Mythicised or misunderstood, RSS is an organisation whose influence is a permanent topic of contention. Its doors seldom open to outsiders, its leaders hardly speak to the public, and, at 90, it is still steeped in secrecy and moulded by a culture of austerity and discipline. Is the Sangh changing faster under the leadership of Mohan Bhagwat, the possible reforms including its attitude towards Muslims and women? Advaita Kala gains access to the cloistered world of RSS
A long corridor opens into a series of small rooms, one after the other. Inside the room is a bed with a thin mattress and two plastic chairs, their armrests touching. A matka sits in the corner on a high stool and overhead a noisy ceiling fan exerts itself, to little effect. This is the room of a pracharak. Room after room is like this one. It is a prototype, marked by frugality and basic necessities that indicate human use. There is nothing to show of a personal life, not even family photographs. No television—usually a stack of books signal entertainment, but their worn and well-circulated condition suggests that a certain rigour is attached to the reading habit. At 3.30 p.m. the gong sounds—the clang of a hammer hitting a brass plate, it echoes through the empty passageways and in the distance one starts to hear voices trickling into the corridors. This is the high tide of presence and then like a wave it recedes and settles at the end of the hall in the common dining room, where the chatter continues unabated. And I am told that one can set one’s watch to the routine at the RSS complex in Keshav Kunj, Delhi.
The main hall is empty nowadays and in it are yet again more plastic chairs and whirring fans. Next door there is a consumer court, with the usual hangers-on waiting outside for a hearing, or their lawyer, or just passing time. At Keshav Kunj there are no people hanging around, seeking proximity or favour or appointments. The inner courtyard is empty, the guards at the gate don’t check your purse, although they notice your presence and maybe your gender. Inside, a man who must be the oldest pracharak (possibly an octogenarian) rises to welcome you and asks how he can be of help.
This somnolence is misleading, things are stirring, not just in Keshav Kunj where buildings stand in various stages of dismantlement but also within. It is what Mohan Bhagwat, the present sarsanghchalak, would refer to as an “unfolding”—a term that would excite unease in RSS baiters and elicit curiosity in the neutral observer. The sixth sarsanghchalak is the first to acknowledge that what is or was to become of the RSS in its ninetieth year of existence, is something that even its founder, Dr Hedgewar declined to extrapolate on, hence the unfolding. Every sarsanghchalak, he says, responds to his times and this response is left for posterity to judge. It is difficult to tell if the burden of history or a legacy to bequeath weighs heavily on the walrus-moustached and easy-to-laughter present sarsanghchalak, but he is signalling changing times, through moves small and more significant. Like the approval of applause at an event, a deviation from the usual code of conduct, since the Sangh eschews individual aggrandisation. Sometimes, Bhagwat will clap along and add that good work must be appreciated, prompting the coming together of more hands in self conscious acknowledgment. Or be it a more accommodating approach to a traditional bête noire—westernisation. It is an interesting time for the largest volunteer-based social movement in the world (outsider definitions aside) through its nine decades of existence the RSS has insisted that this remains its core identity. This 65-year-old bachelor with Z-plus ‘VVIP’ security, who till two years ago travelled only by train with a secretary for company, leading the RSS through the jagged terrain of modern and aspirational India.
“Character is like a tree and shadow like a reputation. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing,” said Abraham Lincoln, in a timeless quote that may apply to the RSS as well. That its shadow precedes it is inarguable. That its tree branches out into shakhas, 51,330 in India at last count, is the real thing. Even granting a slim attendance of maybe ten people to the individual shakha, means that something like 513,300 RSS swayamsevaks gather to participate in physical exercise and reaffirm their faith in its ideology, every morning, every day. So how does an organisation, one that has been banned on three occasions, continue to grow? Are these morning sessions, spent discussing newspaper headlines of the day broken by a game of kabaddi and other sport (including the western rugby in student shakhas), a tactic in subversion? A ploy to distract and dull critical faculties of analysis and independent thought? Once again its shadow will inform you that the shakhas function as spaces for group lobotomies, its participants fed on a diet of unadulterated hate for minority communities and a general suspicion of the world, not to mention victimhood. Its all-male environs prepping its brainwashed battalions for a fight of historical proportions with a persistent enemy—compromised Hindu masculinity. It might be premature to draw a conclusion, but it would not be remiss to suggest that this common place demonisation of the RSS has contributed to its growth. The RSS is more than the routine criticism thrown its way, the latter having been reduced to a cliché that younger Indians find easier to dismiss, moved as they are as a generation to particularise their own experience.
