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Decoding The Journey Of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

The journey of the RSS is baffling to many. Despite political and intellectual opposition, it continues to go from strength to strength. How does one decode the Sangh?

Decoding The Journey Of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
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A small delegation of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad visited Moscow during the Janata Party rule in the late 1970s when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Ext­ernal Affairs Minister. Unable to find a place to hold their RSS shakha, the young men chose a park and organised what they fondly named ‘Pushkin Shakha’. Among them were Arun Jai­tley and Dattatreya Hosabale, currently sarkaryavah (general secretary) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), number two in the org­anisation after sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat.

Decades later, another swayamsevak Rajesh Asher hoisted the saffron flag at an improbable place, when he held a solitary shakha at the South Pole under -45°C temperature in 2012. A few years on, now 60, Asher held a shakha at a height of over 6,000 m, when he climbed the Island Peak, Nepal, in 2016.

Amid the intense discourse that RSS generates, few take note of its mammoth organisational str­u­c­ture supported by dedicated and disciplined cadres, a prerequisite to the long life of any organisation. The Soviet system was built through a network of dedica­ted cadres, so was the People’s Rep­­ublic of China. The promise that the Bahujan Samaj Party once offered was seeded in the cadre base provided by the Back­ward and Min­ority Commu­nities Employees Fede­ration (BAMCEF) and the Dalit Shoshit Samaj San­g­h­arsh Samiti (DS4). While many organisati­ons like the BSP and Congress have seen a const­ant ero­sion of their supporters’ base, the cadre stre­n­gth of the RSS has grown manifold over the deca­des, and now stands as a pillar for the BJP.

To understand the RSS phenomenon, turn to its twin cadre base: the householder swayamsevaks, employed in various fields, and the unmarried pracharaks, who have dedicated their lives to the organisation and draw no salary. The relative significance of the two has often been discussed and debated. In a 2016 interview with Organiser, then RSS sarkaryavah Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi had said: “The RSS never considered pracharaks as the fou­ndation of its work. We have always tried to make the householder swayamsevak our foundation.” Joshi has himself been a lifelong pracharak.

Pracharaks or swayamsevaks, the RSS story is essentially of its cadres.

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There are mass parties and the­re are cadre parties. A cadre signifies commitment, devot­ion and sust­a­ined action with a sha­red political and cultural belief that draws them to a common cause. The RSS has ano­ther element, a uniform, which, its website notes, lends “a sense of unity and brotherhood among swayamsevaks”.

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On a mission Rajesh Asher on Island Peak

The core of the Sangh’s activities is the daily shakha. At present, according to its own data, the RSS holds around 60,100 shakhas at 38,000 pla­ces, as against 51,332 at 33,223 in 2015. People below 40 years constitute 90 per cent of those who attend these gatherings. In several posh societies of Noida, daily shakhas were among the first outdoor activities to have begun after the lockdown was relaxed in 2020. The Akhil Bha­r­atiya Prati­nidhi Sabha (ABPS), the highest decision-making body of the RSS, noted in March that of the 6,506 blo­cks the Sangh has divided the country into, 84 per cent have shakhas.

The cadres also ensure the Sangh’s spread across the planet. The first overseas RSS shakha was held on a ship sailing to Kenya in September 1946, when a swayamsevak, Jagdish Chandra Sharda, offered the Sangh prayers on board, to be joined by a fellow traveller.

For nearly a month from Guru Purnima to Raksha Bandhan, scores of swayamsevaks across india offer guru dakshina in an envel­ope to the saffron flag.

“It was afternoon, and soon another young man, who must have been in his late teens, joi­ned me… He belonged to the same youth organisation as I did! I spotted him as a swayamsevak by his khaki half-pants,” Sharda wrote in his book, Memoirs of a Global Hindu. The other per­son was Manek Lal Rughani, a swayamsevak from Gujarat. By the time the ship reached Mom­basa, the shakha’s strength had risen to 17. “Some were already swayamsevaks, while others had become swayamsevaks on the deck,” Sharda wrote.

