NEW DELHI — It may not be an exaggeration to say that India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteers Corps) has a certain religious doggedness which is uncomfortably similar to the rabid Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Sangh is a suffocatingly conservative Hindu organization whose moral authority over India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been acknowledged by no less a person than Lal Krishna Advani, the country’s home minister.

It’s understandable why Advani and, of course, most others in the BJP, lean toward the Sangh. These men were nurtured by the Sangh, and they grew and developed on the narrow doctrines of the Sangh that trumpet the supremacy of Hinduism and mulishly decry India’s Constitution and national flag.

Advani and the other politicians came into the BJP only because the Sangh does not believe in contesting elections and running an administration, a policy it has used to its wily advantage. Not accountable to the people, the Sangh finds itself free to raise unpleasant controversies.

The latest is the unsolicited advice by the Sangh chief, K.S. Sudarshan, to Christians and Muslims. He called for the establishment of an Indian church — on the lines of one in China — so that the community can free itself of the “divisive foreign missionaries out to wreck havoc in this land of Hindutva (“Hinduness”). . . . This made the church a party to a political conspiracy to destabilize India.”

Sudarshan also asked Muslims to join “the cultural mainstream by treating Ram and Krishna (Hindu gods) as national icons.”

This, naturally caused furor. The Muslims were confused, for Sudarshan’s writ ran contrary to what the BJP president, Bangaru Laxman, had said a few weeks ago. He urged this minority community to dispel fear and vote for his party without apprehension.

A progressive Muslim scholar commented that Sudarshan’s view smacked of fundamentalism, as oppressive as that of Taliban’s. “Religion and culture are historical processes that cannot be molded in a matter of hours in the closed confines of the Sangh’s headquarters,” he said.

Equally vociferous in his condemnation of Sangh’s latest counsel was Oswald Gracious, secretary general of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India, who felt that “no single authority can dictate the political or cultural preferences of any country or region.”

What is most distressing about the Sangh pronouncements is that they have come at a time when the BJP has been fighting a valiant battle to shake of its Hindu image. While Laxman may say in public that the Sangh’s stand is independent of his own party’s, India’s minorities and the more rational among the Hindus are not quite willing to buy this.

Admittedly, the BJP and its conscience-keeper (or that is what most people want to believe), the Sangh, have walked different paths on some of the major issues facing the nation.

The government has pushed on with economic reforms, supporting the World Trade Organization and multinationals. The Sangh wants to keep foreign investment out.

On Kashmir, while the BJP is ready to talk to militants, the Sangh wants the state to be trifurcated into Kashmir (for Muslims), Jammu (for Hindus) and Ladakh (for Buddhists).

With Pakistan, the government has been pursuing a restraining, diplomatic move that has, in a way, succeeded in isolating Islamabad. Yet the Sangh wants to take on Pakistan, if necessary with nuclear weapons.

The question now is, how long will the BJP manage to survive this kind of onslaught from the Sangh?

What is more, there is widespread feeling that the BJP will adopt a harder line, at least as far as the minority religious groups are concerned, if it manages to win a majority of the seats in Parliament. With so many partners in the National Democratic Alliance coalition that it heads, the BJP finds its hands tied.

However, one hopes that better sense would prevail, not just with the electorate but with the BJP, too. Indians must realize that the world, now keen on racing down the economic highway, has little time or patience for religious extremism, much less bigotry.

It would be prudent for the party to shake off its negativism, and embark on a plan to build a modern India, whose economic prosperity can be the new mantra for peace and joy.

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