Bhavdeep has worked for publications like The Times of India, The Telegraph, The Indian Express, India Today & Outlook. She has authored a book ‘Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas’. She is presently freelancing for several publications -both print and digital
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is often described as the world’s largest NGO. It is the Sangh’s preferred description, because it implies an apolitical disposition. Ostensibly, the RSS is an organisation which avoids direct engagement with electoral politics and maintains equidistance from political parties. The veil is maintained by routinely advising its cadres to support/work for the party most in consonance with nationalist ideals.
This separation of identities is getting harder to maintain. The growth of its political wing, the BJP, has been such that it threatens to overshadow the parent organisation. This ‘politicisation’ of the RSS is a matter of concern both for the top brass and the cadre.
At the RSS conclave in Nagpur in March this year, Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak, or the organisational head, observed that the “conducive” atmosphere currently being enjoyed by the Sangh should be maintained. Many construed his remarks as an endorsement of the current regime. By contrast, former sarsanghchalak Rajendra Singh ‘Rajju Bhaiyya’, who demitted office in 2000 and demised in 2003, had explicitly observed in 1998 that “There is nothing common between the BJP and us, we only share an ideology”.
The Sangh’s bipolar relationship with politics goes back to its origins, which lie in the freedom struggle. In the early 1920s, Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar was deeply immersed in the activities of the Congress. He was sent to jail for defying the ban on public meetings and was still there when Mahatma Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement in 1922, after the Chauri Chaura incident. Hedgewar was disenchanted. He was increasingly influenced by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s ‘Hindutva’ philosophy and disturbed by the communal tensions in Nagpur, his home town.
The turning point came with the ban on Hindu religious processions in Nagpur. Hedgewar was one of those who defied the ban. From this agitation, the ‘Nagpur Hindu Sabha’ emerged, with Hedgewar as secretary. He had concluded by this time that the inherent weakness and lack of unity in Hindu society were responsible for India’s subjection. His focus was now on the transformation of Hindu society, so as to awaken national consciousness.
On Vijaydashami in 1925, he founded the RSS with five associates. He drew from the akhara tradition to set up the first shakha with the objective of training committed youth. When the riots erupted in Nagpur, the RSS protected Hindu interests.
From the very beginning, Hedgewar kept RSS away from politics, although he permitted the cadre to participate in political movements in their individual capacities. Lip service is paid to that principle to this day. In 1929, the RSS lauded the Congress resolution on Purna Swaraj. In the subsequent civil disobedience movement, Hedgewar participated in his personal capacity (after handing over charge to an associate) and was duly jailed for it. He also parted ways with the Hindu Mahasabha.
By 1932, his cadre numbered just 500. At this point, he decided to expand the activities of the RSS. Although it now has a pan-India presence, the RSS’ roots in Nagpur are reflected in its leadership even today. With a couple of exceptions, the sarsanghchalak has always been a Maharashtrian brahman.
Hedgewar’s pracharaks (proselytisers) spread out across the country and in the next five or six years, the membership of the RSS swelled to 40,000. One of those who joined it in 1932 was Nathuram Godse, who quit after relations with the RSS soured. Although Godse himself claimed he had left the organisation, members of his family, many decades later, came out with a statement that despite his differences, he had continued to be a member until the end.
By the time Hedgewar passed away in 1940, the RSS had a presence in most of north and central India. Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, then the general secretary of the RSS, took over as sarsanghchalak. Under his stewardship, the RSS expanded, but did not participate in the Quit India movement, perhaps under pressure from the British Raj. Some members of the cadre did, but at a personal level.
Partition widened the schism between the Congress and the RSS, which had begun with a 1934 Congress resolution forbidding members from joining the Sangh. The former appreciated the Sangh’s public service but viewed its openly anti-Muslim stance with suspicion.
The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Godse put the RSS squarely in the crosshairs. It was banned and thousands of RSS workers were arrested. The ban was lifted a year later, after investigations concluded that it did not have a direct role in the assassination. But the belief that the RSS was somehow involved in the tragedy persists, even 70 years after the fact.
