A group of swayamsevaks, or RSS volunteers, prepare to stretch as part of their daily shakhas. All photos by the author.
It was barely 6 AM, but the vast park in the center of Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was already bustling with people taking advantage of the early morning cool before the stifling May heat set in. Children were playing on the trim grass, swings, and miniature rock walls. Adults dressed in tracksuits and salwar kameezes were walking briskly on the cement path.
And secluded in a corner of the morning hustle, in plain sight to anyone who cared to cast a glance, a group of five men were performing their morning drills. They began with simple stretches. Raise the right leg about eight inches off the ground. Rotate clockwise for eight seconds. “Ek, do, teen, chaar, panch, chay, saat, aath,” they counted in Hindi. Reverse and repeat the twist count counter-clockwise. “Ek, do, teen, chaar, panch, chay, saat, aath,” Switch to the left leg.
From there they moved to unwinding their heads, shoulders, and back, lining up or forming a circle depending on the exercise. During one jogging routine, for example, each person would run the perimeter of the circle while chanting “Bharat Mata Ki, Jai”—“Hail Mother India”—as many times as he could while holding his breath. It was an endurance test.
All five men were dressed for physical activity—shorts and polo shirts—but two of them were wearing the trademark khaki shorts volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sport during these morning drills, known as shakhas.
“We salute the [RSS] flag, we play games, we say prayers, exercise—everything is combined in the shakha,” Karan Singh, 22, a journalism student at Lucknow University and RSS volunteer who had come that morning, told me.
The RSS is the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization that spawned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party that recently won a landslide victory in India’s general elections and whose prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was sworn into office last Monday in Delhi. The RSS is also the world’s largest non-political volunteer organization. Its various offshoots, including the BJP and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), another right-wing Hindu group that advocates for the banning of cow slaughter and construction of a temple devoted to the Hindu deity Rama on a contested site between Hindus and Muslims in the northern city of Ayodhya, collectively comprise the Sangh Parivar, or Sangh Family.
The RSS is widely viewed as a Hindu extremist organization that pushes for an Indian agenda known as hindutva. Modi’s background as a former RSS volunteer and the organization’s role in helping the BJP win a sweeping victory in the elections have left many people in the country chewing on the idea of what a hindutva agenda under Modi might look like. The BJP won an impressive 282 of 543 seats in India’s lower house of Parliament, enough for Modi to become prime minister without needing to secure any alliances from regional parties, which is what normally happens in Indian general elections.
That’s why I went to the park that morning. With the RSS’s reputation swirling like a foreboding cloud over Indian politics and concerns about Modi’s stern leadership and impressive mandate, I decided to see for myself what a shakha was like, and how RSS volunteers view themselves and the idea of India as a Hindu nation.
“When you come to these shakhas, you exercise and say prayers, and so you’re building up the character of a person,” said Anil, 30, a vistarak in the RSS who was leading the shakha that day. Vistaraks make a three-year commitment to the RSS to recruit more volunteers and run shakhas and other activities. He didn’t want to tell me his last name so I couldn’t place his caste, which can sometimes polarize communities in these parts of the country during election season. People often vote for candidates according to their caste or identity, and politics can turn friends against each other.
Yet the BJP’s wide margin of victory shows caste didn’t play as large a role in these elections as it did previously. The role of religion, however—especially the consolidation of Hindu voters—is unquestionable, said Ram Dutt Tripathi, a political analyst and independent journalist in Lucknow who reported for the BBC World Service for 21 years.
“The main theme of this election has been communal polarization, religious polarization,” he told me. “The idea of secularism is that the state is non-patronizing [to voters of a certain religion]. But there has been a Hindu revivalism.”
That revivalism is associated with a movement away from caste politics, according to Pralay Kanungo, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of the book RSS’s Tryst with Politics: From Hedgwar to Sudarshan. “When you talk of a larger Hindu identity, the whole idea is to demolish these factors [like caste] to create a larger Hindu identity,” he told me. From the RSS standpoint, he said, a Hindu is someone who considers India both her motherland and her holy land. This understanding of Hindu originates from the term hindutva, which was first coined in 1923 by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a freedom fighter and author of the influnetial pamphlet titled “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?”
