Karnataka’s civil society is abuzz with a newly released Kannada book, Devanura Mahadeva’s RSS — Aala Mattu Agala (RSS — Its Depth and Breadth). A critical exploration of the RSS, the book has been flying off the shelves since its release, prompting the state’s rightwing ecosystem to unleash all its arms to discredit both the book and its author. Vishweshwara Bhat, senior journalist and chief-editor of the leading right-leaning Kannada daily ‘Vishwawani’, took to Twitter to call it a “piece of trash”. Rohit Chakratirtha, the erstwhile head of the controversial textbook revision committee, wrote a slanderous op-ed in another right-leaning daily, Hosa Diganta. Right-leaning news channels have been running prejudicial panels on the book all week. One of the publishers informs me that more than 10,000 copies of the book have already been sold and around 70,000 copies are in print based on placed orders and the ever-increasing demand.
Devanura Mahadeva has adopted a unique distribution strategy of allowing multiple publishers to publish the book in different regions of Karnataka, without expecting any royalty. As many as six Kannada publishers — big and small — are already distributing these books across the state, with more joining the bandwagon given the overwhelming demand for the book. Although only the Kannada original is out for sale, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, and English translations are underway.
Who is Devanura Mahadeva and why is his book rattling the state’s right-wing ecosystem? There are a few reasons. Mahadeva may be a relatively unknown name elsewhere, but he is a household name in Karnataka. Through his path-breaking novels like Kusuma Baale and Odalala (for which he won the State and Central Sahitya Academy awards), he was among the first of the subversive writers in modern Kannada literature. Unlike the wordy and Sanskritised writings consumed by the largely upper-caste Kannada literati, Mahadeva’s USP was his colloquial prose without the Brahminical gaze. A Dalit writer, he became one of the most important figures of the Bandaya literary movement, that was kicked off in the 1970s by emerging Dalit writers who used prose as well as poetry to both articulate and resist all forms of social injustice. In recent years, as the state has increasingly slipped into the hands of the right-wing ecosystem, Mahadeva remains one of the few critical voices of reason, always taking an outspoken stand against acts of oppression. His voice has the power to reach a segment that lives beyond the agraharas of Bengaluru, Mysuru, Mangaluru, and Dharwad. The same book written by another political commentator would perhaps not have carried the same weight or have reached the same audience.
The book is also short and accessible. It is a 64-page booklet that does not overwhelm the reader with complex jargon, and can be read in one sitting. It has been written keeping in mind a reader whose politics have likely been shaped by right-wing propaganda. But because he is Devanura Mahadeva, a man of and from the masses, he manages to educate the reader sans the paternalistic tone that comes naturally to most elite progressives.
Further, unlike most of the criticisms of RSS that are either reactions to isolated political developments or driven by immediate electoral expediency, Devanura Mahadeva constructs and provides a comprehensive critique of the RSS — one that is rooted in history while also covering contemporary issues. In the first part of the book, he outlines the core agenda of the RSS: to replace Ambedkar’s Constitution that promises equality to every citizen, with the Manusmriti that is based on ‘Chaturvarna’ hierarchy. He then talks about RSS's subsidiary agendas that will aid in reinstating Manusmriti: transformation of our federal structure into a unitary one, disenfranchisement of the minorities and oppressed, imposition of Sanskrit (and Sanskritized Hindi) over people’s languages, and establishing Aryan racial superiority, all heavily inspired by Nazi Germany.
In the second part, he contextualises these agendas by covering a range of contemporary developments — from GST to privatisation, from ban on hijab to passing of the CAA and anti-conversion laws — and explaining how each of them takes the RSS closer to realising its core and subsidiary agendas.
He talks to the oppressed — women, Dalits, Bahujans, minorities — and urges them to see how rights earned for the first time in history through our constitutional reforms are being reversed, effectively pushing them back to their colonial and pre-colonial status, while the RSS-BJP distracts and pits them against each other by raking up emotional issues at its whim.
At a time when the RSS-BJP seems to be mastering its social engineering strategy by gaining popular support among all sections of the society, conveying a comprehensive critique of its ideology to the people is important. This is undeniably the most powerful contribution of the book, and its potential impact is not lost on the right-wing ecosystem.
Mahadeva closes the book by reminding all the progressive forces — opposition parties, civil society organisations, people’s movements — of the enormous responsibility on their shoulders to dismantle this grand scheme of the RSS. He urges them to think beyond their petty politics, work together among themselves and with the people, to collectively rebuild our society on the foundations of love, compassion, and solidarity. For the political class that is still lost in fulfilling personal ambitions and in their everyday battles for survival, the book is an urgent and stern call to see the bigger picture, and to act. For the intended audience of the book, the 130+ crore Indians, it is a clarion call to “identify, stand with, and become a part of the unifying forces at a time when the divisive forces are presenting ‘adharma’ as ‘dharma’, hailing social injustice as social justice, and cleaving our society apart instead of holding it together.
Disclaimer: The author is a researcher working at the intersection of data, economics, finance, and policy with a not-for-profit. The opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the employer or the publication.
(With inputs from Guruprasad DN and Anusha Bhat)