It was the coffee- brown pants that replaced the billowing khaki shorts as the uniform of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that grabbed headlines after the recently concluded annual meeting of the Sangh Parivar (RSS and its affiliates), held in Nagaur, Rajasthan, between March 11-13. A variation in the nonagenarian Sangh’s attire was seen as not just a sartorial change. It was examined for what it signalled, analysed for subliminal messages and eventually appraised as a touchstone of the Sangh’s willingness to change its image from that of an orthodox, archaic outfit.
While the Parivar was amused by the attention its new attire fetched, it was comforted by the fact that its resolutions — passed after several amendments — pushing for accessible, affordable and quality healthcare and education, and social harmony and its declaration placing women at par with men did not go unnoticed.
But should these announcements and the long-awaited change of uniform be read as indicators of the Sangh’s changing stance? Has the Sangh, which has periodically raised and consistently nurtured the idea of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ stepped away from its core ideology?
“The changes are cosmetic; they are essentially tokenism. The Sangh continues to be a religious, chauvinistic outfit that still believes that Indian Muslims and Christians are somehow inferior, and (live) in an imagined, glorified past where Hindus knew all and showed to the world everything from literature to mathematics and science…so the core of that ideology has not changed,” says Ramachandra Guha, historian and writer. To be truly modern, the Sangh will have to recognise every individual as equal irrespective of “gender, caste and sexuality” says Guha.
For the RSS brass and its cadres too the new uniform, as also the stand on issues such as women’s rights and caste-based quotas, do not signal change. These are not attempts to stay relevant, but simply in line with the Sangh’s ideology of keeping up with the times, they say.
“We are not rigid and take decisions according to the time,” RSS general secretary Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi emphatically stated, announcing the new ‘ganavesh’ (uniform) in Nagaur. He was reluctant to term these decisions as an attempt to woo the youth by raising contemporary issues. It is with complete sangfroid that J Nandakumar, in-charge of the publicity wing, dismisses the charge that the RSS has changed its stand on social issues like women’s right and the need to eradicate casteism, to stay relevant. “More than 20 years ago in Kerala, the Sangh campaigned for those not born in so-called high caste families to be allowed to become temple priests. A former, senior functionary P Madhavan did exemplary work in framing what is known as the ‘1987 Paliayam Proclamation’ made at a conclave of vedic and tantric scholars of Hindu society to end caste restrictions,” he says, in an attempt to emphasise the Sangh’s commitment to social change.
Even as social media has been abuzz with campaigns asking the RSS to ‘change its mindset’ and not its attire, the Sangh has changed; at least in its articulation of issues and in adopting a moderate posture. It may have registered a jump in its enrolment — the number of Shakhas has gone up to 56,859 from 51,335 in 2015 — but there is acceptance that its hardline can alienate the youth.
The Sangh, which declines to share credit with the ruling BJP for the increase in the number of its cadres, realises the impact its doctrinaire ideology can have on the party, which came to power assuring development, jobs and economic revival.
This perhaps explains why, despite its adherence to its core belief that a vote for the BJP was as much a vote for Hindutva as for development, there was no reference to the staple issues of Ram Temple in Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and Uniform Civil Code, at Nagaur.
Another visible change was that the reference to controversial issues like caste- based reservation came wrapped in measured and subtle terms. It called for “examining” if the benefits of reservation have percolated to the deprived and for no dilution in reservation for the SC/ST/OBCs, even as it frowned upon quotas for the Jats, Patidars and other well-off communities.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s earlier comment on revision of the policy was perceived to have affected the BJP’s fortunes at the husting in the Bihar assembly polls. The construct of its ideology itself has been altered to present ‘hindutva’ as ‘nationalism’ and it has graduated from the 2015- statement that “faith in Sangha karya and Hindutva thinking is increasing”, to invoking love for ‘Bharat Mata’ by protecting her from “anti-national activities”.
Sudhir Pathak of the Vishwa Samvad Kendra, Maharashtra says the Sangh is only repeating its beliefs in a “more forceful voice”, but political analysts say, these deviations and adaptations are typical of its “pragmatism”.
“There is no deviation from its core belief, yet it is accommodating of the BJP government’s political compulsions. Unlike its relations with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, it is more in sync with the Narendra Modi government, as he is their best bet to be in power,” says a Delhi-based senior political commentator.
And it is this new flexible avatar that is the Sangh’s real new garb.