Last week on social media, Left-liberals trended the hashtag #ChaddiNahiSochBadlo — Change your mind, not underwear. The recipient of this mockery was the RSS, of course. Apparently, the saffron brotherhood felt that the baggy Khaki shorts, part of its formal dress, were proving a bit too uncool for the fashion-conscious young men—its potential catch. Which is why, after deliberating for several years, the RSS has finally decided to replace the Khaki shorts with brown pants.
— Sanjay Jha (@JhaSanjay) March 14, 2016
After 90 years RSS changed their Khaki chaddi. Hope they will change their thinking as well. #ChaddiNahiSochBadlo
— nikhil wagle (@waglenikhil) March 13, 2016
This is an epic hashtag, irrespective of who came up with it. #ChaddiNahiSochBadlo
— Zakka Jacob (@Zakka_Jacob) March 12, 2016
Amid the torrent of jokes, funny and foolish, that followed the RSS’ announcement on March 13, few paid attention to what Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi said about the makeover. “We are not a rigid people, we keep changing with time,” declared Joshi, the executive head of the Hindu nationalist behemoth, at Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the annual meeting of its highest decision-making body, in Nagaur, Rajasthan. “No grassroots organisation can make progress without that.”
Of course, the left-liberal party representatives and intelligentsia active on Twitter are great with witticisms but appear considerably less interested in discussing unglamorous things such as building and sustaining a mass movement (which could potentially counter the RSS). So the matter rested there.
Early this January, I took a train from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh to Nagpur in Maharashtra where the RSS has its headquarters. In Ayodhya, I had visited a place whose fierce guarding by the security personnel made it look more like a nuclear reactor site than the birthplace of Ram. By now, we have documentary evidence that purports to show that the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, was rather meticulously planned in Nagpur by the Sangh Parivar. With such recently acquired information and images in my mind, the journey to Nagpur felt a bit like travelling back in time. I was, therefore, surprised when Dilip Deodhar, who likes to call himself the “unofficial head of the RSS’s Research & Development wing”, told me that in the medium-run the RSS might drop ‘Hindutva’ as its credo and replace it with ‘Bharatiyata‘.
Hindutva represents a political Hinduism that has, since the RSS’s inception in 1925, sought to organise and militarise Hindus as a nationality. Dropping the core tenet would surely dilute the philosophy that the Sangh has so vociferously tried to spread? The answer is: RSS is willing to chuck its most important symbols if that’s what it takes to make the organisation more palatable to the minorities and communities which have so far avoided it.
Deodhar, M. G. Vaidya, an RSS ideologue, and a few others I met in Nagpur said the organisation also might — in medium-run, always, for these changes go against what it envisaged itself to be in the early decades — drop celibacy as a basic condition for the pracharaks, men who go on to become full-time campaigners. But the biggest of all potential changes that the RSS has been debating for a while is to recruit women on a massive scale. This doesn’t mean the RSS would expand its women’s affiliates Rashtra Sevika Samiti and Durga Vahini, but rather induct women in the traditional RSS hierarchy as pracharaks. It also means that a woman could possibly head the RSS someday. Making women full-time campaigners can help Sangh institutionalise its agenda at the level of the family in a way it has never managed to do before. For the RSS, these two changes, if they do take place, would be rather revolutionary, even if they are dictated by an incessant desire to multiply exponentially in the rural and semi-urban areas. This would, in turn, help its political offspring BJP consolidate its vote bank everywhere.
To be sure, the RSS has in the past cared a lot about symbols. A classic example is from 1980 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee came up with a contradictory phrase for the newly founded BJP’s motto: Gandhian socialism. The BJP’s policies were more or less the same as that of Jan Sangh—its previous incarnation, whose guiding philosophy was Deendayal Upadhyay’s “integral humanism”, which is no less vague. The RSS felt offended: the saffron brotherhood had never considered Gandhi its ideal leader; more importantly, socialism was closer to communism, its ideological bête noire. The BJP dropped Gandhian socialism in 1986, but the miscommunication that began in 1980 between the BJP and the RSS could be fully resolved only after Vajpayee retired in 2005.
Ever since the Modi government came to power in the summer of 2014, BJP’s lovers and haters alike have devoted themselves to a question with a seriousness that befits metaphysical enquiries: has the Modi-Shah duo tamed the RSS? Or is it the other way round? The quick answer for now is: it doesn’t matter much. For the RSS, a BJP government at the centre gives it the best chance of making the State—conceived at independence to be impersonal, almost alien, to all communities—everyday a bit more Hinduised. The BJP’s unprecedented electoral clout has made the RSS confident enough to do away with symbols and rituals the organisation thinks are outdated. A change in uniform is in that sense both a manifestation of its growing self-confidence and need to update itself with the times. In some ways, it’s also in sync with the Hindu nationalism’s oldest strategy of appropriation and ‘othering’ the Western symbols.
RSS would turn 100 in 2025. For its centenary, I was told, the Sangh Parivar has set itself the urgent task of making its presence felt in every administrative block in the country—either through the shakha, or, where shakhas can’t reach, through one of its affiliates. According to a recent report, between 2012 and 2015 the RSS has opened more than ten thousand new shakhas across the country. With Narendra Modi, a bonafide alumnus (who also continues to remain loyal), heading a majority government at the centre, there is no reason why Sangh Parivar’s growth would slow down.
Rather than mocking the RSS, the BJP’s opponents should spend their time and energy to sharpen their medium-term politics and economics, to revitalise peoples’ movements, and to invent narratives which could also hopefully be sold successfully to a less chic electorate. And all of this before it gets too late…