New Delhi: Homemakers, professors, doctors, an MSc in criminology, an MA in political science — the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), attracts members from all walks of life.
Founded in 1936, this Hindu nationalist women’s organisation has remained relatively unobtrusive in the Sangh’s structure for decades. Many women have joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), some rising through the ranks in the Union and state governments, but no prominent ones have joined from the Samiti.
Compared to the RSS, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti is much smaller. Its chief, V. Shantha Kumari (also known as Shantakka), told ThePrint that while the Sangh has around 3,000 pracharaks across states, the Samiti has a mere 52 pracharikas and 150 vistarikas. According to the Samiti’s website, though, it has more than 55,000 sevikas across its over 2,700 shakhas.
Sevikas are volunteers who work for the Samiti, while vistarikas are short-term members who give a few years to the organisation. Pracharikas, however, are members who take the oath to devote their lives to the Samiti, choosing celibacy and the organisation’s cause for the rest of their lives. They can be anywhere between 25 to 70 years of age.
Kumari, 70, belongs to an RSS family from Bengaluru. She completed her MSc in mathematics and became a professor. Around 30 years ago, she decided to take oath as a Samiti pracharika and rose through the ranks in the organisation. She is now based in Nagpur, Maharashtra.
Speaking to ThePrint, she said the Samiti runs on three primary principles — “Matritva [motherhood], Kartavya [responsibility] and Netritva [leadership]”.
“We may not be able to compete with the Sangh in terms of the number of pracharaks or their contribution to politics and representation in the BJP, but the Sevika Samiti practices the ideals of Jija Mata [Jijabai Bhosale, mother of Chhatrapati Shivaji], who built and trained Shivaji Maharaj,” she said.
“We have thousands of grehinis [homemakers] as our members who contribute to social work after managing their homes and raising their children. We never ask them to come to shakhas or be a part of the Samiti against their families’ wishes. Motherhood and responsibility are primary for us and these instill leadership qualities in women,” added Kumari.
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Samiti in focus
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the RSS both brought into focus the importance of women’s empowerment at two separate events this year.
During his Independence Day speech on 15 August, Modi spoke of “Nari Shakti” and said, “Gender equality is a crucial parameter of unity”. This was followed by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat mentioning “Nari Shakti” and “Matru Shakti” earlier this month.
Bhagwat was addressing RSS members on the occasion of Vijayadashami, at an event held at the organisation’s headquarters in Nagpur. In fact, for the first time in its 97 years of existence, the RSS had a woman — mountaineer Santosh Yadav — as chief guest at the event.
“The Shakha methodology of ‘vyakti nirman’ (human development) is being operated separately by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Rashtriya Sevika Samiti. All other activities are carried out jointly by men and women. Bharatiya tradition has always thought with this vision of complementarity,” he said, adding: “However, this great tradition was forgotten and numerous limitations were placed on ‘matri shakti’, our women’s power. Repeated aggressions in our country created legitimacy for these false practices and, over time, they became habits.”
According to a senior functionary of the RSS, who wished to not be named, the idea that RSS is ‘anti-woman’ is incorrect.
“There have been controversies on RSS being called an ‘anti-woman organisation’ that does not promote or bring women to the forefront,” he said to ThePrint. “Rahul Gandhi is one of those ill-informed people who has questioned the Sangh on the basis of such wrong ideas.”
The functionary went on to say that the Sangh’s women’s wing “has the same structure as the men’s”.
“The Sevika Samiti has the system of organising shakhas (daily gatherings) and they, too, follow the hierarchy of vistarikas and pracharikas. We do not force women to come out and do work for the organisation. Some manage their families and then work for the society, while some devote their lives to social work and become pracharikas. This is also why we do not push them towards politics. They are more into social work and female empowerment across the country,” he added.
Kumari, too, spoke of how it’s not always easy for sevikas to join in the Samiti’s activities.
“We cannot ask the women to come and join us leaving their families. But we have taken up a programme of expanding and raising a strong group of at least 1,000 vistarikas by 2025. It is not easy for women to leave their families and devote their lives to the organisation, but we ask the young women to convince parents and join the cause of nation building,” said Kumari.
Like the Sangh, the Samiti too sends its pracharikas to different regions and states to carry out the organisation’s work. It conducts multi-level programmes for women in rural areas, including vocational training and health training covering menstrual hygiene and handling pregnancy.
The Samiti also runs 30 hostels across India, which house around 6,000 girls.
“We have around 18 girls’ hostels across just the northeastern states. The pracharikas live in the hostels too and go on pravas [organisational tours]. Like in the Sangh, pracharikas are generally sent away from their domicile states to work for the organisation. Shakhas are similar in nature. We have self defence programmes, physical training and social training,” said Sunila Sowani, a Samiti prachar pramukh (spokesperson).
Speaking to The Print, Akhil Bhartiya Prachar Pramukh (media and publicity chief) of the RSS Sunil Ambekar said, “Women’s participation in public life is generally lower than men’s because they are into building families. Sevika Samiti plays a very important role in the [organisation’s] structure, and they have larger contributions in different walks of life.”
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)
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