THE Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, popularly known as the RSS, translates into National Volunteers’ Union, in English. Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a doctor based in the city of Nagpur in Maharashtra, felt the need to protect and organize Hindus, after witnessing Hindu-Muslim riots in his city. As a result, RSS was created in the year 1925. Sangh believes in the philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam or Universe is one Family.
Despite its self- proclaimed philosophy of preserving India’s cultural, moral and spiritual traditions, the RSS is viewed more as a Hindu organization, both in India and abroad, than simply a cultural organization. Its claim of being only a socio-cultural organization, without any interest in politics, finds few takers. The organization enjoys a support base of more than 4.5 million members and functions across the lengths and breadths of the country. The RSS is an umbrella organization containing over 100 other organizations in its fold. Collectively, all these organizations along with the RSS are referred to as Sangh Parivar (Sangh family).
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s day-to-day activities are governed by Sarsanghchalak, who is head of the RSS family. There have been six Sarsanghchalaks of the RSS since its inception:
The RSS functions through its 50,000 plus Shakhas, Sanskrit for branches, which are the basic unit and activity of RSS. These shakhas operate every morning, evening or night in parks or public places. People attending shakhas indulge in activities such as yoga, exercise, and discussions on varying social, religious or political issues facing the country. Although, the shakhas are open for persons belonging to any religion, caste, or economic class, almost all of its members or volunteers (swayamsevaks) remain Hindus.
The RSS also has a dress code for its members, white shirt, khaki half-pant and a black cap. A shakhastarts and ends with the recitation of prayer “Namaste Sadaa Vatsale Matrubhoome” (My salutation to you, ever loving motherland). The volunteers pay tribute to the saffron flag, which is symbolic for Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation). The entire RSS structure is built on these shakhas as they are responsible for the induction of new volunteers into the RSS fold besides maintaining and handling current members. Theshakhas also spread the RSS ideology to the masses as they are in direct touch with them. The organization believes in the silent propaganda of its policies, without creating hype or too much noise, either through the media or otherwise.
Constituents of Sangh Parivar
Sangh parivar consists of more than 100 affiliate outfits with the RSS being the parent body. These organisations are directly controlled and governed by the RSS, with Sarsanghchalak being the head of the family. Some of the important members of the sangh parivar include Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (Indian Labour Union) with a membership of 10 million, Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (Indian Farmers Union) with 1 million volunteers, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Students Council) with 2 million members,Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (working for the development of tribals), Muslim Rashtriya Manch (National Muslim Forum), Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP; World Hindu Council), Bajrang Dal (named after Lord Hanuman), Durga Vahini (Army of Durga; women’s wing of the VHP). The main opposition party of India,Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political wing of the RSS, although both the party and RSS deny this, most of the office bearers in the party are from the RSS. The party’s newly appointed president, Amit Shah, is also an RSS activist.
Vishva Hindu Parishad, also known as VHP, was founded in the year 1964, with the objective of organising and consolidating the Hindu society and to serve the Hindu religion. (Source: http://vhp.org). VHP, with branches spread all over the world, is known for aggressively voicing its opinion over the issues concerning Hindu society. VHP’s international general secretary, Dr. Pravin Togadia, is termed as fundamentalist by many in the country. His stance on issues including Ram temple, religious conversions, Islamic terrorism, infiltration of Bangladeshis in India, cow slaughter, has been very aggressive. In an interview to Organiser, Sangh parivar’s mouthpiece, Dr. Togadia declared, “VHP is fully committed to building a magnificent Shri Ram temple in Ayodhya and the Hindu society is ready for any sacrifice for the temple.”
This statement is an example of his extreme views on the issue. Commenting more on the issue, he said, “Any symbol created, built or otherwise, by any foreign invader in Akhand Bharat is a national shame. It never happens in any nation that a majority is consistently humiliated, hurt and persecuted. If it so happens anywhere then it is a national shame. A structure built by Babur cracking and destroying majority Hindu’s place of worship and place of utter faith can never be glorified in Bharat. Whoever tries to do so is putting Bharat at a risk of losing again to the modern day methods of foreign invasions like jehadi attack, economic exploitation, etc. Therefore, falling of so-called Babri structure is the proudest moment of Hindus in Bharat,”
His take on Islamic jihad is equally tough as he says “Taliban’s ideological inspiration is in Darul Ulum Deoband situated in Saharanpur district of western Uttar Pradesh. Jamait-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan created Taliban whose maulavis are Deobandis same as Jamait-e-Ulema-e-Hind is Deobandi.” It will be appropriate here to mention here that Darul Ulum Deoband is study centre for Islamic sciences, where Muslims from all over the world come to study and research the Islamic teachings.
