Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a member of the Dalit community, joined the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh as a teenager in the 1980s, and grew to ardently support its vision of a Hindu Rashtra. He eventually faced caste discrimination at the hands of fellow RSS members and began to look at the organisation critically. Meghwanshi chronicled his experiences in the RSS in a 2019 book published in Hindi, Main Ek Karsevak Tha—I Was a Karsevak. The book was translated and published in English, under the title, I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS, this year.
As Indian politics places itself firmly on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were previously members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the left—or at least, away from the right. Yet, others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. What makes such individuals go against the stream? What events, situations and considerations shape their decisions? Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, published by The Caravan. Chandra spoke to Meghwanshi about how he got drawn into the RSS despite his father being a Congress supporter and what can propel a Dalit member to leave the Sangh.
Abhimanyu Chandra: Could you tell me about your childhood in Rajasthan? In your book, you wrote that your father has been a Congress supporter for long. What were his reasons for supporting the party?
Bhanwar Meghwanshi: My family is a Kabir-panthi family [followers of the 15th century poet]. There was a background of Sufism—an environment where there was space for everyone. Ours has been a feudal state. Feudalism was so strong that Dalits were in bonded labour. For thousands of years, this was a suppressed society. My grandfather has seen all of this.
Regarding my father—in Rajasthan, at a political level, if anyone influenced us Dalits politically, Congress did. When the [Independence] movement emerged, Gandhi’s efforts on Harijans began—some of it can be criticised—the voice against feudalism that emerged was Congress’ voice. [Harijans is a derogatory term used to refer to Scheduled Castes, which was also recognised as such by the Supreme Court in 2017.] It is from there that we got our rights. For my father, even today, even with all the changes that have happened in the Congress, it is still “Gandhiji’s Congress.”
That time’s Congress, with its social reform work, really influenced our people. The first time I even saw a BJP flag in a Dalit colony was after 1995. The meaning of an election was the [Congress’] hand symbol. When Indira Gandhi died, our entire village was in mourning as if one of our own had died.
AC: What media were you exposed to in your childhood? What were the newspapers, books, TV content around you?
BM: There were two books in my house. One was a tantra-mantra book—my father was a tantric also—and some distant relative had converted, so there was a New Testament. Newspapers didn’t come. There was radio, and my father used to listen to BBC, etcetera, on it.
TV was in only in one place in the village—a Thakur’s house [an upper-caste man], who was also a Congressman. Around 1988, the Ramayana was playing on TV. Every Sunday, we would go and watch it. He would open his house to everyone. He and his wife would watch. He would allow us Dalit kids to also come.
Before that, I had never read or seen the Ramayana. We have traditionally followed Kabir; there was no real Ram bhakti in our background.
Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana prepared people for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. For the first time, everyone was introduced to Ram. Especially Dalits, farmers, Adivasis—it had a huge influence among them, it established Ram among them, built acceptance of Ram. Mobilising people on the basis of Ram was Sagar’s work.
AC: The series was again played on national television amid the COVID-19 lockdown—what, if anything, was it preparing people for?
BM: This was an attempt to introduce the post-1995 generation to Ram, because people were at home. Young people today were seeing it with the same madness with which we watched it. And they didn’t have an option as they were home only.
For the government, the series was partly a way to create an environment for this 5 August foundation-stone laying [at Ayodhya for a Ram temple]. It was to prepare people at a deep level—this new generation—that they should prepare themselves for the ideal Ram Rajya [rule of Ram]; that India is being made this Ram Rajya. People are being intoxicated with this.
AC: As you mentioned in the book, politically, your father influenced you at one end. At another, your school’s geography teacher—who was also associated with the RSS—had a conflicting influence during your childhood. How did you balance these outlooks? How did you get attracted to RSS’s ideology?
BM: My father’s influence was just until I reached the RSS. The RSS started with sports. There was no ideology; we were there simply to play. But then, the ideology began to come in. We would be told that the non-violence of Gandhi and Ashoka [an emperor of the Maurya dynasty, who embraced Buddhism] is cowardice. In seventh standard, I began reading Panchjanya, the RSS’s Hindi mouthpiece [a weekly journal]. I would read the RSS’s books.
I wasn’t in a situation to balance. A time came when on issues of Partition, Kashmir, Muslim appeasement, I began to think that my father is with these traitors of the nation. I felt that the Congress has spoilt my father’s and grandfather’s minds—that they are unable to think. I felt that they are unable to think about Hindus, about the country.
My brother and I stuck two stickers above the Congress sticker on our house door that our father had placed. On the Congress’s hand sticker, we stuck “Garv se kaho ki ham Hindu hain.”—Say it proudly that we are Hindus. Whenever a Congress leader would come home, my father would say, “Bring some water,” “Bring some tea,” but we thought, “Why bring tea for such people?” I had been brainwashed to this degree.
AC: It seems like your father was communicating his politics in a direct manner, whereas the RSS’s ideology was communicated in a more multi-faceted, indirect way. Could you explain this difference?
BM: My father’s thinking was an inheritance of his life, his own father’s thinking, the bitter experiences they faced. There was no group that could teach him an ideology, or a group that had a cadre or was providing some regular education. For him, because Congress changed the lives of his people, he was attached to it.
In the RSS, every day something was happening; exercises, games, shakha [the RSS’s smallest organisational unit]. First some exercise, then some games and then telling us whose country is this, other things. We were told that we are pure Aryans. That we are the absolute best. That we are vishva gurus [teachers of the world].
Then, if we are the best, then others are not. “Who is responsible for dividing Bharat Mata?” “Gandhi went and stood for Muslims in Noakhali.” “And Nehru was from Kashmir, he was involved with Kashmir.” So, through such stories [RSS taught its message]. We didn’t have any ability to fact check anything. And the same thing that is being said is also published in Panchajanya and the RSS’s books also. It came up in training also. When we read the newspaper, Shah Bano’s case was there. Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana. Everything is coordinating with each other, proving each other.
In the shakha, the teacher really influences you. If that teacher starts attaching “ji” to your name, that influences you. This was done on a daily basis, for an hour. Other ideologies one would be exposed to once in six months, once in five years. In my entire panchayat, there was no Muslim. Yet, in my mind, Muslims had been established as the worst people.
The RSS has a very systematic process, of approaching children of a young age. It is said, “We write on a clean slate.” After the school hours, my geography teacher [at a government secondary school] was fully involved with the RSS. Out of my seven or eight teachers, five were in the RSS. Even today, there is huge influence of the RSS on school teachers. It’s only increasing. In Hindi-language regions, primary teachers, even secondary school teachers, and even ahead, lecturers—among them, a majority are linked with the RSS. Their full focus is on children.
AC: As I understand from your book, a couple of incidents, which came as shocks, propelled you to quit the RSS. First, you expressed a desire to become an RSS pracharak, a fulltime worker, but you were told that due to your caste, that was unviable. They added that “we want a pracharak, not a vicharak—a thinker.” In another instance, RSS members refused to eat food cooked at your home and threw it on a street. Were there other incidents that prompted you to leave the RSS?
BM: I used to enjoy reading and discussing a lot. And I would often ask questions in the shakha and [at the RSS’s] programs. They would get irritated.
Asking questions is not appreciated. There, you are supposed to simply believe, there wasn’t a concept of wanting to know things. I was once told that, “You are strong from your head, but you are weak below”—basically, don’t exercise your mind too much, make your body strong.
They convey that thinking too much is not good. There is no space there for critical thinking—there is a sustained effort to end that. You are supposed to simply imbibe what the pracharak says—bow with reverence, and listen to his sermon. Whether he says something factual or not, you are not supposed to question. So, my image was that of a rebel type of person.
The food incident was a turning point. They would say it was a small matter. But for me it was a big matter. From May 1991 to April or May 1993, there was no solution to this issue.
Everyone thought that I’ve become mentally disturbed, I’ve got stuck on one thing. And indeed, I was stuck. I was ready to die for a Hindu Rashtra but, I thought, “These people don’t want to eat at my home. What kind of a Hindu Rashtra is this?” Gradually, I realised that this is a much larger issue of discrimination against my community, and a larger social change is needed.
