For the RSS, “sewa” is a means to achieve the Hindu Rashtra

Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh distributed relief material to those affected by an earthquake that devastated the Kutch region of Gujarat on 26 January, 2001. The quake completely destroyed the town of Bhuj and later came to be referred to as the Bhuj earthquake. The Sangh’s mobilisation for disaster-relief in the area has been documented in a book by Malini Bhattacharjee, a political scientist, titled, Disaster Relief and The RSS: Resurrecting ‘Religion’ Through Humanitarianism. Indian Express Archive
15 July, 2020

On 26 April, over a month into the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic, Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak—supreme leader—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, delivered an address titled “Current Situation and Our Role.” The address was live streamed on the Sangh’s YouTube channel and on Facebook Live. Several mainstream news channels also chose to telecast live almost the entirety of Bhagwat’s 42-minute speech. The speech, with the tenor of a discourse, urged the RSS’s swayamsevaks, or voluntary members, to do “sewa”—service—for the people while the country was under the lockdown.

Bhagwat said the swayamsevaks should help those in need as it is for the “protection of their sacred community and their overall development.” He said that the “basis of this sewa” should be a “sense of belongingness” with the community. Dotted with rambling philosophical musings over a moral crisis gripping the world, the speech, delivered in chaste Hindi, was not limited to the RSS’s members. Bhagwat sought to address the entire citizenry and explain why the RSS believes in sewa—so as to gather “like-minded allies.” He suggested that the process of asking people to adopt a new way of life in context of COVID-19 was in a way “part of an ongoing exercise of rebuilding the nation.” Bhagwat advocated “sewa” as the possible means to achieve that vision of revival.

In an ongoing series, The Caravan tracked the RSS’s relief interventions since the beginning of the lockdown. The first report explored how sewa was, and is employed by the RSS as a stratagem, in the aftermath of a disaster or as a social project, to win the goodwill of people and make them favourable towards the organisation which was banned thrice in its 95-year history.  The second report examined the role of NGOs, affiliated with the RSS, during the ongoing pandemic, and the government resources and funding utilised by them.

I interviewed over two dozen RSS representatives from 11 states—who hold various state and district-level positions in different wings of the organisation—on the Sangh’s philosophy of “sewa,” its evolution and the purpose it serves for the organisation. In addition, at least four Sangh publications—Third Way by Dattopant Thendagi, Understanding RSS by MG Vaidya, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: Ek Parichay by Harishchandra Barthwal and Bhavishya ka Bharat—and interviews with political scientists helped piece together the organisation’s ethos of “sewa.” The emergent image is a notion of sewa that has helped serve the RSS’s political and cultural goal of conflating Indian society with “Hindu Samaj” and keeping the bedrock of Brahmanical superiority intact. In fact, senior RSS members told me that the Sangh institutionalised “sewa” in the organisation for the first time in the seventies, to bring the Dalit and Adivasi communities and the lower castes into the Hindu fold. This was meant to ensure mass support while keeping caste-hierarchies intact.

Since its inception, the RSS has claimed that it is “rebuilding the nation.” According to the Sangh’s literature, the country is in a state of “punarnirman”—reconstruction—that would eventually be shaped into an “organised Hindu society” under the RSS’s guidance. Rather than a religious entity, the RSS views the term Hindu as a civilizational identity, stemming from its eponymous religion, Hinduism. Vaidya, a senior RSS ideologue often feted by Bhagwat, is considered a living repository of the Sangh’s philosophical moorings. Vaidya clearly spelt out why “the fate and future of this nation is closely linked to the Hindus” in his book, Understanding RSS.

Vaidya wrote, “Weakness of Hindus means weakness of the nation … wherever Hindus become a minority, there is a danger of that area getting detached from our motherland.” He explained that this was why the Sangh needed to organise “Hindus.” This mobilisation, he said, would be achieved by ensuring the “influence of Sangh” in “social spheres.” According to Vaidya, this influence meant the “impress of Sangh thoughts and the imprint of the social character envisioned by the Sangh” in society.

The Sangh’s organisational structure has evolved over the decades keeping in mind this goal of nation-building, and its underpinnings of Brahmanical supremacy. It has its own administrative divisions, markedly different from current internal political maps, specialised departments, titles and a vast network of affiliates. Sankar Das, a bauddhik pramukh—intellectual head—of Assam, told me that the “sewa vibhag” is one of the “six pillars,” or departments, whose ultimate aim is to work cohesively to achieve the establishment of the “Hindu Rashtra.” “Sangh functions through six of its departments: sharirik, sampark, prachar, bauddhik, vyavastha and sewa”—physical, liaison, publicity, intellectual, administrative and service. “Besides, there are 46 other wings at national level that work under the departments and all together are known as the Sangh Parivar.” Das continued, “Other than this, every state has its own organisations. In total, more than one hundred national RSS bodies are working for the same goal—Hindu Rashtra ka punarnirman”—rebuilding the Hindu Rashtra.

