Why did a young woman join a RSS women’s wing camp?

GenderAnd The Nation: What right wing nationalism teaches young girls about love marriage, western dresses and Hindu culture.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | New Delhi | Updated: June 28, 2017 3:28 pm
RSS, Rashtra Sevika Samiti, gender, women, young women in RSS, gender and nation Rashtra Sevika Samiti. Source: Express Archives

IN MARCH 2017, sitting in a modest apartment in New Delhi’s Naraina Vihar, Seema Yonzon opened her laptop and typed ‘Rashtra Sevika Samiti’ in the search bar. She says that when the website opened, she clicked on a form that invited young women to join the organisation. Sitting under a whirling fan, she hastily filled in the details, providing her name, age, contact number and gender, as well as her religion and why she wished to join the Samiti. “My nani was sitting in the drawing room with me, knitting a sweater. She had no idea what I was doing,” Seema confesses. Seema had just arrived in Delhi on a three-day trip for a college project from Chennai, and was living with her cousins. The precocious 26-year-old’s ideological perspective stood in stark contrast to the staunch Congress-supporting family she belonged to. She had made up her mind to reach out to the RSS.

Two days later, Seema received an email, which thanked her for showing interest in the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, addressing her as ‘Behen’ (sister). It included the contact details of Sandeep Verma. Days later, back in Chennai where she was pursuing post-graduation, she called him. “He told me that, ‘We hold a camp once every year, so you must go there and observe. Over there, they will focus on personality development, tell you how to work for the nation and also teach you about our nation’s history. Just go there once – you will grow and emerge confident,’” she said. Convinced, within the next few days, Seema organised the money and tickets for her travel. By the end of May, she had boarded the train and was on her way to Delhi. The camp would be Seema’s first encounter with the Samiti but one that would leave an indelible mark.

The Rashtra Sevika Samiti (National Women Volunteers Committee) is a women-only Hindu nationalist group affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Established in 1936 by Laxmibai Kelkar, the wing carries the same ideology as the men’s Swayamsevak Sangh, which believes in re-establishing the ‘Hindu rashtra’ by nurturing and maintaining the purity of the Hindu culture. On its official website, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh underscores its mission: “The Hindu culture is the life-breath (sic) of Hindusthan. It is therefore clear that if Hindusthan is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture.’’

The women’s wing works in tandem with the Sangh. When Kelkar first approached the founding Sarsanghachalak (chief) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Dr. Keshav B. Hedgewar, he immediately refused to allow women in his organisation. However, later he assisted Kelkar in establishing a parallel women-dominated body.

Although the Samiti functions as a separate entity – since its conception, the women’s wing has never merged with the exclusively male organisation – the Samiti’s ideological identity mirrors and upholds the same values as the Sangh. While the men are told to be the ultimate protectors of the nation, the Samiti informs its women that it is up to them to bring up such men who are physically and intellectually equipped to carry forth the important task of nation-building.

In comparison to its male counterpart, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti has relatively maintained a low-profile. Its Delhi arm was established in 1960. Although the Samiti religiously holds shakhas across the city, the presence of shakhas is more prominent in middle-class areas, like Naraina Vihar, Paschim Vihar, Lajpat Nagar, R.K. Puram, Preet Vihar, Karol Bagh, Punjabi Bagh and Kamla Nagar. A shakha is a gathering that is attended by the Samiti members either on a daily, a weekly or a monthly basis. It is where the members learn about the Hindu culture, customs and history. These shakhas are anchored in promoting the Hindu identity and integrity.

The 15-day long camp, held annually in June, which Seema attended, trained adolescent girls in self-defence and nation-worshiping. It was two days after the completion of the camp, that I met Seema in Connaught Place in New Delhi. She greeted me with her palms pressed together; her head slightly bowed. “Shubh Prabhat!” she said cheerfully. Dressed in a full-sleeves, full-length, navy-blue kurti with white embroidered flowers, Seema’s hair was neatly pulled back and tied in a plait.

