Hindu nationalism has grown exponentially in India over the past few years. This rise is also visible in Indian politics with the massive electoral victories of Narendra Modi. Yet, the organization responsible for the propagation of this illiberal ideology, the RSS, has rarely been properly identified. The RSS, as a civil society organization, has penetrated all segments of Indian society to build a massive support base for both Modi and the Hindu nationalist ideology. This conservative shift in civil society is part of a greater global trend that needs to studied more closely.
Every day, throughout India, an organization holds approximately 65,000 meetings called shakhas. These meetings start with a headcount and the hoisting of the organization’s saffron flag. Then, they involve physical training and games, discussion and learning, as well as closing prayers. These activities are “designed to develop a sense of solidarity” among participants. Each meeting, held at dawn typically in neighborhood parks, lasts approximately 1-2 hours. Sounds fairly benign, right? That is until one considers the fact that the organization inculcates in its members a Hindu nationalist ideology, teaches them exclusively about great Hindu figures, and holds paramilitary camps every summer, where cadets train with rifles and batons. Despite its paramilitary nature, the organization is not considered as such. Instead, it is known as a cultural organization or one of the world’s largest NGO with nearly six million members. The organization is called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the primary propagator of Hindu nationalism in India and around the world.
A civil society organization is often synonymous with a non-governmental organization (NGO). It refers to a “[n]on-State, not-for-profit, voluntary [entity] formed by people in the social sphere that [is] separate from the State and the market.” Thus, civil society refers to a space in society that is distinct from the government and commerce sectors; it acts as a “key stakeholder for driving public-private collaboration” through goals such as holding government accountable, promoting transparency, mobilizing citizens, lobbying for rights, etc. Since the term gained popularity in the 1980’s, when it was identified with non-state movements against authoritarian regimes, civil society has been studied in a biased fashion. Scholars have often assumed civil society to be a liberal space, associating it with democracy, development, as well as freedom and human rights. However, civil society can also lean towards conservatism, whereby it becomes a conduit of illiberal ideology. Such is the case with India’s RSS, which has promoted the diffusion of an exclusionary Hindu nationalist ideology. Not only should the RSS be studied as a civil society organization, scholars should pay more attention to the global rise of conservative civil societies.
One of the most harrowing examples of conservative leaning civil society comes from Nazi Germany. Author Sheri Berman argues in her article, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” that a vibrant civil society during the interwar period actually contributed to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. She explains that at a time of weak political institutionalization, the Nazis infiltrated the various horizontally organized civil society networks to gain new constituencies. The Nazis not only moved up the organizational chain of such networks, reaching leadership positions in several civic organizations, but they also recruited new members of the Nazi Party from such organizations. Thus, contradicting scholarship that emphasizes the liberal role of a strong civil society, the author argues that in the German case, a strong civil society facilitated the rise of the Nazis. Berman recommends that scholars see civil society as “a politically neutral multiplier – neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but rather dependent for its effects on the wider political context” (p. 427).
Coming back to the Indian case, the RSS shares odd connections with the Nazis. The RSS was founded in 1925 and its leaders were heavily inspired by Europe’s fascist and nationalist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Early leaders like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and M. S. Golwalkar justified and praised the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. Moreover, they repeatedly made comparisons between German Jews and Indian Muslims. Accordingly, Golwalkar wrote in 1939 that, “To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic races – the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures… to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.” Meanwhile, his views on Indian Muslims are represented as follows: “they [Muslims] must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen’s rights.”
Such exclusionary ideas have not grown archaic or obsolete in RSS ideology of the 21st century. The notebook of an RSS member revealed the following moral lessons: “[n]on-Hindus must be assimilated with the Hindu way of life. The words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ denote a religious phenomena, while the word ‘Hindu’ is synonymous with the nation” and “[t]he RSS was organized to prevent the further disintegration of Hindu society.” Meanwhile, Hitler continues to find many followers in India. While he is admired on social media, his ideology is admired in India’s education system, with several school textbooks publishing chapters like “Hitler, the Supremo” and “Internal Achievements of Nazism.” Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a “money-spinner for publishers” – not only is it taught in business schools, it sells thousands of copies in English and several Indian languages every year. So much so that in a 2002 poll of young students in elite institutions, 17% of the respondents chose Hitler “as the kind of leader India ought to have.” Hence, there seems to be a simultaneous rise in India’s obsession with Hitler and the Hindu nationalist ideology. This connection becomes chillingly pronounced when one considers the ideology of another Hindu nationalist leader, Bal Thackeray, who said in a 1993 interview that “there is nothing wrong if Muslims are treated as Jews were in Nazi Germany.” Clearly, the Hindu nationalists are precariously inspired by the Nazis as they hope to treat Indian Muslims as Nazis had treated German Jews.
This is precisely why it is important to study the RSS – how it is expanding, organizing, functioning, and hence, spreading its illiberal Hindu nationalist ideology. Classifying the RSS is indeed a difficult task. Many have criticized the organization for not being registered as a political party, company, charitable trust, etc., which also draws attention to its dubious economic activities – namely, collecting millions in donations (secretly) while not paying taxes. Some scholars have called the RSS a “state within the state” or a “shadow government” with increasing influence over the police, intelligence agencies, the media, and the armed forces. Too often, the result has been violent, which is seen as “the inevitable result of the RSS’s domination of the streets.” Others have called it a terrorist organization responsible for “Saffron terror” due to the involvement of members of the RSS or its affiliate organizations in bombings or bomb-making usually targeted at Muslims.
