The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has always been subject to scrutiny in Indian political discourse, but not enough effort has been made to understand it intellectually. While Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle’s The Brotherhood in Saffron, published in the 1980s, and Des Raj Goyal’s Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (1979) are two notable attempts, much of the existing body of literature – including booklets – looks at the Sangh through an activist lens or partisan positions.
A new RSS can be seen emerging in the current scenario in our country but our approaches to understand it are unfortunately still old. The RSS today has not only imbibed many elements from its old avatar but also added new elements to its character and structure. This transformation not only manifests in switching from the khaki half pant to brown full pant but is also seen in the new Sangh’s outlook and efforts.
Shaping and shaped by affiliates
The RSS has also assimilated within it the language, new logic and arguments produced by democracy and modernity along with Hindu religion and the traditionists’ cultural language. The form of this new Sangh emerges not only in a single organisation but is shaped by thousands of affiliated organisations which are active in society in their own way and are influencing various social groups. We are already aware of organisations like Vidya Bharati and Saraswati Shishu Mandir but we are likely ignorant that under RSS’s banner almost 800 NGOs are actively working nationwide in various sectors to, among other things, provide disaster relief during emergencies and natural calamities and eradicate poverty.
Various communities in society exist at different layers of developmental consciousness, so it is likely that contradictions will emerge among these groups. This will also result in contradictions among the political and cultural organisations which would reflect these groups. Nevertheless the Sangh has given place to these contradictions in its discussions and debates by sharing a relationship with its affiliated organisations that is akin to that of a body and its parts.
Ideological conflicts and discussions always occur among the Sangh and its affiliates. For instance, organisations such as Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and Swadeshi Jagran Manch have contrasting viewpoints from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS on various issues, and have been protesting against the Central government’s policies on land acquisition and liberalisation, respectively. By summoning various ideological contradictions and contestations produced by its affiliated organisations on various social and class issues, the Sangh is endeavouring to frame a holistic argument. Bowing to democratic imperatives and the pressure of social groups, the RSS’s outlook on, say, homosexuality and transgenders has also changed – it no longer supports the ‘traditional’ Indian viewpoint on this issue, and for it being in same-sex relationship is not a crime. In tune with the times, the Sangh also proposes to keep the reservation policy. Earlier the participation of women in Sangh activities was almost negligible, but now emphasis is being placed on this.
The Sangh has also endeavoured to include various liberal and dissenting views in its ideological discourses. It has begun a series called the ‘India Ideas Conclave’ under the aegis of the India Foundation think tank. The recent conclave in Goa organised by the think tank’s director and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national secretary Ram Madhav witnessed the participation of prominent intellectuals and public figures – not necessarily aligned with the RSS ideology – who brainstormed on policymaking and social change.
The big change we have witnessed in recent years is the RSS’s outreach to Dalits through its ‘Samajik Samrasta’ campaign as well as a more accommodative stance towards 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. The BJP’s effort to associate itself with Ambedkar is the political outcome of the Sangh’s new appraisal of him.
The one big challenge, however, before the new RSS is vis-à-vis Muslims. It has initiated programmes like Sufi Samagam, and is in the process of building up a Muslim Rashtriya Manch. The Sangh’s understanding is that Muslims largely did not come to India from outside and that most belonged to some Hindu castes and had converted under various compulsions. That interpretation explains the effort on the part of RSS-affiliated organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad to bring them back into the fold with campaigns such as ghar wapsi. The blowback from these endeavours has been huge, only producing a negative image for the VHP and, by extension, Sangh organisational politics. On the whole, the Sangh is constantly responding to changes in the Indian social and economic landscape ushered in by economic liberation and to the new technologically constructed public sphere. RSS cadres are active on social media in a big way. The organisation has embraced this new modernity in its language and melded it with the old language of Indian religion and society. As it forges its relationship with modernity, democracy, the market and new technology and evolves under their influence, only time will tell how successful the new RSS is in bridging wide ideological gaps.
Badri Narayan is a political analyst and author. His latest book is ‘Fractured Tales: Invisibles in Indian Democracy’.