RSS: The Family Makeover

Advaita Kala is a novelist and scriptwriter based in Delhi
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It was not just another Foundation Day for the RSS. This time, they came in a new uniform, and the message was more than sartorial. Advaita Kala joined the celebrations in Nagpur

This Dussehra was meant to be a historic Vijayadashami for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which also calls it ‘Sthapana Diwas’ (foundation day), for it was on this occasion in 1925 that KB Hedgewar (1889-1940) formed the organisation. Held on 11 October, it was unique this year for reasons elaborated in the annual speech delivered by Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. For the media, however, it was momentous mainly for the new RSS uniform—with trousers replacing shorts—unveiled for the first time in public.

For a very long time, the ‘knickers’ of the RSS have had an intriguing hold over the media. A few years ago, there was chatter that the blooming shorts would be replaced with jeans. It was conjectured that the organisation was planning to update its look to appeal to the young. The routine criticism of its khaki shorts has had little influence over members of the RSS. Queries on a change of ganavesh have always been met with bemusement. It would surprise RSS baiters that their sartorial ridicule elicits mirth and not self-censure. The Sangh’s sense of humour is possibly its best kept secret.

The uniform is largely for ceremonial purposes. The RSS does not make it compulsory to wear even for its daily shakha gatherings. It is to be worn on occasions like Vijayadashami, apart from on route marches, or while carrying out disaster relief operations so that they are easily identified by people in need. It is not even worn for all the six festivals that the RSS commemorates. For example, during Guru Purnima, swayamsevaks—as its members are called—are attired in white kurta-pyjama and wear only the black RSS cap. This ceremony has an air that’s reflective and quiet, even emotional.

Last week, I had a chance encounter with an interesting man of letters. Let us keep his identity secret. During the pneumonic plague of 1994 in Surat, this septuagenarian, a sprightly 50-odd years at the time, decided to do something useful. The epidemic, which lasted for two harrowing weeks, caused widespread panic and triggered an exodus of large numbers from the city, doctors included. Estimates suggest that a quarter of Surat’s population fled during this time. My intrepid new friend, a hard drinking, verse-and-prose writing man who wears his signature beret with aplomb, decided to get on a small private plane and fly into the city with some medical supplies he had coaxed out of a pharmaceutical company. Dropping altitude to conduct an aerial survey, an unusual sight greeted him—a surge of people rushing away through highway exits. However, he noticed a counter flow in the inward direction. It was a steady stream of men in khaki shorts. ‘These chaps again,’ he thought at the time, but a few days later he was to change his mind when he saw them help bury and cremate the dead and clean sewers. Some of the cars he had seen driving in carried doctors from as far as Ahmedabad, from the Sangh-affiliated National Medicos Organisation. “I’m no Sanghi,” he assured me, taking a swig of his beer, his beret drooping to one side, almost concealing an eye to make him look like a pirate, “but they do some good work.”

Even after so many years, he still narrates this tale with a tinge of incredulity and an almost defensive appreciation of the RSS. If it wasn’t his own story, perhaps he’d have been sceptical. But I have met quite a few people who have had similar experiences. The Surat one, though, has become my favourite ‘knicker’ story.

THE SARSANGHCHALAK’S Vijayadashami speech is an event that invites deep scrutiny. A friend who travelled with me to Nagpur, where the RSS is based, for the first time said it’s perceived as a ‘State of the Union’ address by many in the press. He was only half joking. With the BJP in power, it is often seen that way. But no one in the Sangh would draw that equivalence. It is but a valued tradition. It started with Hedgewar, at a time when a group of no more than 15 swayamsevaks would listen to the address, and now in Bhagwat’s era has millions tuning in even as thousands—including senior ministers, celebrities and religious heads—attend the event. It has been 91 years, and a lot has changed in terms of perceptions and fame, but the purpose remains the same.

The family, as Bhagwat asserts, must expand. It must include not only equals like the family doctor or lawyer, but even the domestic help, the milkman and the grocery delivery boy

This Vijayadashami, the sun shines brightly over Sanghasthan, a large field adjacent to Resham Bagh in Nagpur. It was purchased by Hedgewar in 1932 for a princely sum of Rs 2,000. When I was there in June this year for the ‘graduation’ ceremony of third-year swayamsevaks, the same sun was rather oppressive. But today, it is solicitous, drying up pools of water in the field after the unseasonal showers of the previous day. The surface is still slushy, however, and my attention is drawn to the men in brown trousers who are part of the vibhags (teams) that will participate in the demonstrations and then sit on the ground as the chief guest and Sarsanghchalak address the audience, thereby risking ruining their new uniforms. Then I realise I’m being unnecessarily ponderous. A swayamsevak friend of mine, Rahul Kaushik, had once shared a video of himself holding down the canvas flaps (and a pole) of a rickety stage being lashed by rain even as the speaker continued with his speech. With the Sangh, the show always goes on. The preparations are always modest and such inconveniences are to be borne.

