Saturday, June 7, 2014


Inside the RSS, India's Hindu nationalist movement, where Modi got his start

 June 7 at 7:00 AM

Vellaichamy Pandiarajan, right, instructs a group of young boys in military-style routines at a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) camp in Tirumangalam. (Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
Vellaichamy Pandiarajan gathers young boys in the neighborhood park every morning and conducts military-style marches, bamboo-stick fights and mud-wrestling games. Then he leads them in a prayer that they can find the strength as Hindus to propel their nation to global supremacy.
Pandiarajan, 24, is a “pracharak,” or campaigner, in a secretive, mammoth Hindu nationalist organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is in the spotlightbecause of its most famous son: Narendra Modi, the country's new prime minister.
Modi’s electoral campaign was focused on economic growth, not religion. But his victory has prompted fears that the RSS will wield undue influence in his administration, potentially antagonizing Muslims and other religious minorities in this predominantly Hindu but officially secular nation of 1.2 billion.

Narendra Modi, third from left, attends an RSS gathering at Tria Mandir in Adalaj in 2009. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
RSS goals include building a Hindu temple on a disputed site in the city of Ayodhya, ending the special status of the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir and creating a common civil law that supersedes religious laws on marriage, inheritance and divorce. Those ideas found their way into the campaign manifesto of Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which for first time will govern with a full parliamentary majority.
Members of the RSS are thrilled to have one of their own at the pinnacle of Indian politics, but their ambitions do not stop there.
“We want people who subscribe to RSS’ philosophy of nationalism in every occupation, every department of the government, every industry, every sphere of society,” said Pandiarajan, a thin software graduate with a soft voice and ready smile. 
Hindu unity, national pride

Volunteers from the RSS listen to a speech by a senior volunteer in New Delhi. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Corps, was formed in 1925 during India’s struggle for independence. Its stated goal was to unite Hindus and restore national pride after centuries of Muslim invasions and foreign rule. Even today, some of its adherents believe the partition of the country in 1947 that created Muslim-majority Pakistan was a mistake.
Over the years, its members’ rhetoric has sparked tensions with minorities and sometimes fueled violence. The RSS has been banned twice for brief periods, including in 1948, when a Hindu nationalist assassinated the leader of India’s independence struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, because of his support for Pakistan’s creation. The RSS denied any link to the assassin.
Pandiarajan, right, who is a software graduate, has vowed never to marry or live with his family. (Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
He wants to pursue his goal of uniting the Hindu community and restoring national pride. (Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
The RSS now has about 4 million members. In addition, it has 39 affiliated groups, including religious, social, student, labor and consumer organizations.
Modi joined an RSS children’s group in his village in the western state of Gujarat, following morning drills like Pandiarajan’s. In 1971, he became a pracharak. They vow to follow an austere lifestyle — earning no salary and cutting ties with their families — and dedicate themselves to spreading the RSS ideology.
Sixteen years later, Modi joined the BJP, which is a political offshoot of the RSS. He was appointed chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. The following year, Hindu-Muslim riots left more than 1,000 dead, most of them Muslims; critics accused Modi of failing to stop the violence quickly.
The centrist Congress Party, which has dominated India's politics for decades, has routinely accused the RSS of endangering India’s fragile religious peace. But the Congress Party’s own policies of appealing to minorities with such benefits as easy bank loans and scholarships have angered India’s rising middle class.
“You need someone to speak in the interest of the Hindus, too,” said Gaurav Yadav, a 27-year old accounting student and an RSS volunteer in New Delhi.

RSS volunteers play the sport kabbadi during a gathering in New Delhi. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)
Critics now fear that Hindu nationalist proposals will get a warm reception in Modi’s government, especially after seeing his senior ministers zipping around meeting RSS leadersin recent days.
The RSS and its affiliates “may put pressure on the government, even though these issues may not be Modi’s priority right now because he knows that the voters expect something else from him — the return to economic growth,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, a visiting professor at Princeton University who has written a book on the RSS.
Some Hindu groups tied to the RSS said they expect Modi to strictly enforce the law against religious conversions by Christian missionary groups, and the law against killing cows, which are worshipped by Hindus. Enforcement of such measures has been lax.
Jaffrelot said the Modi government will “give to India a much more Hinduized public space, in terms of symbols and discourse.”
But many in the BJP say that the fears are unfounded.
“The government will focus on economic resurgence because that by itself holds the solution to the problems of social divisions,” said Nalin Kohli, a spokesman for the BJP. 
‘A people’s movement’

Like Modi, Pandiarajan is a pracharak, or campaigner, for India’s largest Hindu nationalist group. (Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
Pandiarajan’s life provides insight into Modi’s experience as a pracharak, or RSS campaigner. A day after Modi was sworn in as prime minister, Pandiarajan was squatting on the ground with teenagers in Tirumangalam, a small town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, planning a commemoration of “Hindu Kingdom Day,” when a 17th-century Hindu ruler defeated the Mughals.
“It is a shame that our history books are written as if we were uncivilized before the British colonizers arrived here,” Pandiarajan said.
He lives in a rented room furnished with nothing but a plastic chair and a fan. He sleeps on the floor He prays to a map of India superimposed with a sari-clad deity riding a lion, portrayed as Mother India.
He tells young volunteers not to ape Western traditions. Touch your parents’ feet instead of cutting a cake on your birthday, he says.
“Our work is to create a people’s movement, Pandiarajan said. “My work will not come to a stop just because we have a pracharak at the helm.”
While the RSS has thousands of traditional campaigners like Pandiarajan, the group is also changing with the times. It has relaxed its uniform of loose khaki shorts, high socks and white shirts, and it offers flexible schedules for the morning drills. While RSS members used to avoid publicity, they now engage with journalists, and the group highlights its relief work during floods and earthquakes.
At a recent Sunday morning RSS gathering of mostly IT professionals, the bamboo sticks were missing and members exercised in sweat pants and gym shorts. They discussed the rising number of “likes” on the RSS Facebook fan page, and offered to develop an iOS app for the RSS prayer.

RSS volunteers hold bamboo sticks as they take part in a march in the central Indian city of Bhopal. (Raj Patidar/Reuters)
Then they planned activities like urging Hindus to pledge to donate their corneas after they die.
Bharat Gupta, 24, an IT professional and new RSS volunteer, said the group was not as extremist as he had earlier thought.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the RSS. They are either based on ignorance or political propaganda,” he said.
The RSS, energized by the “Modi wave,” has been steadily growing. Last October, 2,000 people joined the group. In April, there were 4,800 new members.
“Today, you can hate the RSS, you can love the RSS, but you cannot ignore the RSS,” Rajiv Tuli, a member in New Delhi, told attendees at a recent morning camp. 

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