The sharirik department is the one that conducts the Sangh’s shakhas—literally translated as branch. According to the eighth edition of the book, RSS:Ek Parichay, published by Suruchi Prakashan, a publishing house of the Sangh, as of 2014, the RSS had 74,622 shakhas across the country. These shakhas function as paramilitary training camps and provide “bauddhik” training which focuses on religious teachings from Hindu scriptures. The sampark department nurtures and maintains contacts with government officials and private firms. The prachar section handles the Sangh’s media presence and publications. The bauddhik division deals with indoctrination of new recruits and managing the speeches of office bearers. It works closely with the sharirik, prachar and sampark department. The vyavastha department is responsible for holding events and collecting the organisation’s funds—in the form of gurudakshina, or donation for the guru, a voluntary contribution from all swayamsevaks.

One of the major organisations under the sewa vibhag is the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati. The RSB is an umbrella organisation which constitutes over nine hundred NGOs of the Sangh. Shrawan Kumar, the national secretary of the RSB, told me that the “sewa vibhag” came into existence “in 1989 on the centenary birthday of RSS founder and the first sarsanghchalak, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar.” Kumar said the Sangh’s then existing social projects were brought under the ambit of the newly created department. This included the Sewa Bharati; the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the RSS’s wing that works in tribal areas; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Sangh’s religious wing; and the Vidya Bharati, an educational platform.

Gwilym Beckerlegge, a professor at the department of religion at the Open University in United Kingdom, published a research paper in 2006 titled, Swami Vivekananda and the sangh parivar: convergent or divergent views on population, religion and national identity? The paper stated that it was the second sarsanghchalak, MS Golwalkar, who imagined the Sangh’s ambitions against “the threat of Christianity and Islam.” Beckerlegge wrote, “The Sangh Parivar has responded to its reading of the predicament facing India by attempting to foster a unified Hindu culture, to revive a society that has become only superficially fragmented.” He added, “It has sought to achieve its goal through a range of activities including extensive sewa (service to humanity) (sic).”

According to the RSB’s five-yearly report, as of 2014, the sewa vibhag was running at least 1,37,000 projects in the field of education, health, and vocational trainings, through the national wings and the RSB’s network of registered NGOs. These were in addition to the Sangh’s disaster-relief interventions, such as during the super cyclone in Odisha in 1999, and the earthquake in Bhuj, in Gujarat, in 2001, among many others.

Apart from Kumar, another swayamsevak I spoke to explained in detail, with specific examples, how the sewa vibhag contributes to the setting up of the Hindu Rashtra. Biplov Roy is the prant pramukh, or state head, of South Bengal—the RSS has divided the state of West Bengal into two states, North and South Bengal, for its own administrative purpose. Roy claimed that the reading down of Article 370— that granted special status to the territory of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir—on 5 August 2019, was possible due to the decades of work done by the sewa department. “What do you think that it was just like that 370 was removed in Jammu and Kashmir? With a magic wand? Our people have worked there for at least 20 years.”

Roy said he was referring to an RSS project called “Sewa Dham” under which students from different regions are sent for studies to the national capital. Kumar told me that, “Sewa Dham is a sort of residential school. We first started it around 1986 to1990. Children from the North East, who could not travel beyond their areas, they were brought here to educate them. This model has now been replicated all over the country.” Kumar said the project had been very useful in making the people of north-eastern states “more Indian.” He said it took the organisation at least four decades in the North East before the locals there became friendly towards “mainland Indians.” He told me, “They used to call us Indian dogs.” He then added that in Jammu and Kashmir, the same project was educating the children “of families who were affected or killed by terrorists … they were brought here [Delhi].” While I could not independently quantify the Sewa Dham’s role in Jammu and Kashmir, Kumar and Roy’s hyperbole is indicative of the organisation’s motive—political change via philanthropy.

Rajesh Pandey, the prant pramukh of South Bihar—the entire region to the south of the Ganga in Bihar—recounted another such instance where the RSS’s relief work helped it gain clout in the region. According to Pandey, the Sangh had conducted extensive relief work in Bihar during the famine of 1966. He said that the swayamsevaks’ work had won the goodwill of even Jayprakash Narayan, a legendary socialist leader. This account could not be verified independently, although a recent research book, RSS and Disaster Relief, by Malini Bhattacharjee, a political scientist at the Azim Premji University, references the Sangh’s relief intervention in Bihar during the famine.

