From an organisation that was banned thrice since its inception to one whose supporters are now all set to occupy the three top Constitutional posts in the country, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seems to have come a long way. It has shed its image of being just a cultural, ideological outfit to an overtly political one.
Is this the political mainstreaming of the RSS? We ask experts.
Few cultural organisations, which have been banned thrice by the governments, manage to survive and expand — Ruhi Tewari, Associate Editor, ThePrint
In 2025, the RSS completes its first century. Few cultural organisations, banned thrice by their government, manage to survive and expand. Even rarer are those organisations that, in less than a century, become decisive forces in shaping the country’s politics and society.
From the new Rashtrapati to the Vice Presidential-front-runner, from the Prime Minister to multiple state chief ministers, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has followers in the highest ranks of government.
However, the RSS has always exercised political and cultural influence. In 1977, for the first time, RSS men occupied top Cabinet posts in the Janata Government. In 1996, a Pracharak—Atal Bihari Vajpayee—became the Prime Minister, and ruled for three non-consecutive terms.
What is different today is the electoral dominance of the BJP, propelled by a strong booth and ground-level connection by BJP karyakartas and the Sangh respectively. There is no doubt that the RSS is part of the new dominant, national mainstream of the country.
The Sangh’s relentless focus on extending the organisation to every sphere of life—a mix of ideological propaganda and adaptability—has caused the shift. Also, for as long as it has existed, the Sangh has tapped individuals and invested in them until they reach political heights. Both PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are products of this system.
As the Sangh approaches its hundredth year, its hold over the Indian state apparatus, as well as civil society and institutions, will only grow
The RSS-led Hindu resurgence appears irreversible, but with great power comes great responsibility — Makarand R. Paranjape, Professor, English, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The RSS has probably been India’s least understood and most maligned organisation. There are few scholarly studies on it, mostly prejudiced and unsympathetic. But anyone with even a nodding acquaintance would know how deep and strong its roots are. It has been built by tens of thousands of svyamsevaks whose entire lives have been dedicated to it. What is its core ideology? To safeguard Hindu society and uplift the nation: “For the welfare of entire mankind, Bharath must stand before the world as a self-confident, resurgent and mighty nation.” To this end, the RSS has spawned scores of institutions and hundreds of social, cultural, educational, and political initiatives, including BJP, the ruling party.
As such, there is scarcely an area of India’s extended social, cultural, of political sphere, including the diaspora, where the RSS is not active or influential. To say that it is now coming into the mainstream is not only erroneous, but purblind. Such a view is symptomatic of the defective vision of the ruling classes who pretended that the RSS didn’t matter.
These elites find themselves pushed to the margins today. Actually, RSS has been far more mainstream than these elitist voices, even if they are not part of the Congress-dominated political order. If RSS ideology is currently centre-stage, this is neither accidental nor unforeseen. They have worked and struggled tirelessly for over 90 years to this end. The RSS-led Hindu resurgence appears irreversible. But will it be merely a powerful reassertion or a genuine and wide-ranging renaissance? This is the key question.
The fact that two RSS fellow travelers are now the president and the vice-president of a secular India Republic is ironic — Manish Tewari, National Spokesperson, Congress Party
The RSS was founded at a point in time when fascist and totalitarian ideologies were on the upswing in Europe. After the end of the World War I in 1918 and the treaty of Versailles in 1919, there was a feeling of disquiet among the defeated nations of Europe, particularly Germany. Though they will deny it, the RSS has ostensibly drawn its inspiration from the black and brown shirts, storm troopers of both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The similarities in symbolism and uniforms are not just a coincidence.
It is no secret that the RSS played no role in the freedom struggle. Its mouthpiece, The Organiser, criticized Dr B R Ambedkar’s work on the Constitutions saying, ‘’there is no trace of ancient Bhartiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it.’’ For many years post-Independence, the national flag didn’t fly at any RSS office. The Organiser in 1952, said Nehru will regret introducing universal adult franchise.
It is fairly well-known that the RSS was banned in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination though it has strongly and vehemently denied any role. Some of these issues are being currently adjudicated in a series of defamation cases filed by the RSS against the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
The RSS harbours the secret ambition that India will become a Hindu Rashtra one day. It is ironic that two of its fellow travelers are now the president and possibly the next vice-president of a secular India Republic.
The RSS must introspect its opposition to Nehru. The fact that it throws up even the most bizarre choices at times is actually a vindication of Nehru’s belief in democracy, adult franchise and the pluralistic idea of India.
Only elitist discourse has treated RSS as an untouchable, not the people — Advaita Kala, author of forthcoming book on the RSS
The RSS is not in politics. Neither does it use state power nor does it work with the help of state power. There are swayamsevaks and individuals who have a background as pracharaks who are now in politics. And there are swayamsevaks, who work in hospitals, as engineers, bureaucrats, teachers and in all aspects of civil life.
Its distance from state power is most evident in the macabre murders of RSS swayamsevaks in Kerala and other states – where there have been no offers of financial aid or government jobs to survivors by politicians (as is often the case) for victims of identity-based violence. This despite the fact that the BJP is in power at the centre and in a majority of states. Donations for these victims come from individuals in society.
When swayamsevaks were prohibited entry into politics by the Congress party (post-independence, an avatar the Mahatma disapproved of), it was an undemocratic political apartheid. It was possibly rooted in the fact that the BBC in 1948 stated that the only man other than Pandit Nehru who could summon crowds in the multitudes was Guruji Gowalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak.
The formation of the Jan Sangh and the support it received was a consequence of being denied a voice in a democracy still in its infancy. Today, because of the massive mandate and popularity of Prime Minister Modi, once a pracharak, elite enclaves may assume RSS is being mainstreamed. But the RSS (now 92-years-old) has always been mainstream, with its swayamsevaks in every walk of life. Only elitist discourse has treated it as an untouchable, not the people.
We never talked about earlier occupants of these positions as Congress party members – Anil Kumar Verma, Director, Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur
Right from India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ on August 15, 1947 and the consequent loss of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, the RSS has defined political discourse in India. The RSS never investigated why Gandhi was assassinated on the day he was about to make announcement about disbanding of Congress into Lok Sewak Sangh nor why no records are available of Gandhi-Patel extended meeting just before Gandhi’s assassination? The RSS has always haunted the political psyche of people as a culprit.
The BJP, and its earlier variant Jana Sangh, are well known as being political extensions of RSS for the simple reason that most of Jana Sangh/BJP people are, or had been, RSS swayamsevaks at one point or the other.
India is a country with a Constitution committed to secularism, but the political dispensation in the country reduced secularism to this: if you say Muslim and defend Muslims, you are secular; if you say Hindu and defend Hindus, you are communal. In this backdrop, the RSS, which claims to champion Hindu culture and society, obviously is deemed communal. As secular-communal debate is very high on the agenda, the RSS again appears on the centre-stage of political discourse, though for the wrong reasons.
It is debated that the RSS is undergoing political mainstreaming because the President, Vice-president and Prime Minister are all sympathetic to the RSS. But why debate? They are all members of the political party BJP. We never talked about earlier occupants to these positions that all belonged to the Congress party. A democracy has space for several non-political actors.