It was the middle of June, Seema and I sat in the neatly-trimmed central lawns of Connaught Place. It was 44.5 degree Celsius outside, but she convinced me to sit with her in an open space, rather than a cafe or a restaurant. “I do not like sitting in air-conditioned spaces,” she said. “We need to protect our environment.”

Standing five-feet four inches tall, Seema has been brought up in Delhi. Comfortable in speaking colloquial Hinglish, a combination of Hindi and English, she struggled to speak to me in proper Hindi. Every time she did use an English word in a Hindi sentence, however, she appeared hassled and would stop herself immediately, and say, “Kshama chahungi! (I beg your pardon).”

One of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s and the Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s key agendas has been to stifle the proliferation of the English language within the country, while simultaneously stressing on the importance of embracing Hindi and regional languages. In March 2017, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh held a two-day seminar for Delhi University teachers. The seminar’s concept note stated, ‘While on one side Turkish and Mughal invaders destroyed our temples, the English have established an education system which has made people lose their trust in the Indian education system.’

Seema said leaning forward and looking directly at me in the eye, “We need to proliferate our sanskriti. I was not like this before. I did not know how to speak shuddh Hindi, but the camp has taught me how to converse in it better… At the camp, elder sisters – that is, ‘sevikas’ used to tell me, ‘Whatever you want to say, say it in Hindi’. And I felt that, yes, even I should know how to speak Hindi properly. It’s my language after all, so why should I feel shy or conscious of it? We keep adopting others’ languages; it’s time for a change.”

In the camp, the attendees were also taught how to artfully wield lathis, swords and knives to protect themselves in a society where violence against women is rife. But while the girls are physically ’empowered’ and ‘liberated’, psychologically, this empowerment is inextricably linked to the identity of womanhood. “A man’s job is to make money – masculinity is his quality,” I was told by the Samiti’s 70-year-old north region karyakarvahika (worker), Chandrakanta, in an ironical monotone, “Whereas a woman’s quality is motherhood.” It is a woman’s responsibility, the girls are told, to keep her family intact, support her husband and become a good mother.

Rashtra Sevika Samiti, RSS, Laxibai Kelkar, genderand, gender, women Chandrakanta (second from the left) attends the event that marks the end of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s training camp

AFTER SETTLING underneath a leafy tree, Seema began narrating the qualities of the organisation that she has recently learned. She says, “The Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s goal is to unite everyone and work towards re-establishing what we have lost. That is our sanskriti, our way of dressing, our way of living and speaking. Right now we are at a point where we have adopted the western culture and have forgotten ours. Why should we wear clothes which are not ours?”

Seema also connects women’ dresses to the violence against them. “Somewhere, I believe, it’s because of their western thinking… If a woman is wearing jeans-pant (sic), then chances of it [rape] are more. We have to therefore cover ourselves more – like a bhartiya nari (Indian woman). For instance, I’ve not worn a salwar today, so do forgive me,” she said, pausing abruptly in the middle of the conversation to point at the black pants she was wearing underneath her kurti. “This is a fashion now days, but it’s also my fault that I am not wearing a dupatta with this either. I’m not feeling ‘guilty’ about it, but this is fusion – and fusion is not part of our culture. I should be wearing the salwar-kameez in its entirety – I should adopt a proper bhartiya nari’s dressing sense. I used to wear western clothes before attending the camp, but at that time, I didn’t have the wisdom. Now I’ve changed. You know, won’t find our kind of bhartiya sanskriti anywhere in the world!”

Seema is a Christian. As a child, she remembers going to church every Sunday. Her parents sent her regularly to attend sermons. “I used to feel uncomfortable going there,” she said in a querulous squeak. “I never enjoyed it, but my parents would send me whether I liked it or not.”

