How the RSS co-opted local administrations for its relief interventions during the COVID-19 lockdown

Volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh distribute tea to migrant workers at Mohan Road, in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, during the COVID-19 lockdown. According to the RSS’s own literature, “sewa,” or service, is one of the key strategies that should be adopted by its followers to engage with society and build support for the organisation’s ideology. The formation of a Hindu Rashtra is the ultimate aim of the Sangh’s philosophy. PRAMOD ADHIKARI
10 July, 2020

On the afternoon of 28 March, the fourth day of the nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic, footage of thousands of migrants, who had congregated at the Anand Vihar Inter-State Bus Terminal in Delhi, flooded news channels and social-media platforms. Soon after, Rajbir, a pracharak—full-time volunteer—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh got a call from the Sangh’s headquarters in Delhi. Rajbir, who goes by one name, is the in-charge of one of the RSS’s organisational units which covers Delhi’s eastern district and is located in Shakarpur. He told me that he was directed to immediately gather all the swayamsevaks, or RSS volunteers, at his disposal and dispatch them to assist Delhi Police at the Anand Vihar ISBT. The request for the RSS’s help had come from the Delhi Police itself, Rajbir said. When I reached out to Delhi Police to confirm Rajbir’s claims, Jasmit Singh, the deputy commissioner of police of the East Delhi district, told me that he had called for the RSS’s assistance and “they helped us a lot.” 

Since the beginning of the lockdown, The Caravan tracked the RSS and its affiliates’ relief interventions during the pandemic. The investigation was based on extensive interviews with at least two dozen RSS members across 11 states, documents and data available in the public domain, academic research on the RSS, the organisation’s own literature and media reports. For an organisation which was banned thrice—first for MK Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, then for two years during the Emergency starting in 1975, and finally after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992—COVID-19 has become the latest instance of the RSS’s long-term strategy to gain societal acceptance and influence by helping with disaster relief. 

The Delhi Police’s use of RSS cadre for supplementing the local administration was not an isolated incident. I spoke to state and district-level representatives of the RSS from 11 states—Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. All of them, barring those from West Bengal and Kerala, told me that since the lockdown began, the district administrations in their respective states had regularly sought help from the Sangh—as the RSS’s members refer to it—for distribution of food and ration, and to attend to medical emergencies. 

In fact, during the first two months of the lockdown, several news reports highlighted how the RSS’s cadre supplemented the efforts of local administration and police forces across states to implement the lockdown. More importantly, the news reports noted, the RSS played a role in relief distribution often with the support of local administrations. In several instances, the local administrations then publicly denied taking the RSS’s help. 

On 24 March, the prime minister Narendra Modi announced that the nationwide lockdown would come into force barely hours after his announcement. He offered no assurances on wages, food and housing security, and the chaos of the ensuing days prompted an exodus of migrants from all major cities. Rajbir said that the Delhi Police needed “help” from swayamsevaks “to control the crowd” of migrants who had converged at the bus station in the hope of going back to their native places. “At least 250 swayamsevaks reached the spot and while taking all the precautions controlled the crowd.” He added that “the police was finding it difficult” but his swayamsevaks eventually managed to bring the situation under control. 

Jasmit, however, refused to tell me if he had any sanction from senior officers at the headquarters to take the decision to call for reinforcements from an organisation that proudly displays its paramilitary aspirations. He said he did what he felt was “right on ground” and that he “was not ashamed of it.” He added, “I’ll do it again to help the people.” When I asked the DCP about knowingly involving an organisation with such a chequered track record, he evaded my questions. 

Similarly, barring the state of Assam, none of the chief secretaries in the other ten states responded to my queries on whether RSS members had been officially enlisted to help the respective district administrations. The officer on special duty deputed to the chief secretary of Assam wrote to me, “There is no direction from the State Government to the District Administrations to seek the assistance from any specific organisation.” The OSD added, “The District Administrations as per the need of the hour can seek the assistance from any lawful organisation/NGO in relief distribution,” but failed to specify which lawful organisations had been enlisted, if any. 

The RSS representatives also told me that between one lakh and fifty thousand and two lakh swayamsevaks had been mobilised across the country to either help the district administrations as volunteers or distribute the Sangh’s relief packages. The Sangh’s members of each state, except West Bengal and Kerala, said that the police and district administrations gave the RSS easy operational access and logistical help to carry out the Sangh’s relief operations while simultaneously taking swayamsevaks’ help in implementing state-mandated relief interventions. 

