The Saffron Swastika
The Notion of Hindu
by Koenraad Elst
New Delhi: Voice of India,
(1070 pp, Rs. 900)
Reviewed by Ramesh N. Rao
[Editor's intro:"Ramesh N. Rao
is an associate professor of Communication at Truman State University,
Missouri, and serves on the Consultative Committee on Indic Traditions
and Conflict Management at Columbia University. He has worked
as a copy editor at The Hindu and received a Ph.D. from
Michigan State University."-- c. j. s. wallia]
At Last, A Worthy Defense of the RSS!
It is de rigueur among BJP and RSS watchers that you
use the term "fascist" to brand them both, and that
any attempt at explaining or understanding the RSS viewpoint
be viewed with suspicion if not derision. You have to use the
label "Sangh Parivar" or the "saffron brigade"
frequently in any analysis of the Hindutva movement, or even
when expressing your dismay at the vile deeds of the Afghan Taliban
or the traitorous expressions by the Student Islamic Movement
in India. When discussing any matter Hindu, or any modern Indian
social issue like dowry deaths, illiteracy, casteism, religious
conflict, or the status of women you should not fail to drag
in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the "unmarried, male gerontocracy"
which heads the RSS, and the BJP's supposedly "contradictory"
social and economic policies. You may, while at this exercise,
use the label "the Hindu Taliban" with as much anger,
disgust, and mockery as you can muster. You could also liberally
use the terms "Hindu nationalists", "Hindu fundamentalists",
and "Hindu Right" in your analysis of the "Hindu
If you didn't do so, and if as an academic, or as a columnist
for an English daily you dared to disagree with the fashionable
and predictable take on the RSS, you could as well kiss academic
tenure and media credibility goodbye. And if you were a graduate
student, and if you went looking in the few "South Asia"
programs in Western academe for a mentor who would guide you
to do an impartial thesis on the Sangh Parivar, you might as
well be in search of the proverbial needle in the proverbial
haystack. And in case you struggled anyway to work your way through
a thesis even partially favorable to the Sangh parivar, don't
even bother to apply for a position at any prestigious university.
At Jawaharlal Nehru University, till recently, if you had by
mistake touched the "brotherhood" with a barge pole
you would have been a pariah, an outcaste. And if you wished
to interest a university press or any "mainstream"
publisher in your book on the "parivar", you would
have been shunned, unless your treatise happened to lambast the
wearers of "khaki knickers".
Unless you swore by the "good works" of Romila Thapar
and Gyanendra Pandey, unless you paid homage to the wisdom of
Nehru and Gandhi, and unless you dismissed and derided Golwalkar,
Hedgewar and Savarkar, you would not have gained membership in
the exclusive "secularist" academic clubs. And unless
you had learned to parrot the gobbledygook of the Indian Left
and of the Western post-modernist, feminist, post-structuralist
brigade you would have been called "mediocre" and a
Hindu nationalist. You could have toiled long and hard, and you
might have found all kinds of evidence to show that what the
RSS did and said, and what its leaders espoused and acted upon
were justified, not only at a particular time and context in
the past, but even at present, and you would have not been paid
heed to. Worse yet, you would be branded a "fellow traveler"
of the "Hindu nationalist movement" and someone with
a "radical anti-Muslim persuasion". Indeed, that was
the vicious swipe delivered in a footnote by Thomas Hansen, a
Dane with a barely-hidden anti-Hindu agenda (see his pretentious
"The Saffron Wave"). That swipe was taken against Elst,
whose new book, I submit, is the best-researched, and most thorough
analysis of the RSS and its affiliates, and of the "notion
of Hindu 'fascism'". Sure, this latest and the best of Elst
will be ignored, or marginalized, or dismissed by the travelers
on the "secular" (but may be no longer secure) bandwagon.
That is so because there are very, very few truly secular and
objective scholars in the field, and because too many vested
interests have too much at stake to come out and acknowledge
they were wrong.
Elst, as his substantial "underground" following knows,
is a linguist, historian, political scientist, prolific writer,
brilliant mind, and a wonderful raconteur. I am proud to claim
him as my good friend. He is the author of the newly released
two-volume tome, The Saffron Swastika The Notion of
Hindu "Fascism" (1070 pp, New Delhi: Voice of India,
Rs. 900). So, what the Left, the fashionable English language
media in India, and the party-hoppers in New Delhi will not tell
you about his latest book, his magnum opus, I hope to tell you
here. But only when you buy the book and read it will you realize
the sweep of this treatise and the command over the subject matter
that Elst exhibits. You will be mesmerized and awed by Koenraad's
six-year effort, but you may yet again find that all that is
explained and substantiated in this book will most probably be
ignored by those who love to hate the "parivar".
