In contemporary India, the RSS is perhaps one of the most controversial organisations that has continuously attracted the attention of political analysts, academics and media agencies for its perceived role in being the ideological backbone and mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that formed the government in the Centre after the 2014 elections with an overwhelming majority and subsequently formed state governments in several states across the country. The BJP is the political affiliate of a larger cultural movement that endorses the idea of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva).

The RSS is the foundational organisation for the formation of the Sangh Parivar (literally meaning the “family of the Sangh”) which refers to the array of organisations that represents the Hindu nationalist orientation in modern India. The RSS was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in Nagpur who was convinced that the only reason Hindus had succumbed to the enslavement, first by the Muslims and then by the British, was because they lacked national consciousness. The founding of the RSS was an attempt to resurrect a national consciousness that would ultimately lead to the creation of a strong Hindu Rashtra.

Since its inception, the RSS has been banned thrice (in 1948 after the assassination of Gandhi by an ex-RSS person, during the National Emergency from 1975–1977 and in 1992 after the demolition of Babri Mosque) and repeatedly attacked by centrist and leftist political forces in India for its alleged role in inciting communal violence, unleashing anti-minority propaganda and for attempting to “saffronise” history and educational curriculum at large. And yet, the popularity of the RSS has been steadily growing. It is indeed phenomenal that an organisation that started with only five persons in 1925 is now one of the world’s largest non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In their recent book on the RSS, Andersen and Damle mention that as of 2016, an estimated 1.5-2 million people regularly participate in almost 57,000 daily shakhas, 14,000 weekly shakhas and 7,000 monthly shakhas, taking place across 36,293 different locations. The organisation has about 6,000 full-time workers (pracharaks) and around 6 million alumni and affiliate volunteers.

What does it mean for a cultural group like the RSS to provide seva in a crisis situation?

How does the provision of seva help in consolidating solidarities across religious groups and ethnicities? What is the relationship of the “secular” state vis-à-vis cultural organisations like the RSS? How do the beneficiaries of seva “repay” this debt?

This book focuses on the political implications of the humanitarian work of the RSS in disaster situations. Humanitarianism in the most parts of the world is imbued in politics and therefore this is not a dimension that is novel to the RSS. However, what is interesting to observe is that, in recent times, the realm of humanitarianism has seen a resurgence of religious/cultural groups that are usually considered illiberal and conservative by several analysts.

In this particular context, ancient Hindu traditions such as seva (service) have acquired a new potency and are filled with new meanings as their practitioners compete with more secular aid providers. Even though religious/cultural groups were active in providing welfare much before the advent of the modern state in India as elsewhere, what are the reasons for a renewed popularity and resurgence of these organizations in humanitarianism which has undoubtedly become more complex now? How does the resurgence of religious nationalism with little regard for conventional understandings of tolerance shape social participation in the world’s largest democracy? The book attempts to answer these questions in the backdrop of the meteoric rise of the ideology of Hindutva in the contemporary India.

To argue that the rendering of seva serves a political agenda is far from being an interesting claim.

As I have mentioned before, the realm of humanitarianism has always been political and all conceivable actors that participate in it have an agenda to further. In this sense, the RSS’s invocation of seva too is at least partially instrumental and its strategy of enlisting support through seva is not novel. The interesting puzzle that presents itself before us therefore is why are seemingly “rational” people enamoured by the idea of seva.

Why is the Indian diaspora contributing their wealth towards furthering the seva activities of the Sangh? Surely, seva in its etymological sense cannot be conflated with more legal-rational forms of giving that are valorised in the contemporary humanitarian world. Then wherein lies its cultural appeal? One of the primary themes that this book interrogates is to find out whether there is something to be salvaged conceptually, intellectually and empirically from the heritage of the term seva.

In light of the criticisms levelled against the Sangh Parivar as being advocates of an irrational nativism, I seek to understand if the category of seva is merely irrational, paternalistic and morally vacuous, or is there something more to it. How does “progressive” thought, influenced by modern rationalist filters, limit our own understanding of such terms and their cultural currency? I attempt to investigate these questions, to use Mbembe’s phrase, by “restituting intelligibility” to seva.

I am arguing that the idea and practice of seva needs to be analysed in its own idiom and within a framework that does not place “conservative” thought in a hierarchically inferior position than the “secular rational”. I am thus not only asking how seva helps mobilise support for the RSS, but in itself what does the invocation of seva do to common people, who could be either beneficiaries or donors.

There is perhaps no better time to meditate on the above questions than now. Perhaps because the Indian political tradition of valorising secularism has never been challenged as much as it is being done now. Contrary to the expectations of the advocates of secularisation thesis, similar to other modernising societies, economic development and democratic governance have not been a deterrent to the rise of religion in the public sphere in India.

The stupendous victory of the BJP in the 2014 parliamentary elections in India under the leadership of Narendra Modi and successive wins in several state assembly elections are testimony to this. More importantly, current national debates have now begun to centre around the relevance of secularism in India, on the grounds that the word “secular” was inserted only in 1976 during the period of National Emergency and hence the claim that it was not a value that was built on consensus. Other members of the Sangh Parivar highlight that the idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) already entails the essence of tolerance and harmonious co-existence and hence “foreign” categories like “secularism” are irrelevant.

The visibility of religion in the public realm is also manifested through the enormous popularity of religious/spiritual gurus, the rising rate of “pilgrimage tourism”, ostentatious celebration of religious festivals in public spaces and the significant presence of religion on the Internet and television channels. Religion features centrally in court cases and judgements where the validity of traditional religious norms is constantly challenged. The recent judgment on the entry of women in the Ayyappan temple at Sabarimala is an important case in point that has violently divided people between those who support the judgment vis-à-vis those who oppose it.

Excerpted with permission from Disaster Relief and the RSS: Resurrecting ‘Religion’ Through Humanitarianism, Malini Bhattacharjee, Sage Publications.