Unable to speak freely with her parents throughout her life, Seema grew up with a sense of isolation within her family and felt a strong disconnect with her religion. About two years ago, she became curious about Hinduism, primarily because a large number of her friends were Hindus. In 2016, she stopped going to church completely. In Seema’s mind, the opportunity to attend the Sevika Samiti camp appeared as a source of the stability, where she could perhaps achieve a larger sense of belonging. “What I see in Hindus is that they function as a unit,” she said animatedly bringing her fingers together to form a fist. “Whenever an individual needs something, whenever a Sevika needs help, these people are there. They are one unit. It is this unity that I like. I feel this is more established in Hindutva. I like their sanskriti and everything. It’s very inspiring.”

Rashtra Sevika Samiti, RSS, girls in RSS, RSS girls, women in RSS, RSS women, gender and nation, RSS gender Girls wielding swords at Rashtra Sevika Samiti camp in New Delhi. Source: Express photo/Radhika Iyengar

ON JUNE 11, 2017, about a hundred young girls, dressed in pink-bordered, white salwar kameez, swung their lathis and swords theatrically in the air to the beat of the drum. Seema was part of this camp. Performing at the G.L.T Saraswati Bal Mandir school in New Delhi ,which is affiliated with RSS’ educational wing, Vidya Bharati, the evening marked the end of the training camp which had gone on for over a fortnight. The girls had stayed away from home and had adopted a strict, disciplinarian lifestyle – waking up every morning at four. By the time the clock struck five, the girls would assemble in the school’s courtyard, ready for the scheduled exercises. Before they would begin, they would sing a prayer to a hoisted, two-arrowed saffron flag, which they consider to be their ‘guru’.

Post the self-defense exercises, the girls would attend ‘baudhik’ (intellectual) sessions, where they were taught shlokas, told about the country’s ‘mahapurush’, ‘rishis’ and freedom fighters. During these classes, an older ‘sevika’ stood before a blackboard and wrote down the three qualities the girls must strive to possess: to have the virtue of leadership (netritva) like Rani Laxmibai; to be responsible in one’s mission (kartritva) like the Holkar queen, Ahilya Bai Holkar; and to aspire to be a mother (matritva) like Jijabai, mother of Maratha king, Chhatrapati Shivaji.

The Samiti considers Jijabai to be the true embodiment of motherhood, since she inculcated the true ‘Hindu values’ in Shivaji, preparing him to fearlessly battle against the Mughal emperors and establish the Hindu empire. While the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s men identify Shivaji as the founder of the nation, the Samiti tells the women that it was Jijabai who was responsible for giving birth to Shivaji, and therefore, ultimately, responsible for giving birth to the ‘Hindu nation’. Implicitly then, women are informed that their ‘stree shakti’ (woman power) is inextricably linked to their capability to bring up strong, nation-worshiping children. Protecting the nation is of prime importance. While men work at the forefront of safeguarding the nation, women should be their support system, assisting them from behind.

The Samiti praises femininity, but defines it in its relationship to serving men and their children. “A mother is the ultimate creator. If she wants, she can bring up her child to be a saint or a destroyer,” Chandrakanta, who was the chief guest at the camp’s event, told me. Her petite frame was wrapped in a pink-bordered white saree. She said, “In today’s times, women have to be physically and emotionally strong, because a woman is the spine of a family. Corruption will end only when a woman will inspire her husband to not indulge in it. We are the ones responsible for getting rid of all evils from society.”

In her book, Gender in the Hindu Nation: RSS women as Ideologues, Paola Bacchetta (Associate Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies at University of California), notes why the word “swayam” (self) is not mentioned in the name Rashtra Sevika Samiti, while it exists in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. While a “man’s self is individual”, writes Bacchetta, the identity of a woman concerns “not only the individual self, but also family, society, nation, religion and culture.”

Tracing the tan-coloured strap of her watch with her frail finger, Chandrakanta said that when it came to pursuing a career, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti wanted to tell its girls that it is not wrong to be independent. “However, God has sent us here for a reason. We must never forget the natural [biological] gift God has given us. The gift of motherhood is something a father can never do. We are not men, we can never be men. Therefore, don’t try to be men. Our role is of wives, of sisters. So a girl should go forth in their career, while performing her family duties,” she said.

