Those who are criticising the RSS chief for ‘insulting’ the Indian Army by saying that Sangh volunteers can mobilise faster are both wrong and miss the point. In his speech at Muzaffarpur, Mohan Bhagwat stated with visible pride that Sangh volunteers are so disciplined that they can be mobilised in a matter of days, should the Constitution and the laws of the country so demand. This is not an insult to the Indian Army.
What is of greater importance to the Indian republic is why the RSS should be mobilising a fighting force. No state can survive if it does not command a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence inside and outside the country. In fact, the question of the Constitution or laws calling upon the RSS to fight does not arise at all. Between the armed forces, territorial army, central paramilitary forces, reserve police, home guards and NCC, India can muster several million troops that are more than adequate to address any internal or external threat. And large numbers of them can be mobilised within days.
There is little doubt that most RSS activists and volunteers are motivated by intense patriotism and Hindu nationalism. Even so, it is wrong and deeply worrisome to suggest that its volunteers have any role to play in national defence or internal security. The Republic of India does not and must not outsource its fundamental responsibilities to political organisations.
I often receive criticism for supporting the RSS’ right to exist and carry out its political, cultural and religious activities. You don’t need to agree with its ideology or political agenda to support its right to promote them in every legitimate way. People often point to the RSS’ work in delivering humanitarian relief, promoting education and pro-India sentiments in many places to argue in its support. Even if it didn’t engage in such community service, the RSS has and should have the right to peacefully pursue its ideological and political agenda.
What it should not have is the capacity to compete with the organs of the Indian state when it comes to the use of force. That’s why Mr Bhagwat’s comments are worrisome, regardless of his disclaimers that the RSS is not a military or paramilitary organisation, but a family organisation with a disciplined force of volunteers. The capacity to mobilise large numbers of people should concern the government. The capacity to do so faster than the government’s own forces should concern the government even more.
It’s not only the RSS. There are a large number of organisations in India today that, to varying degrees, have the characteristics of militia groups. Few are as disciplined as the RSS. Some of them even call themselves “senas”. Many are involved in agitations, riots and political mobilisation during elections. They provide violent capacity to politicians and parties. Others act on behalf of caste groups, ethnic communities or religious organisations. Their operations are increasingly brazen, as when the organised activists of Dera Sacha Sauda held Chandigarh and many parts of Haryana to ransom last year. It cannot be anyone’s argument that their proliferation is a good thing.
On the contrary, the growth and strengthening of organisations that look, sound and act like militias is a serious risk to India’s national security. With a burgeoning population of young men, inadequate job creation and spread of social media, we have all the ingredients of a rise in violence in the country that will challenge the rule of law because it is also so enmeshed with politics. There is an urgent need to regulate the organisations that have the characteristics of a militia, regardless of their self-description.
We need only to look to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for inspiration on how to tackle this threat. He would combine his faith in a plural democracy with his resolute commitment to the enforcement of the writ of the state. We need a new law to regulate militias, and bring them under a regulatory framework. For instance, once an organisation is deemed to have the capacity for organised violence, it should be required to post bank guarantees consistent with its record of violence, maintain registers of all members, declare their criminal records, submit to regular police inspections and get itself audited. It is possible to balance their right of association with the public interest of maintaining law and order.
We need a public debate on the role of organised political violence in India. Every one of India’s neighbours has paid the price for the folly of tolerating, promoting or surrendering to groups that use violence. We should learn the right lessons from their mistakes.