The Monkey God's Army

The RSS and Bollywood
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 19 2005 3:20 PM

The Monkey God's Army

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Click here to see a slide show of photographs from Dharavi and Mumbai.

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One afternoon in Mumbai, Ramesh Mehta, the former head of the RSS external publicity wing for Africa—specifically Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa—hosted a small tea. He is also a retired film producer and lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment on a quiet, tree-lined street near several prominent Bollywood starlets. Because his son-in-law, an interior decorator, was in the midst of redecorating the living room, his guests sat on Mehta's bed as he explained India's history as a Hindu nation. Cleareyed, with tufts of salt-and-pepper hair and a regal nose, Mehta looked like a highly intelligent, 63-year-old ostrich.

"Ours is the most ancient country in the world," he said, stirring sugar into the glasses of tea with a small spoon. "Thousands of years ago, we were ruled by a Hindu king, and the whole country was one. Even Alexander the Great had to go back from the border because he realized he could not fight us."

His wife, a wonderful cook who had prepared special delicacies for her guests, hovered around the bed refilling small glass plates.

He went on, "Hinduism is not a religion. It's a way of life. No matter what religion you are, here we live a Hindu way of life. We always say, anyone who comes here, he's welcome, provided he respects this country."

He paused as he handed his guests their tea.

"You can change your religion, but not your forefathers. A Muslim or Christian living in this country has Hindu forefathers. When Islam attacked this country, they tried to propagate their beliefs. Believe in the Koran or face my sword," he said.

"Truth is bitter." He sipped from his own glass. "They ruled us, I don't deny it, because we were divided by caste, but they couldn't destroy us, not even after a thousand years." Then, for no apparent reason, he said, "I'll forgive once or twice—but not three times. It's not practical."

"After independence, we appeased minorities. We never teach this true history. What Islam did here, we can't teach," he pursed his lips and added that in the past six years, while the BJP held political power, there had been some improvement in teaching "true history," by which he meant the narrative of the victimization of the Hindu people at the hands of Muslim aggressors, and, of course, what he saw as the spurious claims that Gandhi is any kind of hero.

For six years, while the BJP held political power in India, state-sponsored textbooks were revised to reflect the claims of Hindutva. Now, with the party and its education minister gone for the moment, the textbooks are returning to a less Hindu-centric worldview.

Ramesh Mehta invited us to a shakha, or cell, at a nearby school. About 70 men and boys wearing khaki shorts and crisp white shirts and carrying 5-foot sticks were already lined up in pairs around the cement schoolyard. Usually, the men's shakha meets in the morning; the boys in the evening, but they were preparing to march together in a citywide parade, so it was a special day. A tubby man, his girlish legs poking out from the cuffs of his khaki shorts, stood in the center of the schoolyard shouting, "One, two, one, two," at the men who seemed to be doing their very best to imitate a military regiment.

The effect was, well, not terribly effective.

After several minutes of this, an older RSS member, a scientist and friend of Mehta's, broke formation and came over excitedly. He was a senior officer involved in making the nation's atomic decisions, he said. Most of his family now lives in the United States.

"In Maryland, my son and grandson go to a temple every Sunday and have an RSS shakha there," he said. Most of the money that funds the RSS comes from companies and fund-raising drives in the United States. Abroad, many of the nongovernmental organizations that espouse the politics of Hindutva do so quietly, so that donors have no idea where their money is going.

In Mumbai, the atomic scientist said, recruitment is largely a matter of going door-to-door. "We send people to houses to insist that they join. Most of our boys come from very poor areas and help their parents to quit their bad habits," he said.

One glance into the courtyard, and it was clear that the mostly barefoot boys there were not the sons of the well-heeled men marching around the square.

When the subject of why the men before us were carrying sticks arose, Mehta stepped forward.

"Sticks keep you fit," he said quickly. "There's nothing wrong with using it for self-defense. This is not military training. We don't have guns here. If I have something in my hand, I walk better."

There was a moment of awkward silence.

Then the scientist added, "Muslims have such a habit of fighting. If no one else is there, they'll fight with their own shadows."

In the sunny courtyard, it was time for a break. About a dozen boys, aged 12 to 16, sat in a large circle.

"The most important thing we learn here is to serve our nation," one 15-year-old said.

"To save the nation from enemies," a bucktoothed 12-year-old added.

When asked who his enemies were, the boy smiled and looked down.

The boys at the shakha had already had several fights with Muslim youth who, they said, had insulted the saffron flag, which was currently flapping in the courtyard. The fights, so far, had entailed only sticks, and no one had been seriously hurt.

The break was over, and the erstwhile marching band started up once again. The boys scrambled into position, took one more turn around the courtyard, and then, after a brief routine with their unwieldy sticks, they saluted the saffron flag and sang in Maharati:

We'll die for our motherland. … We'll never give up our fight. All diamonds look the same, everyone should look the same and be in one chain. … Be Indian. Buy Indian. Society can be organized for our motherland.

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is a poet and author of New York Times best-seller The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity.