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.