Laxmibai Kelkar, endearingly called ‘mavshi ji’, also cautioned the ‘sevikas’ to not abandon the idea of marriage, since ‘social norms’ should not be broken. A comic book titled, ‘Vandaniya Mavshi Kelkar’ on Kelkar’s life, available on Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s website conveys this:

RSS, Rashtra Sevika Samiti, gender, women, young women in RSS, gender and nation A page from ‘Vandaniya Mavshi Kelkar’ comic, which depicts Kelkar convincing the Samiti members to marry: “If people see that we are breaking social norms, they will not respond to the Samiti”. In the adjoining box, Kelkar is shown saying, “We have to develop an organisation of strong Hindu women having reputation and moral character. Here we have the tradition of Hindu culture. Hinduism is the nationality. Saffron is the national flag and single leadership backed by collective decisions is the system.”

IN HER paper, Exploring Gender, Hindutva and Seva (published in Economic and Political Weekly, 2009), Swati Dyahadroy wrote about the “three kinds of representations of women” who join right-wing organisations such as the RSS. “One form of representation is of women who are simply alienated from their own interests and whose actions are seen as coherent with the interests of their male counterparts. Another represents them as joining right wing groups primarily out of a desire for community with other women and not because of any ideological or principled commitment to the organisation. Yet another represents them as motivated by choice, conviction and opportunism.”

Seema perhaps falls in the second category. She feels that the camp had helped her tremendously, instilling in her a sense of confidence she, otherwise, lacked. “Earlier, I did not have the confidence as I do now,” she told me excitedly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “I have learned how to protect myself. At the camp we learned taekwondo, yoga chaap—” Suddenly, she stopped midway and got up. “In fact, I would like to show it to you,” she said, dusting herself.

Squinting slightly as the sunlight hit her eyes, Seema stood in front of me casually with her legs slightly apart. “Now, if you are standing like this, anyone can come from behind, shove you and you will fall. However—” she lowered herself slightly, bending her knees while tightening her calf muscles, “—if someone tries to make me fall while I am in this position, with my knees slightly bent, it will be difficult for him. This position is called being in ‘sidhh’. While standing in ‘siddh’, you will be stable. Whenever we practice any exercise, we always maintain this position because it keeps our balance.” At the camp, the girls were trained to “remain in sidhh” for an hour every morning and another hour in the evening to strengthen their leg muscles. “Today, even when I was traveling in the metro to come meet you, I was in ‘sidhh’,” Seema continued. “I don’t care whether someone was looking at me or laughing. This is purely for my practice.”

A page from ‘Vandaniya Mavshi Kelkar’ comic that shows how women were trained. Initially, they were taught by the men from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It reads: “Laxmibai and her college women learnt Lathi, Lejim and other self defence techniques from the Sangha volunteers. Women started gathering in large numbers.”

THE CAMPS are the most comprehensive way of initiating young women into the Hindutva ideology. While Seema is a new recruit, Neelima Kapoor attended her first shakha in Jammu in 1982. Her mother had escorted her to the shakha when she was sixteen years old. It was a time when the murmurings of an insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir had begun. From organising ‘black days’–mourning the death of Hindus in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim riots–to fiercely staging protests; to supporting the men in the Swayamsevak Sangh by cooking meals, Kapoor emerged as a star sevika.

Now married and in her early fifties, Kapoor continues to hold shakhas in the backyard of her house in New Delhi. Every Sunday, a group of 15 girls [aged 10 to 16 years] belonging to a nearby underprivileged neighbourhood gather in Kapoor’s backyard,  and before a hoisted saffron flag, chant in unison, “Desh raksha parampunyam, desh raksha parampitam, desh raksha paramyagya…Bharat mata ki jai!” (Guarding the nation is the greatest good deed, guarding the nation is a godly act, guarding the nation is the main aim of life…Long live India!”). In the shakhas, the girls are taught ‘desh-bhakti’ songs, narrated stories laced with morals, told how to respect elders and how to dress appropriately.

