Fifty-three-year-old Anil Madhav Dave looks at least 10 years younger in his long, pinkish kurta as he smiles his quiet smile while showing me his coffee-table book, Narmada Samagra, A Travelogue: Rafting Through a Civilisation. “In 1921, an Englishman had attempted to travel down the Narmada, right from its source at Amar Kantak to the Gulf of Khambat,” he says, opening his book to the page that has a photograph of him and three others on a motorised raft with the Indian flag fluttering in the middle. “He couldn’t travel beyond 700 kilometres of the 1,312-km stretch. In 2007, we became the first to complete the whole stretch.” Dave’s kept a memento of that journey on his office shelf: the propellor of the raft mounted on a plaque. In 2005, Dave had already travelled the same stretch, flying a Cessna 173 plane along the Narmada.
Yes, apart from being an environmentalist concerned about the state of the Narmada and creating awareness campaigns (he avoids commenting directly on the Gujarat government’s enthusiasm about the Narmada Dam, but simply says “Nadi ka soshan mat karo, doshan karo [Don’t suck the river dry, ‘milk’ it]”), he’s a registered pilot, having logged some 200 hours of flying time. He also airs his fondness for cars, pointing out that he especially loves long journeys in his Scorpio.
So how would he like to be described? “As a swayamsevak. It’s the best description,” says the former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak and a recent BJP-nominated entrant into the Rajya Sabha. Dave is one of the new, young faces of the RSS. He insists that he is not an anomaly and that the RSS has to “run parallel to the times”.
Growing up in the early 60s in Junagadh, Dave joined the RSS when he was eight. His father and grandfather were swayamsevaks, so, in a way, it was a familial rite of passage. He remembers his days at the shakha being a lot of fun. “There was no television then. So the shakha, with its time for games, was entertainment. I loved it,” he says. While he may have had an RSS background, Dave insists that a large proportion of those going to shakhas, at least in Madhya Pradesh today, come from outside the ‘traditional RSS fold’ and from various sections of society.
Does Dave sense a dichotomy between his identity as a swayamsevak and his very ‘modernist’ interests outside the RSS? “Modernity,” he says donning his blissful smile, “is a relative term. For some, being modern is simply about speaking in English. But in, say, France, this notion doesn’t hold. One must build oneself to be joined with the times one lives is. If you aren’t clued into, say, the use of computers today, then you’re not being relevant to the times.” He goes on to say, and I detect a tiny sneer here, how “Nehru used to say that he was Hindu by accident”. But, Dave reminds me, “He also wanted his ashes to be spread over the Himalayas.” For him, Nehru and many other Indians were simply denying their “Bharatiya cultural roots”.
Apart from the flat-screen television hanging from the wall in his office, I notice a CD marked ‘Europe trip’ next to his desk, not too far from his Lenovo laptop. “I would look up at the sky from our khatiya in Junagadh and see those fighter planes fly by. I decided then that I would want to become a pilot.” Before I can ask him what happened to that plan, Dave tells me once again how it’s not only possible, but also imperative that in one’s need to be ‘modern’, one has to be rooted to tradition. And that’s something that he acknowledges India’s youth now revelling in — irrespective of their ideological moorings. “I do think that today’s young Indians are much more proud of being an Indian than a generation before. I would say that what Swami Vivekananda had exhorted, for India’s young to awake, is happening now.” The RSS is just another organisation these days that facilitates this sense.
I ask him how the shakhas are faring in these challenging times for the BJP. Pat comes the reply. “For god’s sake, don’t try to understand the RSS through the BJP,” says the Madhya Pradesh BJP No. 2 sitting next to the impressive BJP party office in downtown Bhopal. “The number of shakhas has actually grown and there are new recruits in Bhopal city’s 20-odd shakhas.”
Dave promises to hook me up with someone in a nearby shakha so that I can witness this active cultural engagement myself. He tells me that playing team-building games like kabaddi and khokho is still the prime focus of a shakha. “There’s 30-40 minutes of playing games in the morning or the evening, and 10-15 minutes of cultural activities that include singing nationalistic songs and discussing the heroes of our country and present issues,” Dave explains before showing me another book he’s written for young adults about preparing for fatherhood and family. “One should be physically, mentally and spiritually prepared for this task.” I ask him whether he’s married. He isn’t, but he is in touch with his boyhood shakha friends who are now in different walks of life. “There are many people outside the RSS who haven’t married too, you know,” he says with his smile intact.
Over the next two days, I try and follow up on the contacts Dave has given me. The Madhya Pradesh RSS cadre are supposed to be more dynamic and relevant, if you will, than those in Nagpur. But none of Dave’s modern ‘shakha-haris’ are keen to open up their doors to an outsider from a Delhi English-language daily just yet.
Which is a pity. Because Anil Dave was on the road to convincing me, an outsider, that the RSS is actually a modern, cultural organisation that breaks class barriers to infuse a sense of pride in these very Indian times.