The present India-China tensions have unsurprisingly led to a lot of anger in India, with perhaps all of the media criticizing Beijing’s actions, and a part blaming New Delhi’s inaction as well. And yet it important to watch the shifting of accents in the public mood. One color in the Indian rainbow of opinions, which is usually little noticed outside the country, is that of the media and suborganizations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This Hindu nationalist organization is organically connected to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as most of the party’s members belong to the RSS as well.
The opinions raised by the RSS therefore represent the voices of the Hindu right, but not always those of the government, being quite often more radical and more freely expressed. The RSS’s ideas do not always agree with the BJP’s policies (for instance, when it comes to matters of political economy, as I argued elsewhere) although when it comes to judging the current border crisis, the texts referred to below contain no signs of such disagreement.
To be precise with our judgment, this nationalist color of the political spectrum, as seen in the RSS’s mouthpieces, should be further divided into the official line – the articles signed by the editors – and pieces submitted by guest writers. These may fall outside the pale of the official line, and may include differing opinions, including more radical ones. The third category are interviews.
I will draw from a number of texts published by the RSS’s two main mouthpieces – which are also its biggest media outlets – the Hindi-language Panchjanya and the English-language Organiser.
A text by Panchanya’s editor, Hitesh Shankar, is a good instance of how the RSS’s response so far has been belligerent, but without bringing new, bigger guns to the field. The author admits that there were casualties on the Indian side during the border clash, but declares that this event has shown that Ladakh belongs to India (to stress that the confrontation was an Indian victory, Panchjanya also elsewhere wrote of 45 Chinese casualties, as compared to 20 Indian ones). The editor points out that free Tibet used to be a “peace zone” (shant patti) between India and China and that New Delhi (of the 1950s) made a mistake of losing it – but he does not openly suggest that New Delhi of 2020 should call for its independence. He calls Taiwan an independent country (svatantr desh), but does not advocate India’s recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state.
The Organiser has also been very vocal in its standing up to Beijing. In a piece titled “Defeating the Deceptive Red Dragon,” Prafulla Ketkar, the journal’s editor, called China an “expansionist monster” and has also argued for India to “lead the global strategy” against Beijing, expressing the belief that many would join New Delhi in this “holy war” (Dharm Yuddh). Warlike rhetoric and leadership issues aside, this is a signal that the RSS wants the government to cooperate more closely with other countries to hold China back. This unideological opinion is actually shared by many Indians, including foreign policy experts that may be politically far from the Hindu nationalist camp.
The Organiser has also shared an official statement by Mohan Bhagwat, the supreme leader of the RSS, which “strongly condemns the aggressive and violent act” of China and declares that “all Indians stand firmly behind our forces and government.” The statement does not offer any reckoning of New Delhi’s actions (which is unsurprising) or suggest any solutions. The RSS’s forum for the protection of Indian industry, Swadeshi Jagran Manch, has called for boycotting China economically, however. The Organiser also called the Chinese state-owned newspaper, Global Times, a “rag.”
A lot of texts in the Organiser speak of Chinese aggression, but nothing of its concrete results, completely bypassing all the reports that PLA soldiers took control of strips of territory in the vicinity of Pangong Lake and the Galwan River Valley. For instance, an article published by a retired brigadier, Anil Gupta, claims that “India understands the Chinese brinkmanship very well” and that “India’s stand till now has been not only politically and militarily correct but aggressive as well.” The reaction of New Delhi’s army and leadership is often glorified in such texts, and there is no mention of defeat or lost land on the Indian side, all of which makes it look as China’s attempts to push India back in the Himalayas have been unsuccessful.
Another curious opinion piece, by a Delhi University professor Abanti Bhattacharya, even uses a twisted combination of points to defend New Delhi’s policy. The author states that Narendra Modi’s earlier friendly outreach to China – the so-called “Wuhan spirit” – was actually a clever ploy through which “Modi outwitted the Chinese.” This gave New Delhi a “free hand” to deal with Pakistan by pushing for reforms in Kashmir. “Arguably then, rising Chinese belligerence is a reaction to Modi’s China policy,” the author claims.
