As of 13 May, at least 736 NGOs affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh featured among a list of organisations enlisted by the central government for relief interventions during the ongoing lockdown to control the novel coronavirus pandemic. All these entities come under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati, which is a registered trust, and works in the fields of education, health and “self-reliance,” according to its website. The RSB’s NGOs are among the 94,662 NGOs which are working as “COVID warriors” with district administrations across the country since the first week of April, and are being monitored by a group of bureaucrats, constituted by the home secretary. Owing to this enlistment, the RSB’s NGOs became entitled to funds from the State Disaster Relief Fund, or SDRF—set up under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 for states to use during a crisis—and for buying subsidised foodgrains from the Food Corporation of India, a central government body.
In an ongoing series, The Caravan tracked the RSS’s relief interventions since the beginning of the lockdown. As demonstrated in the first report, the Sangh, a three-time banned organisation, employs disaster-relief interventions, such as the ongoing pandemic, to gain influence and acceptability for its foundational aspiration—the formation of the Hindu Rashtra. Consequently, the RSB’s organisations’ use of government funds and resources to carry out relief work is significant because the RSS has never publicly acknowledged financial support from any government for its disaster-relief work.
As of 2014, the RSB’s roster included 57,000 social and economic projects which were being executed by at least 928 NGOs registered under its domain. All these organisations are listed on the RSB’s website. The central government’s list of enlisted NGOs is collated on a portal called NGO-Darpan, run by the Niti Aayog, the central government’s planning body. The RSB’s website claims that all its organisations are voluntary and independent, and it is only ideologically attached to the RSS. However, the RSB’s own five-yearly report, last published in 2014, has a section by Bhaiyyaji Joshi, the RSS’s sarkaryawaah, or second in command. Joshi wrote that these sewa bharati units “are independent but being supported and inspired by RSS.” He further noted, “The workers of these organisations are connected with the local RSS pattern … None of the service programmes work with RSS banners though these works are directed by swayamsevaks.” Senior members of the RSB’s organisational hierarchy have held similarly high positions in the Sangh, too.
According to Sankar Das, a bauddhik pramukh—intellectual head—of Assam, the Sangh has “46 national platforms,” which include the RSS’s labour wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and the student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, among others. It should be noted that there seems to be no consensus among scholars as to the exact number of organisations which come under the ambit of the Sangh. Since the Sangh is neither a registered organisation nor does it pay taxes, this has helped it avoid scrutiny of its finances and those of its affiliates, collectively referred to as the Sangh Parivar. Instead, the mythos of the Sangh is based on its voluntary nature—the RSS’s own literature and outreach has meticulously created and projected an image of an organisation that is “self-reliant” and does not take money from external sources. An oft-repeated refrain is that the RSS raises its money from voluntary members, called swayamsevaks, in the form of a donation known as “gurudakshina”—a gift given to honour a guru.
I spoke to around two dozen RSS members, including those associated with the RSB, from 11 states. Speaking about the Sangh’s funding, one of the RSB’s members gave me a response that the rest of them echoed: “Khud se kartey hain ya kabhi kabhi samaj ke logon se madad mil jati hai”—We do it ourselves or sometimes we get help from people in the society. There was no mention of any funding from the government.