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At home and work, RSS has a model for the new-age woman

Contrary to mainstream notions of feminism, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti empowers its members within the context of the family and the nation

india Updated: Dec 08, 2016 11:29 IST
Pooja Sharma
In October last year, members of the samiti organised a ‘path sanchalan’ in Indore, to mark the 90th anniversary of the RSS, its parent wing.
In October last year, members of the samiti organised a ‘path sanchalan’ in Indore, to mark the 90th anniversary of the RSS, its parent wing. (HT File Photo)

Shivani Dani is a 28-year-old financial consultant based in Nagpur. The computer science graduate, who runs her own private company, does not remember when she started going to the local ‘shakha’. “I was just a little girl and found the games there very exciting. Over the years more and more friends joined me and it became a part of my life,” says Dani. She says what she learnt at the shakha were simple everyday skills that came handy – from sports to group discussions and self-defence to arts.

Many girls like Dani are a part of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, often considered the women’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Samiti, which celebrated 80 years of its foundation this year, currently has 3.8 lakh members, and claims to organise nearly 4,350 shakhas regularly. Much like the RSS, the organization’s social projects are usually taken with a pinch of salt because of its unapologetic ideal of creating ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Contrary the mainstream feminist ideas that aim to free women from restrictive social structures, the Samiti looks at achieving women empowerment within the setup of family and nation. The ideology is not backed by much theoretical study and documentation, however, it finds a practical appeal with the members.

Ebullient and confident, Shivani switches between Hindi and English with as ease as between sarees and jeans. “Nobody ever told us what to wear at the Shakha. Of couse there was a uniform for special occasions. Moreover, we were constantly running around organizing things taking part in sports, we wore what was comfortable,” she says. Between her multiple engagements Shivani does not find the time to visit the shakha frequently anymore. “But it is a flexible system. I now try to make it to the monthly shakhas. No matter what, I will always be a sevika first,” she says.

Miles away from Dani, in Delhi, is another sevika Suchismita. While Shivani has spent her childhood in the organisation, Suchismita joined about eight months back. She helps with organising shakhas, vocational classes and forming women’s self-help groups. A law graduate and London educated Suchismita says the organisation has exposed her to an entirely new world. “We are all unified as sevikas here, irrespective of our names. It is a liberating experience,” she says. The fact that Hindusim is the main stay of the organization, works for her. “I think we should all take a sense of pride in our religion,” she adds. The organization, she says, trains young girls and women, gives them confidence and teaches them how to stand for themselves and others. “It is a huge task,” she says with the satisfaction of one who has found home.

80 years of Samiti

The lore goes that after Keshav Baliram Hedgewar formed RSS in1925, Laxmibai Kelkar (Mausiji) took up the matter of forming a women’s wing. Golvarkar asked her to go ahead and form an organization on the ideological lines of the RSS exclusively for women and promised his support. The first shakha of the Samiti was held at Wardha in 1936.

Saraswati Bai Apte succeeded Kelkar as Pramukh Sanchalika (president) in 1978. Often referred to as Taiji, it was during her tenure that the Samiti also began its work overseas. Ushatai Chati took over as the third Pramukh Sanchalika in 1994. Pramila Tai Medhe became the fourth president in 2006 and handed over the charge to Shanta Akka in 2012.

The organisation held a three-day ‘Prerna Shivir’ in the national Capital in October this year to mark its 80 years. RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat addressed the sevikas at the event. “Till India’s matra shakti (women power) turns active and comes forward, India will not be able to achieve its potential and pristine glory and act as a guiding force to the world to show it the new path of peaceful coexistence,” he said at the inauguration functional that saw a gathering of 3,000 Samiti workers from across the country.

The All-India president of the organisation Shanta Akka also emphasised the importance of equality, an issue that particularly struck a chord with younger sevikas. “Today, discord is evident in society in the form of ideas about man-woman relations. Men and women are complementary to each other, they are not competitors. Men have to stop treating women as inferior to themselves, as objects,” she said during the event.

Each year, a theme is chosen for special focus of programmes. In 2015, the focus of the organisations’ work was on young girls. According to the Samiti, around 291 meets were held across the country for young girls in which 88,343 girls took part. In the preceding years, married women and teenaged girls have been the focus groups.

SEVIKAS ON A MISSION
RASHTRA SEVIKA SAMITI was established in 1936
THE SAMITI’s first shakha was organised in Wardha the same year
4,350 shakhas are held regularly in 2,380 cities, districts and villages, with a specific theme
22 nations have members belonging to the samiti
3.8 lakh workers are committed to its cause

 IN OFFICE 
LAXMIBAI KELKAR (Mausiji) became its first Pramukh Sanchalika (president) in 1936
SARASWATI BAI Apte was the next to head the organisation, from 1978 to 1994
USHATAI CHATI took over in 1994
PRAMILA TAI Medhe became the fourth president in 2006
SHANTA AKKA became the all-India head of the samiti in 2012

AGENDA
THE SAMITI holds activities for the physical and mental development of children, young girls and married women. It also conducts events targeted at those belonging to the poorer sections of society
IN 2014, the samiti ‘s focus was on married women. It provided them a platform to share their experiences and come up with solutions
IN 2015, its activities centered around young women. As many as 291 meets were organised, in which 88,343 of them took part

The way forward

The core ideas of the primacy of family and country have stayed the same over the eight decades of the Samiti’s expansion. Sevikas continue to refer to senior functionaries as Taiji, Mausiji or simply Didi, bringing in a sense of family bonding. Similarly the ideals of Rani Lakshmibai and Goddess Sita, which were among the core ideas at the time of Samiti’s conception, have stayed the same. The younger sevikas though are more inquisitive, and informed, says Malini Bhaskar Enaganti, a 47-year-old sevika based in Bangalore, who has been with the organisation for almost four decades.

“They are more informed. They question and want to know. It is because of this that they receive and process better,” says Malini, who is an MBA graduate herself and a mother of two. The triple ideal of – Matrutva (Universal Motherhood), Kartrutva (Efficiency and Social Activism), Netrutva (Leadership) – ensures that all aspects of development are taken care of, she adds. “It teaches young women to juggle between roles. Something they need more and more in the modern times,” says Malini was also associated with the Samiti’s work in the US.

Back at a simple and unassuming office in Delhi, a senior sevika narrates a discourse during which Mahatma Gandhi was asked how a woman could be expected to be like Sita if men could not be like Ram. “He said, a woman is not made by a man, it is the man who is made by a woman.” But what if a sevika does not want to be like Sita? “She can just work for the society,” she says, “that is sufficient.”