In June, as school results were being announced across the country, Shiv Kumar was pleased. Kumar is the national secretary of Vidya Bharti Akhil Bharatiya Shikshan Sansthan, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate that runs an estimated 12,363 formal schools, 12,001 single-teacher schools and tens of thousands of sanskar kendras across the country.

Kumar brought up the media brouhaha around the Class 10 state topper in Assam. The student was from Sankardev Shishu Niketan, a Vidya Bharti school. And he was Muslim: Sarfaraz Hussain.

“Muslim bacha hai, isliye charcha ho rahi hai [He is a Muslim that’s why he was being talked about],” said Kumar. “But our children also topped Uttarakhand board, Uttar Pradesh board, and CBSE all India board – they are Hindu children, so may be uninteresting for the journalists.”

Kumar described a reporter asking him how a Muslim student would fit into a Sangh school that imparted strict Hindu majoritarian values. “I immediately called up the Assam topper’s father and put the journalist on,” said Kumar. “’Ask him the same question,’ I said. The father tore the journalist apart. He told him, ‘Muslim or Hindu, show me another good school in this area that I can afford and then I’ll send my son there.'”

RSS in education

As most government schools crumble under inadequate budgets and absent teachers, Hussain’s father, a tea-shop worker, was explaining his desperate lack of options, but that was enough endorsement for Kumar. Quoting the Vidya Bharti motto to “Indianise, nationalise and spiritualise” education, he said that Sangh schools were open to anyone, irrespective of identity. “Those who belong to other religions can also recite Saraswati vandana, and learn about Indian heritage and Vedas," he said. "What’s wrong in that? Sarfaraz’s parents sent him voluntarily.”

Today, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh education programme is on an expansion drive. But it faces strong criticism from large sections of academia and the media for promoting a combination of Hindu nationalism and fervent majoritarianism.

In addition, historians like Romila Thapar have alleged that the Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party are attempting to rewrite ancient history with an anti-Muslim bias, and trying to establish Hindu civilisational supremacy through fables and myths rather than evidence-based research.

The National Democratic Alliance government’s push for Sanskrit in schools, the removal of eggs from midday meals in BJP-ruled states, and its leaders explicitly calling for the removal of references to Mughal emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb from history textbooks to make more space for Hindu kings like Shivaji and Maharana Pratap have all intensified the debate.

“Those who have dominated education till now consider RSS methods and beliefs to be illegitimate and ignorant,” said RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha. “Why should we have dialogue with people who look down upon us? The work will continue because lakhs and lakhs of Sangh members are committed to work against this liberal leftist mindset.”

Long-term mission

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has always kept its eye on the long strategy. The first Saraswati Shishu Mandir was set up in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh in 1952. Vidya Bharati now has 3,206,212 students, according to its website. Other RSS affiliates – Shishu Mandir Sewa Bharati, Bharat Kalyan Prathisthan, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, and Bharatiya Jan Seva Sansthan – also work in riot-and disaster-hit areas, or places where few state agencies provide basic amenities.

Now, the Sangh’s strong defensiveness about growing criticism drives a more aggressive education campaign. Today, under the Har Prakhand Mein Vidyalaya project, the RSS wants to set up a model school in every block of the country before 2017. On the one hand, it is to promote its motto, and on the other, to check the growth of convent schools and missionary-run educational institutions, many of whom also operate in underdeveloped villages.

Apart from opening more schools, the Sangh is are also training youth in villages to turn counsellors and tutors for children enrolled in government schools.

In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Vidya Bharti and other RSS affiliates are involved in writing part of the curriculum and training teachers. Haryana schools have outsourced moral education to Dinanath Batra, a former teacher, convenor of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, and chairman of Bharatiya Shiksha Niti Ayog, an RSS council to advise the Narendra Modi government on what they refer to as Indianising the country’s education system.

At the central level, RSS groups have been actively lobbying for inclusion in the Centre’s new education policy, changes like value education, local and cultural history and chapters on India’s achievements in all fields. It is also pushing for the mother tongue as medium of instruction in primary schools, and the scrapping of the no-detention policy.

“We tried to meet previous governments and share our inputs but we were ignored,” said Atul Kothari, joint secretary of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti and coordinator of the Bharatiya Shiksha Niti Ayog. “But in the NDA government, we get meetings with the Prime Minister’s Office and HRD Ministry. At least we get heard.”

Sinha explained that the only way to deal with the uprising against the “Indianisation and spiritualisation” of education in India is to see it as coming from “a class of people who are genetically anti-RSS and are intellectual fascists”. “We are fighting against a mindset, so we don’t have to take their screaming seriously,” he said.

The defensiveness has become especially apparent in the latest challenge to the Sangh education project.

The media villain

Outlook magazine recently published an investigative report by journalist Neha Dixit on the illegal transfer and indoctrination of 31 tribal girls from Assam to Sangh-run schools in Gujarat and Punjab.

The story used documentary evidence from several organisations including the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and testimonies from parents to show that the girls – aged as young as three to 11 – were taken away without informed consent. The affidavits supposedly giving consent are dubious: they are in English, and signed in English although most parents of the tribal girls are illiterate or do not know English. They are also dated a month after the children were taken. Parents had not seen or spoken to their daughters for as long as a year, and many of Dixit’s interviewees complained about being kept in the dark about the exact location of their children.

