Friday, January 07, 2011

The Sangh and I

My first consciousness of the Sangh is as a boy, waiting for the school bus on Delhi's Ring Road. It was a quieter time and Ring Road was not the snarly mess it is today. I distinctly recall being startled by a throng of bicycles flooding the road - men in khaki shorts speeding away to who knows where. Someone at the bus stand hobbled one of the bikes, then forcibly let out the air from its pneumatic tires. Its rider in khaki shorts looked small and sullen, protesting helplessly.

I remember being shocked by the violence of the moment. Summoning my courage, I asked what this was all about? I was told, in a tone of unmistakable warning, the man in khaki was RSS - keep away from him.

I was a curious child. No doubt I must've asked my quite conservative Hindu family what RSS was. Whatever the response, it surprisingly didn't make an impression. All I remembered of the Sangh was the small, sullen, and helpless man in khaki shorts.

In retrospect, it feels odd that I didn't pay real attention to RSS till I was a young adult. There were relatives, I discovered, who were part of it. A senior ideologue even came to our family weddings. It was always around me in some form but simply wasn't relevant to my life.

I felt secure in my identity so wasn't looking for a group to validate it. I didn't fear any other faith, so wasn't looking for muscular friends to protect me from them. I was - and remain - relatively religious & literate on my faith, so wasn't looking for someone to lecture me on it.

Only as an adult, did I see RSS as a political entity. This vague organization, that kinda' hovered around my life but I knew virtually nothing about, was - in a quirk of history - important to the destiny of my nation. Perhaps it was the small, sullen, & helpless man in khaki, perhaps it was the bigoted relatives who said they were in RSS, or perhaps it was the blood-curdling rhetoric of the ideologue who came to our family weddings - whatever it was, I didn't like the Sangh. The shrillness of its Twitter supporters has only served to validate & strengthen this feeling.

As RSS comes back in view, somehow linked (allegedly) to reprehensible bombings that I usually associate with Pakistani terrorism and Indian naxalism, I wonder if there isn't something profoundly wrong with it. How is it possible that it was defined for me - a conservative Hindu boy who I'd think would've been a prime recruit at one time - by serendipitous interactions & distasteful memories? Worse still, how is it possible that the Sangh has let itself be painted, in fairly negative hues, by those who don't like it? Worst of all, how is it possible that its own anglophone supporters on social media have squandered the unique opportunity to redefine it as a modern, civil, and engagement-worthy entity versus an aggressive, angry horde that attacks, attacks, attacks?

I have no idea if the Sangh is involved in any way with the terrorist attacks it is being linked to. But I know this: either the Sangh is comfortable with or is a really poor manager of its public image. If the former, then very little needs to be said beyond the usual critique. If, as I suspect its defenders would argue, it gets a bad rap - surely it needs to do a lot better image management. Whatever its purpose is, surely it must be possible to articulate it in an intuitive manner. Whatever its achievements are, surely it must be possible to describe them in a straightforward manner. Whatever its outreach strategy is, surely it should be better than browbeating people into somehow accepting its version of reality?

This organization that apparently has been around for a long time, yet is somehow unable to do as basic a task as protecting its public image, is hardly the competent protector of the broader faith its rather aggressive supporters assert it is. Given this, I suspect, for me it will likely always remain the small, sullen, and helpless man in khaki shorts. Quite an image, isn't it?