AC: You have mentioned in your book that you tried to end your life by having rat poison. Could you describe that time of your life?
BM: The poison incident also happened in May–June 1991, when they were not listening to me. At one end, there was the commitment to a Hindu Rashtra. On the other, the people I considered my heroes … it was that kind of a time when the ideal, the model that you have created in your mind, that gets shattered. Everything had become chaotic.
These were people I spent time with daily, I was friends with them. I would go and argue with them in their office. I thought that there would be some action against the people who are guilty, maybe they will be removed. But they were never removed. Some of them are in prime positions today.
AC: How did your friends and colleagues in the RSS react? Did you get an apology?
BM: The reaction of most people in the RSS was not nice. Some people would privately say that what happened wasn’t right. But they didn’t have the guts to say so in public, to someone in the RSS.
Some friends were there. One friend, who had first told me that these people had thrown away the food, Purushottam, he has remained with me. He is a sensitive person.
Whenever I would meet some Dalit swayamsevaks, they would share their experiences of caste discrimination. But they would add, “don’t tell anyone”—someone was seeking to progress in the Sangh, someone in politics.
AC: You felt betrayed and spoke out. But many people in similar situations continue working in the RSS. Why do you think they don’t quit?
BM: I, sometimes, feel that I had to suffer the consequences of asking questions. Those who didn’t raise these questions lived a comfortable life. They have made their careers. The swayamsewaks from my time, they have risen through the ranks of the organisation. Others in politics, as MLAs.
They know they are being discriminated against. They feel the casteism. But they remain quiet. I asked a few people: “Why do you stay quiet?” They said, “These things happen in society, in school, then also we remain silent. So, we stay silent in the RSS also.” They say this kind of thing is widespread.
This culture of silence operates a lot. Already we were discouraged to ask questions [in the RSS]. They feel what would be the point of challenging the RSS. They say, “The organisation is powerful from top to bottom. How will we fight?” They feel their life will go on in this way. They have been brainwashed. They don’t think about what’s happening in their individual life, what’s happening with their community. The protest, the resistance, the fight, from inside doesn’t come. They think that such words are the language of terrorists.
If someone is a businessman, they have their weaknesses; if someone is in the administration, they would have their own constraints. So, people aren’t able to fight. I feel there is a deficit of struggle.
Some of them think, “We are getting so much respect.” For people who were never permitted to sit in the common platform of the village, if they are being made to sit on a district- or tehsil-level stage and lots of people are sitting in front of them, they feel that they have achieved the biggest goal of their life. Everyone has their own situation. But everyone suffers, everyone discusses also.
After my book came out, a lot of people have shared their stories with me—of leaving the RSS, of fighting it. I recently got a one-hour-long call from someone in Uttarakhand, who had been active in the RSS for twelve years. But after the RSS’s role against Dalits in Uttarakhand, over the 2 April 2018 Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act protest, he has now become very active against the organisation. There are many such examples.
AC: What would you estimate is the number of Dalits who have left the RSS in recent years?
BM: Thousands must have left the RSS. I have met many people who have left. I met one person who literally, physically pulled the hair off an RSS pracharak’s head. There are many people who have directly clashed with the RSS. After leaving, people tend to keep quiet. They might share their stories in personal capacities to a few people. But they are unable to bring them out, to utilise their bitter experiences as an instrument. Everyone has stories. Some must be scarier than mine.
In Kerala, Sudheesh Minni was an RSS pracharak for [around 15] years. He left the RSS, wrote a Malayalam book, which is also out in English [Cellars of the Inferno: Confessions of an RSS Pracharak]. Now, he’s with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala. He speaks very actively. But because South India isn’t considered India for others, they [the RSS] don’t care about what is happening there beyond a point.
AC: Who are the Dalits who leave the RSS and manage to speak up? Does this have something to do with gender, class, sub-castes or other such factors?
BM: Most Dalits in the RSS are those who are middle class, rich; those with jobs; the urban, the educated, the elite among the Dalits—they are with the RSS, completely. They don’t protest. This has to do with the Sanskritisation that [the sociologist] MN Srinivas has talked about. [Sanskritisation refers to the desire for upward mobility through imitation of a superior caste, with the Brahmins considered at the apex despite being a social and cultural minority.]
