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RSS Outreach: Wind of Change?

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) outreach was an effort to help people understand what RSS really stands for and to demystify its conventional image of a hardline HINDU NATIONALIST OUTFIT.  The list of invitees was planned to include even the sharpest critics like Rahul Gandhi along with leaders from various political parties, specifically from the opposition. The outreach programme included a lecture series, entitled ” ‘Future of Bharat: An RSS perspective’. It was held between September 17 and 19 at Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi.  The RSS head Mohan Bhagwat himself addressed these lectures which are meant to explain the sangh’s perspective on various issues and clear misconceptions about its working and ideology.

Attendees

On the  first day, the lecture was attended by actors, including Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manisha Koirala, former bureaucrats such as Kanwal Sibal and HS Brahma, and foreign dignitaries from countries such as the United States, Sweden and Germany, among others. In all, around 1,200 people attended the two-hour session at the capital’s Vigyan Bhavan. Union ministers, including Hardeep Puri, Arjun Meghwal, KJ Alphons and RK Singh, were present at the event. Rajya Sabha MP and former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh and former Biju Janata Dal MP BJ Panda were also in attendance. While the intent of the speech on day one was to familiarize the audience with the RSS, Bhagwat used the platform to send out several messages. The key messages were that the Sangh: is not divisive; does not treat the Opposition as a pariah; and functions as a democratic set up that allows its affiliates room to take decision, but within the prescribed disciplinary configuration. Opposition parties skipped the outreach effort by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The gist of the lectures

During the lecture, Shri Mohan Bhagwat, RSS head said, “My aim is not to convince you. I will only tell what is…It will be adequate for us if further discussions are based on knowledge of the Sangh.”  implying that people have been criticizing the organisation without any knowledge of its tenets. He also said the organisation is run entirely on the donations by swayamsevasks and not on funds from outside. He also said that volunteers of the Sangh are present in different areas, and they all have the freedom to work. The only concern of the Sangh is that they should not make any mistakes… There are no curbs on swayamsevak; they are free to act based on the values imparted by us.”

The Sangh chief asserted that the organisation believes in “engagement” and not alienation of any political thought. This is seen as a reiteration of an earlier statement of Bhagwat in April that the organisation does not believe in Congress-mukt (Congress-free) India, unlike the BJP, for which this is a central political objective. Bhagwat also praised the role of the (Indian National) Congress of that era in India’s freedom struggle.

He denied that the RSS wielded the government’s “remote control”, and sought to establish that it did play a role in India’s freedom movement. He asserted that RSS  is a “democratic organisation” that does not aspire for “domination.” He reiterated the Sangh’s role in the freedom struggle. He wove the RSS’s contribution to the struggle for Independence in the story that he narrated about the founder Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and his motivation for starting the Sangh. The Sangh chief also clarified the organisation’s view on political differences and diversity. “There is no reason for worry about diversity [in ideologies], these should be celebrated and taken along…” he said, adding that while one must stick to their ideology, they should accord respect to the others. “There are several languages, customs and food habits in India. There is diversity. Yet we are all children of Bharat. Everyone is part of Bharat and we are not against anyone. Unity in diversity is about consensus and RSS does not oppose Muslims or Buddhists.”

Conclusion

Everything what Shri Mohan Bhagvat said was a melody to the ears, and a surprise to many- does this mark a change of heart or an indication of evolution of an old organization with changing times? Nobody is sure about the real reasons of this proclaimed change as indicated by the speech of Shri Bhagvat – a change from a hard-line ideology to a liberal, moderate and progressive ideology, more uniting than dividing the Indians, especially two major communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. But it seems that the RSS is trying to create a new narrative to enhance the appeal of its ideology among intellectuals, youth and other domestic and foreign observers by painting it rational, liberal and accommodative. The outreach also seems to present a clear image of RSS as a socio-cultural organization and reject the description of RSS as a political organization. There are many who believe that majority violence against the minorities or peddling superstitious beliefs by some of the political leaders in the name of Hinduism is backed by the RSS. The RSS is considered to be ideological parent of the ruling party BJP, and utterances by Shri Bhagwat may be intended to brighten the electoral prospects of the BJP. Whatever be the underlying reason, if this kind of change is embraced and endured by the RSS, the organization may be metamorphosed for good. Nevertheless, there are people who are still not convinced.

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