'The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism': Raosaheb Kasbe

When Raosaheb Kasbe's Zot was published in Marathi, in 1978, RSS cadres made a public bonfire of it at the Janata Party convention in Pune that year. The book presented an incisive critique of M.S. Golwalkar's Bunch of Thoughts, the main ideological treatise of the RSS. Kasbe traced the historical roots of cultural nationalism as outlined by Golwalkar, and exposed its authoritarianism. His study of the functioning of the RSS revealed its communal blueprint, its anti-modern views and anti-democratic objectives.

Kasbe challenged the RSS on its own turf—its interpretation of Hinduism. Through a rigorous critique of Golwalkar's text and careful analysis of ancient texts, the scholar showed how the RSS version of Hinduism was unapologetically casteist and deeply patriarchal.

Decoding the RSS coverFour decades and seven editions after its first publication, Kasbe's zestful polemic is finally available for the first time in English, published by LeftWord Books as Decoding the RSS: Its Tradition and Politics.

In this interview, the author speaks to Vinutha Mallya about the book, and highlights the value of socialism for India.

Vinutha Mallya [VM]: Why did you write Zot?

Raosaheb Kasbe [RK]: When I was a student of MA, I read four books that sparked something in my mind. The first was Karl Marx's [and Friedrich Engel's] The Communist Manifesto. Then I read Babasaheb Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste and Caste in India. After that I read M.S. Golwalkar's Bunch of Thoughts—it left me disturbed. I decided that one day I must write about this.

After I started teaching at Sangamner College, I began writing articles for newspapers, and periodicals like Samaj Prabodhan Patrika, which was one of the best journals in Marathi. I wrote a lot for this publication. In those days, you were considered an intellectual if your writing was published in Samaj Prabodhan Patrika. My writing was noticed by Pu La Deshpande, Vasant Bapat, Vijay Tendulkar, and Kusmagraj. They wrote to me and invited me to meet them whenever possible. I went and met them all at that time.

I had already been teaching at Sangamner College for five years when Zot, my first book, was published in 1978. My second book, Dr. Ambedkar ani Bharatiya Rajyaghatana ('Ambedkar and the Indian Constitution'), was released a month after that.

VM: How was the book received?

RK: There was a store in the college where the books were kept on sale. The college management consisted of many RSS people. They protested to the principal [M.V. Koundinya] and demanded that the college store stop selling the book because it portrayed the RSS in bad light. Koundinya said that if I had written a book it must be something good. He sent them back with the advice that they should write something nice about the RSS and get it published. Then the store could sell both books.

At the Janata Party convention in Pune later that year, the problems between the old Jan Sangh and the socialists began to surface. The socialists had kept this book on sale there, along with Baba Adhav's 'Sanghachi Dhongbaji' ('Shenanigans of the RSS'). People from the RSS demanded that the book be removed. There was an outbreak of fisticuffs between the two sides. The Jan Sangh group made a bonfire of the book and burnt it in public. I found out about it only the next day in Sangamner. I was on my way to give a talk somewhere and was at the state transport bus stand when I saw a newspaper with my name in the headline, 'Raosaheb Kasbe's Zot burnt'.

After it was burnt, Zot kept making headlines in the newspapers. It received a lot of support in Maharashtra, among the socialists, communists, the Dalit Panthers, and even from the Congress. The Congress raised the matter in the state assembly as well. In fact, Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan both condemned the book burning and said that it would not kill the ideas that were in it. The book rode on a wave of popularity. It was priced at Rs 5. Pu La Deshpande bought a hundred copies and he gifted them to his visitors. Sharad Pawar, who was Maharashtra's chief minister, also bought a hundred copies to give away. Some freedom fighters in Dhule sold the book standing by the wayside.

Zot coverMany well-wishers started telling me, out of concern, that the RSS was dangerous. I said that they wouldn't harm me because they knew it would cause retaliation. But I received a lot of anonymous letters with threats (I didn't have a phone connection in those days). So things kept going on like this.

VM: You never formally joined a political organisation. Why?

RK: Who will follow its discipline? It is good to remain independent. However, I've been friends with all Left parties.

