Why you should care
Well-paid, globally exposed young professionals are joining a movement whose founders admired Nazis.
A group of 15 men proudly salute a saffron flag hooked firmly onto an iron rod. The flag belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist group that claims it has more than 6 million direct or affiliate members and is the ideological mothership of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Our flag is our guru, our identity,” says 30-year-old dentist Vikram Dhillon, a resident of Supreme Towers, a high-rise apartment complex in Noida near New Delhi.
It’s a sentiment the RSS — whose early leaders publicly admired Hitler and Mussolini — feared it was losing a decade ago among Indian youth, a group that is becoming increasingly urban, globalized and middle class. But a 21st-century upgrade, from a new uniform to modern recruitment tactics, is helping draw young engineers, doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, bankers and journalists into the fold, especially in upscale neighborhoods where supporters traditionally felt the need to hide their allegiances.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity also helps, RSS leaders say, at a time when nationalist forces are bringing once-fringe conversations to the mainstream globally. As Modi seeks reelection — results will be declared this Thursday — these new recruits are emerging as some of his biggest cheerleaders.
Now, you can be tech-savvy and upwardly mobile, yet support sectarianism.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, writer
Over the past two years, the RSS has witnessed a 20 percent increase in most neighborhood units (shakhas), which offer daily and weekly milans (gatherings) in suburbs and cities dominated by young upwardly mobile professionals. Noida has seen 120 new shakhas emerge since 2017, up from around 100 in the same period before 2016, says RSS volunteer Pankaj Kapil. Between 10 and 20 volunteers attend each shakha daily, with more on weekends, he adds. In Gurgaon, another Delhi suburb with offices for global financial and tech firms, at least 80 new shakhas and milans have started in the past two years in high-rise apartments, says Vijay Kumar, the regional RSS in charge. In Bangalore, 160 new milans for information technology professionals have started in this period. And 90 new shakhas and milans have come up in the Mumbai neighborhoods of Andheri and Lokhandwala, and in the satellite township of Navi Mumbai since 2016.
Many of these fresh recruits have studied at elite schools. They tend to make more than $100,000 annually, work for multinationals, go on international holidays and send their children to global schools. Yet, they’re finding meaning as members of the RSS, which advocates for a Hindu nation.
“Now, you can be tech-savvy and upwardly mobile, yet support sectarianism,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. “Earlier, it was politically incorrect to be a part of shakhas. Now it is not improper to publicly say [that] Muslims need to be shown their place.”
For some recruits, shakhas — where volunteers sing prayers, chant nationalistic slogans and perform physical exercises — are primarily attractive as pathways to fitness, discipline and a reconnect with Indian “family values.” Others concede they want to edge closer to the ruling BJP through the RSS. For several volunteers, such as Dhillon, the RSS is also fundamentally about doing something for society. “Social work is part of the RSS’s Hindutva package,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, referring to the group’s guiding philosophy.
Founded in 1925, the RSS has long counted India’s urban middle class as a key base, with shakhas in neighborhood parks a common sight throughout India. But that relationship was beginning to snap with a millennial generation that found the organization’s rigid hierarchical structure outdated, and the daily physical exercises boring, says Mukhopadhyay. As liberal, left-leaning education and politics dominated India, the RSS came to be seen as regressive among the English-speaking elite of the country. Dhillon’s neighbor, 42-year-old Supreme Court lawyer Bipin Bihari Singh says that people didn’t want to be identified as shakha participants.
That’s now history because the RSS is adapting — except its ideology — with the times. After consulting a top fashion designer, it swapped its khaki shorts in 2016 for smart brown trousers and made the uniform optional. The RSS now recruits door-to-door and offers weekend and virtual events for those who can’t attend daily meetings. In meetings, Sanskrit lexicon is now occasionally replaced by English, and the RSS has launched 65 new affiliate bodies targeting specific professions. Since 2016, an average of 100,000 new recruits have signed up through just the website each year, compared to just over 60,000 annually before that, according to the RSS.
(Credit: Sonia Sarkar)
Abhishek Junnarkar, a 38-year-old assistant vice president for a multinational company, says the RSS “trains us how to save our country from people who want to overpower us.” That sense of threat from an often-unspecified source — be it Muslims, Christian missionaries, Pakistan, communists or secular liberals — is at the heart of the RSS training.
Take the common shakha game Lahore Kiska Hai (Whose is Lahore). The group leader asks, “Lahore kiska hai,” and players shout back, “Lahore hamara hain (Lahore is ours).” Players then push each other to grab a stone that’s meant to symbolize Lahore. The RSS vision for India, after all, includes most of South Asia as a single nation.
(Credit: Sonia Sarkar)
Modi’s muscular nationalism fits this narrative. “People want to work for the nation the way he does,” says Ajay Mudpe, RSS publicity head in the Konkan region. But working “for the nation” can mean “othering” those the RSS sees as outsiders. A WhatsApp campaign in a Noida neighborhood, for example, led to a boycott of Bengali Muslim household helpers who were en masse labeled “ illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the National Voters Forum, an affiliate of the formally apolitical RSS, has been urging professionals to vote for a party that works for the “interest of the nation” — code for the BJP.
Back in Supreme Towers, Dhillon says he’ll stay with the RSS no matter how the BJP does this week. The deep roots the organization has put down in India’s high-rise apartment blocks aren’t going anywhere. “Once in RSS, always in RSS,” he says.