The announcement a couple of weeks ago that mountaineer Santosh Yadav would be the chief guest at the annual Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) Vijayadashmi festival led to speculations if the almost century-old organisation would break any other tradition.
The reason for this arose from the fact that this was the first time that the RSS had invited a woman, that too someone from the Other Backward Caste(OBC) as a chief guest. Was the RSS preparing for inducting women into its fold, it was reflected upon?
Women’s Role in Furthering RSS Agenda
In the event, the Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat put all such thoughts to rest when he said that the organisation’s programme of Vyakti Nirman (Individual’s Development) would continue to run “separately” by the RSS and the Rashtra Sevika Samiti-- the women's affiliate.
Although established in 1936 by Laxmibai Kelkar, a widow and mother of a young swayamsevak, it has made unhurried progress and at the last count was functional in almost 2400 cities, towns, hamlets and villages where almost 3000 shakhas function and the total strength of sevikas is placed at about 55,000.
Despite women having no role in the RSS and the Sevika Samiti not being the women’s wing of the parent body, Bhagwat stated, “All other activities are carried out jointly by men and women.” He added that despite this being part of the Indian tradition, it “was forgotten and numerous limitations were placed on Matri Shakti.”
He asserted that women can neither placed on a pedal in a “divine altar” nor can they be limited to the kitchen. However, the articulation of women’s power was through their capacities as mother, wife and sister, the standard roles in families – their activities outside the family fold being secondary.
Bhagwat, however, claimed that women were being empowered now and hinted at a greater role within the Sangh Parivar and institutions over which it has had influence. He claimed that this change was even recorded by a survey, albeit controversial for the nature of its findings, conducted by a RSS affiliate, the Pune-headquartered Drishti Stree Adhyayan Prabodhan Kendra(DSAPK)in 2017.
First Woman Guest in RSS Event Preaches Inclusiveness
Obviously, Santosh Yadav was invited to broadcast the political message that women are no longer on the periphery of the RSS and its activities. This is also a reflection of thinking within the BJP and other affiliates that there has to be greater gender parity in politics and the public role of women will have to be enhanced with time. The choice of the chief guest was to signal openness of the RSS to this.
But, referring to the DSAPK study can be self-limiting, for its report in 2017 claimed that married women had high levels of happiness while those who had live-in relationships had a lowest percentage of contentment. It also said that women who had renounced the material world or those who were deeply spiritual were the happiest.
Women Wing’s Report Propounds Unsubstantiated Claims
The study also claimed that the marital status of a woman determines her employment status, further deliberating that divorced women were more likely to be employed than those who were married.
Peculiarly, unmarried women were shown as being more likely to be hospitalised than those married, thereby alluding that marriage makes women healthier and less likely to fall ill.
Bhagwat spoke glowingly of this report although successive National Crime Records Bureau(NCRB) reports points to cruelty being high within marriages.
The RSS viewpoint on role of women, as articulated by Bhagwat, demonstrates that little progress has been made since the debate within the RSS in the 1930s when there was debate if women should be allowed into the organisation or not.
RSS Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes
Eventually they were not and the Sevika Samiti was established because allowing them to mingle with Pracharaks, committed to celibacy, was considered improper.
From the beginning, the RSS was hamstrung by a patriarchal mindset and this viewpoint continues to prevail. Acts like extending invitation to Santosh Yadav or fielding more women candidates remain mere cosmetic gestures.
Since its inception, the RSS has been plagued by Hindu disunity because of the caste fissures in Hindu society. The codifier of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was however clear in his mind to break these barriers.
Long Way for RSS-BJP To Cover Caste Issues
While still in open detention in Ratnagiri in the late 1920s, he campaigned for the 'untouchables' (as the members of Scheduled Castes were then called) getting the right to enter temples as equals. This activity however did not become part of the RSS charter for long.
Although the RSS-BJP has consciously worked on OBC-isation of the organisational structures, much remains to be done as is evident for the rising Upper Caste profile of the BJP’s legislative wings at the Union and state levels.
Bhagwat referred to this in his speech, giving indication of awareness that caste division remains the ultimate obstacle to all-encompassing Hindu unity. He said, "the Indian Constitution engineered political and economic equality but without social equity, real and stable transformation is not possible.”
Bhagwat’s Speech Has Inevitable Hindu Emphasis
He also noted that the 'rules' (did not use the word ‘Reservation’ for this issue evokes mixed responses within the Sangh Parivar) “were made to achieve this objective (of ensuring social justice).”
It will be tempting to get carried away with the Sarsanghchalak’s viewpoint that “root cause of inequality is in our minds, social conditioning and habitual conduct” and that “unless temples, water sources and cremation grounds are open to all Hindus”, all “talk of equality will be a mere pipe dream.”
This articulation however suffers from the limitation of merely attacking the manifestations of the retrograde caste order and not the caste system per se, which binds different communities to specific social roles and even professions.
Until and unless the proverbial birthmark on the skin or on the surname is erased, Hindu society will remain one that is in permanent inequity.
The issue of whether the RSS is attempting to re-invent itself is asked repeatedly. But can the organisation recast itself without altering the ways in which it and other affiliates deepen existing social prejudice against Muslims?
Bhagwat used the standard tropes which the RSS has used unceasingly in the past. Each of these phrases – differences in birth rate, religion-based population imbalance, conversions by force and new population policy be applicable for all, are essentially dog-whistles.
They hark back to the old Sangh Parivar campaign that an Islamist conspiracy exists that will eventually reduce Hindus “into a minority in their own country.” With time, various other ‘conspiracies’ were added to the list, for instance Love Jihad,
Such offensives statements are never made by the top leaders but the message that goes from major parts from speeches like the one Bhagwat delivered, emboldens people who are part of this ecosystem.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)