Resham Bagh today is festive, with attendees of all ages. The oldest participant is a spunky old gent who has been attending shakhas since 1932, MG Vaidya. He holds the distinction of having worked with all Sarsanghchalaks (and in important RSS positions), except one, since he met Hedgewar as just a boy. At 94, this family man boasts of two sons who are pracharaks. He is here with his octogenarian wife, and she looks pretty in a pink sari standing next to one of her sons, Manmohan Vaidya, All India Prachar Pramukh, who tells me that the switch in uniform has to do with the change in times and need of comfort. It is a mark not only of belonging to the Sangh, but also of its three principles: patriotism, spirit of service and discipline. There have only been three changes in the history of the RSS before (in 1940, 1974 and 2010), and the only thing that remains unchanged is the black cap.

This is a family celebration, and the Vaidyas are not the only family here. Seven-year-old Pradhyumna skips ahead of his parents, his father and him in matching ganavesh. There are many others, with successive generations loyal to the same tradition.

In his last speech, a day before he passed away in 1940, Hedgewar had stood before a gathering of swayamsevaks and said that they presented a vision of the future to him. The numbers in attendance today would have pleased him. To be here is to understand that this ‘address’—which is sure to have people dissect every line spoken— is but a sharing of views with an expanding family of swayamsevaks.

The Sarsanghchalak, considered the patriarch by those gathered here, is scheduled to meet RSS members and their families later this evening in an informal ceremony. The sense of ‘kutumb’ (family), is a salient aspect of this ceremony. And the family, as Bhagwat asserts in his speech, must expand. It must include not only those acknowledged as equals, like the family doctor or lawyer, but even the domestic help, the milkman and the grocery delivery boy who one meets regularly. Are “we” willing to expand the family, he asks, beyond “our own” and those “we consider our equals”?

As he speaks, small bottles of tepid water in cardboard boxes are handed out to guests. A friend from Delhi pings me on my cell phone. She is of Leftist persuasion, but remarks that Bhagwat’s speech is very statesmanlike today.

The podium is in the middle, and on either side of it is a platform for special invitees. In one section sit Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari. Their arrival had generated some excitement among the media persons in attendance, who rushed to record their presence, but only among them. They have since been left alone, sitting side by side in their new uniforms, like anybody else.

The routine criticism of its khaki shorts has had little influence over members of the RSS. Queries on a change of ganavesh have been met with bemusement

There is no sense of anyone being a VIP here. This is one of the earliest things one observes about the Sangh, the principle of equality in action, irrespective of any distinctions among swayamsevaks. After the function, as All India Sah Prachar Pramukh J Nandakumar gives a sound byte to a TV channel, an enthusiastic swayamsevak attempts to offer his opinion as well, only to be informed politely by the media representative that this is a formal interview, not a chat. Most RSS members are guileless in their interactions with the media. Misrepresented so often, they have kept away, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to do that. Popular interest in the Sangh nowadays is unprecedented, and strategic communication is a far cry from the straight-speak that they are encouraged to use.

Conversations are important to the RSS, the free exchange of thoughts, opinions, experience and feedback. Even when the Sarsanghchalak speaks, he does so by striking a conversational note. Bhagwat’s is a style similar to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, and it’s what makes them both engaging orators. When the Prime Minister solicits feedback—in a departure from the practice of his predecessors—through his website, app and monthly radio broadcasts, he is merely displaying a customary openness. For the RSS, this attitude is part of a constant effort to improve and adapt to new circumstances. This makes for flexibility, even as its ideological core ensures that it’s like an atom that doesn’t split.

The chief guest at the ceremony is Satyaprakash Rai, a former IAS official who has held governing positions in a range of bodies like the All India Sweepers Union, Municipal Workers Sangh and the All India Harijan League post retirement. He established an All India Sweepers Day in 1972 to emphasise that the work of safai workers was no less important than that of jawans, as they kept the nation safe from sickness and epidemics. In his speech, Rai says pride in one’s work is what makes for self-respect and dignity. Along with his message of “apni jaati, apna samaj, apna desh (our caste, our society, our country)”, he lays emphasis on the principle of equality.

The Sangh is considered casteist, with commentators conducting lazy caste analyses of its hierarchy. In its initial years, the RSS was drawn from a familiar pool of acquaintances, with Hedgewar going to the families of those he knew and requesting them to join in the service of the nation. All through its history, the organisation has grown and diversified. In 1969, on the persuasion of then Sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar (1906-1973), all the Shankracharyas of Hinduism came on one stage and denounced untouchability. No one in the Sangh is addressed by his or her last name. Only the first name is used. In 1934, when Mahatma Gandhi visited a camp of swayamsevaks, he was impressed by the lack of discrimination and how they all ate and worked together. A very senior national RSS functionary is a Dalit today, apart from many regional and mandal heads, but swayamsevaks consider it vulgar to press the point or identify them as such (even in response to accusations of casteism). To do so would defeat the basis of the Sangh, the ‘kutumb”.

It is this dichotomy that characterises perceptions of the RSS. But then, what is visible to the world often differs from what is experienced and lived. It’s an unstated ‘seemolangan’—literally a border crossing, a term for a spiritual breakthrough—that the Sangh has already achieved, well before Vijayadashami 2016.