Cultural Malware: The rise of India’s RSS

By Pieter Friedrich

In 2019, on Christmas Day, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) marched through the streets of the Indian city of Hyderabad in the state of Telangana. Armed with lathis — the iron-bound bamboo poles used by police — the uniformed cadres of the RSS paraded to the beating of drums and blaring of bugles. The march followed a 3-day training camp to increase Telangana’s nearly 3,500 RSS shakhas (branches). At least 8,000 swayamsevaks(members) were expected to participate, reported The Indian Express.

It was a grand display of incredible discipline and military precision that, for some, conjured up images of another organization. “RSS today took a massive Nazi-style march,” wrote Ashok Swain, a professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. Claiming the RSS was “inspired by the Nazis,” poet Meera Kandasamy wrote: “Their military style uniform, marching […] the way they go after one enemy is all in line with the fascists.”

The march also drew criticism for another reason: all other rallies in the city were banned at the time. Hyderabad’s population is 30% Muslim, more than twice the national average. It has been a stronghold for rallies against the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Yet, seeking to quash dissent, the Government had specifically prohibited public assemblies — the only exception made was for the Hindu nationalist paramilitary, the RSS.

The RSS is probably the world’s oldest and largest paramilitary group. A secretive, unregistered organization, its size is unknown, but estimated at approximately six million swayamsevaks. It keeps no records and has no bank accounts. It is uniformed, armed, and all-male. Women are only allowed in the separate women’s wing. It also has countless special-purpose subsidiary organizations, the most important of which are:

  • Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing, founded in 1949.
  • Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious wing, founded in 1964.
  • Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing, founded in 1980.
  • Bajrang Dal, the VHP’s youth wing, founded in 1984.

These groups maintain “symbiotic links” with the RSS, write historians Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle, by recruiting swayamsevaks “who have already demonstrated organizational skills in the RSS,” a process which guarantees a “high degree of conformity” in behavioral norms and a “high degree of loyalty” to the mother organization. According to MS Golwalkar, the RSS’s second and longest serving Supreme Leader (1940-1973), the mission of these affiliates was to serve “their own specific roles in their respective fields,” while also working as “recruiting centers for the Sangh from the ideological point of view.” He ordered them to “ideologically capture all other fields.” Their common ideology is Hindutva.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom calls Hindutva an ideology “which holds non-Hindus as foreign to India.” Amnesty International says: “Hindutva is the political ideology of an exclusively Hindu nation.” An exclusively Hindu nation is exactly what the current Supreme Leader of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, insists that India is and should be. One of the many times Bhagwat reiterated this demand was in October 2019, at an event celebrating the foundation of RSS. “The vision and proclamation of the Sangh regarding the identity of the nation, social identity of all of us, and the identity of the country’s nature are clear, well-thought-of and firm that [India] is Hindustan, [a] Hindu [nation],” he declared.

He also said: “I was the RSS chief in 2009 as well, but not so many people were here to listen to me. Today, there are more people, because of the growth of the RSS in various sectors.”

Indeed, the RSS has grown — or, rather, metastasized.

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The RSS hoped to become “the core around which society itself would become strengthened and cohesive,” explains journalist Hartosh Singh Bal. It was intended to provide a foundation for the country by becoming a predominant group with a hand in every aspect of life in India. Under Bhagwat’s leadership, today the RSS operates as a state within a state. It is essentially, a shadow government. It is more than just that, argues novelist Arundhati Roy. “No longer a shadow state or a parallel state, it is the state,” she writes. “Day by day, we see examples of its control over the media, the police, the intelligence agencies. Worryingly, it appears to exercise considerable influence over the armed forces, too.”

It has taken decades of quiet, hard work for the RSS to achieve this level of social and political control. For a long time, the paramilitary was busy laboring at the state level. In 2002, for instance, Roy reported that “the police, the administration and the political cadres at every level” had been “systematically penetrated” in the state of Gujarat. This is where Modi first cut his teeth as a BJP politician. It is also where the RSS conducted its first pogrom of the 21st Century, which the former leader of the VHP called a “successful experiment which will be repeated all over the country.”