According to the Sangh’s own literature, as of 2014, the RSS runs over 74,000 shakhas, its smallest organisational unit, across the country. These shakhas provide baudhik—intellectual—training which focuses on Hindu scriptures, paramilitary training, and operate as coordination centres for the Sangh’s activities on the ground. The RSS’s philosophy has been meticulously laid out in a book, Understanding RSS, authored by the veteran Sangh ideologue MG Vaidya. In early March 2020, while felicitating Vaidya on his ninety-eighth birthday, Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, said, “We have inherited the very ideas of Vaidya.” 

Vaidya’s book holds that in the Indian context, the words “nation” and “culture” signify being Hindu and followers of Hindu traditions, respectively and exclusively. According to his paradigm, people who hold to other faiths are also to be considered Hindus—only if their ancestors were born here—who strayed from the path of Hinduism and need to be brought back into the fold. He added that Muslims and Christians cannot be considered nationalists if they “glorify those who destroyed Hindu temples.” Vaidya defined the meaning of each word in the organisation’s title. He defined Rashtriya, which translates as national, as “Hindu,” swayamsevak as a “patriotic citizen” and sangh, which means a union or organisation, as a “catalyst” to bring about “social change.” 

Notably, the RSS’s annual report of 2019 explicitly stated that “social initiatives” are a way to achieve the Sangh’s final goal of a “Hindu Rashtra.” It noted, “The Sangh karyakartas also should have more contact with the various positive social initiatives and activities. The well intentioned forces working in the national interest should succeed so that their impact will grow.” The report added, “In today’s favorable conditions if we do hard work then we will experience that we are moving ahead towards our goal.” 

Prominent among the various strategies for “social change” adopted by the Sangh are its disaster-relief interventions. The political scientist Malini Bhattacharjee researched this phenomenon in her 2019 book titled, Disaster Relief and The RSS: Resurrecting ‘Religion’ Through Humanitarianism. The book is based on her research on the RSS’s two major disaster-relief interventions—during the super cyclone that hit coastal Odisha in 1999 and the earthquake that destroyed Bhuj in Gujarat in 2001. She wrote that, “Apart from creating a humanitarian and compassionate image for itself, relief interventions after these disasters also provide opportunities to the RSS to undertake cadre building and consolidate its organisational network.” 

The Sangh’s activities on the ground during the pandemic echo Bhattacharjee’s research. On 3 April, images of official passes issued to RSS members in the Kamareddy district of Telangana emerged on social media—the passes allowed the holder to distribute foodgrains from public ration-shops. According to the images, the passes were issued by the revenue department of the district to two individuals. The passes noted the individuals’ designations as “RSS” and the sections for “duty allotted” were filled as “Disaster Management Emergency Team Covid 19.” Soon after, the Kamareddy district collector, A Sharath, issued a statement and denied giving permission to the RSS for relief work. 

Six days later, a similar set of images was again shared on social media. This time, it was pictures of lathi-wielding RSS members manning a check post in the Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district of Telangana. This, too, was followed by a denial, by M Mahesh Bhagwat, the police commissioner of Rachakonda—the Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district falls under his jurisdiction. Mahesh tweeted, “This is the job of the police and we can do it. No permission has been given.” 

However, Vijay Kumar, the RSS’s spokesperson in Telangana, told me that RSS cadre had been involved in both incidents. He said that in both the cases it was the district administrations that had asked for the Sangh’s help. Kumar, who is also the city president of the RSS’s legal wing, Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad, said that the local police had asked for the swayamsevaks’ assistance to man the check post in Yadadri Bhuvanagiri. “The local police called and requested us to come for their assistance. They only said, ‘You come in dress”—the standard RSS uniform of khakhi trousers and a black cap—“It’s better.’ That’s what they said. Then, some of our people volunteered for it. No one objected.”  

Kumar added that even after Mahesh’s denial, the local police had told the RSS that the Sangh’s help might be needed again. He said that the local police told him, “We have taken your assistance without informing our headquarters. As of now, we don’t need your assistance but whenever we require we will call you.” 

Kumar said the municipal corporation and the police have also been providing logistical help to the RSS for carrying out its own relief interventions. “Sometimes the police are also with us. Sometimes the municipality is sending people with us where they are distributing.” He said the municipal office would allow only four people for relief work. “One is a driver, one staff and two RSS. We first identify the area—which area would need the help—and then police depute some person from the municipality.” 

In Madhya Pradesh, a district head of the RSS, who did not want to be named, told me that the district administration used two buses from RSS schools to transport migrant workers—the Sangh runs at least 12,000 schools across the country, which have approximately thirty-two lakh students. The workers had walked all the way from Delhi and the buses were used to transport them within the state to their homes. The district head also told me that during the lockdown, the district administration had left swayamsevaks in-charge of several public ration-shops which were distributing foodgrains to people who had ration cards. 