Sangh members inadvertently brought up this story as an example of the media vilifying their efforts in education. There was outrage – which has led to BJP members filing a police complaint against Dixit and Outlook for inciting communal violence. But there was also something deeper, something bordering anguish. Karyakartas felt misunderstood and troubled at the criticism of what they considered to be selfless seva (service).

Dinanath Batra, who had sought a ban on scholar Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, said that the Sangh had modelled its contributions to the government based on its own experience in running educational institutions. “It is based on Hindu values because that is what we believe in, and it is universal, so what’s wrong with that?” said Batra. “Why is that violating child rights laws?”

Batra was obliquely alluding to the Outlook story.

Shooting the messenger

Dixit’s investigation makes two broad allegations against some Sangh-run schools: illegal transfer and Hindutva indoctrination.

Sangh members simply brushed away the matter of illegal transfer as “impossible” or “not exploitation”. An RSS functionary, who often interacts with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Human Resources Development ministry, said: “Some of the sevikas may have made some technical errors – we are a massive movement, some mistakes may happen. But then a journalist comes along and blows it out of proportion.”

A senior member of the Vidya Bharti offered again the example of topper Sarafaraz Hussain in Assam. “That is what we are doing in Assam and across the country,” the member said. “We believe in high quality, inclusive education, not the kind of lies that magazines accuse us of to make money.”

Before Dixit wrote the story, many state bodies had brought the violations to the Sangh’s notice. In 2015, the Assam State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, the Child Welfare Committee (Kokrajhar), the State Child Protection Society, and Childline (Delhi and Patiala), had all issued orders to the concerned Sangh outfits to return the children to Assam.

“These orders were violated with impunity by Sangh-run institutions with the help of the Gujarat and Punjab governments,” wrote Dixit.

No Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary interviewed for this article seemed to want to contemplate the possibility of karyakartas cutting corners at best, or violating laws at worst. “We are busy doing social service and we are not going to insult our karyakartas by questioning their actions,” said the RSS functionary close to the central government. “There is no mistake,” he insisted. “Then what enquiry? The parents just miss their children who are in hostel, so they are upset. It will pass.”

The senior Vidya Bharti member wrung his hands irately. “When Christian missionaries do it and madrassas do it, I’m quite sure that Outlook journalist will not write anything,” he said.

Like many RSS members, he too mistakenly associated the word “trafficking” (first used in the context of the 31 girls by the Assam State Commission for Child Rights) to sexual exploitation, although it has a broader definition. He said that calling the Sangh’s work “trafficking” was “disgusting”, and “I don’t think we could ever do such a horrendous thing”.

Meanwhile, action has been taken against the messenger. While BJP members lodged a police complaint against Dixit and Outlook, The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, under the central government, has also reportedly to threatened to sack Runumi Gogoi, the chairperson of Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, unless she changed her 2015 report on the 31 girls.

As for imparting mainstream Hindu practises to tribals, many Sangh members asked how this was wrong or exploitative. Some insisted that animist forest dwellers are the original Hindus and must be brought into the mainstream fold. Others said adivasis needed to be protected from Christian missionaries and Naxals. “Poor tribals are confused and seduced by other people through schools and money,” said Vidya Bharti’s Kumar. “We enlighten them about their true roots, which is Hindu.”

Indoctrination or socialisation?

Though RSS schools use government-prescribed textbooks, the teaching methods are shot through with what the Sangh calls “spiritual values” that are exclusively Hindu nationalist. Critics call it indoctrination, but the RSS prefers the word “socialisation”. Zealous, committed karyakartas and pracharikas teach and run schools, they are often alumni themselves, and convinced of their role in the greater purpose of educating the underprivileged, from any religion or caste.

This seva, however, might come packaged with other less inclusive beliefs, held with equal conviction, like attitudes to Muslims on a spectrum from fear to hate, and violent competition with Christian missionaries.

In an event of the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram held in Ahmedabad in May, the Gujarat tribal development minister claimed, to much applause, that the BJP government had prevented tribals from religious conversion. Vanvasi schools and coaching centres are central to this intervention.

In Haryana’s soon-to-be-released textbooks for moral education, Batra said he has included teachings from not only the Gita, but also the Bible and Quran – “good thoughts from all religions, in equal proportion”.

However, a quick perusal of the books showed the textbooks did not have much to substantiate his claim.

“Who in their right mind can say yoga is bad?” he asked. “If a boy doesn’t like, it’s his loss. He can tell his teacher – no I will not do it.” At this, he smiled mischievously perhaps at the improbability of a child in an Indian government school standing up to his teacher without dire consequences.

The RSS functionary, who interacts regularly with NDA ministries, claimed to be amused by “mild punches the leftist media throws at them”. He said, “People give up their whole lives to be full time workers, live for decades in a forest without any amenities to help the forgotten poor,” he said. “Why belittle their efforts?”

One such teacher, 36-year-old Deepshika (name changed), who teaches in a Saraswati Bal Mandir school in Janakpuri in Delhi, said she didn’t have much of a salary, but “in a world where children are learning garbage from their smartphones, we need to reintroduce them to their cultural values”.

She enjoyed the heated debate on saffronisation in the media today. “The more these JNU-types call us stupid, the more determined I become,” she said, laughing.

“Our seniors tell us to remember that we are not conservative or rigid; our enemies are the ones afraid of alternate points of view,” she said.

She showed this reporter a slim book of quotes by MS Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS under whom the organisation grew in size and influence. “After I read him, everything was clear,” Deepshika said. “I’m on the right path.”