I Grew Up Around RSS Folk; Here’s What I Know About Them

Amruta Shirpurkar

Oct 08, 2017, 05:30 PM | Updated 05:30 PM IST

RSS volunteers performing yoga (Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
RSS volunteers performing yoga (Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • RSS is a big, boisterous, hearty family! Here are the myths and truths.
  • This isn’t an article that would discuss the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or dwell on the values, the literature or the working style of the organisation. Readers who may think this would be a narrative on the constraining orthodox way of living that is allegedly proposed by the RSS will be sorely disappointed.

    This is an inside account of a woman (hence, technically, an outsider) who has grown up amidst these people, who has heard their stories since childhood, and who shares the neighbourhood with this largest non-governmental organisation in the world, and as the rumour goes, the political nerve centre of India.

    I was attending the ninety-second Vijayadashami Utsav, the foundation day of the RSS. The sun was scorching, and humidity wasn’t forgiving either. Yet, there I was, with thousands of others, spending the precious morning of my holiday bearing all the heat and sweat with fortitude and a smile, just to celebrate this moment! I asked myself – why was I there? Why were others there? Was it because I had been socialised in a particular way? Or as some would say, programmed saffron? Was it because, growing up in this environment, I couldn’t but be affected by it?

    Now, I am a reasonably rational person, with my own perspectives and ideas. I disagree and question some ideas of the RSS like so many others do. Yet, me and thousands are drawn towards it. Many would say, RSS is the best ticket to political power. It guarantees you position and perquisites. Let me tell you though, it is a myth. If anybody in your family holds any position in any organisations affiliated with the RSS, or is even remotely connected to it, it is an unwritten norm that you should not apply there, or else you will be charged with nepotism. You need to prove your mettle beyond any doubt and then earn the position. It is much more difficult to hold a job even if you get in, because you are expected to follow the highest standards of efficiency and transparency. It is like constantly carrying your personal spotlight! Believe me, you can’t even experience the adventure of breaking the stipulated speed limits while driving. When you reach home, be sure you will hear a thing or two about it! How restricting! But, the flip-side is, there is always someone out there for you.

    There is an abundance of literature, academic and otherwise, deliberating about the philosophical tenets and the organisational structure of the RSS. However, any veteran swayamsevak would sum up all these tomes in one word – atmiyata. It’s all about the connection of the heart. Sounds romantic and downright non-academic! But, this simple yet profound principle is the soul of this 92-year-old-and-still-going-strong organisation. It is a big, boisterous, hearty family! Just like any family, it has many members with independent and differing, sometimes even contradictory viewpoints. They discuss, they argue, they negotiate – it is an actual manifestation of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian! Just like every family, they have principles, values, memories and experiences that bind them together. When they come to a decision, it is unanimous and for the benefit of all – two major philosophical tenets of sangachhadvam, samvadadhvam and sarve bhavantu sukhinah.

    On a personal level, I ask myself, why am I attached to them? Is it their ideology, is it the benefits, is it the power? For me, these people are kaka, mama and dada…just like members of my extended family. They visit our home frequently, they have the right of direct entry into the kitchen – a sanctuary of any Indian home. It doesn’t matter if my father or my mother is at home. They come over just for a coffee, to share an experience, to hear our opinion about any issue. They are always there; to share moments of joy, to support in the moments of sorrow. They aren’t pracharaks, or sanghchalaks, rashtriya pramukhs or in any such positions – they are family.

    I am really amused by the stereotyped image of an RSS swayamsevak. Media has portrayed him as a melancholic philosophaster, an orthodox, middle-aged man who preaches righteousness, propagates anti-Muslim agenda, glorifies the past, criticises the young generation and patronises women. I really wish I could record the conversations I have experienced. They would shatter this image that has been created with no care for nuances, for a political purpose.

    The RSS people of my acquaintance – there are many – belong to a different breed perhaps. They talk about books, not just Vedas or Kalidas but about Harry Potter, J R R Tolkien, Enid Blyton, Ayn Rand, even the Game of Thrones! They discuss movies and theatre and fine arts. They engage in inventive mind games, puzzles and origami. You can discuss anything with them, from live-in relationships, the generation gap, your career choice, to your choice of life partner. They can actually have an open discussion about love jihad, cow slaughter, Hindu rashtra, economic policies, political strategy, international relations. You can challenge their outlook, give them inputs, and even agree to disagree with them! Unlikely in a masochistic, parochial, patriarchal organisation, isn’t it? Just an entry in the shakha would not give me the sense of equality. I am an equal because my opinions and abilities are respected.

    It is a general perception that India has been saffronised. The RSS has mushroomed in every nook and corner of the country. I don’t care about the hue particularly. All I know is that right from Ladakh and the North East to Kerala, I have a home. People I can reach out to if I need help, people I have never seen; I may not even meet them again, but they are there. This feeling sets me free to travel and explore my country, knowing that I will be safe. I will be home.

    There has been a lot of debate about the agenda of the RSS. However, I have rarely come across a person who, despite being against their values and ideas, does not appreciate the dedication and integrity of these people for the cause they believe in with all their heart and soul. Their language and use of words like matrubhoomi, shraddha, samarpan, vijigisha, etc, are criticised as being lofty and old-school. Yet, they have the right to speak thus, because they live this way – tann samarpit, mann samarpit, aur yaha jeevan samarpit!

    To understand an organisation, to know its agenda, you need to know the people. My humble advice to friends and foes, believers and non-believers – to understand the RSS, you must experience it!

    Amruta Shirpurkar is a research scholar at NIT Nagpur.

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