Still others have questioned why the RSS does not declare itself a political party, despite the fact that it has mainstream involvement in politics, especially with the election of Narendra Modi, who himself was a member of the RSS. However, there are two reasons why the RSS will likely not become a political party. First, as a ‘cultural organization,’ it enjoys many privileges; for example, unlike other NGOs, it does not need to disclose its source of funding. Second, the RSS is in no need of becoming a mainstream political party due to its tight control of India’s current ruling party, the BJP. Both the RSS and the BJP belong to the wider “Sangh Parivar” or the Sangh (short for RSS) family. The Sangh Parivar is a wide network of organizations that espouse the Hindu nationalist agenda – the RSS is its main cultural wing and the BJP is its main political wing. Approximately 47% of BJP’s MPs (Minister of Parliament) are affiliated with the RSS, and the organization is also regularly consulted by BJP members, including Modi himself, for policy matters. Since the RSS already exercises a stronghold over the BJP, it does not need to become a political party itself. Instead, the RSS can spread its Hindu nationalist ideology to other elements of society.
Hence, the RSS is aptly classified as a civil society organization. Despite its huge influence over state institutions, the RSS itself operates largely outside the government and economic sectors. Instead, the organization focuses on the culture of India as it promotes the Hindu culture in all aspects of life, from religion to the media, while eliminating or minimizing other cultures and their influence on the ‘Hindu nation.’ The structure of the RSS is like that of a grassroots organization, one that holds daily local shakhas. These shakhas serve as a daily reinforcement of the Hindu nationalist ideology, particularly through history and civic lessons, and they create a sense of community, which often attracts people towards civil society organizations. Additionally, the RSS has many affiliated organizations that are locally focused – these affiliates, that are part of the Sangh parivar, are tailored for local audiences. Hence, such affiliated organizations take care of local needs and deliver messages in local styles while gaining support for the Hindu nationalist movement.
Furthermore, the RSS fulfills many functions commonly associated with civil society. For example, during elections, millions of RSS members campaign door-to-door, mostly on behalf of the BJP (or other right-wing local parties). Such widespread local campaigning is credited with the BJP’s massive electoral victories in 2014 and 2019. Yet, maintaining its ideological loyalty, the RSS also holds the government accountable by speaking out against policies that do not favor its wide constituency or even by publicly clashing with the BJP. At the same time, it lobbies and advocates for legislation that favors its ideology and the Hindu nation. The RSS also fundraises for the organization itself as well as its various service projects. Meanwhile, in a developing country, the RSS provides many necessary welfare services, including education and healthcare, to those in poor areas. Political scientist Soundarya Chidambaram explains how such seemingly ‘innocuous’ civil society mechanisms allow the RSS to spread its ideology: “such initiatives play a crucial part in inculcating a patriotic consciousness among the community, instilling Hindu values in children, reviving traditional Hindu culture and practices, and bringing communities closer to the BJP-RSS vision for India. This mobilization strategy works well because it targets precisely the people who have been trying and failing to catch up to the neoliberal transformation of the economy.” In this manner, the RSS is able to penetrate communities and draw them within its sphere of influence. This successful mobilization partially explains the rise in RSS membership and its shakhas – per some estimates, the organization is growing by 20-25% every year.
The steady rise of the RSS has also tilted India’s civil society in a right-wing conservative direction. This rise of conservative organizations is supplemented with the Modi government’s crackdown of other NGOs. Specifically, between 2014 and 2019, the Modi government shut down approximately 15,000 foreign NGOs. These organizations are viewed as threats because they highlight “abuses of power, corruption and human rights violations.” These developments have altered the direction of the Indian civil society in favor of conservative organizations, hence providing fertile breeding ground for the advancement of the illiberal Hindu nationalist ideology.
Despite the diffusion of this illiberal ideology through an increasingly conservative civil society, scholars have paid little attention to the role played by a conservative civil society in the rise of the BJP and the RSS. This lack of attention is in line with most scholars’ aversion to any consideration of potential negative aspects of civil society. However, it is important to recognize that civil society, as a third sector, can lean anywhere on the left-right political and/or economic scale (even on its extreme ends), much like the political and the commerce sectors. Studying these trends will also be important for scholars to find ways to prevent civil society from being hijacked by extreme movements.
Although there is some research on this topic, many questions about the conservative shift in civil society remain unanswered. Albeit scant, there has been some research on conservative civil society, including the article by political scientist Soundarya Chidambaram cited above. Additionally, in 2018, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a report titled “The Mobilization of Conservative Civil Society,” in which the author highlighted the global rise of conservative civil society and its links to authoritarian movements in countries like Brazil, India, Poland, and the U.S. among others. However, there is plenty of room for further research, especially in the Indian case. For example, considering Sheri Berman’s argument about the Nazi infiltration of the German civil society, I would like to know more about how and why an organization, like the RSS, that remained on the fringes of society and politics for so long became mainstream? Additionally, unlike the German case, the BJP has always been the political wing of the RSS’s Sangh Parivar. So, what are the dynamics between RSS and BJP? Which way does membership usually flow in this case – from RSS to BJP or vice versa?
Furthermore, scholars have given countless reasons for Modi’s electoral victories in 2014 and 2019, including his development agenda, his cult of personality, his campaign against political corruption, weakness of the opposition, and even his Hindu nationalist appeal; however, very few scholars have looked at the role played by Sangh parivar’s civil society network. From this preliminary research, I hypothesize that the grassroots organization provided by the vast RSS network was crucial in bringing people to vote for the BJP.
It seems that the global shift towards right-wing politics is supplemented by the rise of a conservative civil society. Given the interest in this political shift and the power of civil society, this trend should lead to a paradigm shift in scholarship on civil society as it provides enough impetus for scholars to challenge conventional wisdom linking the existence of a strong civil society to democracy.