Some opinion pieces did admit shortages in India’s armed forces, however, though they did not criticize the BJP government for this situation (even though Modi has been in power in 2014). An article by a journalist, Nirendra Dev, claims that “[m]ost of these problems are a ‘gift’ of the previous leadership and regimes,” without elaborating on which problems are a “gift” from somebody else. At the same time, he praises the BJP for carrying out military reforms.
When it comes to advocated policies, there are at least two notable exceptions. An opinion piece by a political science professor at Delhi University, Sonali Chitalkar, boldly titled “Global Political Game of Maoist-Fascist China,” also raises the victory sign. The author declares the current clash as an event “worth of going down in our history as a battle in which the Chinese bully was given a much deserved bloody nose.” She also refers to the Indian private media that elaborated on Indian losses as the “Chinese-Maoist B team.” But these grandiose words of triumphalism are followed by a sober review of New Delhi’s options for the future. “India’s choices remain limited,” Chitalkar admits, as “[t]he efficacy of the Quad in the Indo-Pacific remains to be seen” while “[d]e-recognition of Tibet’s annexation by China […] may not be effective due to delay of seventy years.” What the author does advocate, however, is a “steadily increased support for Taiwan” and “expansion of the Quad” to include countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.
Yet, the second piece in the Organiser to suggest concrete polices, by Vijay Kranti, goes much further and suggests pulling out much sharper blades – the ones that the other authors quoted above were reluctant to unsheathe. “India needs to change its tactics and hit China where it hurts most,” the journalist declares, and proceeds to spell out concrete solutions. According to him, India should (1) announce that it does not recognize Tibet as “Part of China” and give a formal status to the Tibetan government-in-exile; (2) award the Dalai Lama with a state honor (Bharat ratna); (3) raise the issues of Chinese occupation and atrocities in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia; and (4) upgrade its ties with Taiwan “from ‘cultural’ and business level to the ‘diplomatic’ ones.”
None of these are new ideas, both within India and globally, but they are certainly very bold ones. It is notable that they have not appeared on the official, editorial level of the RSS mouthpieces, but it also should not be ignored that such an article appeared during the tensions. What should be monitored is how often such voice will be raised in the coming months and years.
Organiser gave interview space to Tsewang Gyalpo Arya, information secretary of the Tibetan government-in-exile. In this interview, Arya focused on the sorry plight of Tibetans and ended the conversation by stating that “it is very important that the international community work[s] together to bring these dictatorial and tyrannical regimes down and replace it with a more democratic and responsible government.”
As I have argued elsewhere, the RSS does keep a seemingly cozy relationship with the exiled Tibetan government, but does not officially call for Tibet’s independence. It is thus unsurprising that such opinions appeared in opinion pieces and interviews, rather than editorials, which means that despite the current tensions, the RSS has not decided to change its public stance on Tibet.
More Than a Feeling, Less Than a Policy
There are four general conclusions to be gathered from this press review, as it stands at the time of writing:
- The mouthpieces of the RSS have been more outspokenly critical of China now then before — not that they were not critical in previous years, but the circumstances caused their style to be more belligerent and harsh than before.
- These media downplayed the losses (of soldiers and territory on the Indian side) and presented current tensions in Ladakh as a clear victory of India.
- They also refrained from blaming their own government.
- They have not suggested any new ways of dealing with China. It is notable that more radical policies have been mentioned, but that this took place at the unofficial level.
There are two caveats, however. First, the texts considered have been forged in the heat of the tensions and they thus represent the initial mood, not the distanced hindsight formulated with a cooler head. Second, we do not know what the future weeks will bring and what directions will the tensions take. Thus, at the moment we cannot be sure in what ways, if any, will this mood change in the coming months.