Protest comes from those who ideologically, from childhood, are associated with left groups or other such groups. Also, people who have read Ambedkar, others [anti-caste leaders]. They slowly would leave the RSS and then become strongly vocal, become ideologically strong against the RSS.
Those people who leave and speak up are mostly of Dalit sub-castes that are large in numbers. In Uttar Pradesh, Jatavs. In Rajasthan, Meghwals. In the south, Arunthathiyar. The RSS will be scared before trying to harm people of such communities, worried that a wrong message doesn’t go to that community.
In a community that is large in number, members of the community have the courage that hundreds will come, stand with them. But in those communities, where the numbers are only 500, or a 1,000, and people are scattered, when they leave the RSS, they remain quiet.
AC: How do anti-caste leaders’ voices reach a Dalit RSS member? Even when they do, to what extent? Being in the environment you described, how does that person remain open to such voices at all?
BM: In the RSS, Ambedkar is there in lip service, but not in action, not in reality. That becomes evident when your cadre abuses Ambedkar on social media; opposes reservation. Then the Dalit swayamsewak realises that the reality is different, that RSS hasn’t held even one gathering on Dalit atrocities.
Then, their minds open up. They look for the real Ambedkar. They ask what is their self-worth, and find that here [in the RSS] it is nothing. They realise that “we are being used for purposes of things like riots, for scaring others.” When people understand this hypocrisy, then they are able to leave.
AC: Your brother, Badrilal, was also involved in the RSS. Did he also leave when you left?
BM: He never went into shakha, and wasn’t very interested in issues of ideology. He was interested in things like driving a tractor if it was around, helping our father.
He got involved in the RSS because the agricultural supervisor in our area motivated us to get involved in karseva [referring to the movement to build a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid]. My brother was also fond of him. I was in the shakha, so I anyway wanted to go to Ayodhya. But he [the supervisor] prepared my brother. Both of us, without telling anyone from home, left for Ayodhya. After we returned, he wasn’t very involved in RSS. When I told him about the food incident, he didn’t really feel it was a big matter. He realised how much I had been affected when I attempted suicide. He got angry with them, almost beat up the agricultural supervisor.
He went to Mumbai for some tractor-related work. His engagement with our village in Rajasthan reduced. And he became fairly disconnected with my journey. He wasn’t engaged in ideological matters, ever.
Later on, as a contractor, for business reasons, he formed a good relationship with a Bharatiya Janata Party member of legislative assembly. This had nothing to do with ideology. This was purely business. He even became a BJP member. So, I was totally opposed to RSS-BJP, and outside his house, a BJP flag came up. This happened for 10–15 years.
In the last five years, as his children started reading my writings, grew up, there was a lot of change in them. They became so against the RSS ideology that they influenced him. The flag was removed. The kids started to discuss with him—“the ideology you support is opposed to us.” They had begun reading Ambedkar.
He is now a district president of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Between us, our relationship has always been very good. Now, he’s openly very supportive of my work and thought. He is an Ambedkarite, secular. He is now opposed to the RSS–BJP ideology.
AC: Could you describe your current work? Also, now that you are an anti-RSS voice, how do you persuade people, who have views opposing yours, on the organisation and its ideology?
BM: I am linked with human-rights groups, in particular the People’s Union of Civil Liberties—I am a national executive member with them. We have created a campaign, DAGAR: Dalit Adivasi Evam Ghumantu Adhikar Abhiyan Rajasthan. Dagar otherwise means rasta—a path. We are trying to find a path, how to mobilise people. As a journalist, I keep writing on average people’s issues, their stories of struggle. I have a small YouTube channel and website, called shunyakal.com.
On the other question, I go and speak in public, with facts. I ask questions: For instance, why has no Dalit or Adivasi become an RSS sarsanghchalak [supreme leader] in its 95-year history? I don’t scream; I speak gently. And, importantly, I don’t break dialogue with people I disagree with.
This interview has been translated from Hindi, edited and condensed.