Capturing state power was not on the RSS agenda. Individuals could do as they pleased, but no office-bearer of a party could hold an official post in the RSS. However, pressure from younger RSS members was building up. Increasingly, they articulated views on the economy and politics of the country and urged the RSS to participate in shaping them.
Golwalker was willy-nilly forced to agree to setting up a political wing, when a group of RSS-affiliated citizens founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), with former Cabinet minister Shyama Prasad Mookerjee as president. In 1952, the BJS won three of the 94 seats it contested and in 1967, it won 35 seats.
The early success of the BJS was attributed to the efforts of Deendayal Upadhyaya, a pracharak who was deputed to the party soon after its inception. He established the ideological framework of the BJS with his philosophy of Integral Humanism, to which the BJP subscribes. His assassination in 1968 was a severe blow to the BJS.
It is widely believed that in the 1950s, Golwalkar and his trusted lieutenant Madhukar Dattatraya ‘Balasaheb’ Deoras, who eventually took over from him, held differing views on the functioning of the RSS. Deoras was in favour of greater pro-activism, while Golwalker favoured the traditional, slow-paced, shakha-centric approach.
In the 1950s and 60s, the activities of the RSS expanded, with mass-based organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Bharatiya Vikas Sangh and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram emerging. (The Rashtra Sevika Samiti and Akhil Bharaitya Vidyarthi Parishad had come into being in 1936 and 1948 respectively.) It also set up the Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools. Later, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, Bajrang Dal, Sewa Bharti and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh would be added to the list of RSS affiliates. ‘Parivar’ was a term coined to describe the RSS and its ideological affiliates.
The RSS itself is a pyramidical structure, with the sarsanghchalak supported by the sarkaryavaha (general secretary), who in turn is assisted by sah-sarkarayavahas. Below them are the kshetriya pracharaks, prant pracharaks, vibhag pracharaks and so on, down to the shakha level.
Jan Sangh & Deoras
The turning point for the BJS came in the early 70s, when it aligned with the rest of the opposition in the JP (Jayprakash Narayan) movement. At this crucial stage, Deoras became RSS sarsanghchalak. An activist sarsanghchalak was just what the BJS needed. As BJP office-bearer, Vijay Chauthaiwale recently wrote: “He had strong political instincts. But he was also aware of the limitations of politics.”
Deoras was articulate and unafraid to voice his opinions on a variety of subjects, from foreign policy to the economy. He encouraged swayamsevaks to take part in mass movements and was – even more than his predecessors - a champion of social equality. In a 1974 speech, he observed: “If untouchability is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
The RSS was banned and Deoras was one of those detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act during Emergency. It is believed that Indira Gandhi sought to drive a wedge between the RSS and the Janata Party, but Deoras refused to play ball.
Nanaji Deshmukh, made the in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, was deputed to coordinate with JP and the BJS was subsumed by the Janata Party. During this time, Deshmukh built up an invaluable network of contacts in the corporate world. The pracharak in him, however, would not allow him to join the Cabinet in 1977. Just as well he didn’t, because faultlines between the socialists and ex-Jan Sangh members began to appear, with the former accusing the latter of divided loyalties.
Deoras played a critical role in bringing the RSS to the centrestage, engaging with leaders across the political spectrum on national issues, like the insurgencies in Punjab and the northeast. The BJP was founded when the Janata regime fell in 1980. On the one hand, the party adopted centrist principles of positive secularism, commitment to democracy and Gandhian socialism. On the other, the other RSS affiliate, VHP launched the Ram Janambhoomi movement.
From a low point of two seats in 1984, the BJP improved its position by leaps and bounds over the next two decades. The 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid as a result of the Ram Janambhoomi agitation led to another ban on the RSS, but failed to achieve the objective of polarising the political spectrum along communal-secular lines. The BJP found enough ‘secular’ friends to form coalition governments in the late 1990s.