VHP even endorses militancy to fight the terror unleashed by Islamic jihadists. In a press conference in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh, he stated, “Today a situation has come when no railway station or bus station is safe from the threat of attack from Islamic terrorists. The only option left before the country is to declare a full-fledged war against Islamic militants and defeat it, roundly and squarely.” Although, VHP claims that it is operating 32,000 projects in the field of self-empowerment, education, health etc., it is known more for its extremist views than anything else.
VHP, in the year 1986, formed Bajrang Dal, a congregation of Hindu Youth. Bajrang Dal is considered to be the militant wing of the VHP. Its mission, vision, and goals are same as those of VHP, except the use of weapons and force by its members. Bajrang Dal’s area of activity are renovation of religious places, cow-protection, social evils like dowry untouchability etc. and protests against insults hurled at Hindu maan-bindus, Hindu traditions, Hindu conventions and beliefs etc, protests against vulgarity and obscenity displayed on the television advertisements and through beauty contests, opposition to the illegal infiltration. The Dal’s carry symbolic Trishuls (tridents) as a mark of their militant views. It has been termed as Hindu extremist group in the annual report on international religious freedom for 2000 of the United States Department of State. The Dal’s activities have always been suspicious and violent.
In the year 1999, an Australian missionary Graham Steins was burned alive along with his two sons when they were sleeping in their van parked outside their house in Manoharpur village of Keonjhardistrict of Orissa. Steins was accused of converting tribals into Christians by the Sangh parivar andBajrang Dal opposed it by killing steins and his two sons. Although, Sangh parivar stronglydenied its hand in the killings but the accused Dara Singh, sentenced to life imprisonment was a Bajrang Dalactivist, is an open secret. Several Indian political leaders including Mayawati, Ram Vilas Paswan and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda along with the ruling Congress party have been demanding a ban on Bajrang Dal.
In 2008, the gravity of attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka was such that the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had to convene a special cabinet meeting discuss a possible ban on VHP and Bajrang Dal. Several Muslim leaders like Maulana Khalid Rashid have also been advocating a complete ban onDal due to its dubious and violent activities. (Source: http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/Muslim-cleric-demands-ban-on-Bajrang-Dal/353369/)
Purpose, Goal and Ideology
The RSS was formed with the purpose of “serving the nation and its people in the form of God – Bharat Mata (Mother India) and protecting the interests of the Hindus in India”. However, many believe, that it has gone much beyond its purpose of existence. Protecting Hindus’ interests and revival of Hindu traditions have always been the topmost priority of the RSS. The organization strongly believes that Hindus are being marginalized in their own country due to the appeasement policies adopted by the central as well as several state governments. It holds the Congress and left parties responsible for the appeasement of minorities against Hindus.
The RSS firmly believes that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life and every Indian, irrespective of his/her religion, should be considered a Hindu. This view of the RSS is often challenged and debated by people following other religions as well as by the government, whose primary duty is to provide secular governance to the country. Another controversial belief shared by the RSS is the concept of Akhand Bharat (undivided India). The RSS wants to reunite India by bringing countries such as Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal under its rule. These countries were once a part of undivided India. This concept is seen as impractical by many and is hotly debated by secular forces in the country. However, all this does not seem to affect the RSS which celebrates the Akhand Bharat sankalp Diwas (undivided India day) every now and then. More recently, in an interview to a television channel, the present Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat reiterated “Pakistan and Afghanistan are a part of us and will return one day”.
On the question of RSS ideology, Ram Madhav, national spokesperson of the RSS, replied “In simple terms, it means the nation is first. We see India as one nation and all the people as one people. We believe that we are a nation with a long history and a hoary culture. We expect all the people of this country to share this viewpoint. Just as we do not want society to be fragmented into caste, race and creed, we do not want society to be divided into majority and minority on the basis of religion.”
The more detailed analysis of this statement would mean that the RSS is opposed to the status of minority being given to the Muslims or Christians. Speaking more on the issue, Ram Madhav said, “We are not in agreement with the way the idea of minorities is interpreted in India. If you want to call anybody a minority in this country, it is the Parsis who can be called as such. Because they came from another country and are 100 per cent outsiders. Maybe the Jews are similarly a minority.
But all the others come from the same stock and share the same history. People may have opted for different religions. If religion is to be the basis of defining a majority and minority, who is the majority in this country? After all, the Supreme Court has interpreted Hinduism as a way of life and not a religion.This stand of the RSS further alienates it from the minorities. Although, the RSS believes in the philosophy Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (Truth is one, sages call it by many names. The whole universe is one family), it still feels that the Hindu society has been repeatedly oppressed, attacked and threatened by Muslims from Turkey and central Asia in the past.
