In order to elaborate on the particular role that practices of disbursing care and cohesive communities have played in the political conflict between the Hindu right and the party left in Kannur, I locate their emergence in the longer history of the Sangh’s mobilisation programmes in the region. As in Kannur, these programs have had a strong polarising agenda in other areas too. While the Hindu right in North Kerala has focused on the CPI(M) as its key political adversary in the region since the late 1960s, its activities have also been pitted against local Muslim communities.

As seen in the 1971–-972 Thalassery riot, Hindu right members have used staple tactics of generating strong attachments to the majority Hindu identity that Hindu Right Communities members purport to defend by staging conflictual situations with members of minority groups. Additionally, at various critical junctures in the late 1960s, the early 1970s, and the years following the lifting of the emergency, Sangh members organised contentious movements around majority and minority sacred geographies and symbols prevalent in Kerala.

Nationally, the late 1980s and early 1990s also saw Hindu right-wing organisations escalating their campaign around sacred spaces such as Babri Masjid that inaugurated a new phase of polarisation between religious majority and minority groups in the country. This campaign generated several riots and incredible violence against the Muslim minority. It also brought electoral gains for the BJP in dif­ferent parts of the country and helped it to consolidate a bigger political majority. However, in Kerala the BJP was unable to grow electorally at this time; indeed, its vote share decreased by 0.8 percent in the 1990s.

Against this backdrop, the Sangh began to turn to outreach work and service activities as a way of obtaining more popular support, especially among subaltern Dalit and Adivasi groups, which it regards as weaker sections of the Hindu majority. It began expanding its basic provisioning services made up of orphanages and mobile medical and food distribution units, eventually making Kerala home to 52 Sangh-run orphanages and one of the densest networks of Sangh service provisions in the country.

In recent years detailed historical, ethnographic, and statistical accounts of the Hindu right’s social welfare strategy have been offered by scholars such as Malini Bhattacharjee and Tariq Thachil. Both scholars, in their respective writings, remind us that, since the early decades of independent India, the Sangh has sought to cast itself as a concerned humanitarian group that not only engaged in disaster relief during times of political calamities, such as the partition and, similarly, natural disasters such as earthquakes and cyclones, but was also involved in the lives of marginal groups by attending to their everyday welfare and well-being.

In her work, Bhattacharjee highlights the evolution of the Hindu right’s social welfare strategy over the decades and the discourse of sewa or the selfless services it mobilises, along with the cultural appeal of this discourse. Building on these welfare activities, Hindu right leaders began displaying greater “electoral pragmatism” and started pursuing a policy of “vote maximisation” through appeals to “subaltern constituencies”, especially from the 1980s onward. Thachil evaluates the political rewards that the Sangh has been able to reap in various parts of the country by instituting a vast network of organisations that disburse educational, health, food, and livelihood assistance among targeted groups in various parts of the country.

While it is debatable how useful this service strategy or mode of enacting pastoral power has been for the Sangh in its search for electoral rewards in Kerala, my interest in this chapter is less on the vote-capturing potential of the Sangh’s outreach work or its organisational dimensions. Instead, I am interested in the cohesive forms of community that the welfare approach has instituted among those who took part in it, namely local-level Hindu right recruits who joined the neighbourhood RSS branches or shakhas. These recruits were over time absorbed further into the Sangh ranks and eventually became the victims and agents of its violent conflict with the party left. In this move beyond the question of vote gain through welfare assistance, I examine the role of communities of young male Sangh supporters in asserting and often promoting violence.

In discussing the role that services and outreach works have played in the lives of Hindu right workers, I turn to the Foucauldian terms “power of care” and pastoral power that I have invoked before. The term care helps me capture the quotidian and corporeal character of relations activated in the work of meeting others’ needs. Most especially, I focus on the forms of connectedness and attachments that acts of care have initiated and perpetuated among Hindu right workers and supporters in the midst of political violence.

While feminist political theorists like Joan Tronto envision care as the cornerstone of a better democracy, various arms of the state as well as nonstate actors like members of the Hindu right deploy care alongside violence. Care then becomes the relational force of the Sangh’s cohesively produced communities. These acts of care have afforded the Sangh power to not only mould individual bodies, minds, and energies but also shape its members’ sense of being part of the communal whole – their experience of not just themselves but each other as interlinked beings. Foucault noted how pastoral power iterated in acts of shepherding is meant to ensure the welfare of a group through acts of kindness. He mapped how such pastoral power has become a pivot of the modern state when translated into acts of governmentality.

