ON A COOL SUNDAY MORNING IN OCTOBER, about ten young men gathered at a park in the affluent residential area of Vikaspuri, in west Delhi. They were dressed casually, and a few wore khaki shorts. One of them, a thirty-five-year-old mid-level corporate executive, was sent away, and another was appointed to “lead” the group. The men circled up, and began mimicking the leader’s movements—clapping their hands, flexing their limbs—as he switched actions every minute or so. Meanwhile, the young executive returned, and stood watching nearby. He spotted the leader switch to rotating his waist, and pointed him out. The executive joined the group, a lanky software engineer took his place, and a new leader was appointed. When the engineer failed in his first attempt to identify the leader, he was punished with a mild punch on the back.
The men, who asked not to be named, were all young professionals who had recently joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and were part of a new “IT-milan shakha.” Traditional shakhas—the RSS’s basic organisational units, and ideological incubators for new recruits—meet every day, often early in the morning, and gather members from a broad range of ages. IT-milans, introduced in 2001, initially brought together professionals from the information technology sector, but soon welcomed other white-collar professionals too; they meet once a week, on Sundays, to suit the schedules of their members. The game I watched the Vikaspuri group play, officially sanctioned for use at all shakhas, was Neta ki pehchan—loosely, mark of a leader. Such games, and initiatives like the IT-milans, are part of an RSS drive to revise its stait-laced public image, and to boost membership by attracting young people.
As late as last year, RSS leaders routinely lamented declining numbers of shakhas across the country. By the organisation’s own broad estimates—the exact figures it reports have varied—it had over fifty thousand shakhas in the early 2000s, but that number fell into the mid thirty thousands by the end of the decade. But, helped in part by Narendra Modi’s election victory last year—the prime minister was once part of the RSS himself—membership is now growing, and the organisation claims to have over forty thousand shakhas again. An RSS pracharak—a full-time worker—whom I met at the organisation’s Delhi office in December, said that “the numbers are going up since 2012, after the leadership decided to enroll more people.” RSS: Ek Parichaya, an official book introducing the organisation, claims around two thousand new shakhas are opening every year.