I gradually understood that the RSS that I was seeing in the field was not the same RSS that had been there in my perception in the decades of the 1980s and ’90s. In these intervening three or four decades, Indian society and politics had undergone tremendous changes, which had also influenced the RSS, leading to the emergence of its new form with new ideas.
However, my friends active in the RSS seem uncomfortable with this concept of a new RSS. They see the present RSS as a continuum of its original form and content. They refuse to accept that there is any change in it. But we all have observed in the past few years a new form of the RSS which is vibrantly interacting with the media, using social media actively, debating about its ideology with its opponents, and doing social service as the biggest NGO (non-governmental organization) of the country. This is an RSS which is gradually increasing its appetite to swallow all the social groups that have been opposed to its sociocultural politics.
On the ground, a new RSS is emerging, but our approaches to understand it are unfortunately still old. The RSS today has not only imbibed many elements from its old avatar but has also added new elements to its character and structure. This transformation manifests not only in switching from khaki half pants to brown pants, but is also seen in the new Sangh’s outlook and activities. The RSS has also assimilated within it the new logic and arguments produced by democracy and modernity alongside traditional Hindu and religious language. For instance, it is talking about social issues related to gender, ecology, development and now the COVID-19 pandemic. The introduction of modern content in its traditional language has changed the texture of the latter. The form of this new Sangh emerges not only in a single organization but is shaped by thousands of affiliated organizations which are active in society in their own way and are influencing various social groups. We are aware of organizations like Vidya Bharti and its Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools, but we may not know that under the RSS’s banner almost 800 NGOs are actively working nationwide in various sectors, including providing disaster relief during emergencies and natural calamities and eradicating poverty.
As is inevitable, ideological conflicts and discussions occur among the Sangh and its affiliates. For instance, organizations such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (Indian Workers’ Union) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (Indigenous Awakening Forum) have contrasting viewpoints from the BJP and the RSS on various issues, and have been protesting against the Central government’s policies on land acquisition and liberalization respectively. By summoning the ideological contestations produced by its affiliated organizations on different social and class issues, the Sangh is attempting to frame a holistic argument. A number of communities exist in Indian society at different levels of awareness regarding their needs, so it is understandable that contradictions will emerge from these groups. This is also known as ‘developmental consciousness’ about the quality of life, about the basic needs and requirements, which varies among the different classes. this will also reflect in the political and cultural organizations representing these groups. The Sangh has made the space for these contradictions in its discussions and debates by creating a relationship with its affiliated organizations akin to that of a body with its parts.
Bowing to democratic imperatives—such as equality and justice in a broad sense—and the pressure of international and diasporic social groups, the outlook of the RSS on several topical issues like homosexuality or transgender people has also changed. Largely, it no longer openly supports the ‘traditional’ viewpoint on these issues, and does not consider it to be a crime for someone to be in a gay or lesbian relationship. In tune with the times, the Sangh also proposes to support the reservation policy for socially oppressed communities. Earlier, the participation of women in Sangh activities was almost negligible but now emphasis is being laid on it. the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti (the women’s wing of the RSS) is continuously organizing leadership development programmes for its members with a focus on matritva (universal motherhood), kratritva (efficiency and social activism) and netritva (leadership).
As a part of its strategy to bring more and more sections of the population under its wing, the RSS is constantly trying to reach the social communities who are not yet under its influence. Dalits, tribals and Muslims are the groups on which the RSS is working hard. the big change we have witnessed in recent years is the RSS’s outreach to Dalits through its samajik samrasta (social harmony) campaign as well as a more accommodative stance towards Dr B.R. Ambedkar. An early indication of this change in outlook towards the Dalit icon came in a book written by Sangh ideologue Krishna Gopal (with Shri Prakash) in 2014, called Rashtra-Purush Baba Saheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. In it, he projects Ambedkar as the greatest icon of samajik samrasta, and that everyone should follow his shown path to provide social dignity to the deprived. It can be asserted that the BJP’s effort to associate itself with Ambedkar is the political outcome of the Sangh’s new appraisal of him.
This excerpt from Badri Narayan’s ‘Republic of Hindutva: How the Sangh Is Reshaping Indian Democracy’ has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.
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