I have gained a little bit of a reputation on the internet as
"another proponent of the 'Saffron' viewpoint". So,
what I have to say about Koenraad's magnificent effort may be
quickly dismissed by those with "ill will" towards
me. That is the nature of the game. But realize that modern academe
(fueled and driven by post-colonial, post-modernist, post-et
al., theory with a liberal dash of corrosive Marxism) is loathe
to face reality and seek objectivity in matters Indian because
of the fear of what it will have to confront in itself: self-hate
(among upper caste Hindu academics), sheer hate (among Dalit
"intellectuals", Muslim pamphleteers, Christian propagandists,
and Communist contortionists), and authoritarian and totalitarian
tendencies (in Western academics and their Indian camp followers).
But you need to hear about this book because one day you may
say with pride and relish, "I read the review, bought the
book, and I now own the rare hardbound two-volume set".
That is, if you are not like many "South Asianists"
who categorically dismiss the Hindutva movement, and who absolutely
despise the "Saffron Brigade" without any discussion
of the merits of the RSS case.
I have in the past four years found out that "liberal academics"
in "South Asian" studies are almost viscerally predisposed
to maligning and criticizing the BJP and the "Sangh Parivar".
This despite the fact that a large number of Indians are supportive
of the concerns expressed by the BJP and the RSS on matters Indian
and Hindu. Would people support the RSS if the "Sangh Parivar"
was a raging, hate-mongering, fascist organization? Judging from
most of the writings and critiques of the RSS and the BJP, one
would wonder how the Indian voter was duped into electing the
BJP. Remember, this is the same electorate that we are constantly
told is "wise", that they rejected Indira Gandhi after
the Emergency, that they cannot be fooled, and that they know
what is good for them. Would it not be important to ask what
is it about the BJP that appeals to enough contemporary Indians
that the BJP coalition has now been in power longer than the
two preceding governments?
As one friend put it, "if our motivation is to deny agency
to the 'fascist' Hindutva/Hindu Nationalist Movement, we will
fail. The 'Saffron camp' draws considerable theoretical and political
mileage from what they call an 'anti-Hindu bias' in Western academic
discourse, claiming as they do that approaches to historical
evidence are guided by underlying neo-colonial and/or retrofitted
Marxist political agendas. Obviously, the first casualty is lively
academic debate: ironically it is not the RSS and the VHP who
are stifling the discussion."
Western liberal and Indian Marxist responses to the BJP/RSS are
not only propagandistic but also based on patently incorrect
and even manufactured data. Yet, browse through almost any book
on the RSS, or read what is on innumerable internet sites maintained
and supported by "Left/secular" academics, and you
will not see one fellow academic or intellectual question the
false premises, the manufactured theses, and the patently vile
caricatures of the movement and its leaders. These academics
and their camp followers proclaim they are fighting obscurantism,
when they themselves employ obscurantist and devious methods
to discredit their Hindu-centric rivals, whom they always label
as right-wing fascists, the opposite to their enlightened leftist
school of thought. You will be amazed at their double-standards
and even more amazed that they are either not aware of them or
that they will contort their "intellectual" positions
even more than a Chinese acrobat can bend her body.
Unfortunately, scholars who are deeply concerned about the "secular/Left"
tar-and-feather sport, choose to remain silent while the "secular"
bandwagon rolls on, crushing anyone who disagrees with the "fashionable
but fake" analysis of India's history and of the parivar's
social, political, and civilizational agenda. In private, some
of these academics may express their worries, even disgust at
the political motivations and the poor scholarship of the "Left/secular"
brigade, but they don't ever work up the courage to stick their
necks out and take the authoritarians to task. One is reminded
of the Germans who kept quiet about the Nazi policy against the
Jews and realized too late what their silence led to the
holocaust. Silent too these people are, Elst points out, about
the larger extermination of peoples, in the Soviet Union and
in China, and the whitewashing of that gory history.
Elst's thesis is that in today's academic and political world
there is no worse label one can apply to a group or a person,
as "fascist". "Fascist" is almost always
conflated with "Nazi", and the terms are used interchangeably.
The demon term "fascist" is consistently, willfully,
and regularly applied to the RSS and its affiliates by Indian
Left/secular scholars, is mindlessly picked up and disseminated
by the English-language media in India, and which in turn is
marketed worldwide by the Western media. In bed with the Indian
"secularists" are their Western academic cheerleaders.