My first interaction with the RSS was on a television debate in 2009, their representative sat at the other end of the panel and denounced the concept of Valentine’s Day as a western one. My own love for Valentine’s Day is at best ambiguous, underwhelmed as I am by its crass commercialisation, but the holiday found a defender in me that day because of the pugnacious attack on it. As with all television debates, no side won that one, audience applause to comments were the only barometer, but little did I know then that the RSS system does not quite gauge its impact by public applause (as previously mentioned). The RSS today speaks of not westernisation but ‘westophication’, which is the adoption of western habits for the purpose of appearing sophisticated. A not entirely unreasonable position, for amongst these are sociological impulses that even the West is making conscious attempts to move away from. Moreover this ‘new’ approach is an inevitability in our shrinking world that the Sangh has accepted with a pragmatism that belies the criticism of being stuck in the past. Neither on closer observation is it far-fetched to see how it finds a place in their conversation with the larger world, when one hears Bhagwat speak of the fluidity of Hinduism, “Hinduism is gatisheel not stithisheel, there is a lot in the Vedas that we do not practice anymore. It is the constant search for truth. Forms keep changing, what our ancestors practiced that was positive we must embrace and take along with us, what was wrong we should leave behind and move ahead.” This moving ahead is the underlying refrain in his conversation, whichever issue he discusses, even himself, “Today I may feel like I am changing things and making improvements, but future generations may turn around and say I made mistakes, then what will happen to me? The future… progeny has the independence to judge.”
The judgement sways both ways, from the clash of values between generations at home to incidents that get escalated when moral policing takes over. In the case of the latter, the invisible hand of the Sangh is almost always seen in the present narrative. What is the Sangh’s stand on the wilfulness of the young to do things their way and the right to individual choice? “When children say that till now you have done things your way, now let me do things my way, then let them do so. What is wrong with that? They are your own children, one should believe that they may do as they like and may face obstacles but will not lose their way. They should feel secure that should they return after facing obstacles and defeat, someone is there for them. This is important, for they will not become cynics then.” This attitude prevails in the Sangh as well. During the days of Dr Hedgewar, it is said that no restrictions were placed on karyakartas and they were given complete independence and the freedom to use it. “This continues,” says Bhagwat, “Have we not made mistakes ourselves while carrying out the work of the Sangh? But we did so under the watch of our elders, they did caution us but never stopped us and brought us this far. The same applies at home.”
The Sangh often thought of as being judgmental, is ironically judged constantly, from the ballooning khakhi shorts that elicit much mirth and ridicule, to the moniker ‘sanghi’ used derisively online but now embraced by Modi supporters. The Sangh despite its online army of ‘sanghis’ many of whom have never visited a shakha or are members, remains an enigma, often to its own disadvantage. But its deep suspicion of being misrepresented over the years and being banned has made it retreat, choosing to work on the streets as opposed to having its version out in the broadsheets. As Bhagwat points out, “You may notice that we are finally speaking out loud in public about issues. It is because for the first time we have the space to do so.” Amongst his many conversation points is ‘third wave feminism’! The Sangh which has been summarily dismissed by critics for not having enough writers or intellectuals in its corner (it does but not enough of those have peer review credibility in a system dominated by another ideology), ‘compensates’ by being readers, voracious ones at that.
Neither does it bother to have a PR plan for engagement with the press. One early interaction of mine was on a writing assignment about the RSS marching band which was performing in Connaught Place for the first time. I was keen to record the response of the Delhiite to these men in khakhi shorts, it was to be a first. The only hospitality that was offered to me by a 72- year-old karyakarta was a cup of tea from the communal tea tap, which I was informed was being given at the expense of someone else, since the tea was always portioned in advance. Naturally I declined, despite the bitter Delhi cold, but it was an interesting insight into their guileless albeit reserved approach to the media. Or perhaps a woman?
The Sangh has for long been accused of being anti-women, a charge that is facilitated by the absence of women amongst its ranks. A long time observer of the Sangh commented that this Vijay Dashami celebration was intriguing for the presence of a woman on stage. This ‘presence’ of women or rather the lack thereof has been an observation that began as an enquiry in 1925 and has since become an indictment of the Sangh. How can a volunteer- based organisation not have any women in its midst, especially when its stated aim is to work amongst members of society? It was a question posed to Dr Hedgewar a decade after the Sangh was founded and has now made its way to Mohan Bhagwat, even if cushioned in polite speak—why is the influence of women so limited in the Sangh?
Part of the answer lies in the pages of time. When the Sangh was formed social conditions did not permit the free interaction of men and women at work. Dr Hedgewar felt that good intentions would be compromised by unnecessary chatter and conjecture, so the RSS began as an all-male organisation. The Rashtra Sevika Samiti was formed in 1936 as a parallel organisation that carried forward the work of the Sangh amongst women. It maintains to this day its organisational independence but shares an ideology. But isn’t this self-segregation along gender lines out of step with the times?
“Let me improve on your question,” says Mohan Bhagwat, “There is not little visible influence of women in the Sangh, there is none. The pracharak has no home, so with him no woman enters the Sangh. But when someone becomes a swayamsevak, he does not do so independently, slowly his family joins and helps keep his work going with the Sangh. When the Rashtra Sevika Samiti was formed it was decided that the work will be carried out amongst men by the Sangh and amongst women by the Samiti. They will help each other but not merge and that continues. If it comes from the two organisations that they would like to unite and work together, then when that happens, it is another matter. But it has not happened so far.” So is a merger a matter of time? The present sarsanghchalak, who in February 2015 said women are not baby-making factories as a response to the suggestion that Hindu women should have at least four children, seems to leave the door cracked open for the entry of women in the Sangh at some point. Or maybe that door was never really closed and padlocked in the first place, as has been assumed? That is the problem with being the Sangh, a lot of what it says in its most vociferous avatar is attributed to ‘strategy’, when often it’s just something that never got enough airtime in the past.
