On July 16, when the top Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership met in Jammu for a weeklong brainstorming session, the central agenda was expanding the sangathan to the basti level. It is part of a plan to reach out to every section of society by 2025, the hundredth year since the organisation was founded by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in Nagpur.
The RSS has identified localities with 10,000 residents as bastis in urban areas across the country. The organisation’s national sampark pramukh (communications head) Aniruddha Deshpande says the expansion plan in bastis will focus on five dedicated activities – social work; social integration; family enlightenment; rural development; and cow protection. “The Sangh is growing its strength so that these activities can be run in a better way,” he says.
The RSS has seen a sharp rise in its shakhas since 2010. In that year, it had daily shakhas in 45,000 towns across the country. Today, the daily shakhas have spread to 60,000 towns. On an average, every town has 20 shakhas. In addition to that, there are weekly, fortnightly and monthly gatherings, mostly for professionals who can't attend daily shakhas, in 40,000 places.
The exact number of people associated with RSS is not known because no such record is maintained. However, the RSS counts its strength on the basis of attendance in daily shakhas which varies from place to place.
It is to this end that the RSS has been organising large gatherings across the country. In two years, meeting have been held in Mysuru, Kanyakumari, and Aurangabad and Pune in Maharashtra, where an average of 1.5 lakh swayamsevaks participated.
RSS functionaries count the gatherings, which saw participation from every identified basti in each of the cities, as significant successes. They claim a four-fold growth in areas where the meetings were held. RSS’s sarsanghchalak (chief) has said such “show of strength” was necessary to send out the clear signal that “sajjan (good people)” stand together.
Encouraged by the outcome, the RSS plans to hold an even bigger event in Konkan prant, which includes Mumbai, coastal Maharashtra and Goa, on January 17, 2018. The event - Hindu Chetna Sangam - will be simultaneously held at 267 places with at least 1,000 people at each gathering.
Deshpande claims people are curious about the RSS because of its dedication and social work. The organisation, he says, is presently running some 1,70,000 social welfare projects across India. “People may or may not like initiatives like ghar wapsi, but everyone appreciates our social work initiatives,” says the sampark pramukh.
The RSS says its social work initiatives have won it the support of prominent persons. Like for instance, industrialist Abhay Firodia who’s firmly with the Sangh despite belonging to a known Congress family.
Records at Pradnya Pravah, the archives wing of the RSS, show an average of 26,000 people register on the organisation’s portal every month. An internal study revealed that while 50 per cent of them actually get involved in RSS work, the rest continue to be sympathisers.
The organisation, says Deshpande, has many ways of engaging with individuals who can't attend a daily shakha. Many of them, for instance, are being involved in creating a casteless society and rural development.
“We have been organising meetings of various communities with an emphasis on keeping caste identities aside. People don't proclaim their caste openly after attending such meetings. This is a beginning,” he says.
There’s also an attempt at being more inclusive than before. Senior Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader Geeta Gunde has been roped in to encourage women of all sections to participate in the various social welfare projects being run by the organisation. This is part of a concerted effort to shed its earlier male-centric image. It has seen induction of around 25,000 women in the RSS-affiliated works in the last two years.
The RSS demonstrated its commitment to rural development during the drought that hit Latur in Maharashtra in 2016. Swayamsevaks pitched in to widen and deepen the Manjara river, which significantly enhanced its flow and water-carrying capacity.
However, two of its designated “activities” - kutumb prabodhan (family enlightenment) and gau raksha (cow protection) - have drawn considerable criticism. In the first, older Sangh workers go around lecturing families in groups about the importance of “family values”.
Gau raksha will very much remain on the RSS agenda. Photo: Reuters
Many of the householders being spoken to view the sermons on “correct attire” and the “Indian way to celebrate festivals”, as unnecessary and intrusive. "We are not imposing any code of conduct on the people," says publicity chief Manmohan Vaidya. "We are just appealing to them to follow the actual morals and values of Indian culture."
Similarly, its emphasis on cow protection, at a time when the country has been witnessing lynchings and mob attacks in the name of the cow, has put the RSS in the dock. Deshpande insists the Sangh’s activity shouldn’t be linked with the lawlessness. “We are against the business of cow meat. That doesn’t mean we support the violence,” he says.
The sampark pramukh believes RSS’s primary goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra will be achieved by growing in strength. He however clarifies that the Sangh’s concept of Hindu Rashtra is inclusive and based on one’s duties and commitment to the nation and not Hindu religion.
He says religion is a western concept. “For us (RSS), a person who puts interests of Bharat first is a Hindu. Someone who is born a Hindu but is working against the country's interest is not a Hindu for us. On the contrary, a non-Hindu dedicated to the country's progress is a Hindu to us,” he said in explanation.
It’s a notion not everybody subscribes to. Sukhdev Thorat, professor emeritus, school of social sciences at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, sees a problem with the RSS’s approach.
For instance, he says, just stating that eradication of caste is part of the Sangh’s agenda will not inspire confidence among the Dalits. “RSS has to spell out how it will do it,” says the academician. “On one hand it talks of eradicating caste and on the other hand it forcefully advocates governance on Vedic philosophy, which supports caste system.”
Thorat believes that unless the RSS educates people about the ills of the social philosophy and encourages the principles of equality and brotherhood, integration won’t happen. “RSS has to overcome its own reluctance to openly disown those aspects of religious authority on which caste is founded,” he says.
Even within the RSS there are evident differences on whether the organisation needs to shed its “hardline” image. Two months back, senior functionaries invited a number of authors and columnists known for their anti-RSS stance for a discussion on varied issues at a RSS-backed Mumbai-based thinktank Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, but many in the saffron organisation’s rank and file saw the move as “appeasement of enemies”.
“In today’s time, those who consider the Sangh as their enemy should feel isolated, not honoured,” said a senior functionary.
The RSS’s exertions to spread its influence across the country are clearly far away from the kind of success Deshpande and other functionaries would have us believe.
Tweaking the Sangh
Technology & Social Media
In an unprecedented manner, pracharaks are using computers and social media to remain in touch with each other.
Women are being encouraged to get associated with RSS-run social works and media platforms.
Shakha outside shakha - In a lenient stand on daily shakhas, cadres are being engaged in work outside shakhas.
Special gatherings have been organised for people in the field of information technology. They are trying to lure people from IT.
Easy sign up
People can join the RSS by registering online on its website.