“The traditional muscle power of the BJP has always been the RSS,” said a former US ambassador to India. “The RSS can survive without the BJP but the BJP cannot exist without the RSS. This inextricably links the BJP to the RSS’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) agenda. If the BJP does not toot the Hindutva horn, the RSS will not mobilize the Hindu voters.”

Today, however, the RSS’s role is much broader than merely mobilizing voters. It doesn’t just provide boots on the ground to help win elections — it pulls the strings of the party’s elected officials. Indian attorney AG Noorani calls the BJP “a creature of the RSS,” adding: “Without it the BJP will collapse. Not only does the RSS provide the muscle, cadres who constitute the indispensable foot soldiers during elections, but also the top officials.”

The background of the country’s leadership clearly reflects this. In 2014, when Modi first took office as Prime Minister, 41 members of his government’s 66-person cabinet had an RSS background. Before reshuffling the cabinet in 2017, the BJP first held a “crucial coordination meeting” with the RSS. Today, 38 out of 53 ministers — nearly 75 percent — hail from the RSS. That includes the infamous duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The two met in 1982, when Modi was 31 and Shah was 17; they became inseparable partners and rose to power through the labors of the RSS. Shah, who is now president of the BJP, acts as Modi’s lieutenant and probable successor. Other cabinet members with an RSS background include: Defense Minister Rajnath Singh; Transportation Minister Nitin Gadkari; Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal (who is in charge of education); and Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is Minister of both Communications as well as Law and Justice.

With so much power in its hands, criticism of the paramilitary has become nearly an anti-national act of sedition. “Any form of dissent, or attempt to question the views of the RSS, the BJP or Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is now framed as a threat to national integrity,” writes Hartosh Singh Bal. “In effect, the idea of the nation has come to be conflated with an ideology, a political party or an individual.”

At the core of the RSS’s ideology is the idea that only Hindus hold a birthright to India, and so the country should be a Hindu Rashtra (nation). At the core of the RSS’s ideology is the idea that only Hindus hold a birthright to India, and so the country should be a Hindu Rashtra (nation). Technically, the group today teaches that a Hindu Rashtra is not something to work towards so much as it is merely a given fact of reality. They believe that India is already a Hindu nation. One RSS ideologue recently argued, for instance, that Hindutva “is an adjective of the nation, not an objective,” stating: “Hindu nation is an appropriate adjective in geo-cultural context.”

Nevertheless, since the Republic of India is officially a secular democracy, securing the foundations of what they believe is already a Hindu nation does require legislative and judicial action. “When the BJP came to power in 2014, its Hindu chauvinism was kept on a short leash,” writes journalist Kenan Malik. However, “a resounding second victory” gave Modi “license to pursue exclusionary policies without restraint.” Since May 2019, Modi’s regime has moved with blitzkrieg speed to implement the RSS’s platform. All of the BJP’s highest profile and most controversial actions since then are key items on the RSS agenda:

  • Revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, thus scrapping the Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status.
  • Giving a green light to build Ram Mandir — a Hindu temple — on disputed land in the city of Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
  • Passing the Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes religion the basis for acquiring Indian citizenship.
  • And proposing a National Register of Citizens, which would require every Indian resident to prove their citizenship.
In Uttar Pradesh, where around 20 people died in just the first few days of protests, the BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath vowed to “take revenge” on protestors. His vow of “revenge” manifested in targeted violence against Muslims throughout the state.Following the adoption of the CAA in December 2019, the streets of India were engulfed by mass protests demanding its repeal and opposing introduction of the NRC. These are, essentially, protests against the implementation of the RSS’s agenda. Protestors faced vicious suppression. Nearly 70 have died. Countless videos show masses of peaceful protestors breaking like waves on the rocks as Police charge them and begin randomly brutalizing people. In Uttar Pradesh, where around 20 people died in just the first few days of protests, the BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath vowed to “take revenge” on protestors. His vow of “revenge” manifested in targeted violence against Muslims throughout the state.

Adityanath’s police are accused of conducting military-style crackdowns in Muslim neighborhoods “with police opening fire on civilians, beating children, barging into homes and vandalizing property.” In the midnight hours, they appeared at Muslim homes to threaten women and children unless they disclose the location of the male members of the family. There are documented reports that Muslim teenagers are being picked up by police and subjected to emotional, psychological, and physical torture for hours or days on end — and, in one incident, a 73-year-old Muslim attorney was arrested, taken to the police station, and beaten in custody while officers threatened to destroy his family, throw them all in jail to “rot for life,” and rape his mother.

