Understanding RSS’ mixed signals on reservations

The idea is neither should pro-reservationists get alienated from the BJP nor should the anti-reservationists electorally abandon the party

RSS has adopted complex messaging on reservations. (DH File Photo)

The latest statement by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) joint general secretary, Dattatreya Hosabale, on the continuation of reservations cannot be assessed in isolation. It must be seen in conjunction with assertions made by the organisation's leadership consistently for a long time and more specifically since September 2015.

 Hosabale's comments, made at a press conference at the conclusion of the Sangh’s three-day coordination meet, was in response to a specific question.

While he amplified the viewpoint that "reservations are required because there is a social and economic disparity in society," he also put on the table another opinion and an important piece of information.

 Hosabale stressed the RSS belief that reservations must continue till beneficiaries feel the need for it. This is an astute way of reiterating that the policy cannot be considered an infinite birthright. 

 Additionally, the RSS also leader mentioned that the organisation was opposed to caste-based discrimination regarding accessing temples, cremation grounds and water reservoirs. He also mentioned that a Dalit organisation recently applauded the RSS for its consistent attempts at ending casteism in society. The purpose of the last nugget of information is to underscore that evaluation of RSS' social egalitarianism must not be made solely on its stance on reservations. It must also be evaluated through the prism of its role in the larger issue of eliminating social discrimination. 

 Less than a month ago, RSS sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, in a lecture organised by an affiliate, Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, as part of a programme called, Gyan Utsav, held on the campus of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, had called for a "harmonious conversation" between those in favour of reservations and those against it. This suggests that the RSS considers anti-reservationists as a legitimate constituency and a group whose voice must be heard amid reason and rationality. 

 The choice of venue and Bhagwat's suo motu reference to reservations demonstrated that the RSS looks for opportunities to float an alternative discourse on reservations. This reflects a deeply-held commitment to alter the current system and amend regulations of the reservations policy which remains socially contentious. 

 Although demands of realpolitik make it imperative for the Narendra Modi government not to remotely endorse RSS’ call for 'review' of the reservations policy and rules, the ideological fountainhead uses its liberty to periodically float the belief that the Sangh Parivar, this includes the Bharatiya Janata Party, will eventually re-examine rules and regulations if not scrap reservations completely. This is a considered strategy to address concerns of groups holding the contrasting position. 

 The idea is neither should pro-reservationists get alienated from the BJP nor should the anti-reservationists electorally abandon the party. Prior to the 2019 polls, the RSS was concerned about rising instances of people opting for NOTA. The belief was this group comprised chiefly those voters who were one-time traditional voters of BJP but were disillusioned with the party for its robust efforts to enlist non-dominant sub-castes among Other Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes. 

 It was partly due to the realisation of a deeply felt angst among Upper Castes that the government fast-tracked the law providing reservations for the economically backward for communities on the 'general list'. This legislation has given rise to hope among anti-reservationists that the Modi government would eventually introduce clauses to exclude the economically well-off among the OBCs and SCs. Periodic statements of the RSS leadership, like Bhagwat's statement, rekindle the hope of this constituency while Hosabale-like assertions ensures that the boat is not rocked beyond a point.

 In September 2015, on the eve of the Assembly elections in Bihar, among the rare occasions the BJP suffered a setback, Bhagwat had in an interview to RSS organ, Panchajanya, called for "a committee of people genuinely concerned for the interest of the whole nation" to "decide which categories require reservation and for how long". Because his statement raised a furore, the RSS officially issued an explanation. Significantly, this was not a "denial" but just a "clarification" meaning that the RSS disagreed only with the statement's interpretation and its motivation, not its contents. 

 Several senior BJP leaders in private accepted that Bhagwat's ill-timed statement was one of the factors behind the party's Bihar rout. Although the RSS rebutted this, the sarsanghchalak had undeniably articulated discomfort with the reservation policy as it is implemented. Yet Bhagwat's supporters rightly claimed he stated nothing new: For close to four decades the RSS, Jana Sangh and BJP have periodically called for a review by non-partisan experts independent of the government and the political system to review the reservation policy, specifically to examine "in depth all the problems arising out of reservations."

 Furthermore, the BJP had been an opponent of the policy of expanding the net of reservations, which was announced by the Congress-led Gujarat government in 1981. A meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha of the RSS at that time, called for a committee to "recommend necessary concessions to the other economically backward sections." The Modi government’s decision to provide 10 per cent reservations for EWS among Upper Castes was a fulfilment of this old RSS demand.

 Conflicting signals from various RSS leaders and other non-BJP affiliates are likely to continue emanating over the next few years. If the BJP retains its current dominance of the electoral system, it can be assumed that it is just a matter of the 'right time' and the 'correct opportunity' before various suggestions like limiting reservations to a specific number of generations among beneficiary families are examined. 

 The Sangh Parivar hopes that by then, there will be a groundswell of support to link reservations more specifically with economic and educational status. The parallel discourse conducted by the RSS leadership will go, it is assumed, in the furthering of this consensus.

 (Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

 The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH. 

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