The first shakha on a foreign land was held in Kenya in 1947, and the organisation that was for­med later for activities abroad came to be known as Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. With units in a large number of countries, the HSS spreads the Sangh’s message abroad and also occasionally courts controversy for its Hindutva stand.

Behind the Sangh’s ability to create new bases lies its bench strength of cadres. Vet­e­ran RSS pracharak K. Suryanarayana Rao, who died in Nov­e­mber 2016 at the age of 93, singlehandedly spearheaded the Sangh in Tamil Nadu. He was sent to the state as Dakshin Sah Kshetra Pracharak in the late 1940s. He soon adapted himself to local customs and, an obituary in Org­a­niser noted, even “smeared vibhuti on his forehead as Tamils do”. Taking note of his work, RSS sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras said in 1979: “Tamil Nadu Sangh work had been a hard nut to crack, but now it has started cracking. In the days to come, I believe, it will be powdered.”

The cadre system also ensures budgetary support. For nearly a month—from Guru Purnima to Raksha Bandhan—scores of swayamsevaks across the country organise the annual Guru Dakshina programme. They offer dakshina in a sealed envel­ope to the saffron flag. “You can even offer flo­wers in the envelope. The ceremony is all about your offerings, not what you offer,” says Hitesh Sha­n­kar, editor of the RSS-affiliated Panchjanya.

During his tenure as the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee regularly offered his dakshina at the Sangh’s Jhandewalan office in Delhi.

“Right in the beginning, the Sangh decided it sho­uld be financially self-reliant. We’ll not seek don­ations from outside, but we swayamsevaks will offer it to the dhwaj (flag),” RSS veteran M.G. Vai­dya told this reporter in Octo­ber 2016 at his home in Nagpur. Among the old­est swaya­msevaks in the country, Vaidya was then 93 and had been attending regular sha­khas until a couple of years before.

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In 1937, a top industrialist visited Nagpur and announced a donation of Rs 6,000. It was a massive amount then, given that RSS founder and then sarsanghchalak Dr K.B. Hedgewar had bou­­ght the entire land where their pre­sent hea­dquarters are located for just Rs 2,000 in 1932. “Dr Sahab turned it down. There is no tradition of donation in the Sangh,” recalled Vaidya.

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The Sangh is organised under two broad hea­ds: sangthan (organisation)—which includes branches of sharirik (physical), bauddhik (intellectual) and vyavastha (administration); and gat­i­vidhi (activity)—under which comes sewa (service), sampark (outreach) and prachar (pub­licity). The popular phrase, Sangh Parivar, is an umbrella term that covers a range of RSS-affiliated organisations working in the socio-­cultural sphere, including consumer rights, cooperative movement, legal system, small-scale enterprises, welfare, tribal/forest areas and ex-servicemen.  Several of these organisations allow membership to outsiders, but their heads are always RSS swayamsevaks.

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Parivar (from left) M.S. Golwalkar; K.B. Hedgewar; Dattatreya Hosabale

“There is an entire gamut of Parivar organisations. There is no sphere that is left untouched. For the armed forces, there is an organisation for ex-servicemen named Purva Sainik Parishad; for the welfare of those living near the border areas, there is Seema Jagran Manch; the lawyers’ body is known as Adhivakta Parishad; for sports there is Krida Bharti; in medicine, there is National Med­icos Organisation; and the Aarogya Bharati that promotes Indian systems of healing,” writes All India Prachar Pramukh (publicity chief) Sunil Ambekar in his book The RSS: Roadmaps for the 21st Century. “The growth of Sangh and Parivar organisations has made the intra-relationships a subj­ect of great interest and study,” he adds.

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Another reason for the RSS’s longevity is its distance from party politics. A political party faces stiff competition from others and may lose its space and relevance after losing a few electi­ons. But swayamsevaks contest elections under the BJP’s banner, not as an RSS candidate. It ins­u­lates the Sangh from the treachery of politics and allows it to spread in the society through its focus on the family system.