Throughout India, the Police are brutalizing protestors. When violence erupted in Delhi in late February 2020, the Police were accused of breaking down the doors of Muslim homes and dragging the occupants out to hand them over to mobs. They were filmed beating a pile of bloodied young Muslim men while forcing them to sing the national anthem. One of the victims later died. In another instance, a man who joined the mob-stoning of Muslims claims that they were running out stones, so “the police brought some and told us to throw them.”

It was the worst communal violence to hit Delhi since the 1984 Sikh Genocide and, over just a few days, well over 50 — mostly Muslims — died in what journalist Mira Kamdar calls a pogrom. “Mobs targeting a single religious group were allowed to run riot, unchecked by police,” writes Kamdar. “That is the definition of a pogrom.”

As this Hindu nationalist mob, aided and abetted by the Police and originally instigated by a BJP politician, dominated the streets, their violence was widely blamed on the RSS which, as seen in Hyderabad on Christmas Day, has perfected the art of dominating the streets.

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Violence is the inevitable result of the RSS’s domination of the streets. Over the past few decades, the international community has increasingly acknowledged this. The United Nations has warned about the militancy of “Hindu extremists” who are attracted to “ultra-nationalism,” engage in “political exploitation of religion,” and perpetrate violence against Christians and Muslims. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both warned that escalating violence against religious minorities is carried out by the RSS and its subsidiaries. The US State Department has described the RSS as an “extremist” group, warning that the Sangh has been “implicated in incidents of violence and discrimination against Christians and Muslims” — and, in 2018, the Central Intelligence Agency categorized the VHP and Bajrang Dal as “militant religious organizations.”

The kind of violence in which the RSS — and the Hindu nationalist movement it has cultivated — is implicated includes assassinations, bombings, and even pogroms against Christians, Muslims, and anyone who stands up against its xenophobic agenda.

In 2017, for example, journalist Gauri Lankesh was cut down by the bullets of a Hindu nationalist assassin who was later arrested, gave a confession, and was linked to the murder of two other anti-RSS intellectuals. As someone known for allegedly calling the RSS “a multi-hooded poisonous snake,” Lankesh anticipated the risk of assassination. A year before her death, she said: “We are living in such times that Modi [devotees] and the Hindutva brigade welcome the killings […] and celebrate the deaths […] of those who oppose their ideology, their political party and their supreme leader Narendra Modi. […] Let me assure you, they are keen to somehow shut me up too.”

Terrorist bombings also figure into the RSS’s portfolio of violence. From 2006 to 2008, for instance, a wave of bombings hit Muslim targets throughout India, killing hundreds in the States of Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Telangana. One of the worst incidents was the bombing of the Samjhauta Express, the “friendship train” running between India and Pakistan. Seventy people died. The investigation into the attacks implicated, among others, a full-time RSS worker named Swami Aseemanand who, in interviews with media, claimed that the violence was directly sanctioned by the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat. Aseemanand said Bhagwat agreed that it was necessary to “do some violence in the name of Hindus,” but instructed him: “Don’t link it to the Sangh. […] If you do it, then people won’t say that we committed a crime for the sake of committing a crime. It will be connected to the ideology. This is very important for the Hindus. Please do this. You have our blessings.”

Anti-minority pogroms are one of the RSS’s most tried and trusted tactics; in fact, it’s linked to over a dozen such massacres. By 1947, the RSS had penetrated every major area of the subcontinent and boasted up to a half a million members. The British were leaving, the subcontinent was being partitioned, and the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir was faced with the choice to join Pakistan or India or remain independent. As he wavered, the chief of the RSS visited to pressure him to join India. His visit followed the launch of a state-sanctioned pogrom in which the Maharajah’s troops joined hands with the RSS to slaughter Muslims of Jammu. By the end, the total number of people killed was catastrophically high. Lowball estimates place the death toll at 20,000. In 1948, though, The Timesof London claimed that “237,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated.”