During the nineties, large scale caste-violence erupted in Bihar. The Ranveer Sena, an upper-caste militia, executed several massacres of the Dalit community, including the killing of 58 Dalits in Laxmanpur Bathe in 1997. The sena was comprised primarily of Bhumihars, a dominant, land-owning caste of the region. Pandey told me the famine-relief work by swayamsevaks had helped them gain the favour of locals. He said that subsequently, the Sangh used this to intervene and negotiate between the landlord militia and their victims. “If you remember, the so-called backward-forward fight was at its peak during the 90s. It was the Sangh’s men who spoke to the people on ground,” Pandey told me. He added, “To make it even, swayamsevaks held talks with all castes.” Pandey said that the Sangh helped convince the “lower castes and Dalits” to reconcile with the upper castes.

This account could not be verified independently, but the work done in Bihar is a part of the RSS’s internal lore as it got them political recognition in the state. In addition, it ensured that existing caste hierarchies would remain untouched. In fact, Pandey remembered the event as a landmark in the history of the RSS in Bihar. With pride he told me that the swayamsevaks’ work had helped overcome “drawbacks of society,” and the Dalits “dropped their fight without any procession and slogans.”

The RSS’s political ingratiation through sewa was not limited to Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states. The RSS representatives in every state had their own tales of how “sewa” brought them closer to an “organised Hindu society.” Their accounts are not all entirely untrue, given that several scholars have researched and written about them, although the swayamsevaks often tend to magnify or exaggerate their work and its impact.

But what is undisputed is that the Sangh has always had a political motive behind its philanthropy—it helped them establish contacts with the communities and gradually increased their acceptance among these communities. Ramashish Singh, who is based out of Varanasi, is presently a senior pracharak, or full-time member, of Bihar—the RSS’s division includes Jharkhand too. During the seventies, he was in charge of the Adivasi areas of what is present day Jharkhand. He told me that the idea of “social projects” came up as a tool targeted towards two communities—the Adivasi community, to stop them from “converting to Christianity” and the Dalit community, to “make them feel a part of Hinduism” and remove the practice of untouchability practised against them.

Singh said sewa as a philosophy began to be institutionalised in the Sangh under the third sarsanghchalak, Balasaheb Deoras. “Balasaheb’s younger brother was Bhausaheb Deoras, who was also a Sangh pracharak. It was about a time in 1980.” He continued, “That time, there was a bad influence of Christians within Jharkhand … I used to be a pracharak at Daltonganj,” a city in Jharkhand. “Bhauaheb was visiting a village near Netarhat in Jharkhand and gave a speech to tribals that ‘we should not leave our religion. We should not become Christians’.”

Singh told me, “After the speech, an old man came to us and said ‘you don’t teach us religion. We won’t leave our religion. But if you want to do something, get our children educated and free us from Filaria.” Filariasis is a parasitic tropical disease and Jharkhand has the third highest incidents of the affliction in India. Singh told me it was then that the “seed of social work in the RSS germinated.”

However, according to the Sangh lore, while philanthropy became part of the RSS’s national framework in the eighties after the formation of the sewa vibhag, the notion of sewa as a political tool was brought in by the founding sarsanghchalak, Hedgewar. Roy, the state head of South Bengal, told me that in 1916, Hedgewar “had come to Kolkata to study. After his studies as a doctor, he got associated with the Ramakrishna Mission.” Beckerlegge’s research paper described the mission as a Hindu movement started by Vivekanand in the late nineteenth century, which believed that the Hindu population was “depleting” and needed an “awakening.” According to Roy, it was Hedgewar’s association with the mission that influenced him and “since then, the Sangh has inculcated a commitment to sewa.”

Malini Bhattacharjee, the political scientist, wrote in her book that it was the “nationalist hero Swami Vivekanand who contributed enormously towards popularising seva and conflating it with nationalism during the colonial period.” She noted that in the Sangh’s imagination, the glorification of Vivekananda’s version of sewa countered a western version of philanthropy.

Bhattacharjee’s research somewhat corroborates the RSS lore. She wrote that the RSS had started commissioning several social-welfare platforms that “penetrated various realms of civil society” from the fifties onwards, during the second sarsanghchalak, MS Golwalkar’s stint, although it received a “stimulus” during Deoras’ tenure. She said that for Golwalkar, sewa was a “conscious strategy” which was “stemming from the need to rehabilitate the RSS’ image as a social and humanitarian organisation as opposed to a communal and paramilitary body, after it was banned following the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.”

