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.