In 1969, Gujarat was struck by “the worst communal riots the country had seen since Partition.” A few months after the RSS held a three-day rally in Gujarat where its chief pleaded for a “Hindu Nation,” sword-wielding mobs of people from the RSS and other Hindu nationalist groups attacked Muslims throughout the state. Officially, over 400 died; unofficially, the death toll ran as high as 2,000.

The next two decades brought a series of massacres. From 1970 to 1989, riots in Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh left thousands of Muslims dead. The RSS persistently protested its complete innocence, but witnesses and investigations all implicated the paramilitary and its subsidiaries.

Finally, however, the RSS played its hand openly.

The Babri mosque had stood in the city of Ayodhya since the early 1500s. In the mid-1980s, however, the VHP launched a campaign to reclaim the ground on which the mosque stood, alleging that it is the location where the Hindu deity Ram was born. Soon, the BJP formally joined the campaign, with party president LK Advani leading the charge. In December 1992, hundreds of thousands rallied around the mosque to listen to speeches by Advani and other BJP leaders. Sparked by their fiery rhetoric, the mob surged forward and began demolishing the mosque. Then came the pogroms. Anti-Muslim violence spread throughout northern India and lasted into the new year. The death toll was up to 3,000. None of the violence was spontaneous. According to a UN investigation, the Sangh “infiltrated the crowd,” planned the mosque’s destruction, and “brought about the death of Muslim demonstrators, […] the pillage of Muslim houses and shops,” and the widespread violence that followed. The Indian government responded by briefly banning the RSS, VHP, and Bajrang Dal but, by 1998, the BJP rose to national power for the first time with Advani as Deputy Prime Minister.

The BJP still held national power when Modi was elected as chief minister of Gujarat in February 2002. Three days later, the State was engulfed in a carnage. A train burned, killing 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya. Modi immediately declared it an act of terrorism and blamed it on Pakistan. His government then transported the charred bodies to the state’s capital and handed them over to the VHP. They declared a statewide bandh (shutdown). Then blood began to flow. For three days, mobs ran rampage across Gujarat. Over a dozen cities witnessed major incidents of violence. By the end, up to 2,000 (or more) Muslims lay dead. Eyewitnesses   claim attackers were armed with voter lists naming Muslim targets. Some of the mobs were even led by BJP state legislators who distributed weapons and issued orders. Survivors say that, when they appealed to police for help, they were sometimes told: “We have no orders to save you.” Witnesses claim police even fired on victims.

Soon after the violence ended, a BJP state minister (and RSS member) blew the whistle. He told media that he — along with other State and Police officials — was summoned to a meeting at Modi’s home on the night the pogrom began. They were ordered to stand down so that the mobs could “vent their frustration.” A senior police officer later corroborated the claim and then a sting by an Indian magazine caught multiple leaders from the RSS, VHP, and BJP bragging about their participation in the pogrom and boasting that Modi had given them three days to do whatever they wanted.

One of the most recent anti-minority pogroms occurred in 2008. When a VHP leader was murdered in Odisha, the group blamed the local Christian community. Mobs led by a BJP state legislator began attacking Christian homes, churches, and even orphanages. Around 100 or more Christians were left dead and tens of thousands were displaced to relief camps. Later, Odisha’s chief minister bluntly stated: “Members of RSS, VHP, and Bajrang Dal were involved in the violence.”

It’s no surprise that the RSS is responsible for such shocking violence considering its ideological ties to European fascism.

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In 2011, in Norway, white supremacist terrorist Anders Breivik slaughtered 77 people. Breivik’s lengthy manifesto details how he was inspired by other extremist and nationalist groups around the globe. Pointing to the RSS, he praised them for how they “dominate the streets” and “often riot and attack Muslims […] usually after the Muslims disrespect and degrade Hinduism too much.” He admired the RSS so much — saying that “our goals are more or less identical” — that he called for collaboration with them, writing: “It is essential that [… we] learn from each other and cooperate as much as possible.”

Breivik’s admiration for the RSS is quite natural considering that the correlation between fascism in the West and Hindu nationalism in the East traces all the way back to the paramilitary’s origins in the 1920s.

