RSS shakhas: A slow surge among the techies

Updated 5:02 PM, 31 March, 2019
Samarendra Pradhan narrating Field Marshal KM Cariappa's story to the volunteers. Photo: Luo Ruiyao

It was a typical Sunday morning. At 8 am, a few sports enthusiasts who played cricket and football occupied the Domlur Government School ground in Bengaluru Central division. An unusual group of people occupied a corner of the ground. About 20 techies were exercising with a flag in front of them. They were part of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) IT Milan, a weekly initiative of the Sangh to connect with the corporate sector nationwide.

In Bengaluru alone, there are about 150 shakhas attended by 7,000-8,000 techies across the city. The RSS organised its first IT Milan in 2001 in the city. There exist about 225 more IT shakhas in other states, including 50 in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, 15 in Tamil Nadu and 10 in Kerala, according to Vishwa Samvada Kendra, the official media centre of the RSS.

The number of IT Milans has doubled in the last eight years, according to RSS sources. One of the volunteers even set up an IT Milan App which has more than 10,000 downloads.

Unlike the regular RSS shakhas conducted daily in the local language, the IT Milans are weekly sessions dedicated to IT workers (both local and outsiders), and held in Hindi or other languages, depending on the demographics of the attendees. Employees of Wipro, KPMG, Qualcomm, Titan, and Oracle among others were present at the Domlur shakha. Most of them didn’t wear the traditional khaki shorts/pants as it was not compulsory.

But the group did not restrict themselves to RSS prayer, suryanamaskar, games and yoga. In the middle of the session, a volunteer stood up to narrate a story, a sermon of a kind. The Sangh believes it can instil patriotism and nationalism among the new-age techies by influencing them during these shakhas.

On this day, the story was about Field Marshal KM Cariappa and his son KC Cariappa who was captured by Pakistan as a prisoner of war during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. The context was the capture of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistani forces.

“Let us take an example of Congress. Everybody talks about Gandhism, but none lives like Gandhi, and they want to be like him in the organisation. But we had people like Cariappa who brought the patriotic idea into the army,” volunteer Samarendra Pradhan, a techie and alumni of BITS Pilani told the group.

“The Indian army is built in such a way that nobody can raise a question about them… be it their sincerity or proactiveness.”

Pushing the nationalistic agenda

The group sitting in the school ground did not decide the topic. But RSS central leaders sitting elsewhere gave it to them. The same topic was discussed 12 kilometres away in another IT Milan in Bommanahalli.

Perhaps, the idea was to send across a message that it was wrong to raise questions about the air strike conducted by Indian Air Force at terror camp in Pakistan’s Balakot, in retaliation to the Pulwama terror attack. Though this was not told directly, it was put across in a subtle way.

Pradhan denied having political intent with the topic of discussion.

He further said General K M Cariappa visited the RSS shakha in Mangalore in 1959, and quoted him as saying, “RSS work is my heart’s work. If Muslims can sing the praises of Islam, what wrong is there if RSS sings the praises of Hinduism? My dear young men don’t be disturbed by uncharitable comments…”

It is hard to verify the authenticity of Cariappa’s relationship with RSS. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s declassified documents released in 2017, there was an assassination attempt on KM Cariappa, and the RSS had a role to play in this. Right wing groups have contested the authenticity of these documents. The volunteers at the Milan said they were not aware of this.

The Milan was open to anyone who showed interest in the Sangh. There was no registration process. One teenager walked out in the middle of the session. Another watched the proceedings from a distance. The volunteers gestured to him to join. He came up and said he was not interested in joining them but said Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and BJP) has ignored science. And being IT workers, he requested those gathered at the shakha to think and make recommendations to the government, if they have the power. The volunteers became defensive when they heard they did not care for science.

Pradhan, who has been associated with the RSS for three years, said nationalistic topics are discussed every week. “Sometimes we talk about Akhand Bharat (undivided India), sometimes about Hedgewar, the founding member of the RSS,” he says.

Though many of the volunteers shared extreme Hindutva view on their social media accounts, the hardcore political issues were a low key at the Milans. Volunteers are quick to add that not all are BJP supporters and there were people with different political views.

“No one is forced to join the group. And it is not always the Hindu religious group. We all are volunteers, and some people value even Aam Aadmi Party. So, diverse views are open at the shakhas,” Rajeev Ranjan, another techie said.

Up and surging

Not just the IT Shakhas, even the regular shakhas are on the rise, too. There were 58,967 as of 2018, from 39,908 in 2011, an increase of 47% in eight years.

Threatened by its rise, the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh wanted to ban the RSS Shakhas held in government premises and forbid government employees from participating in the Shakhas, soon after it came to power. The move was put on hold as the party analysed it may have serious repercussion ahead of the Lok Sabha election.

RSS’s move to woo IT professionals points to a gradual shift in the composition of the RSS and its attempt to engage with various stakeholders to keep their nationalistic agenda afloat. It also indicates the rise in IT support for the BJP. Balaji Srinivas, Convenor of state BJP Social Media Cell, says the IT and social media cell of BJP attract more than a thousand volunteers from the IT sector to help them in their poll campaigns.

“To build their nationalistic agenda, they have understood that it has to start at the high school level. Block level recruitment by the RSS is on the rise. They did it with dalit groups earlier, and now they are doing with IT workforce,” Harish Ramaswamy, a political science professor at Karnataka University (Dharwad), said.

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