Founded on Vijayadashami (Dusshera) in Nagpur in 1925 by Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is now 95 years old. With an estimated membership upward of 8 million, it is probably the largest voluntary organisation in the world. Daily, more than 60,000 shakhas or branch meetings of the RSS take place in all parts of India and in several places outside the country.
What is more, over the decades, the Sangh has germinated, nurtured, and established some 30 all-India organisations. The prominent ones include Vidya Bharati, which runs 14,000 schools, Sarasrwati Shishu Mandir, with 25,000 schools under its aegis, and the 1 lakh single teacher schools called Ekal Vidyalayas.
Besides India’s largest workers and students unions, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) respectively, the RSS is also credited with starting the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). In addition, there are more than a hundred thousand seva or service bodies founded and supported by the RSS
Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, was himself a Congressmen, even going to jail twice during the freedom struggle. However, he and a number of other leaders, felt that the Congress, by adopting wrong policies and appeasement politics, would make India weak. The Congress’ failures in preventing the partition of India and compromising national security in the 1962 Indo-China war only strengthened the RSS resolve to provide an alternative.
No wonder, the contribution of the RSS has been most noticeable and spectacular in the realm of Indian politics. The current ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, were both inspired, seeded, and promoted by the RSS. Even today, most of the BJP’s top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister, Amit Shah, began as RSS volunteers.
The BJP was formed on April 6, 1980. Today, with a vaunted membership of 100 million people, it is the world’s largest political organisation. What is more, from a dismal tally of just two seats in 1984, the first general elections after it was founded, it notched up in 2014 an impressive 282 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. In the 2019 general elections, it fared even better, with 303 out of 543 on its own accord. An incredible success story, even its harshest critics would admit.
The unique and distinguishing feature of the RSS is its almost infinite creativity and fecundity. This is manifest in the Sangh’s capacity to create any number of near-autonomous organisations touching almost every sphere of life. As one insider puts it, “There is no limit on the number of organisations that can be seeded to support the multiple issues in society that necessitate intervention.” The phenomenal productivity of the RSS may be called Sangh Srishti or the creative and innovative resourcefulness of the RSS. It is the prominent, largely non-political but socially crucial, and culturally transformative aspect of the Sangh.
Till recently, except for RSS’s own publications, very little was known or written about it by non-members. Despite its phenomenal influence and contribution in almost all areas Indian society, from education, social service, to politics, the RSS, was also reviled by the Left-liberal establishment in India and elsewhere. ‘Hindu fascism’ was the frequent slur against it. Such was the seething prejudice against the RSS that in mainstream media or academia it was practically “untouchable.” It was professionally risky to be talk about it, let alone be linked with it.
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In fact, far from being powerful and influential, the RSS was, till lately, India’s least understood and most stigmatised association. Banned once in British India and thrice after Independence, it was systematically slandered and ridiculed by the ruling dispensation. A disinformation campaign was conducted against it over decades. This RSS allergy of the erstwhile ruling establishment was largely political.
As one commentator close to the Congress, which ruled India for nearly 60 of its 73 years as an independent country, put it, “Once the Hindu genie was out of the bottle, it would be impossible to recork it.” The fear was that Hindu consolidation in electoral politics would mean the end of Congress Raj. That is exactly what happened in both 2014 and 2019 when the Narendra Modi-led BJP swept into power.
Despite its decades of struggle and travail, the RSS has come to occupy centre-stage in India. It has weathered every storm and flourished despite decades of opposition. In soft Hindutva, it is gradually prevailing in providing an alternative to Nehruvian secularism and socialism. Today, the RSS is widely perceived as an all-India nationalist organisation, not just one that champions and promotes Hindu interests.
Ninety-five years of tapasya, rigorous penance and austerity, for the sake of India is how its eventful journey may be described.