The religious nationalist political ideology of Hindutva was first articulated by VD Savarkar, whose brother was one of the five people who co-founded the RSS. Another co-founder was BS Moonje. He was the mentor of yet another co-founder, KB Hedgewar, who became the paramilitary’s first Supreme Leader. All three — Savarkar, Moonje, and Hedgewar — were also leaders in the Hindu Mahasabha, a religious nationalist political party formed in 1915. They embraced the idea that, to quote Bal, the subcontinent “had seen a steady decline from a glorious Hindu past.” Convinced that losing touch with this past made Hindus “easy prey to foreign invaders, whether they were the Muslims or the British,” these men committed themselves to “reviving this ancient past.”

In doing so, they advanced the idea that being Indian meant being Hindu. Thus, anything or anyone that was non-Hindu represented the subjugation and oppression of Hindus. True freedom for the Hindu people could only be achieved by recognizing the subcontinent for what it had always been since time immemorial: a Hindu nation. As these three men cultivated the Hindu nationalist movement in India, they took ideological inspiration from — and even engaged in direct contact with — the rising Fascist movements in Italy and Germany.

Events moved rapidly in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1921, the year after the Nazi Party was founded, Adolf Hitler became its leader. That same year, in Italy, Benito Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party. In 1922, Mussolini led a largely successful coup in Rome. The following year, Hitler led an unsuccessful coup in Munich, was sent to prison, and began writing Mein Kampf. That same year, Savarkar published his manifesto, Hindutva, in which he was determined to redefine “Hindus” not as a religious community but as an ethno-nationalist one — a “Hindu Race.”

Calling for the Indian subcontinent to be turned into an ethno-state of Hindus – for Hindus, and only for Hindus – he laid out a vision for unifying the “Hindu Race.” India must never “lose the strength born of national and racial cohesion,” he wrote. The Hindu people must be “fused and welded into an indivisible whole, till our race gets consolidated and strong sharp as steel.” Insisting that “common blood” is the essence of nationality, he wrote: “We, Hindus, are all one and a nation because, chiefly, of our common blood.”

Two years later, in 1925, Hitler published Mein Kampf, in which he declared: “What makes a people or, to be more correct, a race, is not language but blood. […] Common blood belongs in a common Reich.” Obsessed with protecting Germany’s national and racial cohesion, he set out to fuse and weld the German people into an indivisible whole strong sharp as steel. In April 1925, Hitler founded the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron) — or SS — to protect the racial purity of a Germany of Germans; in September 1925, in India, Hedgewar and his cohorts founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization) — or RSS.

Hedgewar insisted that the subcontinent should be called “Hindustan.” Calling it “a nation of Hindu people,” he compared it to a “Germany of Germans.” The goal of the Sangh, he said, was “to put in[to] reality the words ‘Hindustan of Hindus.’” Claiming that “the Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindustan,” he argued that the only way to protect “Hindustan” was to “first nourish the Hindu culture.” If the Hindu culture “perishes” and “the Hindu society ceases to exist” in “Hindustan,” he warned, it would no longer be a nation but a “mere geographical lump.” He was convinced there was a grave risk of that happening. Warning that the “Hindu society” faced “daily onslaughts by outsiders,” he said the only solution was to “organize the entire Hindu society.” The “true path” to “national salvation” was “none other than organization,” he said. “The Hindu race can save itself only through such organization. […] It is to fulfill this duty of protecting the Hindu society that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has come into existence,” declared Hedgewar.

This “protection squadron” set out to instill in the youth of India the idea that, as Golwalkar later wrote, “To offer one’s all, even his dearest possessions, at the altar of [the] motherland is the first and foremost duty of every son of this soil.” From the start, the paramilitary pursued youth to swell its ranks, a pattern that has continued throughout the decades. Shah and Advani, for instance, both joined at the age of 14. Modi, for his part, joined when he was eight. “The Sangh’s early recruits were schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 15,” writes Hartosh Singh Bal. “When the time came for them to go to college, Hedgewar encouraged them to study outside Nagpur and expand the reach of the RSS. The training imparted at the shakhas reflected the needs of the young recruits Hedgewar first attracted, but its thrust remained unchanged even when the age of recruits increased.”

