Reviewing the Brotherhood in Saffron

Reviewing the Brotherhood in Saffron

Author Name: Usman W. Chohan      04 Nov 2019     India

It was at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that Prime Minister Imran Khan made a rousing speech on 29th September decrying the police state that India had by then imposed for more than 50 days. When he framed the ideological problem that confronted the world, he pointed the finger squarely at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization that fueled the flames of dogma and anti-Muslim violence both in India and in Indian-Occupied Kashmir.

The Prime Minister drew a keen parallel between the RSS’s right-wing fanaticism and the poisonous ideology of the Nazi Third Reich. The parallel seems straightforward: the RSS brownshirts literally wear brown shirts as Nazi paramilitaries did; their hate speech is of the same vintage; they seek to strip the citizenship of minority “undesirables;” and they nudge their BJP government onwards to violence against neighbors and war crimes against the defenseless.

Evidently, the patterns of revisionist thought and propensity for violence suggest the RSS and the Nazis are indeed cut from the same cloth. But PM Khan urged the world to investigate for itself just how the RSS operates: what it says, how it thinks, and what it does. In the spirit of that enquiry, it is necessary to draw attention to the brilliant and seminal anthropological study of the RSS: The Brotherhood in Saffron by Walter Anderson and Shridar Damle.[1]

The Brotherhood in Saffron is perhaps the single best introduction to the RSS that anyone has ever attempted or achieved; and reading its analysis, dispassionate in tone and wide-reaching in its scope, is the need of the hour both in the international community and among Pakistanis.

As an academic tour de force published in 1987, Anderson and Damle took a rich sociological approach to delineate the history, the theory, the practice, and the politics of the RSS. The strength of their research was that, in the field-research manner celebrated among anthropologists, they lived amongst the “natives” of the RSS, collecting vast troves of observational data, first-hand testimonies, and rare documentation, to build a thesis of Hindu revivalism embodied by the RSS.

Given that the book was written in 1987, many of the RSS’s partition-era leadership was still alive (albeit aged), and so they managed to give a rich panorama of the strands of thinking that evolved and fought for dominance within RSS ranks. Many of the people interviewed or studied in the Brotherhood later became leading figures in contemporary Indian politics (such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee). Yet the analysis of the book goes far beyond the personalities, so as to pierce the veil of the doctrine we today call Hindutva.

The most significant insight gleaned from The Brotherhood in Saffron is that the monstrous policies of the contemporary BJP, insofar as they are directly derived from RSS figures, were the culmination of a competition for ideas. Although those divergent views held some fundamental commonalities (e.g.: a Hindu renaissance, a reassertion of a Hindu character, character-building of downtrodden Hindus), the means by which these ends would be realized were constantly being contested.

Indeed, the authors demonstrate that the character of the RSS is more nuanced, and it has by no means evolved through any linear process but rather through ideological tussles; ones as fundamental in nature as to encompass: whether to get involved in mainstream politics at all, whether to militarize, whether to accelerate their program when they were officially banned (at Partition and during the Emergency) and whether to allow non-Hindus “into the fold” of the RSS. As the authors explain in thorough detail, the decisions taken on such issues were the product of competing vested interests within the movement, in addition to the influence exerted by major personalities.

At the same time, the authors correctly surmise that these questions were the product of exogenous shocks and upheavals within the structure of South Asian societies. Some of the most salient events covered in the book, in terms of their impact on the RSS’s thinking, include the following: the end of colonialism, the murder of Gandhi, the assertion of the Two-Nation Theory, the migration of large populations in 1947, the Sino-Indian War (1962), the India-Pakistan Wars (1948, 1965, 1971), the imposition of a State of Emergency (1975-1977), and the Golden Temple Massacre & anti-Sikh riots (1984).

Naturally, there have been aftershocks since 1987 which are not covered in the first edition, notably the martyrdom of the Babri Masjid (1992), the detonation of nuclear devices by India and responding tests by Pakistan (1998), the Kargil conflict (1999), and various others since that have galvanized middle-class urban Hindu support for the BJP.

As a general trend, however, the work of the authors suggests that each of these exogenous shocks tended to result in three effects: a bolstering of the extremist line within the RSS, an effort to expand the membership of the RSS, and an effort to assert a more mainstream political status. The culmination of all of that is the Modi-led regime whose hubris and ideological irredentism risks sending the whole subcontinent to hell in a hand basket.

Yet the author’s true finesse is to avoid treating the problem as a specific regional tussle and to see it as part of a wider sociological phenomenon that now characterizes countless societies. They surmise it thus:

Organizations like the RSS which advocate the restoration of community have a salience to those who feel rootless. Indeed, the alienation and insecurity brought on by the breakdown of social, moral and political norms have become major political issues in the twentieth century, particularly in the developing countries where new economic and administrative systems have rapidly undermined institutions and moral certitudes which traditionally defined a person's social function and relationship to authority.”[3]

Although the text is more than 30 years old, the work of Andersen and Damle stands the test of time, in large part because the BJP has stood true to many of its originally stipulated aims. As an example, the removal of Article 370, which has caused an international furore against Indian aggression and imposition of a police state since August 5th, has been on the RSS’s ideological hit-list since at least the 1960’s.

A series of other programs which are now being effectuated by Modi can be seen in their historical context to understand that the BJP, even as it may not have “thought things through” as PM Imran Khan remarks, it has certainly “thought things up” for quite a while.

The historical backdrop provided by Andersen and Damle is therefore invaluable to all members of the international community wishing to understand the genesis of the Hindu revivalism that now jeopardizes the security of the region and the world at large.

It also vividly portrays the social milieu in RSS members receive their disciplinary and paramilitary training, and how their education and social fraternity is reproduced with every new batch of recruits. Narendra Modi was himself a product of this process of indoctrination, and the book therefore gives a clearer glimpse of the mind which now runs arguably one of the most ideologically-charged and dangerous governments on earth.

The writer is the Director for Economics and National Affairs at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). He can be reached at


[1] Full Reference: Andersen, W. K., and Damle, S. D. (1987). The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism. Westview Press.

[2] Authors, page 1.

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