Walter Anderson and Shridhar Damle write in their seminal work on the RSS, Brotherhood in Saf­fron, that V.D. Savarkar “frequently denounced the RSS for its ‘purely cultural’ orientation” and said: “The epitaph for the RSS volunteer will be that he was born, he joined the RSS and he died without accomplishing anything.” Little did Sava­r­kar know that the swayamsevaks would find a different door to enter politics and occupy the seats of prime minister and chief minister.

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The Sangh may try to distance itself from polit­ics, but data shows that BJP’s electoral victor­ies bring a surge in RSS membership. With the Sangh receiving 28,424 membership applicati­ons in 2013, its first major push came after the 2014 Lok Sabha result as it received as many as 97,047 appl­i­cations that year, followed by 81,620 in 2015 and 84,941 in 2016. BJP’s massive victory in the 2017 UP electi­ons led the RSS to register its highest ever growth, with 22,432 online applications received between March 16 and March 31, 2017.

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Hitesh Shankar denies the link. “RSS membe­r­ship has been growing consistently, independent of any political activity. It’s wrong to view RSS through political developments,” says Sha­n­kar, pointing out that when the recent assembly results were being annou­n­ced, the ABPS was holding its annual meet in Karnawati, Gujarat, discussing ways to make India self-reliant. “Pol­i­tical parties mostly think of five years, but the RSS draws a vision for the future.”  

Ashok Modak, among the ABVP delegates who organised the ‘Pushkin Shakha’, told Outlook that “while the BJP has little ground in Kerala, the state has the strongest RSS base in India”. The RSS has divided India into over 40 prants (provinces). In 2017, Kerala prant recorded over 5,000 morning shakhas, the highest in any prant.

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Perhaps nothing epitomises the organisation more than the fact that in the 97 years of its exis­t­ence, no tussle over succession at senior or middle-level has ever been reported. It’s human to dissent, express dissatisfaction, even break away. There have been instances when former swaya­msevaks quit the organisation and wrote a scathing account of their journey, like Bhanwar Meg­­h­wanshi’s book, I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of A Dalit In The RSS. But that has not impacted the millions of swayamsevaks whose dedication to the saffron flag remains intact.

A senior swayamsevak once narrated to me an anecdote over a breakfast of aloo parathas and mangoes. The relationship between the Sangh and the BJP was often strained when Vajpayee was the PM. Opposing the NDA government’s policies, veteran pracharak Dattopant Thengadi even organised a protest in Delhi. During such stormy days, a person told Vajpayee that the RSS had begun deliberations about floating a new par­ty parallel to the BJP. It was perhaps a blatant lie; the person perhaps invented it merely to annoy the PM or seek his reaction. But Vajpayee’s smiling reply, as the swayamsevak told me, was inst­r­uctive: “Thik hai. Hum us party men chale jay­e­nge. (Okay. I will shift to the new party then.).”

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Question the Sangh’s stand on minorities, conf­ront it on various issues, but Op-Eds can’t easily ruffle the feathers of an organisation that stands on a foundation of grassroots work. The Sangh needs to be understood, analysed and decoded from the ground up, through the prism of various activit­ies it undertakes across the country, or the shifts it has undergone from M.S. Golwalkar to Bala­s­a­heb Deoras and Mohan Bhagwat, or the dyn­amics of its inner functioning, or its evolut­ion through the decades, during which it inclu­ded M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar among its icons.

And then one must ask: what accounts for the Sangh’s sustainability, despite consistent political and intellectual opposition? Cracks soon emerged in the Soviet system and led to its disintegration. The PRC has been able to maintain its empire thr­ough high-handedness. But there is hardly any evidence of the RSS coercing swayamsevaks to remain in its fold. Is it merely the Hindu appeal, an easy answer available around, or is there also something that the public discourse has missed? The Sangh, as well as its opponents, deserve new answers.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Hindu Undivided Family")

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