Hindu Fascism 101: What is the RSS?

Photo: Siraj Qureshi for India Today

The RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Association), is a core organization in the Hindutva (Hindu fascist) movement and network. It is widely known to be the parent organization of India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party).

It is, without a doubt, a fascist organization that uses violence and exclusionary tactics to subordinate and eliminate India’s religious minorities and caste oppressed people.

It is Islamophobic, anti-Sikh, anti-Christian, anti-woman, and anti-Dalit.

What does the RSS believe?

India is a country of multiple religions, ethnic communities, languages, and peoples. For nearly one hundred years (from its founding in 1925 until the present-day), the RSS has had a singular goal: To make India into a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation). This “spiritual homeland” would exclude religious communities considered foreign to their imagination of the original Hindu community, and would practice Hindu traditions such as casteism that deny the humanity of a majority of Indians. In other words, the RSS view opposes India’s pluralist society, its secular constitution, and laws that guarantee equal rights for all.

RSS violence in the name of a Hindu nation

The RSS has been a promoter, architect and organizer of mass violence against India’s religious minorities — particularly, Christians, Muslims, Dalits, Buddhists and Sikhs. Rank and file members of the RSS and its affiliated organizations have terrorized and carried out the murder of thousands of Indians throughout the country. They have killed thousands of people in the last century, and it’s getting worse.

In the last two and a half decades the RSS and its affiliated groups led:

  • The destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992
  • Hindu-Muslim violence in Bombay, 1993
  • Genocidal violence against Muslims in Gujarat, 2002
  • The violent murder of 100 Christians at Kandhamal, Orissa, 2008
  • The September 28, 2015 murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim resident of Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in his own home by BJP and RSS-linked Hindu nationalists following a rumor that he had slaughtered a cow.

Since then, Amnesty International India has tracked over 503 incidents of violent hate crimes against Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, Transgender people, Christians, and ‘Other’ vulnerable groups.

A brief history of the RSS

The RSS was founded in Nagpur by K.B. Hedgewar in 1925, a medical doctor who became disenchanted with the anti-colonial nationalist Indian National Congress party. Hedgewar was greatly influenced by V.D. Savarkar’s manuscript, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, which argued that Hindus were a nation unto themselves, excluding Muslims, Christians and all other minorities from India in the process. When Hedgewar died in June 1940, he was succeeded by M.S. Golwalkar. Under Golwalkar’s leadership, the RSS expanded as a militant Hindu group bent on stigmatizing and eliminating India’s religious minorities, but the organization continued to remain on the periphery of Indian politics.

The organization grew rapidly in the 1970s and early 1980s, thanks to the undertakings it signed in response to the Emergency and the political cover of the Jan Sangh and its involvement in the short-lived Janata Party government. The Janata Party split in 1980 and reformed as the BJP. The RSS developed into a vast network of over 45,000 branches (shakhas) by the year 2000, finally becoming “the many-headed monster that rules over the party leading the government at the centre and in many states” (Noorani 2000: 14) and the force behind current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government. In fact, Modi was once a full-time RSS worker.

To be sure, there have been times throughout this history when the RSS claimed that its name and definition of a “Hindu nation” does not exclude minorities. Today’s RSS relies on a “calculated ambiguity,” which it achieves through a division of labor between the RSS and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The RSS presents itself as a social and cultural organization that coordinates with and provides support to the BJP. However, the RSS uses its wide membership to authenticate this cultural role and deny its political agenda, while remaining active in politics through its strong influence on the BJP.

Who is in the RSS? What are they doing today?

Mohan Bhagwat (aka Mohanrao Bhagwat) is the current chief of the RSS. Bhagwat was recently invited to speak at the 2018 World Hindu Congress, held in Chicago from September 5–7, ostensibly to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the World Parliament of Religions. Bhagwat’s Chicago speech used coded language to refer to minorities as “wild dogs” that would “invade and destroy” Hindu unity, and erased minority narratives, which he replaced with an image of Hindus as victims in need of protection through Hindutva.

With the BJP in power, RSS ideologues like Bhagwat have the ear of India’s national government. They have been emboldened to commit even greater violence against Dalits and Muslims with impunity, now in the name of cow protection and “love jihad.”

As the RSS and BJP continue to violently consolidate political and economic power in India, they have taken to promoting their agenda on the global stage under the guise of religious tolerance and cultural exchange. They mask their violence by appropriating softer and more inclusive language. At the same time they promote a narrative of Hindu victimhood at the hands of minorities persecuted by state and paramilitary violence. Can a group with this kind of baggage be taken at face value without any accountability for their heinous actions?

Indians and Indian Americans living in the diaspora must work together in Dalit-Bahujan led coalitions to stop the RSS’s hate-filled, violent agenda.

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