Hindu nationalism presents kinder, gentler face

The Hindu nationalist organization that helped bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power is “attempting a makeover to soften its image ahead of next year’s national elections,” writes Joanna Slater in the Washington Post (September 21). The main Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), recently held an unprecedented three-day event where its leader Mohan Bhagwat sought to counter criticism that he heads a chauvinistic and divisive organization. He claimed his group supported a vision of India that encompasses religious minorities as well as RSS critics. Slater writes that the event is part of a “continuing campaign by the RSS to move from the fringes of public debate in India toward the mainstream. Among the audience in the cavernous conference hall were not only RSS members but diplomats, journalists and activists skeptical of the RSS.”

The unusual outreach event came at a time when the RSS is facing mounting criticism from India’s opposition parties. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress recently compared the RSS to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, saying that it is trying “to change the nature of India” and “wants to capture its institutions.” Under the Modi government, there have been instances of killings and assaults — mostly of Muslims — by vigilante “cow protection” squads seeking to punish those who harm cattle. Slater adds that “[m]embers of groups affiliated with the RSS have also boasted of their ability to attack Muslims with impunity and claimed Muslims who marry Hindus are engaging in ‘love jihad.’” The outward goal is to “portray the RSS as a more benign organization,” said Walter Andersen of Johns Hopkins University. The RSS is slowly changing some of the fundamental elements of its rhetoric, according to Badri Narayan, a professor at the University of Allahabad. “We have to see how much they are going to implement these new ideas in action,” he added.