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Did BJP ride on RSS ‘Seva’?

Another Side
Last Updated : 29 May 2019, 18:13 IST
Last Updated : 29 May 2019, 18:13 IST

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What has it taken for the BJP to move from the periphery of Indian politics to occupy its centre stage? The striking of strategic caste-class-religious alliances, construction of a particular kind of hegemonic nationalist discourse, a strong leadership, a robust public relations machinery and a perceived lack of competent alternatives immediately come to mind. What often goes under-analysed is the remarkable adaptability of the Hindutva discourse and its experimentation with various forms of mobilizations, both overt and covert, that have led the party to reap the harvest of its Parivar’s labour. Our framing of Modi-Hindutva-Sangh Parivar needs to be more nuanced than it has been so far.

In recent times, a large body of literature on Hindutva has highlighted the confrontational aspects of the movement and have used labels such as ‘fundamentalist’, ‘communal’ and ‘fascist’ to describe the same. These studies have focused on forms of communal mobilization which typically take the form of yatras, hate speeches, riots or ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes. However, new supporters and allies are also ‘won over’ in micro-localized contexts through more covert tactics such as the movement’s day-to-day service activities. My interrogation of the institution of humanitarianism within the Sangh Parivar has revealed that it has also played a crucial role for their overwhelming support in society.

The RSS, the Parivar’s foundational organization, has inspired an array of organizations such as the Seva Bharati, Vidya Bharati, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad to name a few, which have been working relentlessly on the ground. Many of these organizations have been rendering a variety of humanitarian services in times of disasters and even otherwise through institutionalised projects in education, health and livelihoods.

The scale of the Parivar is overwhelming. Going by their respective websites, currently, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram runs around 20,199 service projects, spread across 13,886 locations; the VHP runs 1,15,043 seva activities. The Vidya Bharati runs 13,067 formal educational projects, which consist of schools from the primary to the higher secondary levels and cater to 34,75,757 students across the country. In addition to this, it also runs 8,221 Ekal Vidyalayas (Single School teachers) and 4,397 Sanskar Kendras.

The humanitarian activities of the Parivar are often referred to as ‘seva’. Unsurprisingly, though, these ‘seva’ activities are seldom tossed out blindly. The recipients of ‘seva’ are carefully chosen and service is mostly provided to targeted groups such as Dalits and tribals -- either to wean them away from Christian missionary influence and/or to build an omnibus ‘Hindu’ identity.

More importantly, service is consistently provided in the tribal-dominated regions of Odisha, Jharkhand and the North-East that are sometimes considered inaccessible or dangerous by other secular actors, including the State, thus according huge respectability to these projects. The beneficiaries of these ‘seva’ projects, especially those educated in RSS-affiliated schools and trained in shakhas, form part of a large pool of sympathizers who play an important role in advocating for Hindutva through their participation in street rallies and processions, ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes, trade unionism, cow protection committees and in social media platforms today. Electoral support to the BJP is just one of the many ways in which this army of supporters seek to ‘repay their debts’ to the Sangh Parivar.

An important aspect of the humanitarian work of the Hindutva movement is that through ‘seva’, it has managed to invoke a certain sacrality in the Indian political space. Gandhi tried a similar strategy with the invocation of ‘dana’ and ‘seva’ during the freedom struggle, but its impact was far less sustainable. The Seva Dal of the Congress party, which was formed in 1924 (a year before the RSS was born) with the idea of promoting volunteerism in the social sector, has also failed miserably in creating any traction amongst people or even popularizing the idea of humanitarianism as a legitimate mode of engaging with people. The Parivar, on the other hand, despite their limited electoral success in the decades after Independence never abandoned ‘seva’ projects. Moreover, unlike its predecessors and competitors, it has gone a step further in re-inventing ‘seva’ by blending it with the discourse of religious nationalism. Its conceptualization of ‘seva’ offers a resuscitation of an innate idiom, a common language, a common communicative structure that people instantly connect to because they recognize it as their own. This shared idiom is also what binds the saffron brotherhood together.

The discourse of ‘seva’ also has adapted well to the rational-bureaucratic ethos of modern humanitarianism. Thus, in the deployment of their ‘seva’, the RSS and its affiliate groups are perfectly comfortable with the standard practices of the modern secularised humanitarian space such as subscription-based fundraising, bookkeeping and other modes of accountability that have added transparency and legitimacy to their ‘seva’ projects.

The humanitarian work of the Sangh Parivar involves a complex interplay of politics-ethics-care in ways that are not easily disentangled. While critics have cried foul claiming that many of the ‘seva’ projects of the Sangh Parivar have encouraged political clientelism and in some places entrenched existing polarities amongst communities, it must also be acknowledged that the beneficiaries of these service projects have also welcomed these as improvements in their day to day life. In what ways has the Sangh’s participation in humanitarian activities helped the organization in leveraging its popularity amongst people? Greater attention to some of the ‘compassionate’ aspects of the movement along with an understanding of the cultural anxieties of common people who negotiate with insipid secularism will be a useful starting point in interrogating the popularity of Hindutva in contemporary India.

(The writer is faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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Published 29 May 2019, 17:51 IST

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