One of those young recruits was Golwalkar, who was in his early 20s and fresh out of university when he joined the RSS’s original shakha in Nagpur in the early 1930s. By then, the Nazis had become the second-largest political party in Germany while Mussolini — known as “Il Duce” — had been ruling Italy as its dictator for a decade. Impressed by reports about the Italian fascist institutions, Hedgewar’s mentor, Moonje, looked to the West for inspiration. In 1931, Moonje concluded a lengthy tour of fascist Italy by meeting Il Duce. Applauding “the idea of fascism” for bringing out the “conception of unity amongst people,” he told Mussolini that he was “much impressed” with the Italian fascist groups, had “no hesitation” to raise his voice “from the public platform” in praise of them, and concluded: “Every aspiring and growing nation needs such organizations. India needs them most for her military regeneration.”

Having witnessed “their activities with my own eyes in all details,” he commended how Italian fascist organizations had fostered “the military regeneration of Italy” and resolved that “India and particularly Hindu India need[s] some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus.” He believed, however, that such an institution already existed. Noting that “our institution of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of Nagpur under Dr. Hedgewar is of this kind,” Moonje pledged to spend the rest of his life “in developing and extending” it.

Upon returning to India, he argued that Hindu nationalist leaders there “should imitate the Youth movement of Germany and the […] Fascist organizations of Italy,” stating: “They are eminently suited for introduction in India, adapting them to suit the special conditions.” Two years later, in 1933, the Nazis came to power in Germany, Hitler was made dictator, and the first concentration camp was constructed.

Meanwhile, in India, Golwalkar was appointed secretary of the Nagpur shakha and assigned management of the RSS’s Officers’ Training Camp, the institution responsible for producing pracharaks — the full-time workers who form the backbone of the paramilitary. The fledgling organization had already attracted the attention of the occupying British Empire, whose intelligence services warned that “the Sangh hopes to be in future India what the ‘Fascisti’ are to Italy and the ‘Nazis’ to Germany.” Moonje’s remarks continued to reinforce that conclusion. In a meeting with Hedgewar, he proposed that the subcontinent needed “a Hindu as a Dictator like […] Mussolini or Hitler of the present day in Italy and Germany.”

In Germany, meanwhile, Hitler’s dictatorship adopted the Nuremberg Laws, which required citizens to possess “German blood” and stripped Jews and others of their citizenship. The political persecution of Jews quickly shifted to physical violence. In 1938, the first Nazi pogrom against the Jews — known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass” — left nearly 100 dead as tens of thousands of Jews were shipped off to concentration camps. Yet, as the Nazis laid the foundations for the Holocaust, Savarkar argued that his concept of a Hindu nation was justified by the predominance of the racial majority in Nazi Germany.

“A Nation is formed by a majority living therein,” he said less than a month before Kristallnacht. “What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in [a] minority were driven out.” He further claimed that Indian Muslims — “like Jews in Germany” — were unlikely to assimilate into national life because they allegedly identified “themselves and their interests” more “with Muslims outside India than Hindus who live next door.” He concluded, “If we Hindus in India grow stronger, in time these Muslim[s]… will have to play the part of German-Jews.”

In March 1939, after the Nazis annexed Austria and as they prepared to occupy Czechoslovakia, the Hindu nationalist movement explicitly praised Hitler’s embrace of Aryanism. The Hindu Mahasabha, with Savarkar as its president, declared: “Germany’s solemn idea of the revival of the Aryan culture, the glorification of the Swastika, her patronage of Vedic learning and the ardent championship of the tradition of Indo-Germanic civilization are welcomed by the religious and sensible Hindus of India with a jubilant hope […] Germany’s crusade against the enemies of Aryan culture will bring all the Aryan nations of the World to their senses and awaken the Indian Hindus for the restoration of their lost glory.”

Seven months later, just weeks after the Second World War began with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, Moonje complained that “the Muslims are making themselves a nuisance.” He claimed that “we shall have to fight” them and suggested that “the RSS may be useful and handy” for that purpose. Meanwhile, Golwalkar had been appointed second-in-command of the RSS. His ideological influence within the group expanded alongside his authority over it. That year, he published his manifesto, We or Our Nationhood Defined, as what Andersen and Damle call the “first systematic statement of RSS ideology.”