As I noted in the introduction to the book, pastoral power has also been tapped into and mobilised by prominent leaders of 20th-century Kerala who have drawn on it to build a loyal network of supporters and assert hegemonic forms of political masculinity. Multiple concrete and discursive acts of mutual assistance, instruction, and care at various sites have been instrumental in fostering attachment to the Sangh community. In the hands of local Hindu right leaders and workers, attending to individual persons and the well-being of particular families became a form of attaching them to each other, to local prominent Sangh figures, and to the group as a whole.

If the local shakha is one place where Sangh workers tended to get together, specialised training camps, each other’s homes, verandahs, and gatherings on festive occasions such as rakshabandhan or the RSS founding day have been the others. Much like the pastorate, the Sangh has tutored its members on how to relate to each other, their friends and families, and the world around them, as well as how to conduct, regard, and assess themselves. What lies in these acts of tutelage and inculcation of self-management is both the individualizing and totalising capacities of pastoral power.

These twin seemingly contradictory modalities through which individual Sangh workers experience and apprehend their particularity as well as become part of the same discursive or interpretive community are crucial for understanding the relationship between Hindu right workers in Kannur and political violence in the country more broadly. To highlight this phenomenon, Arafaat Valiani, in his ethnography of the RSS in Ahmedabad, describes how martial rituals and ideas of virtuous masculine civil conduct disseminated in the shakhas don’t generate blind conformity but a self-conscious individual striving to enact and perfect them. In a similar vein, RSS-BJP workers I engaged with in the course of my research had an acute sense of how they were measured as Sangh workers, nationalists, and agents of pastoral care in their own right. Their adeptness at physical exercises taught at the shakha reminded them of their individual possibilities and limits; at the same time, Sangh workers described how attachments they forged with each other coalesced as a collective “spirit.”

I became privy to these thoughts and formulations in the course of long interviews and conversations with Sangh members at local RSS karyalaya (office) and sewa kendra (service centre) or in the verandahs of their homes. My research assistant, with whose help I conducted these conversations and interviews, was a key enabling agent in these settings. A number of workers whose lives and careers I studied with the help of my assistant joined the Sangh in the conflict-ridden years of the 1980s and 1990s and came into their own in the early 2000s.

In 2003, Kannur hosted the province’s annual officer training camp (OTC). The camp brought together male recruits from the region for three weeks of training in Hindutva ideology, in virtuous behaviour or samskars, physical exercises, drills, and marches. My research assistant and I gained access to the camp for two to three days, affording us the opportunity to converse with and observe their conduct at the camp. Several RSS workers I had become acquainted with in the course of my research on victims and agents of the violent conflict with members of the party left became instructors and managers of the camp involved in training the next generation of recruits. The camp’s space of intensified interaction and extraordinary levels of sociality among RSS members honed my insights into the practices that link individual “I”s with the collective “we.” The two apparently disparate processes of individuation and absorption in the larger community, I surmised, were especially relevant for Hindu right workers inhabiting Kannur’s violent political context.

In the course of conversations with RSS-BJP workers, I gathered how the pain of the violence they have suffered and the memory of the violence they have enacted sharpened each worker’s experience of his particularity. At the same time, networks of pastoral care and sociality with other Sangh workers restored these workers to the larger Hindu right community or totality. The legal status of Sangh workers as guilty or not guilty of inflicting violence along with their physical and emotional well-being became closely tied to their integration within the Sangh community. Furthermore, instances in which RSS-BJP workers spoke about their injuries, scars, and pain highlighted how Hindu right communities experience and mobilise their victimhood while also disclaiming their violence. Both moments, I suggest, have played an important part in forging tightly knit loyal units among Sangh members. These cohesive communities of RSS-BJP workers and supporters reared on acts of pastoral care and the Sangh’s organicist notions of connectedness and unity, are crucial for realising its majoritarian aspirations.

Such acts of care and connection are a product of the Hindu right’s attempts to produce a vast machine of committed members whose everyday well-being, as well as their sense of self and identity, are linked to its organisational network and ideology. Members of these communities have done the work of canvassing greater popular and electoral support for the Hindu right. They have also aggressively restrained and repressed the opposition in a competitive democratic environment while attending to those who have suffered violence. Therefore, acts of care, I suggest, do not simply accompany the Hindu right’s violence but are integral to the communities that perpetuate and enact this violence.

Excerpted with permission from Violence of Democracy: Interparty Conflict in South India, Ruchi Chaturvedi, Orient Black Swan.