When my book Ambedkar ani Marx was released at Tilak Smarak in Pune in 1985, it was a big event. S.M. Joshi, a socialist, launched it. One of the speakers was S.Y. Kolhatkar, who was a member of CPI (M)'s central committee. There was Republican Party of India's Dadasaheb Rupwate too. Ram Bapat, professor of Politics in Pune University, was also there. Former chairman of the state legislative council V.S. Page, the socialist leader Nanasaheb Gore, and the noted freedom fighter Bhausaheb Thorat, were in the audience. So I was reassured that many people were with me. But I was also aware that when a person achieves fame, it requires a balancing act. You don't know when you'll fall.

VM: What is the relevance of socialism and communism now? Do they have a future?

RK: Whatever is happening here is happening in Trump's America too. It is the same thing in Brexit England. The situation will continue like this, and the violence will go on until socialism is established. Like Marx said, the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism. And religious criticism can end only when it becomes clear that the human being forms the core of the world. There will be no contradictions then—and the social and political systems that will work, and move forward, are those that keep the human being as their base.

Capitalism is going through a crisis just now. [Narendra] Modi's rise is a strong indication that India's capitalism is in crisis, and he is here to strengthen that. The contradictions [emerging from capitalism] will become stronger one or the other day, and it will lead to an explosion. It will lead to anarchy, and movements will begin from there—with the struggles between the poor and the capitalists. It is socialism that will win this battle. But we need to create a mass movement no? Who is thinking of a mass movement? Everybody is going behind electoral politics.

There is a lot of illiteracy and lack of discernment just now. India's people are not yet ready for democracy. That is why in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, Ambedkar warned the country about the social and economic inequalities in our newly-formed political democracy.[1] It was a great lecture, which won great applause. But people haven't read all this; they are now waking up to it because there is a need. Unless economic and social equality arrives in India, nothing will change here.

In the Left movement, people criticise Modi saying he is this and that. I say that Modi's arrival was imminent—it was to happen. Because the Left failed to do what Marx said is the first thing to do, i.e. the premise of all criticism being religious criticism. We did not do a diagnosis of religion and culture. This is why there are so many illusions about religion in people's mind. We haven't tried to dispel these illusions about religion.

The first reason to bring in socialism is caste. But we did not initiate the anti-caste movement. It could not be done until caste converted to varga, class.

The Naxalites are talking about it now because there are many from the Scheduled Castes in that movement. They say 'Jai Bhim, Comrade' today. But it should have been said 50 years ago. And, because of not paying attention to the caste system, see what happened to the communists in Bengal. The Communist Party there was seen as a bhadralok party.

VM: Isn't it said that there is no casteism in Bengal?

RK: This is the thing about communists—they didn't believe that casteism existed in India. They believed that there was no caste in India, only class. That's why they called Ambedkar a 'bourgeoisie liberal'. Ambedkar raised the question in Annihilation of Caste in 1936. He asked the communists how they were going to bring the revolution, because for revolution you need class. How will you create class? Even between the poor upper-caste person and poor lower-caste person there is caste conflict. Had anyone thought about it?

VM: There are many misconceptions about Ambedkar and his philosophy.

RK: Ambedkar was asked by a journalist once, 'What is your political character?' Ambedkar responded, 'Is this something you should ask? I am a socialist.' The journalist persisted and said there were many socialists in the Congress too, so why didn't he join the Congress. Ambedkar replied that the socialists in the Congress were suffocating and he wanted to breathe freely in the open.

Many didn't understand Ambedkar, including the Left parties. Madhu Limaye once asked me, 'Was Ambedkar a socialist?' I felt, what were people saying? They don't at all read Ambedkar. At least read him first, I said. Later, in his Prime Movers: Role of the Individual in History, Limaye wrote 110 pages on Ambedkar.

They used to think Ambedkar was a sectarian leader and that Gandhi was the tallest leader. But Ambedkar established the Independent Labour Party. How could he have been a sectarian leader? So one set was blinded by Gandhi and the other by Marx. But is every single word of Marx the final truth? Something would have changed, no? Like Stalin said, there is no rulebook on Marxism. It is a dynamic thought; it must keep changing. Ask any question, and Marxists pull out a book, and say, 'No, no, Marx has said this, Engels has said that, Lenin has said this, Stalin has said that.' They should state what they want to do.

