The following is a piece I wrote for Newscentral24x7 as part of a series depicting the parallels between Nazi Germany and present day India. It was published on the 10th of May 2018.

How much agency does a single person have?

It is easy to see exceptional individuals as forces of nature. Beings of singular will that can move mountains. But, that is an illusion. The fact is that no person, throughout history, has accomplished anything of value without help. “No man is an island”, as the saying goes. When it comes to Hitler, it is easy to forget about the people and social structures that were instrumental in his rise to power.

One such organization that played a key role was the Sturmabteilung (SA/Storm Detachment). Though it was eventually replaced (by something much worse), it played a vital role in the early stages of Hitler’s career. Otherwise known as “Brownshirts” (owing to the color of their uniform shirts), the SA developed pseudo-military titles for its members. This structure, along with its titles and ranks were later adopted by several other groups which it spawned. These included the Jugenbund, Hitler Youth, Feldherrnhalle and the dreaded SS (Schutzstaffel) the organization most responsible for killing of an estimated 5.5 to 6 million people. This then, was the enduring legacy of the Brown Shirts.

When created, the SA’s primary purposes were providing protection for Nazi gatherings and disrupting the meetings of opposing parties. But in reality it was a well organized gang that used violence and intimidation as a political tool. Though initially its tactics were directed towards communists and labor unions, their targets quickly included any Nazi opponents and of course, Jews.

At the height of its power, the SA spearheaded what is known as the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). In carefully orchestrated riots, the SA destroyed 7,500 Jewish businesses and 200 synagogues. Homes were ransacked and Jewish cemeteries defiled. Jews were beaten to death and around 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. Among the many tools these organizations used were:

  • Intimidation
  • Violence
  • Rewriting or re-framing history
  • Adopting nationalist symbology
  • Re-branding themselves to avert legal attention
  • Engaging in the politics of exclusion
  • Using tragic events to their advantage to present a “benevolent” image

It is also important to realize how effective these paramilitary outfits were to the cultivation of the idea of “Aryan Supremacy”. Heinrich Himmler (the Chief architect of the SS), for instance, made it a point to take special interest in members that exhibited “Aryan” characteristics within the SS. It went beyond looks however, the idea was to redefine what it meant to be “truly” German.

Sound familiar? It should. Halfway across the globe, something similar was brewing.

In the early half of the 1920s, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a doctor in British India was a member of Anushilan Samiti, an anti-British revolutionary body. Hedgewar however, quickly realized, that revolutionary tactics alone would not be sufficient to get the British out of India. After reading a book titled “Hindutva” penned by acclaimed independence activist, V. D. Savarkar and meeting him in Ratnagiri prison in 1925, Hedgewar was inspired to create an organization with the primary objective of strengthening Hindu society.

Thus was the RSS born.

Right off the bat, the RSS began to distance itself from the independence movement, deciding instead, to focus on its goal of creating a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation). It found the secular nature of the INC and Mahatma Gandhi vexing. In particular, the idea that “cow protection” did not feature anywhere in the Congress’ agenda, was specially unacceptable. In keeping with its exclusive ideology, the RSS aggressively pushed the idea that Muslims, Christians and the British were “foreign bodies” implanted in the Hindu nation. Much like a disease or a virus that benefits at the host body’s expense. A sentiment that echoed Nazi feelings about the Jews. The allusion to Nazi views was no accident as many of the RSS’ prominent leaders were quite vocal in their admiration of Hitler and his views on racial purity. Further, it was reflected in the RSS’ vehement opposition to the Constitution on the grounds that it would give equality to all castes.

Along with their emphasis on nationalism they proceeded to selectively borrow traditions from the Hindu past to achieve an ideological framework that was both Indian and Hindu. The age of “Hindutva” had arrived. Nehru saw the danger as early as 1947 when he wrote “we have a great deal of evidence to show that RSS is an organization which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines, even following the techniques of the organization.” Remember that statement if you want to put the BJP’s concentrated vilification of the man in perspective. His words proved to be prophetic when in 1948, Nathuram Godse, a former RSS member, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Both the act and the assassin are celebrated by the large sections of the RSS to this day.

Meanwhile, much like Hitler who realized that the best way to subvert democracy was to “become” democratic, the RSS began to restructure. Sub organizations were created. The political wing that emerged was the “Bharatiya Jan Sang” which became the “Janta Party” and eventually the “Bharatiya Janta Party” (BJP). All the while the core ideology remained unchanged.

Post independence, the Congress’ lackadaisical approach towards development for the lower sections of society left people understandably disillusioned. This continued for decades and left a gaping void which the RSS was more than happy to fill. Under the guise of its philanthropic endeavors (carried on by the RSS’ charitable wings) the movement garnered popular support and the RSS saw it’s ranks and campaign coffers swell.

In 1990, the party organized the Ram Rath Yatra to advance it’s “Ram Janma Bhoomi” (Birthpalce of Ram) campaign campaign on a national scale. L K Advani (The then BJP leader) also attacked the Congress party with the slogans such as ‘pseudo secularism’, accusing them of misusing secularism for political gain (an accusation that unfortunately, had some merit). Events quickly escalated, ultimately culminating in the demolition of the Babri mosque and riots that claimed 2000 lives. The VHP (another RSS offshoot) provided the troops on the ground for this particular national shame. A “Rubble Noon” to echo a “Crystal Night”.

Defenders of the RSS will claim that not every member subscribes to that philosophy. That most of them are merely looking for a sense of community. They will, rightfully, point to the laudable actions of the RSS taken during Indira Gandhi’s emergency or the fact that a typical shaka will invite even non hindus into their ranks. Most are content talking philosophy and doing their daily morning exercises and yoga. These are all valid claims.

They also miss the point.

Not every single member of the SA was involved in killing Jews. But as it’s ranks swelled and Hitler’s popularity grew, it’s role began to expand considerably. And it only took a fraction of the members to murder millions. It isn’t so much what the SA did directly, rather, what it empowered the Nazis to do. (Also, fun fact: At one point, the SA was merely the “Gymnastic and Sports Division” of the Nazi party).

Besides, much like the SA, the RSS lead to the birth of many sub groups and offshoots. Some purely political like the BJP or more militant in nature like the Bajrang Dal. But they still identify as the “Sangh Parivar” (universal family). The goal of such organizations isn’t so much to “kill” as it is to “exclude” all the while playing the part of “looking” inclusive (for instance, by redefining what is means to be “Hindu” in secular terms when convenient). The primary goal is to identify who is on the “right” team and propagate its views. EVERYTHING else, the philanthropy, the community building, is secondary. Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture.

If that argument still comes across as unconvincing it might be worth remembering that the BJP has successfully formed a government twice. In both cases the PMs were prominent RSS workers. And though political expediency demanded that both men distance themselves from their ideological roots, the fact remains that those roots run deep. It does not take a genius to see how going counter to the RSS’ ideology is akin to political suicide. Nor is it a coincidence that every time Modi needs a “show of force” or “support on the streets” it is the “Sangh” that answers the call, swords in hand. Brown shirts there, khaki shorts here.

No man is an island, but some can give the impression of being one.