They jump up and down both on the sidelines and in the center
of the academic field exposing their bright red "ideological
undergarments" while clothed outwardly in "liberal"
Elst argues that the term "fascist", originally marketed
as a demon-term by the Communists, has now been used not just
by Marxist academics but equally assiduously by Christian and
Islamic spokespersons in their willful and dangerous campaign
of calumny against all ideas and groups Hindu.
Elst elaborates in clear, careful detail that it is Communism,
Christianity, and Islam that share with Nazism its worst characteristics
-- racism, anti-Semitism, exclusivism, totalitarianism, and terrorism.
How these Christian, Communist, and Muslim groups have been able
to carry out this propaganda against Hindus and Hinduism and
more specifically against the RSS and its affiliates is a story
that Elst tells with amazing panache, and through careful research
whose scope and sweep is so vast and so meticulous that even
his worst detractors cannot fail to acknowledge. From dissecting
the works of well-known authors like Jaffrelot and Hansen, to
unpacking the mediocre thesis of Marzia Casolari, to understanding
the true nature of the work of the maverick Nazi-sympathizing
Savitri Devi (nee Maximiani Portas), Elst has embarked in this
book on a journey that only he could have undertaken, and that
only he could have finished with such style.
Hinduism has always been multi-vocalic (which the Left acknowledges)
and the present proponents of Hindutva are by the very nature
of Hinduism cannot but be similarly multi-vocalic (which the
Left vehemently denies). Elst points this out not just by assertion
but by going to original sources, by providing the necessary
political and historical context for the utterances of the likes
of Savarkar, Golwalkar and others, and by showing the readers
what exactly these men said and in what context. He tells the
reader about the likes of N. Ram, and other Hindu-baiters, who
have used crude cut-and-paste techniques to draw vulgar caricatures
of the RSS leaders. And how these "secularists" praise
the likes of Mao as saviors of mankind. N. Ram, editor of the
magazine Frontline, has put his considerable wealth and
family empire behind the campaign to demonize the RSS, and he
has hired a band of "eminences" willing and eager to
carry out their brand of thuggery on the reading public and the
This book by Elst is the first formidable challenge to such thuggery.
As he says in the foreword, it took him six years to build up
his case, and he indeed has built a formidable one. Elst has
drawn from a vast variety of sources, Indian, European, American,
and Asian. His knowledge of Hindi, English, Dutch, German, French,
and Flemish enables him to draw from a myriad sources newspapers,
magazines, scholarly tomes, and encyclopedias published in all
those languages (Elst knows Mandarin too, just in case a Beijing
"mandarin" wrote something about Indian politics!).
Thus, his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject of Hindu "fascism"
enables him to ferret out material from all kinds of unlikely
sources, including David Duke's My Awakening, in which
the White supremacist says his life was changed when he saw a
"little, brown, half-caste Indian girl" at one of the
temple-ruins near Delhi. The girl, Duke says, was covered with
sores, and held out her hand to him, begging for money. So, what
does this make the White supremacist think? "On the way
back to my room I wondered if, in a few hundred years, some half-black
descendant of mine would be sitting among the ruins of our civilization,
brushing away the flies, waiting to die". The term "half-caste"
is used deliberately (for what does this Louisiana lout know
of half-castes in India!) to put forward his racist agenda: Blacks
and Whites should not cohabit. Blacks and Whites are different.
If they ignore that and co-mingle and cohabit, voila, you will
have India repeated in the United States!
This is the face and thrust of White racism, and Elst points
out how utterly wrong the assertions by Hindu-haters about Hindu
"fascism" (racism) really are. He says his work is
part of a polemic, in which the "polemical arrows have all
been shot from one side, replies from the other side being extremely
rare and never more than piecemeal". If the arrows should
be continued to be aimed at the Hindutvavadins, I hope the men
and the women in the Hindutva trenches will equip themselves
with this formidable quiver of arrows that Elst has with such
brilliance and hard work assembled together. But it may be hard
for the "RSS-wallahs" to challenge the Left brigade
simply because for too long they have neglected the art of skillful
debate and intellectual pursuit. As Elst bemoans: "the RSS
has contributed its own willful anti-intellectual prejudice.
When Guruji took over in 1940, he turned a de facto situation
into a firm commitment: discursive thinking was to be shunned
by the true RSS activist. When he saw junior activists reading
books or papers, he would interrupt them: 'Have you got nothing
useful to do for the Sangh?'" (p. 170).
It was not that Golwalkar sought to train "mindless"
soldiers of Hindutva but that as a biologist and scientist he
did not comprehend the mode of "critical thinking"
in the humanities; that as a spiritual person he was skeptical
of the powers of the intellect compared to that of deeper layers
of consciousness; that he was aware of the dangers of endless
debate that led to inaction; and that he was disgusted by the
"intellectualism" of the Communists whom he considered
traitorous. Elst therefore submits: "Intellectual poverty
is the reason why the Sangh Parivar is not writing its own history.
And why it is speechless when its enemies spread mendacious lies
about Golwalkar" (p. 171).
Where are the battle-lines in the almost one-sided ideological
war waged against the RSS? The first chapter in the book lays
them out. First of all, the question whether there is anything
like Hindu "fascism" is addressed. Everyone, from the
lazy journalist to his conspiring editor, and from Indian academics
to their Western supporters, including the clever Muslim and
Christian propagandists, has used the label "fascist"
to paint the proponents of Hindutva into a corner. Elst shows
how this is done: most in a knee-jerk fashion, and some through
intellectual sleights of hand. This sleight of hand is adeptly
exercised by the likes of Hansen who in the concluding chapter
of his book on Hindutva says, "Throughout this work I have
presented evidence and arguments that in many ways support the
conclusion that the RSS represents a kind of 'swadeshi fascism'".
Elst points out that in the whole book Hansen never discusses
any connection of the Hindutva movement with fascism, but still
concludes the way he does, giving the lazy journalist and the
Christian propagandist what they seek: the quotable one-liner.
Elst makes his stance clear in the beginning. He is not at all
convinced that the Hindutva movement is either a fascist or a
Nazi movement, but that the opponents of Hindutva have waged
a very successful defamation campaign. He says: "Those who
have ever suffered defamation by influential media will know
what the impact on their own lives is, and why their enemies
have such good use for this weapon. Many of your friends and
acquaintances, debating partners, actual or prospective employers,
public institutions and the other media will acquire a negative
opinion of you and will avoid you or dissociate themselves from
you at the earliest opportunity. Few of them will ever ask your
own version" (p. 5). Elst should know. He was hounded by
a raging and loud mob of graduate students at the South Asia
conference in Madison in 1996. No mainstream publisher has agreed
to publish his books. In fact, this work, his best, was to be
brought out by Harper Collins, but they went back on their word.
Elst has not found a teaching position anywhere in Europe or
the United States. He is consistently dismissed as a Muslim-hater
(see the website named "Chingari" maintained by some
Left/Marxist graduate students in Madison, and see my review
of Elst's book "Ayodhya and After" on this site --
http://www.indiastar.com/closepet2.htm). He is not a Muslim-Hater.
What he says is that Islam teaches Indian Muslims hostility towards
Hindu tradition and Hindus (p. 172), that Islam's goal is to
make the whole world Muslim (p. 334), that Islam (not Hinduism)
appealed to the Nazi leaders as a martial and highly natalic
religion (p. 886), and that Islam has been more totalitarian
than Catholicism in denying national identities and in replacing
homegrown secular laws with the uniform Sharia (p. 971).
What about the charge of "fascism" against the Hindutva
movement? "Fascism", is derived from fasces,
the ancient Roman symbol of Republican order. While fascism has
its ugly side, Elst points out that its victims can be numbered
in the thousands as opposed to the millions of victims of Nazism,
and the tens of millions of victims of Communism. Nor were fascists
more racist than the colonial powers (most importantly, the British)
at that time. For Indians at that time, the "face"
of racism was that of Churchill, not that of Mussolini. Fascism,
unlike Communism, had a large and populist base and an ideological
outlook that was shared by the common people. In fact, anti-Semitism
and biological racism (aspects of Nazism) was not even peripheral
to Fascism, and wherever fascists came to power it was essentially
a secularist movement.
However, fascism would not have acquired the odium it has now,
if not for the fact that it was chosen as a substitute for "National
Socialism" (Nazism) by the Communists who did not want to
acknowledge that "socialism" was part of Nazism. To
allege or accuse that someone is fascist effectively kills debate,
and as can be evidenced in India, it is "profitable"
to use it to label and caricature others. It is also extremely
morally reprehensible. The moral reprehensibility is not discussed
anywhere (except peripherally in Jaffrelot's work) because those
who have profited from the use of that label are the ones who
have wielded and exercised power in politics and in academe
-- in the past fifty years. Elst points out that the "fascism"
allegation against the Hindu movement is a rhetorical preparation
for anti-democratic policies on the part of the "secularists".
