From Khaki Shorts to Trousers, RSS Tries to Keep Up With the Times
Major overhaul awaits RSS as the Sangh tries hard to woo the youth. Will it work, asks Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
On Sunday, 4 September, scores of swayamsevaks or volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh gathered at a small ground near its national headquarters in Nagpur for their daily shakha.
Normally this early morning assembly, an essential part of the daily life of swayamsevaks, the shakha, while being the most visible symbol of the RSS, is a routine exercise.
But on the day, as twenty two men gathered in front of the Bhagwa Dhwaj or saffron flag and recited the RSS prayer or salutation, Namaste Sada Vatsale Matribhoome (My salutation to you, loving motherland), there was a vital difference — the swayamsevaks no longer resembled what they are derisively called by political adversaries — chaddiwallahs, or men in khaki shorts.
Instead they were nattily attired in brown trousers to herald the much debated, delayed and important sartorial makeover of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Sanghchalak of Mahal’s nagar unit of the RSS, Ajay Dhakras said that the transition was flawless and no one had any discomfort in going through the grind in the shakha in the new outfit.
Beginning of a New Era
Between September 4 and 11 October, more swayamsevaks purchased the newly manufactured trousers from stores managed by different organisations of the Sangh Parivar. When Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat delivers his most important annual sermon in the morning on that day in Nagpur, the assembled members of the clan will no longer be wearing the signature khaki shorts but will don trousers.
Bhagwat will be addressing the audience in “full pants” exactly forty five years after he attended the experimental “full-pant shakha” that had a year long run in Nagpur before the practise was discontinued following disapproval from conservative sections of the Sangh.
Bhagwat then was a graduate student in veterinary sciences and animal husbandry and attended the shakha for college students, then headed by Dilip Deodhar, a firebrand student swayamsevak and now a noted independent RSS commentator.
Transition Marked by Hiccups
Deodhar reminisced how his experiment had the backing of Balasaheb Deoras, then the Sah Sarkaryavah or Joint General Secretary. Almost year later, Deoras attended the Shakha with the RSS chief of the time, MS Golwalkar in toe. But the practise was discontinued as it was considered an avant-garde initiative and most felt that the RSS was not ready for such experimentation.
The eventual transition has not been without hiccups. The RSS was dogged by the issue of cosmetic makeover for close to a decade. Though the initial suggestion was made because of “embarrassment” stemming from “unwanted display of body parts”, most argued that khaki shorts were integral to the organisation’s identity.
An important place in the shelf of crucial books on the saffron brotherhood is taken by the slim volume penned by several Delhi University scholars — Khaki Shorts And Saffron Flags. Indeed the shorts remain the RSS’ signature for both loyalists and detractors.
Because khaki shorts are inseparable from the RSS visual identity, trousers will not be mandatory for the daily shakha. Instead, most swayamsevaks will continue to wear their old uniform or ganvesh on a daily basis and will step out in trousers only on formal occasions like the Vijay Dashami congregation or other major public assemblies and special camps.
Adversaries who have long targeted RSS sympathisers for “wearing shorts beneath their trousers” will, thus, have little to worry because both styles will remain in vogue within RSS.
Keeping Pace with Changing Time
- RSS gears up for a makeover as it moves from shorts to pants,
with the dress code coming into force from 11 October.
- Transition was not that easy as the khaki shorts has been closely associated with RSS’ identity.
- Change is significant as it illustrates that the RSS is willing
to consider views of affiliate organisations such as BJP and VHP.
- Perception was that old-fashioned shorts were a hindrance
when it came to reaching out to the youth.
- Overhaul of outfit is a cosmetic measure,
something reflected in the dominating presence of the savarna (upper caste) in
Message from the Makeover
The makeover is symbolic of how theequation between the RSS and affiliates has altered in recent years, especially after Bhagwat assumed charge in 2009. Previously, the RSS presided over the entire fraternity as the unquestionable supremo.
In recent years, more so under Bhagwat, the credo is now that the RSS can grow along with the affiliates and that their successes are also those of the Sangh. The RSS leadership is also more open to ideas of affiliates.
First nudges to replace the shorts were made by leaders of affiliated organisations like BJP and VHP who argued that the RSS must move with time. Particularly difficult to manage was the large flair of the shorts, cut almost like a skirt, and more than one leader struggled to sit on dais or platforms without appearing indiscreet.
Yet others felt that the growth in the number of shakhas declined significantly because newcomers, especially youth, did not like the idea of wearing these old-fashioned shorts.
Ideology Remains Unaltered
The RSS may have modernised its outfit, atleast for occasions that are more public than the shakha and daily meetings, but there is need for a completely different kind of modernity — to become socially more inclusive.
More than four decades after Deoras, as sarsanghchalak, initiated the Dalit outreach programme of the RSS, the entire clan’s image still remains predominantly savarn or upper caste.
Sanjeev Kelkar, author of an accomplished book, The Lost Years of RSS, feels that the RSS had a great opportunity provided by the Modi-led victory of the BJP in 2014, when the party was supported by several socially backward groups, particularly Dalits. “But this has been squandered and such cosmetic changes will have limited impact.”
Because ideological reorienting is not remotely under consideration and tactical embrace of backward communities is tough to universalise within the fraternity, the emphasis is on cosmetic change and packaging the RSS better.
After its sartorial makeover, it will be far easier for hordes of people in the middle class to attend the odd shakha and public meetings in RSS uniform without feeling out of place or self-conscious within their regular social circles. Come Vijay Dashami, the RSS will give a sugar coating to a bitter pill.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin)
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