The Dalit unrest over the last few months has more than just clouded the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral prospects in upcoming assembly elections. It has also left a large number of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakhas—branches, literally—bereft of Dalit members. Several such branches had been started in lower-caste localities across north and western India after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.
The phenomenon is glaring in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where Dalits recently took to the streets to protest against attacks by Hindutva-inspired groups. It is also evident in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where assembly elections are due early next year. In Bihar and Haryana, too, Dalits have significantly disappeared from RSS shakhas.
The latest outrage among the Dalits was sparked a few months ago when four young men skinning a dead cow, along with another aged person, were mercilessly thrashed by a group of cow-protection vigilantes in Gujarat’s Una town on July 11.
A series of such attacks followed, undermining the massive drive launched by the RSS to spread its presence among people belonging to the lower castes.
“New shakhas in Dalit localities were started because we had noticed that shakhas in upper-caste localities were not being able to attract Dalit men,” said a senior office-bearer of the RSS from Meerut. “For some time there was a lot of enthusiasm and a significant number of young men started attending shakhas in Dalit localities. But now, despite our karyakartas (activists) trying hard, most of these shakhas have become a farce.”
It isn’t only the Meerut prant (region) that has run into trouble. Senior RSS office bearers of five other prants in Uttar Pradesh—Braj, Awadh, Kashi, Kanpur, and Goraksha—also admitted that Dalits were refusing to attend shakhas. The same complaint was repeated by RSS office-bearers in prants like west Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Bihar, and south Bihar.
The exodus was strongly felt over a month ago when the BJP was forced to cancel the July 31 Agra Dalit rally to be led by party president Amit Shah. Two days before the event, the RSS realised that it wouldn’t be able to achieve its goal of bringing 40,000 Dalits to the meeting. Agra, part of the RSS’s Braj prant, was one of the places where the Sangh Parivar claimed to have a significant presence among Dalits.
This cancellation so jolted the Sangh Parivar that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had to spend five days in Agra starting from August 20, followed by a week in Lucknow. In both the places, he held meetings with workers and leaders of various RSS outfits to discuss the crisis, emphasising the need to revive the campaign to bring back people from the lower castes.
The Sangh Parivar’s concerted effort to integrate Dalits into their fold began as early as 1983, when the RSS chose April 14, BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, to establish its Samajik Samrasta Manch (social harmony platform). Subsequently, the RSS tried to harmonise the Phule-Ambedkar ideology with its Hindutva philosophy.
The Samajik Samrasta Manch’s campaign was aimed at ending untouchability and integrating Dalits into the Hindutva fold, a necessary precondition to consolidate the Hindu vote. However, the RSS was unable to make any headway without upsetting the hierarchy of caste system. Its philosophy seemed to be a far cry from Ambedkar’s call for the annihilation of caste.
By and large, Dalits remained suspicious of the RSS, treating it like an organisation with an essentially upper-caste mindset.
Ahead of the 2014 elections, the Sangh launched a massive campaign to mobilise Dalits in favour of Modi. It was in this context that the RSS began a large number of shakhas in Dalit localities. Simultaneously, it intensified efforts to rewrite history in a bid to attribute the genesis of Dalits, other lower castes, and tribals to the “Muslim invasion” of medieval times.
All those attempts over the last two years have now been rendered meaningless, RSS insiders complain.