These anti-democratic policies include different civil codes
for different religionists, the reservation system that has drained
India of billions and brought mediocrity and worse to the fore,
pampering of "minorities", etc. So, Elst argues that
the "fascism" allegation is made in India without much
relation to historical reality. More interestingly, and importantly,
fascists acquired their ill-repute precisely by implementing
the Marxist methods of violent suppression of dissent, etc.
I will mention just one or two other important aspects of this
book in closing.
One of the constant references in the attacks against the
RSS is the supposed admiration of Hitler expressed by Golwalkar.
But Elst has through careful research and by reading fully what
Golwalkar spoke and wrote shows that Golwalkar had no sympathies
with Hitler, and that the invectives by the critics of Golwalkar
against Golwalkar has been passed off as excerpts from the writing
of Golwalkar (p. 118-121)! It would be foolish to think that
Golwalkar had Hitler on his mind in the 1930s when he was actually
championing the cause of genuine secularism. What obtained at
that time in India was a system of privileges based on religion,
and Golwalkar saw the dangers of such a system. He was also writing
in the context of the Muslim League's Two-Nation theory, which
said that Muslims and Hindus were two separate nations. If indeed
we were two separate nations, and had to go our separate ways,
how should we treat those Muslims who preferred to stay on in
Hindu India? Golwalkar said that developments in Germany proved
how difficult it was for two nations to exist in one state (not
two peoples in one nation). Golwalkar regarded the Hindu-Muslim
disunity as a very serious threat to India, and he has been proved
right over and over again in the past sixty plus years since
he wrote We, Our Nationhood Defined. What Golwalkar was
discussing in what were, he later acknowledged, his first and
rather immature speculations, was the connection between democracy
and the need for a homogeneous population, as propounded by Western
writers (of whom only one was German, and moreover a Swiss-German
at that!), and what he found in successful Western democracies
to steer India away from the abyss of partition and civil war.
Now, all that is twisted and stretched in the most clever and
cunning ways by the master-contortionists, the Indian Communists
(who by the way, as one of the latest newspaper reports point
out, were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Soviet
Union throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and how the Communist
government in West Bengal has scuttled all attempts at bringing
the information out. See "From Russia with love, in dollars",
The Hindustan Times, April 26, 2001, New Delhi, and "Soviet
records were in Kolkata all along", The Hindustan Times,
April 27, 2001, New Delhi).
Elst carefully constructs his arguments and shows that the complicated
and intricate story of anti-Judaism (Catholic and Muslims anti-Judaism
as well as Communist/Stalinist hounding of Jews in the Soviet
Union and in Eastern Europe) was beyond the ken of not just Golwalkar
but most other Indian and Western leaders at that time. Elst
makes a very important point: While Golwalkar wanted the "dissimilated"
Muslims to identify with India, Hitler wanted the "assimilated"
Jews to be dis-identified in Germany. Golwalkar of course
warned of the danger of the continued existence in India of a
non-assimilated minority with loyalties abroad but was never
tempted by the Nazi view of Indo-European history, and never
advocated genocide or ethnic cleansing. What Golwalkar advocated
was assimilation in a cultural sense. He did not reject biological
assimilation which the Nazis did, and because of which
they are "racists", wishing as they did to rid Germany
Elst concludes his argument by pointing out that the best proof
that the Hindutva movement is not fascist is the proliferation
of publications that criticize, berate, and misrepresent Hindutva,
not only when the BJP/RSS was in the opposition, but also when
it is now in power. In fact, there has been a multi-fold increase
in the vicious campaigns against the BJP and the RSS after the
BJP formed coalition governments in 1998 and 1999. Not only that,
BJP and RSS activists have been murdered and brutalized by Khalistani,
Muslim-separatist, Christian and Communist terrorists. He says
that critics and mockers of Hindutva and Hinduism have not had
to fear for their lives, and that the BJP has not arrested them,
hounded them, or murdered them as the Communists have done
in West Bengal and Kerala, as the Christian-inspired tribals
have and continue to do so in the Northeast, as the Muslim-separatists
do in Kashmir, and as the Khalistanis did in Punjab.
There is much, much more to Elst's thesis than what I have presented
here. It is a tour de force which, if the academic, Christian,
Muslim, Communist, and "pseudo-secular" camps were
to allow, would turn the world of Indian politics and civilization
and society upside down. I only hope this little and incomplete
review will add to the small stream of supportive comments that
one day may build up to a mighty river of Hindu renaissance.
April 29, 2001
(Note: Ramesh Rao's two-volume book on the BJP/RSS will be published
by Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi in June, 2001.)
Closepet N. Ramesh, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Communication
Truman State University
Kirksville, MO 63501