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 bhaktiin 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.