In fact, according to Bhattacharjee, one of the biggest events that made Deoras expedite social-welfare projects was a mass conversion to Islam by 1500 members of the Dalit community in the Meenakshipuram district of Tamil Nadu, in 1981. Bhattacharjee quoted two other researchers, Walter K Anderson and Sridhar D Damle, who authored a book on RSS, The RSS: A View to the Inside. “Deoras, in particular, according to Andersen and Damle led the RSS on a ‘much more intense activist path’ than before as he acknowledged the fact that the organization’s Brahmanical moorings was not attractive to the non-elite.”

Singh, the pracharak, elaborated on this need to go beyond the Sangh’s upper-caste base and explained why the RSS needed to do “sewa” for the other sections. “Because many from our community live in the slums,” he said. He then added, “They are weak people whom we call Hindus but from economic and social, both perspectives, they are untouchables.” Singh continued, “To build confidence and patriotic feelings towards the nation among this community, the Sangh was compelled to go among them.”

Kumar, the national secretary of RSB, echoed Singh and said that the Sangh needed to “organise” people living in the slums in Delhi and make them “self-reliant.” He said the idea drove the Sangh to start the first Sewa Bharati unit in Delhi. “It started from a sewa basti in Jahangirpuri in 1977… for instance we opened up a sewing centre. Then to teach children, we started a Bal Sanskar.” The Bal Sanskar was a concept initially started by Hedgewar, who would recruit children between the age of ten to twelve and teach them the history of Hindu kings, and Hindu mythology, among other things. “Then, we availed medical facilities also to those who didn’t have health access.”

Kumar further explained, “The actual reason behind it was that a biggest part of our communities lives in the slums. Those who live in ordinary huts and feel alienated from the community. So, to bring them into the mainstream, it was started.”

Another aspect of the Sangh’s sewa is the organisation’s repeated claims, in public discourse and through media platforms, that its humanitarian interventions, either during disasters or via regular projects, are non-discriminatory. However, this did not bear out clearly in the conversations with Sangh members. During my interviews with the swayamsevaks, most of them even avoided using the word “Muslim.” On being questioned if they would serve the Muslim community with as much fervour, the response was usually a variant on what one of them said: “Whoever is from this country, we help them all without any discrimination.”

Mahipal Singh, zila pramukh, or district head of East Delhi, which is internally known in the RSS as Indraprastha zila, was one such swayamsevak. But when I questioned him further, he said, “For us, whoever chants ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ is from this country, whether they go to a mandir, masjid, or church. But now, because the Tablighis spread corona, there is hesitation in going to that community.” He was referring to the cluster of over four thousand COVID-19 cases that were traced to a religious event held in Delhi in early March, by the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim revivalist organisation. As the cluster was discovered, India’s media platforms were flooded with fake news targeting the Muslim community. “We go for good work and what if something else happens?”

In addition, although the primary purpose of the RSS’s sewa projects is to keep the Dalit and tribal communities within the Hindu fold, at least two former swayamsevaks told me that internally the Sangh is controlled and ruled by Brahmins and other upper castes. According to them, lower castes, and members of the Dalit and tribal communities are employed to fill the role of foot soldiers—the RSS uses them when it needs to mobilise people on the ground for its activities, including those of a paramilitary nature.

Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a former swayamsevak, told me that the Sangh knew that “if they had to expand their support, they needed the Dalits.” Meghwanshi was a participant in the “Ramjanmabhumi movement,” which led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. He said, “When the Ramjanmabhumi movement started, they made a Dalit, Kameshwar Chaupal, to lay the stone foundation for the construction of the temple.” According to him, “All of this did not happen in the heat of the moment. It was well planned in advance.”

Suraj Lolage, another former swayamsevak, who also briefly became a district organisational secretary, told me, “The casteism within the Sangh is most visible in its weekly Thursday strategic meeting of all its wings. The meeting is held to discuss what more should be done by its different wings, including the Bharatiya Janata party, to expand the reach of the Sangh.” According to Lolage, “In this meeting, only sangathan mantris”—organisational secretaries of all wings—“are present. Only Brahmin organisational secretaries are invited to this meeting. No lower caste or Dalit, even if they hold the position of organisational secretary, can attend this meeting.” Kumar, on the other hand said that while the Thursday strategic meetings do happen, it was not true that only Brahmins attend these meetings. He told me that he is an “Agarwal,” an upper-caste community traditionally associated with business activities, and “I’ve never witnessed such a thing in RSS.”

Meghwanshi agreed with Lolage’s assertion that the meetings have no representation from the lower castes and the Dalit community. But he added one important detail on the caste hegemony of Brahmins in the Sangh. Meghwanshi said the meetings never have any members but Brahmins “because almost all the decision making positions in the RSS are held by Brahmins.” 

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