In Uttar Pradesh, Ramashish Singh, a pracharak based out of Varanasi, told me that the superintendent of police of Varanasi and the district magistrate had approached the Sangh with a request. “DM, SP pleaded with us with folded hands that, ‘you people go out to do the relief works in numbers of 700 to 800 which will automatically make the social distancing difficult to maintain.’” He said that the officials told him that the RSS was doing a “great job” but the large numbers of swayamsevaks deployed to distribute relief materials had become a problem. Ramashish said the administration then suggested, “Let’s do this—all of you sit in your homes and send the relief materials to every police chowki instead.” He said that the officials told him that the RSS could appoint a representative who would then accompany the police teams as they distributed the Sangh’s supplies. Both these officials have refused to respond despite multiple attempts to contact them. 

On 9 July, Modi interacted with NGOs in his constituency of Varanasi, which had been involved in relief interventions during the lockdown, via a video conference. During the meeting, Gangadhar Upadhyay, a district in-charge of Gayatri Pariwar, a religious trust based in the city, repeated what Ramashish had told me. Upadhyay told Modi, “Government vehicles and those belonging to the post offices would come to our centres and take the food packets from us ... Especially our district magistrate, high officials, commissioner were so cooperative.” Modi hailed Upadhyay and called the arrangement a “manviya vyavastha”—humane arrangement. 

Gopalan Kutty, the prant karyavah—state chief—of Kerala, told me that in the beginning, the Kerala government refused all the RSS’s offers of help for implementing the government’s relief programme. Kutty said they then “followed all the rules” and applied for permission to conduct humanitarian work through NGOs affiliated with the RSS. I also spoke to D Vijayan, the president of the Kerala unit of the Rashtriya Sewa Bharti, a Sangh outfit which handles the organisation’s social projects. He told me that the Kerala state government “tried their level best to restrict” the Sangh’s activities in the state. However, he also asserted that the RSS works independently and had managed to continue their disaster-relief operations throughout the state in all districts. 

The district collectors of Pallakad and Alappuzha, in Kerala, refused to respond to queries about the Sangh’s activities in their districts. The collector of Ernakulam district, S Suhas, told me that the state “had its own system.” Suhas said that “every district has an Inter-Agency Group which consists of a number of NGOs which work with the district administration,” and only the services of these NGOs were being utilised by the state. But he could not clarify whether this included any of the Sangh’s organisations. 

Apart from Kerala, the state government of West Bengal, run by the Trinamool Congress, refused to cooperate with the RSS. When I asked Biplav Roy, a prant prachar-pramukh—state media chief—of southern West Bengal, why the state was an exception, he explained that the RSS has functioned with ease and little difficulty even in the “Congress-ruled states” and “Communist-ruled state.” He said this was because with the Congress and Communist parties “we only have a difference of ideology, but with them”—the TMC—“we have political, ideological and all other kinds of enmity.” Roy, though, said that around nine thousand swayamsevaks still managed to conduct relief operations at the community level with whatever permissions they could get from district administrations. 

According to Raosaheb Kasabe, a political scientist, the Sangh’s ultimate goal is to re-establish the Chaturvarna system—a Vedic-era social code which stratified society based on the caste they were born in. Kasabe had written a critique of Bunch of Thoughts, a book by the second sarsanghchalak—official head—of the RSS, MS Golwalkar. Titled Zot, Kasabe’s book is in Marathi and was published in 1978—swayamsewaks had publicly burnt the book upon its release. In 2019, the book was translated into English under the title, Decoding the RSS

Kasabe wrote in his book, “The principal concern for Hinduists in the modern period has been to maintain the dominance of Hindu culture through Manusmriti and the Gita. To do this, they required a platform from where they could sing peans about the bravery and heroic deeds of historical figures. The problem was solved by establishing the RSS in 1925. The birth of RSS was, thus, a result of the need to provide the religious and cultural basis for exploitation of non Brahmin people.” 

Kasabe told me that the “Sangh had been trying to gain legitimacy since its formation in 1925.”  He said that the Sangh’s relief interventions were nothing but an “extension” of “the same exercise” to project itself as a “social organisation.” 

