How RSS’ branches are spreading beyond urban Tamil Nadu

How RSS’ branches are spreading beyond urban Tamil Nadu

It’s early morning. Even before the break of dawn, men dressed in khaki pants, neatly tucked in white half shirts and black caps are up and ready for their weekly shakha at a temple near Palliyuthu in Modakurichi of Tamil Nadu’s Erode district. Waiting for their shakha guru, the men exchange in hushed but hurried tones the progress of their individual campaigns in localities assigned to...

It’s early morning. Even before the break of dawn, men dressed in khaki pants, neatly tucked in white half shirts and black caps are up and ready for their weekly shakha at a temple near Palliyuthu in Modakurichi of Tamil Nadu’s Erode district. Waiting for their shakha guru, the men exchange in hushed but hurried tones the progress of their individual campaigns in localities assigned to them over the last week.

Suddenly there is silence. Upon spotting their ‘guru’, the swayamsevaks (RSS volunteers) quickly take their positions — each at a two-arm distance from the other. They say a prayer in a chorus and then perform Surya Namaskar in unison in military-style discipline.

“I was born a Hindu and I ought to know how a Hindu should be. That’s what RSS is teaching us daily,” says 42-year-old Anand, who is an Erode district functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and helps spread the organisation’s message in Palliyuthu.

Asked about his views on what is being taught at the shakha, Anand says, “They are only teaching people what a Hindu should be and behave like. Neither I, nor my family, finds anything odd in it.”

Anand, who is a full-timer with the RSS, joined the organisation when he was just 18. He informs that there are about 20 men like him who campaign and conduct classes in the Palliyuthu locality. The door-to-door campaign involves shakha workers discussing RSS’ vision of ‘Hindu Ekta’ and ‘Hindu Rashtra’ with people and encouraging them to join the RSS fold. They are told to attend the shakha to gain training in martial arts and for yoga sessions.

To make the messaging subtle, RSS functionaries also highlight the humanitarian work done by the organisation in moments of crises such as landslides, floods, or the recent pandemic.

RSS volunteers carrying out relief work during Cyclone Ockhi. Photo:

The progress of these campaigns is then shared by the men with each other at the Palliyuthu ground temple every week.

“Martial arts and yoga constitute a way of life and that’s what we teach our people every day. Whatever else we discuss in the shakha are all facts that we are facing every day. Be it conversions or other forms of threats facing Hindus in the state of Tamil Nadu. We only discuss things about us [Hindus] and not others,” adds Anand.

The nondescript village of Palliyuthu hasn’t been an old RSS stronghold. The appeal of the organisation has begun to grow in this Erode village only recently as more and more people are turning up at the shakha’s doors.

“I have been part of the unit for a long time and I never saw more than 50 people at any point in time at the shakha. But now after reaching out to the villagers, we are able to get more people. Our appeal began to grown in a significant way particularly after the pandemic in 2021,” Anand says.

Palliyuthu, however, is the marker of a trend and not an aberration. Many remote villages in Tamil Nadu are seeing the influence of RSS grow and spread. “We are reaching out to more people because as part of our centenary celebrations, we have been asked to increase the number of regular shakhas and number of people attending them,” says Anand.

Founded in 1925 by KB Hedgewar, the RSS will mark 2025 as its centenary year.
Since 2021, there has been a significant rise in attendance at RSS shakhas in districts beyond Erode in the state. Cuddalore, which has a high Dalit population, is among the districts where RSS has recently gained support.

But the rise has had its own share of challenges. When RSS functionaries tried to organise shakhas at Vadalur village in Cuddalore district with the support of a few residents, local resistance forced them to leave. The locals, on their part, say people from the outfit raised communal slogans and so were not allowed to organise a shakha.

Locals who opposed the RSS in Vadalur said that the slogans used by RSS men were extremely communal in nature and it would have definitely disturbed peace in the region.

“The RSS men said they would not let any Christian live in the ‘land of the Hindus’. They were encouraging the attendees to chase away the Christians and Muslims to ‘their country’. They raised slogans of ‘Ethu Hindu naadu. Ethu Hindu nilam’ [This is a Hindu country and this is Hindu land]. But this land belongs to Vallalar, both technically and philosophically. How can we allow anybody to talk like this here,” R Kanagavalli, a resident of Vadalur, said.

The RSS, however, dismissed the whole episode as a case of ‘some communication gap’.

“There were weekly shakahs happening in the nearby place and since we got more followers, we started a daily shakha at the ground near Thiru Arutprakasa Vallalar Deiva Nilayam, a place of worship for Tamil saint Vallalar. But due to some communication gap, people began opposing. We, however, managed to convince them and still conduct yoga, silambam and other martial arts classes there,” a RSS functionary of the unit, who did not want to be named, said.

Locals, however, say if the RSS tries to raise its communalism bogey again, they will be opposed again.

