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Conquering the Tamil heartland

The RSS functionaries see a demographic shift in the drill sessions. Photo: V. Ganesan  

On October 20, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sprung a surprise on the Dravidian heartland of Tamil Nadu with what many considered was a symbolic coup.

The ideological parent of the BJP, a party which has set Tamil Nadu firmly on its radar, decided to celebrate the 1,000th year of the coronation of the celebrated Chola king Rajendra I. Those in the RSS consider it an act of cultural reclamation. For long, the Dravidian parties, which have their roots in an atheistic movement, had “appropriated” the kings of Tamil Nadu into their ideology. The Cholas, RSS members argue, were devout Hindu kings and this important aspect of history has to be revived.

While this celebration was announced openly, most RSS activities in Tamil Nadu are discreet, to say the least. But if one goes by the account of the “Sevaks,” the organisation, through a combination of campaigns, is slowly spreading its wings. Perhaps the indicator of a growing interest in the RSS is the attendance at its “Shakas” (drill sessions). N. Sadagopan, RSS spokesperson who coordinates with the media, says the average attendance in these gatherings in the State has touched 40 a day from a meagre 20 a decade ago. Much of this activity is concentrated in the south and west of Tamil Nadu, pockets with powerful, land-owning intermediate castes, which are also serious about their religious identity.

“It is true that political victories of the BJP provide a surge of people coming to the RSS. But very soon, we filter out those committed and those who just want short-term political benefit,” he says. There are targeted campaigns too. For example, in metropolitan Chennai, the RSS holds weekly gatherings for IT professionals. Many of them, in turn, become defenders of the organisation on the Internet, vigorously countering ideological accusations on social media.

The RSS functionaries see a demographic shift in the drill sessions. Years ago, school students dominated the sessions in Khaki shorts. But at least in the past five years, the pracharaks claim those in the age group of 25 to 40 dominate, bringing an entirely new dimension to its functioning.

The RSS is also trying to shed its image of being an organisation of the Brahmins. In fact, Mr. Sadagopan says the community’s presence is dwindling by the day. In fact, this squares with some of the nationalist-minded powerful Other Backward Classes groups politically moving towards the BJP, even if there are no immediate electoral gains to be made.

Perhaps, calculated strategies are beginning to pay off. To usher in a “healthy” caste mix, there is much focus on Dalit colonies and slums in recent years. As part of the activities of the Dharma Rakshana Samhiti, a wing of the RSS, Mr. Sadagopan says pamphlets detailing the importance of the first day of the Chitrai month (Tamil New Year) are distributed in thousands of Dalit colonies. The kit contains the pamphlets, a picture of a Hindu god, and Re. 1 coins used in Yagas, the last one as some sort of a symbolic protective amulet to diffuse divine grace to the supposedly lowly.

“Essentially, this is an attempt to bring back into the Hindu fold those who have been converted. We are received well when we explain to them the greatness of the Hindu religion,” the RSS leader says.

During election times, the RSS provides crucial support to the BJP in its campaign given that the party’s organisation in Tamil Nadu is weak. While those who conduct day-to-day activities for the RSS are exempted from this duty, thousands of Swayam Sevaks campaign door-to-door for the BJP.

“As the number of people coming to the RSS grows, the BJP will get ideologically committed individuals. This is a healthy trend,” Mr. Sadagopan says. But the fact that the RSS has gained in confidence after the resounding victory of the BJP in the May Lok Sabha polls is exhibited by the public marches it tried to organise across Tamil Nadu on November 9.

The police clamped down and stopped the march by thousands carrying a stick in hand wearing Khaki shorts. The attempt was also seen as a challenge to the ruling AIADMK, which observers often say has kept the growth of the saffron brigade in check in recent years.

This is notwithstanding the fact that the DMK was part of the Vajpayee-led NDA. Yet, parties like the DMK had to manage serious contradictions vis-a-vis their ties with Sangh Parivar outfits, firstly after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, and a decade later in the post-Godhra riots phase in Gujarat.

The present political context, however, is different. “It is a colossal political clash. As long as the AIADMK is strong, the BJP’s work would be harder. This realisation has dawned upon our Central leaders now,” points out a senior Tamil Nadu BJP leader. The DMK is not so much of a political worry for the saffronites now, relatively speaking.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 4:12:46 PM |

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