“Hinduism is a fraction of Hindutva,” Kanungo told me of Savarkar’s definition. “Hindutva is the larger history which encompasses history, religion, culture—everything. He’s very clear that Hindutva is not Hinduism.”
A little girl (far left) joins the group of RSS volunteers in performing their stretches and prayers. Hardly anyone in the crowded park paid attention to the group even though the khaki shorts gave it away they were part of the RSS.
Traditional Hinduism was considered a way of life, premised on the idea of sanathana dharma, the eternal law that states there is no end and no beginning. The word Hindu came from Sindhu, the river in modern-day Pakistan also known as the Indus River.
“The Arabs called people living on this side of the river Sindhu as Hindus,” J.P. Shukla, a political analyst in Lucknow who spent 18 years reporting for the English newspaper The Hindu, told me. “The Indian constitution does not define the word Hindu. Who is a Hindu, you cannot say definitely at all.”
The RSS’s core belief that India is a Hindu holy land is what ostracizes religious minorities in India like Christians and Muslims, Shukla said. This is because of an unsaid but widely believed corollary: that non-Hindus in India are somehow foreigners or interlopers, or not really Indians. The RSS was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a Hindu ideologue who had felt the Indian National Congress Party had become overly concerned with catering to Muslims, according to the book RSS: A Vision in Action.
“Dr. Hedgwar was equally emphatic that winning over the Muslims should not end in compromising the spirit of nationalism,” the prologue of the book reads. “He was also convinced that ultimately the Muslims could be made to give up their aggressive and anti-national postures only when the Hindus became organized and powerful enough to make them realize that their interests were best served in joining the Hindus in the national mainstream.”
Although the RSS has since softened its stance, its ideological conviction is more or less the same, Prof. Kanungo said.
But as I watched the men do their drills that morning and later talked to them, it seemed most of them were quite innocent and sincere in their affiliation with the RSS. They have Muslim friends and don’t consider themselves hardliners. The shakha was more like an ROTC meeting than a Klan rally.
“The RSS is working to build an ideology where the individual does not come first, but the nation comes first for him,” Anil, the recruiter, told me.
“This is the oath you swear down in your heart,” Singh, the journalism student, said. “That whenever the country needs you, you are there. Serving all small or big causes.”
Singh told me he was first motivated to join the RSS when he was 18 years old and decided to attend a meeting in his neighborhood in Lucknow’s old city. He was inspired by the RSS’s commitment to social service. Whenever there is a natural disaster, for example, the RSS is always one of the first groups on the scene to provide assistance.
“I still remember the day…It was the 19th of January in 2010,” Singh said. He paused. “The RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat was in town.” He spoke slowly as he recollected the experience. “First I thought these people [RSS supporters] were just spreading hatred or something of that sort. But slowly slowly, when I heard the RSS ideologies, I realized that it’s not so.”
But the RSS’s uncompromising reputation is not unfounded. The Indian government banned the group in 1948, when a member of the RSS assassinated Mohandas Gandhi, and again during the 1970s and 1990s. More recently, it is widely believed the RSS engineered communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, last September to turn Hindus and Muslims against each other. Amit Shah, Modi’s top aide and the secretary general of the BJP, was recorded on video several months later telling a group of Hindus in the sensitive area that the election was one of honor and revenge.
“A man can sleep hungry but not humiliated,” Shah had said. “This is the time to take revenge by voting for Modi.”
His comments are partly why an April report in the Times of India stating nearly 45,000 shakhas were counted in India last year raised fears. Among them, 8,417 were in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically sensitive state. If the RSS were to rise, its opponents believe, it might attract younger generations to a fundamentalist regime.
Amarnath, a pracharak, or full time volunteer with the RSS, says India's greatest problem is that it's unorganized, which is why the RSS is necessary to help the country revive itself.