Similarly, Bhattacharjee’s observations about image building are relevant and egregiously visible during the current crisis. The RSS and the relief measures it has enacted during the ongoing lockdown have received regular media coverage, which is often celebratory and has bolstered the organisation’s “humanitarian” image. Journalists like Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, who have previously been publicly targeted by members of the Sangh’s political wing, praised the RSS for its mobilisation during the lockdown. Sardesai lauded the Sangh on his show on the news network India Today, as well as on Twitter—“RSS volunteers doing some fine work in Covid,” he posted. Dutt did a special report on her Youtube channel, on RSS swayamsevaks testing residents in Mumbai for COVID-19. She said, “Volunteers of the RSS are actually here, risking their own lives at the frontlines, like so many other good Samaritans and are helping Mumbai’s municipal corporation with screening, testing and data collection.” 

The print media has been equally generous in its coverage. On 23 March, even before the lockdown began, the Hindustan Times published a report with the headline, “RSS joins government initiative on Covid-19, launches awareness drive.” On 16 April, The Times of India ran a report with the headline “RSS comes to the rescue of the helpless in fight against Covid 19.” The Indian Express, like many other newspapers, published the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s online address on 26 April, with the headline, “Help everyone without discrimination: Mohan Bhagwat to RSS workers on Covid-19 crisis.” The Hindu carried an article on 12 April, on the Sangh’s relief measures, with the headline, “Bharati Seva Sangam to needy sections in Chennai and RSS activists distribute survival kits to the poor.” The article was accompanied by an image which showed a Muslim woman receiving the survival kit from men wearing the RSS uniform. These are just a handful of the reports across multiple publications. 

Several of the RSS representatives I spoke to told me that the work it undertook during the lockdown would help establish close contact with the communities involved. Rajbir, the pracharak from east Delhi, was confident that the relief work done by the RSS will inspire Indian youth to join the organisation. As a pracharak, Rajbir prefers to go by his first name and is a full-time member who travels around to propagate Hindutva ideology. He is not a local resident of Delhi and was sent here on a sort of deputation—he told me that a pracharak can be posted to any area in the country that might be facing “threat” from “anti-national” elements. Currently in his mid-thirties, he took voluntary retirement from the Indian Navy a few years ago to become a pracharak and took a vow of lifelong bachelorhood, a prerequisite for the role. He told me, “The sense of social responsibility that the Sangh inculcates, that is what attracts the youth.” 

Rajbir’s confidence seemed to bear out in another RSS worker’s account. Mahipal Singh, who is the head of the RSS’s eastern district unit in Delhi, told me that “an old woman in my colony in Shakarpur gave me a donation of Rs 2,000 without even asking after she saw me carry out relief operations in the area regularly.” Mahipal said that seeing the Sangh’s relief works during the lockdown, several residents like the old woman, who had no connection with the RSS, had donated money to the local unit. 

Even Jasmit, the deputy police commissioner of East Delhi, told me that “we should not look at COVID-19 volunteers’ political affiliation if they were doing something for a good cause.” He said he was not “ashamed of” asking for help from the RSS because it was an “exceptional time” and he would go “out of his way” to ensure “community-level intervention.” He said that questions about the Delhi Police asking the RSS for assistance were an attempt to “give it a colour.”

Jasmit also defended his decision to call the RSS for help, from a legal perspective. “Under Code of Criminal Procedure, we can take help of any citizen on the ground,” he said. However, Vikram Singh, a former director general of police of Uttar Pradesh, told me that, while there is a provision in the Police Act of 1861 to take help from citizens, “but the police can take help only from an individual who is non-political, has no criminal background and has a good reputation in the community.”

Another former senior police official, SM Mushrif, who served as the inspector general of police of Maharashtra, was even more damning in his indictment of the RSS and its public activities. Mushrif told me that it was the Intelligence Bureau that keeps “projecting them as social and cultural organisations.” Mushrif said the IB is the “brain of the government of the day” and the media is the “brain of the people.” He believed the RSS had exerted undue influence on both the institutions. The bureau has not responded despite repeated attempts to contact them. Mushrif said the people should not give legitimacy to the Sangh based on its relief interventions because ultimately, the RSS is “a terrorist organisation.” 

Varsha Ayyar, a sociologist and faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, told me that the argument of the greater good, as espoused by Jasmit, was fallacious. She explained, “Ideas of ‘good society’ are extraordinarily shaped by religion, culture, and its values. So, to understand philanthropy in India, particularly the ‘sewa’ of RSS, it compels us then to think through the lenses of religion and culture.” Ayyar warned that “it would be fatal to overlook RSS and its core values, beliefs, and politics which are essentially built on supremacist principles of maintaining and reproducing Brahmanical hegemonies via political and cultural projects.” 

This is the first report of a series on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s relief interventions during the COVID-19 lockdown. You can read the second and third reports, here and here.