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Today, Golwalkar is revered as the Guru of the RSS. In Narendra Modi’s words: “Till the end of his life, from 1940 to 1973, traveling all over India constantly, Guruji threw himself into his work of expanding the RSS.” Like the other founding fathers of the Hindu nationalist movement, the Guru of the RSS explicitly praised the European fascist movements. Golwalkar extolled Mussolini’s Italy for awakening “the old Roman Race consciousness of conquering the whole territory round the Mediterranean Sea” and celebrated how “the ancient Race Spirit, which prompted the Germanic tribes to over-run the whole of Europe, has re-risen in modern Germany with the result that the Nation perforce follows aspirations, predetermined by the traditions left by its depredatory ancestors.” And added: “Even so with us: our Race spirit has once again roused itself. […] The Race Spirit has been awakening. The world has to see the might of the regenerated Hindu Nation strike down the enemy’s hosts with its mighty arm. […] Race Spirit calls. National consciousness blazes forth and we Hindus rally to the Hindu Standard, the Bhagwa Dhwaj [saffron flag], set our teeth in grim determination to wipe out the opposing forces.”

He believed that European fascists had demonstrated the right to define nationality by race and proved how “every Race” possesses the “indisputable right of excommunicating from its Nationality” all who have “turned traitors” by entertaining aspirations different from those of the “National Race.” Defining the “National Race” as the “Hindu Race,” he declared: “Only the Hindu has been living here as the child of this soil.” In other words, only Hindus held a birthright to the land. The country could only thrive, he thought, by advancing a doctrine of racial exclusivity. “In Hindustan, the land of the Hindus, lives and should live the Hindu nation,” he wrote. In his mind, all non-Hindus faced only two options: “Either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race.”

Converts away from Hinduism, he insisted, had abandoned “the spirit of love and devotion for the nation” and succumbed to “divided loyalty” in place of “undivided and absolute loyalty to the nation.” Conversion was, he claimed, “not merely a case of change of faith, but a change even in national identity.” He declared that the only “nationalist patriots” are those who aspire to “glorify the Hindu race and Nation” — all others were “traitors” who had joined “the camp of the enemy” and left their “mother-nation in the lurch.”

He claimed that non-Hindus like Christians and Muslims were “internal threats.” Describing them as members of “foreign races,” he demanded that they “give up their present foreign mental complexion and merge in the common stream of our national life.” Claiming that they should be stripped of citizenship if they refused to be fused into “the Hindu way of life,” he wrote: “The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea[s] but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture […] and must lose their separate existence to merge in[to] the Hindu race, 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.”

Ultimately, however, Golwalkar implied that violence may be the necessary final solution to the problem of non-Hindus residing in India. Denouncing Judaism as “an intolerant faith,” he wrote: “To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races — the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here.” He concluded that Germany had set a good example by showing how it was supposedly “impossible” for different “races and cultures” to be “assimilated into one united whole.” Thus, he proclaimed that the Nazi policy towards the Jews was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”

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“By the time of Golwalkar’s death, in 1973, the Sangh Parivar as we know it today was essentially in place,” writes Bal. Not only does his ideology continue to undergird the RSS, but his visage overlooks the paramilitary’s rallies. When the group paraded through the streets of Hyderabad in December 2019, Golwalkar’s garlanded picture was mounted on jeeps escorted by the endless ranks of uniformed swayamsevaks.

The current chief of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, grew up in a family of RSS activists. His father was a “close associate” of both Hedgewar and Golwalkar. He himself became a pracharak just two years after Golwalkar’s death. Prime Minister Modi, for his part, joined the RSS in the 1950s and became a pracharak in 1971 under Golwalkar’s leadership. Countless others who head the modern Hindu nationalist movement were also raised, proverbially, at Golwalkar’s feet.

In today’s information age, however, the RSS is much more cautious about how it publicly articulates its ideology. The paramilitary’s leadership has repeatedly shifted its official stance about its guru’s writings. Thus, in 2006, the RSS formally disowned We or Our Nationhood Defined, claiming it did not represent “the views of the grown Guruji nor of the RSS.” Yet as early as the 1950s, scholars referred to it as the Sangh’s “Bible” and, in the 1970s, senior RSS leaders said it was written to give a “scientific base” to demands for a Hindu nation. The disavowal appeared to be nothing more than image management. The book was so “brutally candid,” argues Noorani, that “a desperate attempt was made by the RSS to distance itself from it.”