VM: If you had written Zot now, do you think the responses would be very different and the risk too?

RK: Things are happening exactly like I've written in the book, isn't it? LeftWord should have published this [the English translation] by 1980. But they thought it was a book about religion . . . Oh, but LeftWord didn't exist in 1980! [Laughs]

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Raosaheb KasbeDr. Raosaheb Kasbe (b. 1944) is an eminent political scientist and scholar on Ambedkar and Dalit movements in India. Dr. Kasbe was Dr. Ambedkar Chair Professor at Savitribai Phule Pune University, from 2007 to 2014. From 1973 to 2004, he was a professor of Political Science at Sangamner College, Sangamner, Ahmednagar. He was nominated President, Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad, in 2016—the first Dalit person in that position in the institution's 113-year history.

His first book, Zot ('Searchlight'), was first published in 1978. His other notable works include Dr. Ambedkar ani Bharatiya Rajyaghatana ('Dr. Ambedkar and the Indian Constitution', 1978), Ambedkar ani Marx ('Ambedkar and Marx', 1985), Hindu Muslim Prashna ani Savarkarancha Hindu Rashtravad ('The Hindu Muslim Question and Savarkar's Hindu Nationalism', 1994), Manav ani Dharma Chintan ('Man and Religious Discourse', 1996), Dharma Granth ani Manavi Jeevanpravah ('Religious Scriptures and the Flow of Human Life', 2008) and Bhakti ani Dhamma ('Bhakti and Dhamma', 2015). After writing books on Ambedkar, Marx, Golwalkar, and Savarkar, who have each influenced political and cultural thinking in Maharashtra, Kasbe is currently working on a book on Gandhi.

Kasbe has received many awards and honours, notably the Maharashtra and Marathwada Sahitya Parishad Puraskar, and Maharashtra Foundation's Jeevan Gaurav Puraskar. He lives in Nasik, Maharashtra.

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Early life:

Raosaheb Kasbe was born in a Mahar family in Aurangpur, a hamlet of about 50 houses, located in Akola Taluka of Ahmednagar District in Maharashtra. Although the family had a small piece of land to farm, his father earned a living as a carpenter in the local building construction industry. Back then small pieces of land were allotted to Dalit families in the region, which was governed by the ryotwari system. The landowners would give the farmers a small share of the harvest.

Kasbe completed his primary schooling in the village school and attended secondary school in Akola, walking a distance of about five kilometres each way. For his higher secondary education, he went to Modern High School in Akola, where he recalls meeting many good teachers. 'They were all Brahmin. But they loved me because my handwriting was beautiful and my English was good. Good, meaning, when compared to other students,' he says, laughing.

He sharpened his reputed oratorical skills from a young age, winning debate and elocution competitions in high school. He enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Sangamner College, 15 kilometres away from home, where too he regularly took part in drama, debates and other competitions. Subsequently, after obtaining a Master of Arts in Politics from Marathwada University, he returned to his alma mater and taught political science for 33 years. It was at the behest of the college's principal, M.V. Koundinya, who was also his Economics teacher, that Kasbe pursued post-graduation with the goal of teaching at Sangamner College. He supported his college and university studies by working as a school teacher. For his Doctor of Philosophy degree, which was awarded by Pune University in 1987, he studied the role of religious conversion in the political philosophy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Kasbe was 33 years old when Zot, his first book, was published in 1978. Produced by Jan Bodh Prakashan in Pune, it came into the limelight when it was set on fire during the Janata Party's convention in the city that year. The Pune-based Sugava Prakashan took over publication of Zot after the first three editions. It remains a bestseller even after four decades.


Vinutha Mallya is an editor and journalist based in Pune.

This interview first appeared on Indian Cultural Forum.

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[1] 'On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has to laboriously built up.
Excerpted from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's last speech in the Constituent Assembly, on November 25, 1949