the statement in 2021, calling RSS a “strong supporter” of reservation.

In August 2019, Mohan Bhagwat, during a lecture at Indira Gandhi National Open University, advocated for a "harmonious conversation" between proponents and opponents of reservations.

Bhagwat has also emphasised multiple times that reservations themselves are not the issue; rather, it is the politics surrounding reservations that creates problems.

Critics, however, have pointed out that statements like "reservations should continue as long as beneficiaries require them or until discrimination persists" imply they should have limitations. The organisation’s wariness towards reservations could be linked to their problematic relation towards caste. According to critics, RSS never explicitly denounced the caste system but tried to reform it in order to preserve its basic structure.

Deendayal Upadhyay, a leader of Bharatiya Jana Sangh wrote in 1965, "In our concept of four castes, they are thought of as analogous to the different limbs of Virat-Purusha. These limbs are not only complementary to one another, but even further, there is individuality, unity. There is a complete identity of interest, identity of belonging”. An advocate of retaining the caste system in its original form - varna vyavastha - Upadhyay believed it was necessary for the nation's 'organic unity'. All these arguments are part of his book Integral Humanism in 1965.

In 1990, when Prime Minister VP Singh announced he would implement Mandal commission recommendations, the reaction by RSS was intense. The Organiser editorials said that it would cause ‘caste war’ again. Christophe Jaffrelot, a political scientist, in one of his articles pointed out that Organiser felt, “an urgent need to build up moral and spiritual forces to counter any fall-out from an expected Shudra revolution.”

Allegations of casteism in RSS

The RSS itself has not been immune to allegations of caste-based discrimination. The revelations made by Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a former RSS member, who is a Dalit and had joined the organisation at the age of 13 in the 1980s, sparked widespread discussions in 2020.

Meghwanshi’s book ‘I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS” also raised several questions about RSS and its attitude towards the caste system.

The RSS, founded by Maharashtrian Brahmins, has been viewed by historians as a response to the emerging Dalit politics. Many believe it was established as an alternative to incorporate the oppressed class without challenging Brahmanism or the caste system. Bhanwar's book mentions how oppressed communities initially felt welcomed at the RSS Shakhas, where they were treated with respect—a treatment they did not receive elsewhere.

He wrote, “But here (Sakha) we all addressed one another as ‘ji’. From plain Bhanwar I too became Bhanwar-ji, well on my way to becoming Bhanwar-ji bhaisahab.”

His realisation about casteism within the organisation came the day he prepared food for Sangh Parivar members who were touring his village. They packed up the food, without eating it, and just threw it away. This made him aware of the entrenched caste dynamics within the RSS.

He also points out how Dalits were not given certain positions in the organisation.

He wrote, "They only wanted to use us to attack Muslims; otherwise, we did not matter at all."

In the book, he mentioned that when he began reading Ambedkar directly, he realised that "his views on everything were the exact opposite of what the Sangh claimed."

Never blamed caste Hindus or social hierarchy

RSS leaders mostly attribute the reason for casteism and untouchability to Islamic invasions. In August 2019, RSS’ joint general secretary Krishna Gopal had blamed ‘Islamic aggression’ for casteism and untouchability.

This claim has been consistently propagated by the RSS over decades. In 2014, this assertion was officially endorsed in forwards by RSS functionaries in three books—Hindu Charmakar Jati, Hindu Khatik Jati, and Hindu Valmiki Jati—written by BJP spokesman Vijay Sonkar Shastri and released by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

In a foreword for one of the books, Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi wrote, "To violate the Hindu swabhiman (dignity) of Chanwarvanshiya Kshatriyas, foreign invaders from Arab, Muslim rulers, and beef-eaters forced them to perform abominable tasks like killing cows, skinning them, and discarding their carcasses in deserted places. Foreign invaders thus created a caste of charma-karma (dealing with skin) by assigning such tasks as punishment to proud Hindu prisoners."

All the three forewords by RSS leaders for the three books made similar claims.

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