The very fact of state power created tensions between the BJP and the RSS, which were evident during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure as Prime Minister. He was not the RSS’ choice; L K Advani had pre-emptively announced his name. During National Democratic Alliance (of BJP and other parties) first tenure, referred to as NDA I, RSS’ Madan Das Devi had a hard time running interface between sarsanghchalak KS Sudershan and the PMO.
RSS & Politics
The 2014 general election was a landmark event, not only because the BJP had won an absolute majority, but because the RSS played a critical role in ensuring that it did. In the first decade of the new millennium, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had launched an anti ‘Hindu terror’ campaign, which evoked genuine fears that it intended to decimate the RSS. For the first time, the RSS worked on a war footing, deploying its vast network of volunteers in service of the BJP.
So, while the stated position - that the RSS was removed from politics - remained, the fact was that it pulled out all stops in the 2014 elections. Isn’t that true of all elections? Yes, the RSS and its affiliates share a common cadre which is free to work for the party during elections and usually does. But it’s an informal arrangement, which means that the cadres can choose to stay at home. Their listlessness during the 2009 elections, for example, was palpable. A stark contrast with 2014, when swayamsewaks were so enthused, that they may have worked even without the informal directive to support the BJP.
The point here is that in NDA II, under Narendra Modi, the arms-length principle employed during Vajpayee’s centrist regime is no longer applicable. The RSS is in the house, influencing postings and policy as never before.
It is often observed that the RSS is an opaque organisation, largely because it does not engage with the media and says what it has to through official publications like Panchjanya and Organiser. From 2002 onwards, after the Gujarat riots, the RSS began to open up to the media. A young pracharak from Andhra Pradesh, Ram Madhav, was posted to Delhi and became the de facto face of the Sangh. Despite the reservations of the old guard, he continued to occupy that space.
The RSS’ relationship with Narendra Modi has not always been smooth. First of all, the Sangh detests personality cults, which Modi has from his Gujarat days insisted on building up ad nauseam. Sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat publicly warned swayamsewaks against working for an individual, rather than for issues, during the 2014 campaign. The overly centralised functioning of the government and the party, marked by opacity and a determined lack of consultation, has frequently been criticised by the rank-and-file.
Swayamsewaks are all too aware that the success of the BJP is built on their backs. The RSS worked relentlessly in the northeast and Kerala for decades, before the BJP made its debut there. As the BJP transitions to a mass-based party and entertains and promotes outsiders (many of doubtful repute), the swayamsewaks feel marginalised.Traditionalists within the RSS are disturbed; the prospect of the Sangh getting overly invested in state power is all too real. The once austere lifestyles of the pracharaks have not been proof against the perks of power. These concerns are articulated during meetings attended by pracharaks and affiliates from across the country. While the direction of the RSS is determined by the core committee, the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal, all senior pracharaks and heads of affiliates attend the Pratinidhi Sabha (committee of representatives).
2019: Dissension Within
The headline at this year’s Pratinidhi Sabha was that the much-anticipated elevation of the charismatic Dattatreya Hosabale, who enjoys wide acceptability both within and outside the Sangh, to general secretary did not take place. More to the point, several areas of concern have emerged after the meeting.
The first is perceived politicisation. The second is the palpable unrest among the affiliates, notably the mass-based organisations, on matters of policy. Some are unhappy with the diminishing focus on the samajik samrasta (social harmony) campaign which aims at eliminating caste-based inequality. Others are critical of the government’s farm and labour policies. Still more are concerned about fringe elements disturbing law and order.
Earlier in the year, the fabled discipline of the Sangh was breached when the VHP had to put off its elections, owing to a lack of consensus on candidates. Sources within the Sangh say its leadership was shocked at the fact that Praveen Togadia, the VHP’s International Working President, had vast support within the organisation and would have had no trouble getting his people elected.
As the BJP gears up for the 2019 general elections, the RSS has wider issues to address. The BJP’s brand-new five-star office in Delhi is up and running, while the RSS headquarters at Jhandewalan is still a work in progress, but the spirit of ‘Doctorji’ lives there!
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