The RSS’s interest in the overseas Indian community is rooted in its overriding goal of pan-Hindu unification. The first overseas shakhas were started in Kenya and Myanmar in 1947 by emigrant swayamsevaks from India, who were also the catalysts for the further spread of the organisation overseas. As early as 1953, [MS] Golwalkar, in a lecture to state pracharaks, put the RSS’s interest in overseas Hindus in a philosophical context, saying that the RSS had a “world mission” to propagate the Hindu notion of the world as a single family.
This “long distance nationalism”, to use a phrase of Benedict Anderson, is aimed at mobilising a unified Hindu community to assist the cause at home, with its primary focus on financial and volunteer support for the many service projects run by the sangh parivar in India and elsewhere. Our own research suggests several motivating factors for this long-distance nationalism besides Anderson’s hypothesis that it serves to assuage the guilt diasporic Indians harbour for having abandoned the motherland.
These factors include: the nationalist message of the RSS; nostalgia and homesickness; identifying with family members remaining in India; and, for many, a justification for social interaction with other members of the Indian community – thus providing an opportunity to enhance one’s social status through contributions to communal activities.
These efforts to help the home country can take many forms, such as the substantial assistance to victims of natural disasters provided by overseas contributors – the 1978 Andhra cyclone, the January 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, the December 2004 tsunami off the south-eastern coast of India, and the 2015 floods in the Himalayan foothills are just a few. They can also take on a political orientation, such as the organisation (and financing) of the aforementioned mass rallies that Prime Minister Modi has addressed during his overseas trips (some seventy, as of late 2017).
Some efforts even extend to directly abetting the political ambitions of the BJP: several dozen overseas Indian professionals, for example, went back to India to provide IT expertise to the 2013–14 Modi parliamentary campaign. Ullekh NP, in his splendidly researched book on the mechanics of that campaign, has a chapter analysing the specific (and substantial) contributions of the overseas Indian community.
Among the several Indian American professionals he mentions is Amitabh Sharma – CEO and founder of Asterix Solutions – who utilised various media platforms in his native Uttar Pradesh to sell lower-class voters (especially Dalits and Muslims) on Modi’s infrastructure and skill-based education models which promised to improve their living standards far more than conventional social welfare measures. Another such example is Narain Kataria – founder of the Indian American Intellectuals Forum – who mobilised support for Modi across various Indian American communities, communities that in turn lobbied for the BJP among their friends and relatives living in India.
The overseas presence of RSS-inspired groups is, outside of neighbouring Nepal, strongest in three English-speaking countries: the US, the United Kingdom and Australia (though there are reports of such organisations in at least thirty-nine countries worldwide). The basic unit in all these overseas organisations is called a shakha, though the practical format varies widely depending on local circumstances. While Nepal has the largest number of shakhas outside of India itself, the US comes in second with 172 (in 2016), a number that reportedly is growing rapidly. The Indian American community, totalling over 3 million people, is the largest and wealthiest stratum of the Indian diaspora.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 study of religion in the US, Hindus constitute only .07 per cent of the total population; however, they also comprise the country’s leading ethnic group in terms of education – 77 per cent of Indian American adults have a college or postgraduate degree – and income – 70 per cent earn $50,000 per capita or more.
The American Hindu community is relatively religious, with 79 per cent of those polled reporting that religion is “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives. This would seem like a promising recruitment pool for the RSS, though the regular attendance for US HSS [Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the overseas counterpart of the RSS] shakhas as of 2017 is only between 5000 and 7000 (that number would increase several times if one counted occasional attendance or participation in HSS programmes and parivar-supported projects).
Each national HSS, like all RSS affiliates, is autonomous, though there are global coordinators. Most national HSS units, like the RSS in India, have a women’s branch, referred to as the Hindu Sevika Samiti (this branch is not present in the US, Australia or New Zealand, where shakhas are organised on a family basis). The HSS in the US, moreover, trains its own vistaraks and vistarikas (male and female part-time workers), and is unique in having female full-time workers and a female regional director. The HSS in the US runs its own week-long training camps on the proper organisation of shakhas.
Those who successfully complete three of these training camps (referred to as Sangha Shiksha Varg) can either attend the RSS’s second-year training programme in India or newly launched second-year training camps in Trinidad and Kenya, two countries with a large Indian minority. Those who complete the second-year camp can attend the longer third-year camp at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. A senior HSS official told us that several American HSS members have participated in these programmes. The anticipated growth of these overseas training centres will create an international pool of potential RSS workers to be assigned anywhere in the world to spread the message of Hindutva.
We spent an evening in July 2016 attending an HSS shakha in a Virginian suburb of Washington DC in order to compare it with those held in India.
Our host was a practising engineer and the karyavah (director) of shakhas for the DC area. His weekly shakha lasts for about an hour and a half. He told us that after migrating from India (where he was an RSS member), he decided to join the HSS because he believed it was important to instil proper Indian values in his children. Moreover, echoing Anderson’s “long-distance nationalism”, he said that participation in the HSS evokes a sense of collective Hindu pride among Indian emigrants.
Those fifty-odd emigrants – men and women both – attending this particular shakha were almost all college-educated professionals fluent in English. He told us that this night’s attendance was less than half the average because many participants were on vacation. He also noted that the number of regular participants had doubled in the past few years, partly a reflection of the growth of the Indian American community in the DC area and partly because more Indian Americans are becoming aware of the HSS’s activities.
The administration of the American HSS is divided into five regions, and these DC area shakhas form part of the East Coast region. While each shakha is an autonomous unit, the national HSS general secretary – in consultation with other central, regional and local officers – selects the local shakha leaders. Each region has also rented facilities for residential camps (which usually last a week); these camps are critically important in engendering loyalty to the HSS and support for its Hindutva ideology among new volunteers and young people.
We were told that all shakhas in the US are family-oriented, and we noticed that most of the attendees at our meeting came as families. Our host told us that the format of his shakha is common to those across the US – and in India, for that matter, except that in the US both men and women attend.
The shakha began with the participants seated in rows based on their age, as in India, and proceeded as follows: first the saffron-coloured Bhagwa Dhwaj (similar to the flag used at shakhas in India) was hoisted and saluted; then an opening prayer for Hindu unity was recited, with specific reference to the religion’s diversity, mentioning Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as legitimate forms of worship; yoga, surya namaskar (a traditional exercise) and callisthenics followed for the adults, while the children engaged in more vigorous exercises, including traditional Indian games like kho kho; thence followed the bouddhik, a group-wide discussion of social or political issues; and finally a concluding prayer in Sanskrit which refers to “Mother Earth” and humanity, a divergence from the closing prayers in India, which refer to Bharat Mata (“Mother India”). The opening prayer was recited by a teenage boy and the concluding one by a teenage girl.
At this particular meeting, the bouddhik was delivered (in Sanskrit) by a visiting America-based RSS pracharak representing an organisation aiming to popularise Sanskrit as a spoken language. Also attending was a local representative of Sewa International USA, which operates a wide range of service activities in the US and is managed mainly by HSS activists. Sewa International operates various national units across the globe, and has experienced a surge in activities (and volunteers) since the 1990s.
The US national unit, formed in 2002, provides opportunities for American swayamsevaks to strengthen bonds to the sangh parivar in India and in other countries. The Sewa service activities of this particular shakha include donating food to the indigent and food banks, as well as tutoring sessions led by high school students. The American unit was heavily involved in relief efforts in 2017 – such as providing volunteer doctors and other medical specialists – after several hurricanes swept across the US.
Excerpted with permission from The RSS: A View to the Inside, Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle.