Modernisation of the RSS : The Tribune India

Modernisation of the RSS

THE Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s momentous decision to give up the nine-decade-long uniform of baggy khaki shorts for brown trousers represents a sea change in the thinking of the organisation.

Modernisation of the RSS

Not just the shorts, the mindset must change too.

S Nihal Singh

THE Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s momentous decision to give up the nine-decade-long uniform of baggy khaki shorts for brown trousers represents a sea change in the thinking of the organisation. It is being sold as “changing with the times” or modernising the RSS.

 At the same time, it presents the organisation with a host of dilemmas because its very appeal to the growing stream of followers is the mix of myths in which ancient India looms large, the rock of Hindu beliefs and a desire to cultivate an image of a strong revitalised India against the backdrop of a more recent past in which invading  Muslim armies or the guiles of Europeans, mostly British, had got the better of native residents.

 The RSS is not unique in trying to marry a version of religion to the cause of a militant posture. But it faces unique dilemmas because although it can conjure up such historical figures as Shivaji, the Rani of Jhansi and others, Hinduism does not fit neatly into a philosophy of militancy.

True, the RSS has sought to resolve the problem by endowing the broader Sangh Parivar with organisations such as the muscular Bajrang Dal, but its contribution to promoting a martial image of the RSS is dubious because it often descends to plain roughneck tactics. Does it redound to the credit of the RSS that its supporters chase women out of pubs, destroy modern works of art not to the Dal’s liking and settle disputes in public through exchanging blows?

 Changing shorts for trousers is all very well in the cause of attracting the young who are supposedly repelled by having to wear baggy shorts of a passé age, but how does the RSS cultivate an image of strength with a king-size dose of nationalism? Here again the problem arises of marrying Hinduism to the mailed fist.

It can, of course, be argued that the very birth and conception of the RSS was dogged by the contradiction between Hinduism and a desire to promote a virile version of its practice. The assassin of Mahatma Gandhi was once a member of the RSS. Much as some supporters of the Sangh Parivar would like to present him as something of a hero, the RSS leadership knows that it is a poisoned chalice.

Indeed, recent decisions of the RSS in terms of asking for strict action against dissenters in the JNU and other educational institutions go well with the Parivar’s brand of ultra-nationalism. Yet the attempt to tie this brand to the RSS ideology has remained unconvincing. If the recent record of men in black jackets in the Patiala House court complex is any guide, such efforts can only bring a bad name to the Parivar.

Yet this is the moment of great opportunity for the RSS because for the first time it has a committed pracharak in the highest political office in the land. True, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee is also a Sangh member but he is more a poet and was constrained by leading a coalition government. Mr Narendra Modi, on the other hand, was reared in the RSS ideology from an early age and has won a majority for the BJP in the Lower House. And he has repaid his debt to his mentor by publicly subscribing to the myths he had imbibed of flying planes and plastic surgery and head transplants in ancient India even after assuming the office of Prime Minister.

On the other hand, the RSS does have some modern ideas, reiterated recently. It was bold enough to suggest that it was time to have a re-look at the system of backward caste reservations and that it was ridiculous for the well-to-do castes to seek reservations, as in Haryana and Gujarat. In the past, it has also decried the evils of the caste system. The problem is that it is bad electoral politics, one reason why the BJP has had to reiterate its continued support for the existing system.

Even though the RSS is wrapped up in promoting its brand of nationalism, which amounts to an alternative view of India, it has not thought through the implications of its beliefs at a time it is sitting pretty. However it might seek to justify its belief that all permanent residents of the country are Hindus, whatever faith they practise, pursuing such an objective would lead to chaos.

Apart from the tensions that have emerged in educational institutions following the suicide of a Dalit student in Hyderabad University and the arrest of JNU students charged with sedition, a general atmosphere of intolerance to dissent is building up new pressure points the administrative machinery would find hard to handle. Much is being made by the Modi government of a bright economic future in terms of India’s growth rate in a sombre world environment, but future strides in economic development would be impacted by political unrest caused by the policies adopted by the BJP.

Prime Minister Modi’s attitude to the manifestations of the ugly face of the Parivar by maintaining silence for the most part or making tangential references to tragedies is totally inadequate in reassuring the country. There does not seem to be full realisation in the establishment that by dividing society it is creating conditions of unrest that would impact economic and social development. Indeed, by narrowing the definition of nationalism and appropriating it for the Sangh Parivar, the Modi dispensation is doing harm to the country.

The path the BJP and its mentor seem set upon has an eerie parallel to Iran where those favoured by authority are aligned with the religious establishment or the hardline lobby like the Guards and run vast commercial empires, which fund their activities and provide money for spreading their brand of nationalism. The yoga guru Baba Ramdev runs a vast commercial empire and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living Foundation has vast resources and official subsidies to organise an extravaganza on the Yamuna riverbed flouting regulations and getting Mr Modi to sing its praises.

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