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Work in progress

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) is changing, incrementally — no sudden bursts of inspiration, but slowly and surely, write Sunita Aron & Sarita Kaushik.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2008 22:14 IST

It's well past 9 p.m. in Pune and Sudhir Pachpore looks tired. There is one more drill left to do before he leaves for home. Every evening he leads a group of young professionals through an hour-long routine that’s the mainstay of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS).

Pachpore runs night shakha (branches) for young professionals who don’t have time for those held traditionally early morning or evening. “We had to change the timings to suit modern lifestyle,” he says. The highly secretive, slightly controversial and always mysterious Hindu organisation is changing.

The ‘sangh’, as it's known, has a wide network of organisations (some call them fronts) and activists (called ‘swayamsevaks’) in the country and is the biological parent of the country’s main opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It was said the sangh was shrinking and it had to — very quickly — think of ways to make itself more relevant. “It’s not true,” says Rakesh Sinha, who authored a book on the RSS. “It has been changing in keeping with the rest of the society.”

It’s trying to become everything to everyone. There are drills meant for students, for entrepreneurs and there are clubs for those who feel a little antsy about associating themselves with the sangh. But it is taking care to ensure there is no dilution of its core ideology — a Hindu nation. Mohan Bhagwat, an RSS veteran, has said, "We are not averse to changing but we will not change one thing — our slogan of Bharat Hindu Rashtra hai.” It has been changing behind the façade it keeps of a regressive and rigid outfit. There is a general recognition of the situation on ground — things are no longer the same.

Night shakha, for instance, is not the only modification of the sacrosanct sangh ritual. Others include cyber-shakha, the most representative of the new sangh. A swayamsevak switches on the computer, logs in and the shakha is on. It can last between 30 and 45 minutes — everything included, yoga instructions, discussion points and, of course, the prayer. Swayamsevaks are free to use web-cam and chat to help them get on with the lessons.

The RSS is changing, incrementally — no sudden bursts of inspiration, but slowly and surely. Three years ago, the sangh acknowledged Baba Ramdev-driven yoga frenzy and even allowed it at its shakhas. It has also taken to technology with amazing enthusiasm - its archives are being digitalized, from speeches to documents. And it keeps a very close eye on what was being said and reported about it — through real-time monitoring units.This desire to change and to become more acceptable is the result of it being “so conscious of its image”, as an old RSS-watcher who requested anonymity put it. In fact, there have been unconfirmed reports that sangh wants to change its trademark khaki shorts — they do look funny.

“There is no move to give up the shorts,” said a sangh insider, adding, “but people are not killed for not wearing khaki shorts to the shakhas — you are free to wear what you like.” Isn’t that a concession to changing times?

The current incremental changes are being compared to two watershed breaks in the sangh's 83-year-old history — when like now core values didn't change but the approach to the goal did.

The first happened way back in 1943-44 (18 years after its birth in 1925) when it gave up its then uniform -- a very military-type fatigues — and took to khaki shorts. The second big change was in 1977-78, when sangh banned its members from holding government office.

It's 6:30 am on Sunday. And a heavy drizzle lays a mist over Delhi; not a day for early morning jog or walk. But there is this lot — people trudging in one by one for their weekly IT Milan, a weekly shakha held in Rohini only for InfoTech professionals. Abhishek Singhal, a participant, said, “I know of at least 50 IT professionals who got associated with RSS through these gatherings.”

Veteran RSS leader M G Vaidya says, “Contemporary issues are addressed by our allied organization, which represent all sections of the society, and not the core group”.

Ever heard of International Centre for Cultural Studies that strives to bring together communities that preserve and practice pre-Christianity and pre-Islamic culture and religion? Or of Tejaswini Vichar Manch for affluent women in Gujarat?This is work in progress.

(A former colleague contributed to this article, but she has moved on since.)