“The ground belongs to the Vallalar Deiva Nilayam. Preaching hatred at a place dedicated to a man who preached love of fellow human beings and equality was completely unacceptable. Now, they have moved to a nearby place and are just doing some exercise and yoga. If they again start sloganeering against anybody else, we will stop them again,” said R Kanagavalli.

Kanagavalli is concerned about her fellow villagers who have joined the RSS. “We didn’t know RSS until they started sloganeering against other religions. We don’t know what our villagers who have joined the RSS would do there. We should somehow save them,” she said.

According to RSS functionaries, the mission to expand their base started off just before the pandemic and the pandemic helped them in striking a chord with the villagers by extending help.

Locals in Vadalur opposing RSS functionaries. Photo: TV grab

“It all started with us giving them food, groceries and then distributing Kabasura Kudineer (an immunity booster) at special camps. To begin with, we organised the camps outside the villages and soon we engaged villagers to hold the camps inside. That’s how they drew closer to us,” says Suresh, RSS Coimbatore district coordinator.

“Every day shakhas are being organised in one village or the other and we are very happy about it. We don’t get the real numbers until we get the regular attendance. But even if they are attending once in a while, it is good,” Suresh says.

A senior RSS worker in Chennai, who wants to stay anonymous, shared that RSS launched online shakhas during the pandemic-induced lockdown and has been sharing links with people to join.

The RSS holds around 70,000 daily shakhas, where its swayamsevaks gather for an hour, in a playground or a park, to execute a set regimen of physical, mental and spiritual activities. When the lockdown came into force, most of these shakhas moved online with swayamsevaks connecting through various online platforms. Several RSS affiliates launched a series of webinars, Facebook lives and online discussions. Some swayamsevaks even launched a Shakha App in 2020 to take up organisational activities online as well as offline.

“The virtual shakhas were started for the existing members. But, to our surprise, a lot of people from the IT firms who are on work from home showed interest in joining the day-to-day shakhas. Interestingly, we got a lot of inquiries from women. So, we thought we will have virtual shakhas as well apart from the in-person shakhas,” said a functionary in Chennai.

The organisation considered traditional in its approach, has been quick to use to technology to spread its influence. One can join RSS shakhas online and the organisation uses instant messaging apps to reach out to people apart from its door-to-door campaigns.

“We came to know about RSS shakhas through a message on a WhatsApp group. The message asked people to join yoga training at one of the shakhas. Since we were all depressed because of pay cuts and the lockdown, we wanted an escape from the worries surrounding us and that’s how I and many others landed at a Chennai shakha,” says Hariharan, a techie in Chennai.

“I joined to meditate and do some physical exercise. But the meetings and the training went beyond just physical exercise. The training starts with physical exercise and ends with a lecture. I did not find anything wrong, it was interesting and it was an eye-opener for a person like me who has not gone out anywhere since the pandemic,” Hariharan adds.

Asked what he learnt from the lecture, Hariharan says, “I got to know about the state of Hindus in India. How we are being cornered in our own country and how ‘some people’ enjoy everything in India. I have been more disciplined ever since I joined the class. Right from waking up early in the morning to praying daily and greeting everybody with a Namaskar, I am following everything I am learning at the shakha.”

According to this RSS worker in Chennai, more people are willing to join the RSS and are reaching out to them online. “We do not want to reveal the numbers, but the number of online requests on our website has risen by over 50 per cent during the pandemic,” the RSS worker said.

The virtual shakhas happen on a daily basis for men and once in a week for women.
However, RSS workers in districts other than Chennai are worried about the growing online attention.

“Many Hindus want to attend online classes. But we do not have enough people and logistical support to convert the shakhas online. It is one of the difficulties we face on the ground,” says Muthukumar, an RSS worker in Tirupur district.

Rough estimates of RSS workers say there has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of shakhas over the last one year. “The shakhas have considerably increased over time and daily over 2,000 shakhas are being organised across Tamil Nadu,” said Narasimhan Balakrishnan, a RSS spokesperson for Tamil Nadu.

Asked about the reports of opposition faced in some villages, Narasimhan said that it happens initially when they try to establish themselves in a new place but later people accept them.

Not everyone, however, believes that RSS’ influence is growing.

“According to my study, the numbers dropped by 20 per cent during the pandemic. If they say the numbers have increased by 20 per cent after the pandemic, then the numbers are the same,” says G Arunkumar, assistant professor at department of Political Science at GITAM University in Bengaluru.

Arunkumar feels even though the number of people taking part in the online shakhas has increased over time it doesn’t count for much because RSS itself doesn’t take those numbers seriously.

“If only those numbers turn out physically at the shakhas they would care. But as long as they are just online, RSS doesn’t take them seriously,” he says.
On the ground, however, more and more people do seem to want to don the RSS attire, reach shakhas early morning, bend the body for some Surya Namaskar and ‘open the mind’ to the lectures that follow.

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