The shakha I witnessed was anything but strict, however. As the five RSS volunteers, or swayamsevaks, as they are called in Hindi, continued their morning routine, a few older gentleman who obviously weren’t as agreeable to waking up so early joined them. A little girl, as well as two 20-year-old Muslim men, also came to spy on the activities taking place. The Muslims kept their distance and told me they just wanted to see what was going on, since the sight of the men at this park was new to them. The little girl was more unabashed about her curiosity; she sat down with the group occasionally when they recited prayers, as well as took part in some stretches. The men were friendly to her and inquired her name, but didn’t pay her too much attention thereafter. She simply became part of the background.
Similarly, most of the people in the crowded park either ignored the men or didn’t think their presence was worthy of concern. Only a few looks came our way.
The RSS volunteers I met also viewed their affiliation with the group as perfectly normal.
“It has nothing to do with your religion, your caste, your creed, or your color,” Kamal Aggarwal, 43, told me after the drills finished. Aggarwal has been involved with the organization for the past 35 years, is married, and has a family. He monitors different shakhas as a part-time volunteer with the RSS.
Full-time volunteers, known as pracharaks, however, do renounce marriage and family life. Later, after some of the volunteers and I had some chai, we went to an RSS office in the city so they could introduce me to one of these full-time volunteers.
He was wearing a crisp pink kurta and sat with excellent posture. He told me his name was Amarnath and, like Anil, refused to give me his last name.
“I am not important,” he said. “According to the RSS, a person is not important. The organization is important.”
Amarnath said India’s problem is that it is unorganized, which is why the RSS is needed to help India revive itself.
“When a state or nation becomes an unorganized nation, that nation loses its identity,” he told me. “It loses its power, loses its culture -- all things which belong to a nation is lost…but by our behavior, one day will come, when everyone will be able to know what is the true hindutva.
Amarnath wouldn’t tell me what exactly his view of hindutva was, however. He also refused to answer my question of whether the RSS was meant only for Hindus -- because Hindu, as he put it, meant “nothing.”
As we parted ways and he took off in a motorcycle to talk with people in the community -- which is part of his job -- I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of my day with these volunteers. They seemed fairly normal and harmless. But a conversation I had with someone who used to follow the RSS, but doesn’t anymore, was lingering in my mind.
It was about a week earlier, just after the results of the elections were announced. Twenty-six-year-old Abhishek Pandey was sitting with his laptop at a Cafe Coffee Day in Lucknow, not too far from the park where the shakha took place. He had been actively campaigning for the BJP during the elections, and now that it was over, he could afford to catch up on some reading.
Pandey told me he used to attend a school sponsored by the RSS until he was about 13 years old. He stopped because his father wanted him to attend a better school in the city. Then he later stopped following the RSS philosophy completely when he was about 21. That’s when he started reading more aggressively, including biographies, history books, and other religious texts, and began thinking of the RSS more critically.
“The RSS is an excellent example of an ideology being transferred from person to person,” Pandey told me about his experience with the RSS. “They are categorically brainwashing people, to be very honest…They always make these things very clear in the Hindu mind: We must prepare for war. Don’t forget you’re Hindu. Don’t forget your roots. Don’t become secular.”
Shiv Visvanathan, a social scientist who recently wrote an op-ed in The Hindu on how Modi was able to take advantage of the liberal understanding of secularism to win votes, said it was understandable that religion maintained itself as a strategy in the election.
“India can never divorce itself from religion,” Visvanathan told me. “Our religions have always been interacting…but secularism became this kind of modernist snobbery.”
Visvanathan said the real battle in India now, in light of the election results, is between hindutva and Hinduism. Hindutva tries to organize itself as an orthodox church whereas Hinduism was always non-hierarchical and never had a church.
But these supporters of the RSS don’t necessarily pay attention to these nuanced definitions of hindutva and Hinduism.
“Hindutva, for me, means being human,” Singh, the journalism student, told me. “It is the feeling of oneness that you and me are the same.”
Follow Sonia on Twitter.