It takes a while for the old men — some with their walking sticks, others in wheelchairs — to find their place inside the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) complex in Reshimbagh here on Sunday. They wait as the Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, comes and sits in the middle of the front row for a group photograph. A bell rings soon after, a signal for the group to head for a baithak.
Eighty senior pracharaks, who had spent their lives spreading the Sangh’s message of Hindutva, have come from all over the country for the Vijayadasami celebrations. The gathering could not have been more timely, for the Sangh’s appeal among the young is waning. The organisation is devising new ways to recruit a new generation to fill the shoes of these senior men.Suresh ‘Bhaiyaji’ Joshi is the RSS sarkaryavah, general secretary, which makes him the second most powerful man in the organisational hierarchy. At Smriti Bhawan inside the Reshimbagh complex, Mr. Joshi tells The Hindu over a cup of tea on Monday afternoon that it has been a challenge for the Sangh to attract young people.
As Mr. Joshi puts it, educational pattern, lifestyle, and working hours have changed. “Children go to school through the day, and then have tuitions right from the primary level. This was not prevalent earlier. A child who leaves home after Class 10 often does not return for six-seven years, and is cut off even from his family. In colleges, university exams have given way to a semester system, and even monthly tests. IT professionals and others work 12 hours a day or more.”
Such schedules leave people with little time, or energy to attend daily morning and evening shakhas — sessions of basic indoctrination into the Sangh philosophy — for an hour. Another Sangh official admits that the perception that the RSS is ‘old, traditional and rigid’ does not help either.
This reflects in the figures. In 2005-06, the Sangh had close to 47,000 daily shakhas. That number, today, is about 39,000. There are 2,500 full-time pracharaks, which is an increase from the past, but not commensurate with the amount of work. While Sangh officials insist this is not worrisome — for the organisation’s work is happening in many other ways — it appears to have triggered a degree of flexibility.
Back in Delhi, Ram Madhav — the Sangh’s public relations in-charge — operates out of his plush office in Jangpura. Shuffling between his ipad, iphone and Macbook, Mr. Madhav says, “RSS is reinventing itself to connect with the new generation.”
To target the youth, besides the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS now has its own university, college and hostel pramukhs — there is a special focus on student-dominated towns like Kota. There are 2,000 shakhas exclusively for university students. Mr. Madhav, who is one of the coordinators of the youth outreach campaign, says, “We have weekly shakhas instead of daily shakhas inside campuses.” Five thousand young people were taken to the country’s borders under a special programme to “create a sense of pride.”
Information Technology (IT) milans are organised in hubs like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Faridabad, and Gurgaon. “It may be too early for IT professionals to come at 6 in the morning, so during weekends, we have shakhas at 10.30 for them,” says Mr. Madhav.
Besides reworking shakha-format, new media has been embraced, and the ‘packaging’ of the message has changed. PowerPoint presentations and documentaries are used in special shakhas. The ‘Join RSS’ link on its website has generated responses; its sympathisers are active on Twitter and Facebook; and they have mailing lists.
Asked how the Sangh reconciles its emphasis on austerity with the growing consumerism among youth segments, even in the Sangh, Mr. Joshi says the line between ‘simplicity and luxury’ is a fine one. He gives the instance of how mobiles have become a necessity. Another senior official indicates that location is important. “A pracharak in a tribal area must not carry fancy gadgets, for people will think some big officer has come. But in a place like JNU, if you are not up-to-date, people will dismiss you as someone from the Stone Age.”The RSS is also having an internal debate on whether it is time to change its uniform, the khaki shorts, which isn’t perceived to be popular with the young.
At his residence in Nagpur, 90-year-old M.G. Vaidya, a senior ideologue and former spokesperson, shows us two belts — the old leather belt has been replaced with a synthetic one. As proof of the organisation’s flexibility, he adds that the colour of the shirts and nature of boots have also changed during the RSS history, and in his neighbourhood shakha, there are people who come in full pants.
“We have even changed our prayers from the time the RSS was set up. Don’t underestimate our ability to adapt with the times,” says a senior official. The Sangh believes that if it can get people interested initially, then the Hindutva ideology, the ‘warmth of informal relations’ and networks; and the presence of ‘inspiring role models’ would ensure that they get drawn to the organisation.
To test whether attitudes are changing, I ask Mr. Joshi about the total absence of women in the Sangh’s decision-making hierarchy. “Women are not present in the Sangh at all. From the inception, our thinking was we must organise Hindu men in society.” The physical nature of Sangh activities, he argues, does not make it conducive to have men and women together. “But women are associated with the ABVP, the VHP, and other affiliates.”
The senior RSS leader says it did not have a problem with women working or with co-educational institutions. But what is important is how women are perceived. “With modernisation, we must not forget our samskara . In our culture, we treat women as mothers. In the West, they see women as wives. There must be purity.”