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Anahita Mukherji | TNN | Mumbai | Dec 21, 2015:: Growing up on the outskirts of Pune, Girish Bagmar came from a family of Congress supporters.While he was fed up of UPA’s scams in 2014, he’s more inclined towards centrist politics than the right-wing BJP. Yet Bagmar, now based in Boston, sends both his sons to shakhas run by Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the overseas wing of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Many of his Indian friends in the US work for HSS and offered to take his children to the shakha. “I’ve never attended HSS shakhas. I send my children there so they can socialize with other Indian children and learn about Indian culture. Growing up in India, we learnt of our culture from our grandparents’ stories. I feel my children may be deprived of this; my mother cannot visit the US frequently,” says Bagmar.
USA is one of 39 countries where HSS runs shakhas, says Ramesh Subramaniam, Mumbai coordinator of RSS’s overseas work. He helped set up shakhas in Mauritius from 1996 to 2004 and now heads Sewa, a platform for overseas Indians to fund RSS service projects. He says HSS works closely with other Hindu cultural organizations abroad including the Chinmaya and Ramakrishna missions.
“We don’t call it Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh overseas. It’s not on Indian soil so we can’t use the word ‘Rashtriya’. We call it Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh as it unites Hindus worldwide,” says Subramaniam, adding that RSS’s overseas wing is bigger than its affiliate, Vishwa Hindu Parishad. RSS is the ideological parent of nearly 40 official affiliates including VHP and India’s ruling party, BJP.
The 39 countries where shakhas are held include five in the Middle East where outdoor shakhas are not permitted and are replaced by gatherings at people’s homes. Finland has only an e-shakha where activities are conducted via video-camera over the internet for people from over 20 countries living in areas where HSS units are absent.
“The diaspora’s longing for a connection with ‘Indian culture’, ‘history’ and ‘traditions’ in a context in which they are a minority that is not represented in the mainstream, provides a ready social basis for the RSS,” says Subir Sinha, academician at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
“While Nepal has the largest number of shakhas outside India, US comes second with 146. We are present in every state of the US. We have shakhas in cities like New York, Washington DC, Seattle and Miami,” says Satish Modh, who has been associated with RSS work abroad for over 25 years. While shakhas in India take place in open maidans, in the US, most shakhas are held in university campuses on hired parking lots, says Modh.
Most overseas shakhas are held once a week. In London, they are held twice a week. UK has 84 shakhas.
“The sangh parivar got a boost in the UK under Blairite ‘multiculturalism’ in which culture was identified with religion and religion with its most hardcore version,” says Sinha.
The first overseas shakha is believed to have been on a ship. “In 1946, two swayamsevaks, Manekbhai Rugani and Jagdish Chandra Sharda were travelling from Mumbai to Mombasa (Kenya). Neither knew each other. One saw the other performing the right hand ‘namaskar’ and figured he too was from RSS. They held the first shakha together on the ship. The first shakha on foreign soil was in Mombasa,” says Ramesh Mehta, a senior RSS member whose home in suburban Mumbai has played host to overseas sangh leaders for 30 years. RSS’s Kenya wing, earlier called Bharat Swayamsevak Sangh, spread its ideology to neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda, and later to parts of South Africa and Mauritius. RSS sent Mehta to Zimbabwe and Kenya to set up shakhas.
“Many swayamsevaks in African countries had the option of moving to the UK once those countries gained independence. Haribhai Shah, a swayamsevak who moved from Mombasa to Birmingham, began UK’s first shakha,” says Mehta. The sangh celebrates 50 years in UK next year.
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“Currently 25 pracharaks and over 100 vistaraks work towards spreading shakhas overseas,” says Subramaniam. Pracharaks dedicate their lives to RSS and don’t marry. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi became a pracharak in the 1970s. Vistaraks dedicate less than two years of their lives to RSS and are usually students. Pracharaks from Tamil Nadu propagate HSS in Sri Lanka.
While RSS insists it is not anti-Muslim, Sinha points to RSS support for far right parties in England like UKIP which has been criticized for Islamophobia. “By linking with political parties, RSS has a disproportionate influence on those parties. RSS and affiliates campaigned heavily to defeat UK’s legislation to end caste discrimination,” says Sinha.
RSS insists its overseas activities are largely cultural and include working for the development of the countries where swayamsevaks live.
While khaki shorts are the RSS trademark in India, the uniform abroad comprises black pants and a white shirt. ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jay’ is the chant at shakhas in India; abroad it is ‘Vishwa Dharma Ki Jay.’