At a park in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad, around 20-odd women organise a shakha, an evening routine practice involving physical and mental training led by Lata Goyal, Bhag Sanchalika (regional director) of Rajju Bhaiya division, Vaishali. This group also consists of young girls aged between 7-12 years, called Bal Sevikas, and the entire shakha falls under the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (RSS) – “an independent organisation with the same ideology as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)”.
Every sevika who participates in the Samiti’s shakha first pays respect to the saffron flag like members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh do.
“There is no age bar in our samiti. Anyone irrespective of caste, class and gender can join us and partake in our events,” says Goyal.
Most Samiti shakhas in Delhi have sprung up in middle-class colonies at Karol Bagh, Punjabi Bagh, Kamla Nagar, Naraina Vihar, Paschim Vihar, Lajpat Nagar and RK Puram. Goyal points out that unlike popular perception, “we also have Muslim women in our organisation and we don’t stop them”.
The sevikas are divided into three categories – Bal Sevika (7-12 years of age), Taruni (teenage girls), and Mahila Sevika (adult women). The sevikas, who believe in “re-establishing a vibrant Hindu Rashtra”, claim that the Samiti provides them with emotional and intellectual support.
Jayshree Bhavel, a volunteer leading the physical exercises at the shakha, says she has been doing this for the last three years.
“Some of us are housewives, which lends a familial atmosphere. We have nothing to do with politics,” adds Bhavel.
These sevikas believe marital rape is a false debate. “Anyone can level allegations against anyone,” cautions Alka Tiwari, a lawyer and Sah Bhag Karyawahika, Rajju bhaiya division, Vaishali. “Nobody knows what happens in a closed room except for the two individuals inside. After a marriage, they are in a close relationship, so how can it be called rape?” she questions.
At an interview with a national daily in 2016, the Samiti’s Pramukh Karyavahika (general-secretary) Sita Annadanam also refuted marital rape and called marriage a “sacred bond” and a “bliss”. The Samiti does not support live-in relationships either. Calling it an “import of Western feminism”, Tiwari believes that two consenting individuals should not live together without marriage.
She says, “Family values are primary for us. Women have a moral responsibility of how they dress, how they go in public. If a couple likes each other, they should marry and only then start living together.”
While the Bharatiya Janata Party enjoys RSS support as a significant BJP leadership comes from the RSS cadre, Tiwari quips, “We don’t support any political party.”
It has not been easy to discern the Samiti’s support to the BJP. The Samiti’s door-to-door campaign for Kiran Bedi in the 2015 Delhi assembly election raised eyebrows. Tiwari also counters the perception that the Sangh is a male-only organisation, blaming Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for propagating this idea.
She says, “We are an independent organisation working since 1936. Laxmibai Kelkar started it before independence.”
Another attempt to deflate the assumption of the “male-only organisation” theory was by Sunil Ambekar, Akhil Bharatiya Prachar Pramukh of RSS in his 2019 book titled The RSS: Roadmaps for the 21st Century. Ambekar wrote about how Kelkar, a widow popularly called Mausi Kelkar, convinced Keshav Baliram Hedgewar to start the Samiti. Hedgewar, the Sangh’s founding sarsanghchalak (president), was initially adamant about allowing women in the Sangh.
In the book, Ambekar cites how Hedgewar worked as a paalak (guardian) to start this all-India women's organisation: “At that time, to hold several rounds of conversations with a widowed woman about starting a parallel women-only organisation was out of the ordinary. Doctor ji explained the Sangh’s beliefs, methods, objectives and other technical details to Mausi Kelkar. As a result, the Sevika Samiti was formed after adopting the form and content of the Sangh for women.”
Just as the Sangh has pracharaks, the Samiti has pracharikas, around 50 of them at present. V Shantha Kumari, popularly known as Shanthakka, is the Pramukh Sanchalika (president). The Samiti officially claims to impart ideals of matrutva (motherhood), kartrutva (social activism or participation in social discourses) and netrutva (leadership). The Samiti runs around 1,000 welfare projects involving schools, colleges, and self-help groups that include women.
Senior Samiti member Upasana Aggarwal notes that they “collaborate with the police to organise self-defense training” and “provide legal awareness to help women” through another agency called Adhivakta Parishad.
“Hindutva discourse conceptualises all women as mothers or matrishakti (mother power). Biological motherhood – producing sons and cultivating in them the Hindutva ideology – is seen as Hindu women’s primary function,” writes Namrata Ravichandra Ganneri, a Commonwealth-Rutherford fellow at the Centre for Global Health Histories, in her paper that examines Hindu right-wing politics.
The Samiti stresses on “motherhood” and its members have mentioned several times that a woman’s role is to inculcate good values in their children, especially the “male child” so that he is ready to save the “religion and nation” like Shivaji.
Thus, February 19 is special for the Samiti. It is the birth anniversary of Shivaji, ruler of the Bhonsle Maratha clan that fought against the Mughals. Shivaji’s mother Jijabai is viewed as the true embodiment of motherhood – a role that Sevika Samiti tries to teach women. It is said that Jijabai inculcated true “Hindu values” in Shivaji that helped him “fight fearlessly” against Mughal and Islamic invaders,” says Tiwari.
Similarly, goddess Ashtabhuja Devi – the devi with eight hands – is idolised by Samiti members for embodying “war-like qualities” along with strength, intellect, and wealth.
Tiwari says, “We Indian women work, take care of the family, and are also ready for war to save our nation. The samiti strives to utilise these capabilities that women have.”
Paola Bacchetta, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at University of California, in her book Gender in the Hindu Nation: RSS women as Ideologues, points out to the word swayam (self) in the name of RSS. According to the concept of self in Hindu nationalist thinking, Bacchetta says a man can function as an individual but that a woman cannot as she is associated with the family, nation, and society.
On the same note, drawing a distinction between Swayamsevaks and Sevikas, Tiwari says, “Since women have family responsibilities, they cannot function in the way the Sangh does. The Sangh works as our paalak (guardian) and we work in tandem with them.”
Similarly like Sangh, the Samiti also has a dress code. It’s a white sari or salwar kameez with a pink border.
“Like schools have a dress code, we have one as well. White signifies peace,” says Tiwari, who believes that by displaying the power of Hindu women, all women will feel empowered because “Hindu women were always empowered”.
“The British ruled us for almost 300 years and Muslim invaders – Mughals – ruled us before them. Their rule affected women adversely. Muslim invaders started the purdah system (keeping women under a veil). The women before them were liberated, wrote books, and gave sermons,” adds Tiwari.