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Business News/ Opinion / Déjà View | A shorts history
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Déjà View | A shorts history

How did the RSS come to adopt its iconic uniform?

Photo: AFP Premium
Photo: AFP

This week’s brisk evening walk through the fragrant meadow of Indian history began with a semi-serious tweet by your writer. Why, I asked earlier this week, does the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wear a pair of khakhi shorts, instead of the dhoti or some other Indian form of clothing?

Replies came thick and fast. Some said that it was because RSS activities included exercise. And obviously the shorts worked better for that kind of thing than a cumbersome dhoti.

Others suggested that the organization must have picked up its uniform cues from the police or the armed forces uniforms from the period of RSS’ founding.

A third and final group—presumably not fans of RSS—hinted that the shorts and shirts may have been inspired by the fascists of Mussolini’s Italy or the Nazis of Hitler’s Germany.

After sifting through these responses and reading through some links, I was no closer to really finding a satisfying solution with reliable sources. Suddenly I caught a whiff of a familiar aroma—Eau De Déjà View. Perhaps there was a column in this question of couture.

So off I went rummaging.

RSS’ own website has a timeline that briefly mentions the uniform in a handful of places. In September 1925, the longest entry says, “Formal beginning of Sangh took place in Doctor Hedgewar’s house in Sukrawadi of Nagpur. Training in Drill, march etc. was imparted on Sundays. Uniform for this training was Khaki shirt, Khaki short, and Khaki Cap. On Thursdays and Sundays there were discourses on national affairs."

Which is good to know. But why khakhi shorts in the first place? Or khaki shirt? Or the cap?

As my research progressed, I came across an irritating problem. Admirers of the movement, or its members, tend to not dwell on the uniform. They had larger political and cultural themes to talk about.

Critics on the other hand are quick to point out the sartorial similarity between RSS and the fascists of Europe.

Now we do know that there was quite a lot of interest in post-WW1 Italian politics in India, and especially in the Marathi media.

Italian researcher Marzia Casolari notes in a January 2000 piece in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) that between 1924 and 1935 the Marathi Kesari newspaper published “editorials and articles about Italy, fascism and Mussolini. What impressed the Marathi journalists was the socialist origin of fascism and the fact that the new regime seemed to have transformed Italy from a backward country to a first class power".

And Mussolini’s fascists did have a black military style uniform inspired by the Italian Army’s elite Arditi units.

Case closed? Not really. There is one element about the original all-khakhi RSS uniform that sticks out: the cap. Assuming the design of the RSS cap hasn’t changed, even if the colour has, then the original RSS headgear was based on the Gandhi cap that became a rage amongst freedom fighters in the early 1920s.

So perhaps there is a Gandhi/Congress connection here? There is.

In 1920, Nagpur was chosen to host the annual session of the Indian National Congress.

Renowned RSS activist H.V. Seshadri writes in his biography of founder Hedgewar: “In January 1920, Dr. L.V. Paranjpe started the Bharat Swayamsevak Mandal. Doctorji was his chief colleague. Efforts began in the month of July that year to organize a corps of some 1,000-1,500 volunteers for the Congress session. Doctorji threw himself heart and soul into that task."

By all accounts Hedgewar’s disciplined, organized volunteer corps was a complete success. And what was their uniform? I cannot pin down a completely satisfying source for this, but it appears that the Mandal wore a khaki shirt, khaki shorts and khaki cap. Thus combining elements of contemporary British police garb, with a signature Gandhi flourish in the headgear.

Despite his good work, Hedgewar soon began to drift away from the Congress and Gandhi. He was imprisoned in 1921 and released in 1922. Walter Andersen, in a multi-part history of the RSS published in EPW in 1972, says that on his release Hedgewar “was dismayed by the lack of organization in the Congress volunteer organizations. Without such a disciplined organization, Hedgewar thought the patriotic youth could never remove foreign rule".

Three years later Hedgewar established the organization that would go on to become known as the Sangh. Andersen says that the Sangh’s first major public project was to help coordinate Ram Navami celebrations at a temple in Ramtek, near Nagpur, in April 1926. “The swayamsevaks, in uniform, marched to the hill on which the temple was located, singing verses from the poetry of Ramdas. They organized queues and provided drinking water for the pilgrims."

Hedgewar also made sure that his group was impeccably dressed. “The uniform", Andersen says, “was much like that worn at the 1920 Congress session at Nagpur: khaki shirt, khaki shorts, a black khaki cap, long socks, and boots."

So there we have it. The iconic RSS uniform may have actually been first designed for volunteers at an annual session of the Indian National Congress held in Nagpur almost a century ago.

Since then, however, relationships have changed a little bit.

(Readers with sources in RSS, or who are RSS members themselves, are welcome, nay exhorted, to send in more inputs or counterpoints.)

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs. Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

Follow Mint Opinion on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mint_Opinion

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Published: 31 Oct 2014, 01:38 PM IST
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