The RSS wants to protect Hindus from further persecutions and correct the past wrong-doing in its own way. This is the root cause of Muslims’ opposition of the RSS. Further, the Muslims feel uncomfortable when the RSS says that the ancestors of most of the Indian Muslims were Hindus and were converted to Islam by force, and that they should return to their Hindu fold. The RSS approach towards the Indian minorities has been aggressive and hard, making minorities look to it with suspicion.
Moreover, the RSS is of the viewpoint that every non-Hindu Indian should respect or show religious tolerance towards other religions that are practiced in the country. This can be substantiated by the statement of M.S. Golwalkar, a late RSS leader, who declared in 1940s that “The non-Hindu peoples in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of glorification of Hindu race and culture, i.e., they must not only give up their attitude intolerance and ungratefulness towards this land and its age-old traditions but must also cultivate the positive attitude of love and devotion instead-in a word they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in this country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privilege, far less any preferential treatment-not even citizens’ rights.” Craig Baxter,The Jana Sangh: A Biography of an Indian Political Party (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p. 31.
Here, it would be imperative to mention that the RSS and its affiliating bodies (Sangh Parivar) also vehemently advocate the imposition of a uniform civil code, abolition of Article 370, ban on cow slaughter, and building of Ram temple in Ayodhya. All these issues are controversial and Indians hold different opinions on them. There is no unanimous perspective on these issues in the country. The union government also wants to keep these issues on the hold, so as to avoid any kind of confrontation. On uniform civil code issue, the RSS is of the view that India must have one uniform law and all religions should follow it.
There should be no Muslim code, Hindu code, or Christian code. As per the RSS, one country should have one law and not different law based on different religions. The Muslim leaders strictly oppose uniform civil code as they think that is against their religion. This is again one big cause of confrontation between Muslim community and the RSS. The Muslims think that the RSS wants to thrust its Hindu agenda on them while the RSS feels that Muslims are not being nationalistic by not agreeing to uniform civil code, which it thinks would further strengthen the country’s secular fabric. It is however a different issue that many in the country doubt the secular credentials of the Sangh Parivar.
As far as the imposition of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir is concerned, we will have to go back into the history, to understand it. The special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) was granted in the year 1950 under Article 370 of the constitution. However, the Article was a temporary provision and was to stay only till the constituent assembly of the state approved the Accession Instrument signed by Maharaja Hari Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Jammu & Kashmir, with the Indian Government. The RSS argues that why the Article 370 has not been abolished even after 60 years.
Under the provisions of the Article, no Indian from any other state can either purchase land or permanently settle in J&K and Indian Parliament cannot frame any law, except defence, foreign affairs and communications, without concurrence from the state assembly. The continuation of the Article 370 strongly irks the RSS, which feels that it separates J&K from rest of the country.
Another issue that is very dear to the Sangh Parivar is its demand for total ban on cow slaughter as the cow is considered to be sacred by Hindus. Although, no particular community including Muslim and Christian is opposed to this demand, the successive union governments have not yielded to the demand due to the fear of facing allegations of appeasing the majority community.
Moreover, some argue that beef is main food of people in North East states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram and if the ban is imposed, the residents of these states might resort to measures that would be unpleasant to the union government. Anyhow, the RSS sticks to its demand unfazed and keeps on raising the issue from time to time, either directly or through its frontal organisations.
The most contentious religious issue facing the country today is the demand for the construction of Ram temple in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. On December 6, 1992, an unruly mob demolished the structure, which Muslims claim was a mosque built by Mughal emperor, Babar, in Ayodhya. The mob was instigated by the RSS (read Sangh parivar), while its political offshoot, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power in Uttar Pradesh when the incident took place. The riots that broke out in the aftermath of the incident are considered to be the biggest riots witnessed by the country after partition. The unfortunate incident is considered as the black spot on secular India. However, the RSS claims that the mosque was built by demolishing a temple where Lord Ram was born and it was a matter of faith for Hindus. The RSS says it is ready to build a mosque for Muslims at some distance from where the original structure was situated.
The temporary Ram temple built after the demolition of the structure is provided round the clock security by the state government as some people may try to whip up the public sentiments by mounting an attack on it. The whole matter is currently in the Supreme Court but most people feel that since it is matter of faith hence it should be decided by mutual discussion between leaders of Hindu and Muslim communities. However, sangh parivar is not ready to budge even an inch from its stand of building a permanent Ram temple on the site of demolished structure. The issue is a major obstacle in the path of harmony between the two communities and it will be interesting to see whether the RSS would soften its stand on the issue in future.