It is the middle of the afternoon and we are sitting in Kapoor’s drawing room. She sits before me in a checkered black-and-white salwaar-kameez, sipping her ginger-tea soundlessly, before beginning to talk about the Samiti and its pracharikas.

Pracharikas are ‘sevikas’ who pledge their lives to the Samiti, work as full-timers and practice celibacy. Their goal is to serve the Samiti, and through it, the nation. Kapoor wants her shakha girls to become pracharikas, of course, but not all of them. “Listen,” Kapoor tells me while looking at me directly in the eye, “if all of the [Samiti’s] girls become pracharikas, then how will the country populate? I need to think about the country as well. If every girl becomes a ‘desh bhakt’, then [Hindu] families will dwindle – we will completely reduce in numbers. Those Mohammedans keep producing 9-10 children. All I want to say is that if we [Hindus] have two kids – one should work for the nation, the other should marry – because families must grow alongside the nation. Then only we will grow in number.”

“Children are god’s gift,” Kapoor continues smiling wryly; her diamond nose-stud catches the sunlight from the window. “So we should not tell our people to stop having children. We shouldn’t say, ‘Stop producing’, or ‘One child is enough.’”

Kapoor echoes a belief that has been vociferously reiterated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In a report by The Hindu on August 22, 2016, a RSS worker informed married Hindu couples that in order “to keep our culture and civilisation alive, we must seriously and responsibly think about our fertility rates.”

Rashtra Sevika Samiti girls on campus in New Delhi. Source: Express photo/Radhika Iyengar

AFTER TALKING to Seema for over two hours in the lawn, she had become quiet for a few seconds. She looked around, before suddenly turning her head around and smiling sheepishly. “I feel a bit awkward, looking at the couples sitting around. This kind of love is not in our sanskriti.”

The capital is populated with public lawns (including the Lodhi gardens and India Gate lawns), where young, mostly unmarried couples rendezvous to spend them with each other. In the past it has been reported that individuals from right-wing Hindutva organisations have allegedly wreaked havoc by approaching couples sitting in public spaces and humiliating them.

“This kind of love, at this age,” Seema continued pointing towards a couple, “should either be towards one’s husband or towards our country. This is my belief. Love shared between husband and wife is okay, but not before marriage. There is no point learning so much about each other before marriage.”

The 26-year-old doesn’t believe in love marriages, even though her parents, who belonged to different religions, fell in love and married each other against their families’ wishes. “In arranged marriages, a couple takes time to understand each other,” Seema explained. “They try to learn about each other, and slowly-slowly, they might develop a friendship too, who knows? In love marriages, the couples already know everything about each other, so after they get married, there is nothing new to learn – curiosity dies down and they get bored. Nowadays, most love marriages break and people divorce. And divorce is not a part of our sanskriti, that has come from outside.”

In November 2016, on the day that marked Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s 80th anniversary, its general secretary, Seetha Annadanam made an unsettling statement, “There is nothing called marital rape. Marriage is a sacred bond. Co-existence should lead to bliss. If we are able to understand the concept of this bliss, then everything runs smooth.”

“But what if the circumstances are unbearable for the wife? What if she is a victim of domestic violence?” I asked Seema. For a moment she appeared stumped. A few moments later, she burst out laughing embarrassingly. “Then I wouldn’t know what to say. All I know is that divorce is not a solution. Even if the circumstances are bad, a wife must sit down and explain to her husband. She is a wife and she must be devoted to her husband. She must try and reason with her him; it’s her right. I’m not going to ask her to opt for divorce.”

“Did you always think like this?” I asked.

Seema smiled, “I’ve started thinking like this after attending the camp.”

Note: Some names have been changed to protect identity

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