And if this is indeed ‘strategy’ it also serves to show that the Sangh is opening up to other ‘constituencies’—its alleged ‘Project to Otherise’—an accusation consistently furthered by critics is being consciously combated and dismantled like never before with all the means at its disposal.
No one experiences the fallout of this ascribed project more than the Indian Muslim. A reality addressed by the Sangh in 2002 with the formation of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an organisation still looked at with scepticism. The Sangh’s attempt at denoting Hindu as a civilisational term as opposed to a religious one, finds little support. In the current environment, where terror attacks are attributed to a faith and Islamophobia is on the rise, the Sangh’s approach to the matter is critical for how it (the Sangh) is perceived not only by outsiders but even those within. Critics would assume that the Sangh may look at this as an opportunity, as a way of consolidating its appeal within the majority Hindu community. Mohan Bhagwat’s response on the looming ISIS threat that has mentioned India in its plans deflates that expectation, “ISIS is a problem— it exists, one should worry about it. But even before getting to us they are in trouble. And in whose name it claims to fight (Muslims), those very people have stood up against it.” An acknowledgment of moderate Muslims who make up the majority of the faith and are a counter to the barbarity of ISIS isn’t what one would anticipate from Bhagwat. Neither would it appeal to the radical right or life-long RSS critic. But here it is. And Bhagwat continues, “If we stay strong, calm—our people, our armed forces if they remain like this—what will happen is that those the ISIS hopes to attract will be drawn to us and we will all get stronger. We should acknowledge that ISIS is a problem but focus on how it must not spoil anything for us. Intellectuals discuss the problem of ISIS and then get into the why. That western powers created it etc. But there is no need for all that, their barbarity is inhumane. That is it. The reasons are a thing for another time.”
Bhagwat is careful to remove religion from the equation, a liberal position encouraged the world over. Furthermore there is an emphasis on the disconnect between ascribed or claimed cause and action, an argument used by those who support and denounce terror activities in an attempt to claim a higher moral ground. He draws equivalence with other violent movements. “Take Naxalism also, how is that in sync with the Constitution, law and order as well as humanity? People get into the reasons, it’s because of lack of education, opportunity, development etc. But the point is—does it justify their violence? That is the point. We must think of everyone as our own. We need to be mentally strong and have the ability to stop the forces that create and spread divisiveness.”
But this is Bhagwat speaking, the messaging attributed to the RSS remains one that is often in opposition to what the Sangh’s stated position is. With its swelling ranks, online sympathisers and various fringe groups offering unsolicited allegiance, the communication problem for the RSS is only compounding. From not being heard enough and being misrepresented, to being heard in every utterance and yet again being misrepresented. Their tryst with misrepresentation continues. As one social media active swayamsevak tells me, “The well-meaning support from online ‘sanghis’ can be problematic. Because online these people are recognised as the RSS voice, but they in most cases have no understanding of the RSS’s stand on various issues.”
However, the RSS despite its insistence on taking an independent stand cannot distance itself from this Government. The most contentious example in recent times being Bhagwat’s comment on reservations that whipped up a political storm. It is a classic example of how the Sangh continues to see itself as an outsider to politics but the other side insists on anointing it as the ultimate insider and the real power. This new mandate means the RSS will now have to calibrate its public speak in view of political repercussions. For an organisation considered political by many, the Sangh’s reference to politicians as ‘the other’ may ring hollow but the general attitude one encounters even towards the BJP in the Sangh is that of polite distance. However where the deviation takes place is in their acknowledgment of the ‘compulsions’ of the BJP and their good intentions. For all the chatter of it being a battle of wills between the RSS and the BJP—the approach of the former is that of a consultant, it offers to explain, and admits it takes longer, since politicians have too many factors to consider. Is there exasperation? If there is, it remains good-natured.
The interest in the RSS today isn’t only about external perception but also internal discourse. For the first time in the Sangh’s history, a former pracharak has been elevated to poster boy status, one who headlines ‘meet and greet’ events at international rock show arenas. A lot of the Sangh’s goodwill in urban India at least is owed to the elevation of Narendra Modi and his development message, a man who elicits unstinted loyalty as well as extreme criticism. This idea of the individual overwhelming the collective must not sit easy with the Sangh. Even supporters of the current dispensation sometimes view the RSS’s stated positions as a conscious undermining of the Government. Suggesting as do critics that the ire comes from the diluting of the Sangh’s pursuit for homogeneity, which has been flouted by the ascension of one man. But it is a convoluted understanding of the dynamics within the Sangh, for the reality is implicit: there would be no Modi without the Sangh. And the next Modi could also be a pracharak.
At one point Bhagwat quotes a verse from the Bhagvad Gita: “Sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya trayate mahato bhayat. Jitna dharam sambhav hai utna karo,” (A little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear. Follow as much on the path of dharma as is possible). The path of Mohan Bhagwat would lead to a Sangh reimagined.