The Liberhan Commission, set up in 1992 to investigate the demolition of Babri Masjid, observes, “The blame or the credit for the entire temple construction movement at Ayodhya must necessarily be attributed to the Sangh Parivar”. It noted that the Sangh Parivar is an “extensive and widespread organic body”, which encompasses organizations, which address and assimilate just about every type of social, professional and other demographic grouping of individuals. “Each time, a new demographic group has emerged, the Sangh Parivar has hived off some of its RSS inner-core leadership to harness that group and bring it within the fold, enhancing the voter base of the Parivar.” Two prominent leaders of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), a political offshoot of the RSS, Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Vihari Vajpayee were also indicted in its report that submitted to Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh on 30 June 2009
The RSS has often been accused of not giving due respect to dalits or low caste people in the organisation. Most of the prominent posts in Sangh Parivar’s organisational hierarchy have been held by the people of upper castes. The RSS, however, denies this allegation and maintains that many dalit and backward class people hold responsible posts in the organisation. In 2006, former RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan stated, “The Dalits are our own flesh and blood, but because of some ill practices and social evils the practice of untouchability has brought havoc on those who were an integral part and defenders of Dharma. This has to be corrected through our deeds and actions.” Despite what the RSS has to say on this issue, dalits in India do not associate themselves with the RSS or Sangh parivar, for that matter.
History of Ban
The RSS activities have been shrouded in mystery. In 1948, it was accused of having a hand in Mahatma Gandhi’s killing and was banned on Feb. 4 of the same year. However, the Supreme Court of India lifted the ban in March 1949 on the condition that the RSS must adopt a constitution. Justice Kapur Commission that was formed to investigate the conspiracy behind Mahatma’s killing, observed, “…RSS as such were not responsible for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, meaning thereby that one could not name the organization as such as being responsible for that most diabolical crime, the murder of the apostle of peace”. “It has not been proved that they (the accused) were members of the RSS which shows that they (the accused) were believers in a more violent form of activities…”
The RSS activities during Indo-Pak partition are also looked at with suspicion by many. In 1946, about 1,000 people were killed at Garmukteshwar, supposedly by the RSS people.However, in 1963, Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru invited RSS to take part in Republic day parade, for its commendable work during the Sino-Indian war. This helped in boosting RSS’ popularity and its patriotic image in the country. In 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared emergency, the RSS along with other democratic institutions was banned. Several RSS leaders and scores of its activists were put behind bars. Nevertheless, the ban was lifted with the end of emergency in 1977.
The RSS volunteers are known for their immediate and selfless service during any calamities – man made or natural. During earthquakes, floods, drought, and riots, the RSS volunteers are first to offer help. In 2001, when the state of Gujarat was hit by a massive earthquake, RSS volunteers were first to reach the site and offer help. Saba Naqvi Bhaumik told Outlook on Feb. 12, 2001 “Literally within minutes RSS volunteers were at the scenes of distress. Across Gujarat, the (RSS) cadres were the saviors. Even as the state machinery went comatose in the first two days after the quake, the cadre-based machinery of the Sangh fanned out throughout the state. Approximately 35,000 RSS members in uniform were pressed into service.”
The reputed Indian magazine, India Today, reported in its Feb. 12, 2001 issue, “It is conceded by even their worst detractors that the RSS has been in the forefront of the non- official rescue and relief (operations). This has led to an upsurge of goodwill for the Sangh.”
In 1984, during anti-Sikh riots, RSS volunteers saved lives of many Sikhs by protecting them from rioting mobs. Khuswant Singh, a noted journalist and author of book “A history of Sikhs” commented, “RSS has played an honorable role in maintaining Hindu-Sikh unity before and after the murder of Indira Gandhi in Delhi and in other places.
It was the Congress (I) leaders who instigated mobs in 1984 and got more than 3000 people killed. I must give due credit to RSS and the BJP for showing courage and protecting helpless Sikhs during those difficult days.”
Despite of RSS being dubbed as communal and Hindu organisation by many in the country, there is no dearth of people lauding its efforts and services. Dr. Zakir Hussain, former Indian President stated on Nov. 20, 1949, “The allegations against RSS of violence and hatred against Muslims are wholly false. Muslims should learn the lesson of mutual love, cooperation and organization from RSS.”
Field Marshall Cariappa, hero of Indo-Pak war in 1947, told RSS volunteers, “RSS is my heart’s work. My dear young men, don’t be disturbed by uncharitable comments of interested persons. Look ahead! Go ahead! The country is standing in need of your services.”
However, India, a land of miracles, comfortably accommodates both the Sangh parivar and its detractors. That is the greatness and culture of this heavenly piece of earth in this part of the world.