Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent call for debate on reservation has fueled misgivings that the ruling dispensation is planning to abolish reservation. To remove such misgivings the RSS has issued a statement proclaiming its support for continuation of reservation. But historically its attitude towards caste-based reservation, particularly reservation for OBCs (Other Backward Classes) has not been very positive.

The RSS castigated V.P Singh government’s decision to implement OBC reservation. Dr. Rajendra Singh, who was the RSS chief between 1994 and 2000 called for gradual reduction in job quotas. Bhagwat himself in 2016 just before the Assembly elections in Bihar proposed a review of reservation policy. Publicity chief of the RSS, Manmohan Vaidya too in 2017 speaking at the Jaipur literature festival suggested fixation of a time limit for continuation of reservation. Faced with backlash, RSS quickly distanced itself from the statements made by Bhagwat and Vaidya. But the discomfort of the RSS with the idea of caste-based reservation has become apparent. However, this does not take away from the fact that the RSS and Hindu nationalists have always remained supportive of removal of caste divisions and untouchability. The Gandhi-Ambedkar debate on caste has attracted a lot of attention. But what has not been adequately appreciated is the fact that Hindutva ideologues like Savarkar and anti-caste crusaders like Ambedkar and Phule have lot in common as far as their views regarding caste and untouchability are concerned.

Savarkar enthusiastically supported B.R. Ambedkar’s Mahad satyagraha. The RSS has also remained supportive of inter-caste marriages and inter-caste dining which Gandhi did not consider necessary for breaking caste barriers. His opposition was only confined to the principle of hierarchy upon which the caste system is based. His idea was to confer equal status on all the four varnas, transforming varna system from vertical stratification to horizontal stratification and thus guaranteeing equality of status, not equality of opportunity.

Rejecting the Gandhian solution, Ambedkar called for complete annihilation of the caste system. Savarkar was also in favour of abolition of the caste order. During his thirteen-yearlong internment in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, Savarkar undertook a number of initiatives to dismantle caste divisions such as setting up a school for lower-caste children, encouraging collective celebration of Hindu festivals by all castes and facilitating the entry of the lower castes in temples. He even established a temple where people from all castes could pray and worship. Interestingly he invited Ambedkar for the inauguration of this temple.

Ambedkar could not attend the inauguration due to his prior commitments. But appreciating the efforts of Savarkar, Ambedkar wrote, “I however wish to take this opportunity of conveying to you my appreciation of the work you are doing in the field of social reform. If the untouchables are to be part and parcel of Hindu society, then it is not enough to remove untouchability; for that matter you must destroy Chaturvarna, I am glad that you are one of the few who have realized this.”

This anti-caste activism of Savarkar has not received adequate acknowledgement. Savarkar’s recent biographer Vaibhav Purande feels that Savarkar’s anti-caste struggle remained less known as it was confined to Ratnagiri since Savarkar was under internment there from 1924 to 1937.

Still there remains one crucial difference between the Hindutva and Ambedkarite perspectives on caste. For Ambedkar, annihilation of caste is an end-in-itself, a goal important enough to be pursued for its own sake. But for the Hindutva movement, abolition of caste divisions is only a means to the larger end of Hindu unity. B.S Moonje, the President of Hindu Mahasabha from 1927 to 1937 and mentor of RSS founder Dr. Hedgewar resented the fact that the Muslims were far more united than the Hindus owing to the existence of caste system among the Hindus. He recommended inter-caste marriage to put an end to caste divisions and thus unify Hindu society by preventing the conversion of lower castes to other faiths. This drive for Hindu unity got reflected in the fact that a dalit was made to lay the foundation stone of the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1989. At the same time obsession with Hindu unity has prevented the RSS from wholeheartedly embracing caste based reservation. It has been perceived as inimical to Hindu unity on the presumption that use of caste as a basis of public policy is likely to perpetuate caste distinctions.

However, it is not only the advocates of Hindutva who have expressed the view that caste-based reservation is socially divisive. This view has found a lot of takers especially among those who are generally placed on the left of the ideological spectrum. The Nehru government rejected the report of the First Backward Classes Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar. It was apprehensive that caste-based reservation may perpetuate caste divisions and hinder the goal of ‘socialist pattern of society’.

Wary of identification of the OBCs on caste lines, Jyoti Basu, the Communist Chief Minister of West Bengal, submitted before the Mandal Commission in 1980 that in West Bengal there were only two castes: the rich and the poor. Criticising the tendency to see social inequality through the prism of caste, he declared the caste system as a legacy of feudalism.

But such voices against reservation became increasingly feeble with Mandalisation of Indian politics. The BJP also professed its support for OBC reservation deciding not to risk alienation of OBC support. The BJP-led state governments have extended reservation to new groups such as Marathas in Maharashtra and Gujjars in Rajasthan. But the RSS by virtue of being immune from the constraints of electoral politics occasionally exhibits the propensity of treading along a different trajectory. As a result, the contradiction between Hindutva politics and Hindutva ideology often become apparent on the issue of reservation. It is absolutely fair and democratic to call for an open debate between the supporters and critics of reservation. But at the same time there is an urgent need for an in-house debate between Hindutva politics and Hindutva ideology on the issue of reservation.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Jamia Hamdard (Deemed to be University), New Delhi.