The disavowal was accompanied by a reaffirmation of Golwalkar’s second book, Bunch of Thoughts, which he published in 1966. Yet that book mirrors the xenophobic rhetoric of We, the only major difference being that — in light of historical circumstances — Golwalkar omitted the overt praise of European fascism. In 2018, the RSS again altered its stance, announcing that it no longer accepts Thoughts in its entirety because it “cannot remain eternally valid.” Bhagwat declared that the only writings by Golwalkar that the RSS still considers authoritative are those it has collected and republished in the book MS Golwalkar: His Vision and Mission.

This pick and choose approach represents what Bal calls “a sleight of hand typical of the Sangh.” While dropping the description of non-Hindus as “traitors,” for instance, the book laments that some Indians have “even changed their religion” and adopted the “religion of foreigners.” The “essence of our nation is spiritual,” writes Golwalkar. “Without the foundation of dharma, our country has no future.” Declaring that the “living principles of the Hindu society are the living systems of this nation,” he proclaims: “In short, this is [a] Hindu nation.” While such remarks remain enough to expose the RSS’s ongoing commitment to Golwalkar’s xenophobic vision, its newfound image consciousness means that the days are gone when its ideologues openly praised European fascists or overtly called non-Hindus “traitors” and members of “foreign races” who must be stripped of citizen’s rights. “The dark underpinning of RSS ideology — its vision of cultural nationalism premised on the exclusion of minorities — has been smoothened for public consumption,” writes Bal. Today, rather than explicitly detailing its ideology, the RSS focuses on fine-tuning its public image and controlling how it is perceived.

Consequently, Bhagwat takes the stage to announce: “We say ours is a Hindu Rashtra. Hindu Rashtra does not mean it has no place for Muslims. The day it is said that Muslims are unwanted here, the concept of Hindutva will cease to exist.” Such remarks inspire commentators to discuss how the RSS is charting a new course and give RSS apologists ammunition to attack the group’s critics. They ignore, of course, that Bhagwat uses the same breath to say that Muslims have a place in India and that India is a Hindu nation. He also continues to advance the core concept of Hindutva: that being Indian means being Hindu. Thus he argues: “Hinduism is not some form of worship or some language. Hinduism is the name of a cultural legacy which is of all people living in India.” The word “Hindu,” he says, “is an identity of the people of this region, not their religion.”

Meanwhile, Golwalkar’s influence still predominates over the RSS and its members. When Bhagwat speaks to mass RSS rallies, he invariably does so while standing before a huge, usually garlanded photo of Golwalkar — whose picture also hangs on the walls of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. Modi names Golwalkar as one of his primary inspirations, calling him a “gem” and a “very great man” who is his “Guru worthy of worship.” And Amit Shah has eulogized “Guruji Golwalkar” as “the one who motivated us […] to serve Maa Bharati [Mother India].”

Shah, the driving force behind the CAA and the NRC, is unique in his willingness to throw caution to the wind and — international reputation be damned — openly employ obviously genocidal rhetoric. Thus, for instance, he has recently described undocumented Muslim immigrants in India as “infiltrators” and “termites.” Shah believes it’s necessary to protect against — to quote Hedgewar — the “daily onslaughts” by these “outsiders.” With Shah at the helm, it’s no surprise that people like Arundhati Roy are warning that the CAA/NRC combine “eerily resembles the 1935 Nuremberg Laws of the Third Reich.”

What is the future of the RSS?

Its leadership reports it has been growing at “unprecedented” rates. “It must continuously keep growing,” declared Hedgewar. “Our goal can be achieved only if the organization grows continuously and rapidly.” It has grown so rapidly that Bhagwat, in 2018, said he can “prepare military personnel within three days, something the Army would do in 6-7 months.” In fact, taking over India’s military appears to be one of its next major goals. In Uttar Pradesh, it has opened its first “Army school” to “train children to become officers in the armed forces.”

Whatever the future holds, one thing is obvious: under the RSS regime in India today, the fascist vision of the founding fathers of the Hindu nationalist movement is swiftly being implemented with deadly consequences and, the longer that the RSS rules the roost, the deadlier those consequences will be.

Pieter Friedrich is an author and activist specializing in analysis of current and historical events in South Asia. He is a native of California. He tweets @FriedrichPieter and can be found online at PieterFriedrich.com.

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