It is early in the morning but the compound of Mahavir School in Gaya city is humming with activity. These are not students of the school but a group of young men in khaki shorts. The shakha they are holding is exclusive to the young, unlike those at neighbouring Gandhi Maidan and Azad Park.
Umesh Kumar, 30, is leading the shakha this morning. As vibhag pracharak, he heads RSS activities in Gaya, Shergathi, Jahanabad and Arwal. Umesh, or Umeshji, had left his home in Mungair at age 12 to join the RSS as a full-time worker “committed to staying a bachelor”. Hulas Kumar, 25, is the mukhya shikshak or head of the shakha.
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A young man fixes the metal pole that holds the RSS’s saffron flag into the ground. One by one, the men come to it, raise their hand to their chest with the palm facing the ground, bow their head and line up for a kabaddi game. Many carry lathis. Umesh takes the referee’s whistle as the men split into teams. After the game, they sit in a circle on the dusty ground, next to the flag. Four new students have joined; they introduce themselves and Umesh welcomes them.
A guest arrives from Patna. He bows before the flag and sits on the ground. He introduces himself as Lakshman (Bhawsinghka) and says he looks after the prachar vibhag, or media wing. He tells the group they have been “raising awareness about conversion and Bangladeshi infiltration”.
Though they don’t discuss politics, they have always had a political objective.
R S Nagmani, 35, studied at Mahavir School, joined the ABVP, and went on to do a PhD in management from Magadh University and an MA in education through distance learning, besides studying law. During the JD(U)-BJP regime, he was looking after public relations for minister Prem Kumar, Gaya MLA. “It wasn’t a government appointment. I was doing it at Premji’s request, and without pay,’’ he says.
Nagmani says he has been a swayamsevak since his childhood, his initiation coming when he attended an RSS shakha near his home. “The RSS is active across Bihar but its presence is strongest in Gaya, Patna and Bhagalpur,’’ he says. “I got into the Sangh’s student politics because the ABVP is the BJP’s pathsala. I want to contest elections.”
He is isn’t at present linked directly to the RSS; he takes care of its public affairs in Magadh region. RSS recruits, he says, don’t speak to the media without permission.
The kshetra sampark pramukh (area contact head) for Bihar and Jharkhand, Anil Thakur, is in Gaya. Thakur says he has committed his life to the Sangh. In a brief conversation at the RSS office, he concedes the Sangh’s public contact programme is an “invisible way” to garner support for the BJP.
“We don’t go around carrying the BJP flag,’’ he says. “During our baithaks and jan sampark, we explain Hindutva and our understanding of nationalism. The RSS is the mother organisation, so any support for us translates into support for the BJP.” He will not, however, spell out the strategy for helping the BJP’s campaign. “We are the second tier of their campaign and we don’t talk about it to the media,’’ he says.
He says the RSS has nothing against Muslims joining their shakhas. “We have told our people that if a Muslim comes in his traditional attire, we can’t send him back. Anyone ready to sing Vande Mataram and accept the Sangh’s ideals is welcome.”
Nagmani says the RSS has been raising awareness against go hatya (cow slaughter) and “telling people to vote for nationalist forces”. “Sangh activists may not carry the BJP flag but they have made sure each branch is aware of the importance of this election,’’ he says. “It is a fight between two ideologies.” He says the BJP and various Sangh Parivar units — ABVP, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, Kisan Sangh, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Seva Bharati — are working in tandem. “Pracharaks from other regions have come for parbas. This rotation happens everywhere.”
At the school, as the shakha ends and the swayamsevaks disperse outside, Umesh and Lakshman accompany the middle-aged “Sudhirji”. “I have a business in auto parts. That’s for a living. Otherwise, I have been with the RSS since 1978,’’ says Sudhir, whose house is at the corner of the lane from the market to the school. “Most of the business community in Gaya city are with the RSS. That’s why nobody can beat the BJP here.”
As Sudhir disappears behind a door, RSS leaders sit in a room with pictures from Hindu mythology on the walls. Another middle-aged man joins in and introduces himself as Vindoji of the VHP. Sudhir serves water and khichdi and sits down.
The conversation moves towards the caste divide. “We oppose discrimination on the basis of caste,’’ Laksman says. “But the caste system has its importance. It is a way society is organised according to various occupations. How would you organise a society if you don’t have a system?”
Another man, helmet in hand, joins in. “Dileepji” is a senior RSS worker, who will accompany Umesh and Lakshman to Barachitti constituency where the Sangh has called a meeting. They leave on two motorcycles, this time in kurtas. “This is the favourite mode of transport for Sangh workers. We can reach anywhere on a bike,’’ Sudhir says. “Go out on the street and I am sure every second person you see is a RSS worker or sympathiser”.
At a marketplace, a university student agrees to talk on the condition of anonymity. “This is a Hindu country and there should be no room for any questions about this,” he says. “The Sangh and its political arm the BJP are working hard to achieve that. Bharat isn’t Hindu just because its majority population is Hindu, it is Hindu because Hindutva has been its true culture for thousands of years.”
The student adds he is from a Bhumihar family loyal to the Sangh. “I joined when Narendra Modiji was campaigning for the Lok Sabha polls. He has the commitment to make Bharat a true Hindu nation.” He adds though the RSS has no problem with Muslims born in India, “they must accept that Hindutva and Hindu culture… After all, their forefathers were Hindus too.”
He gets emotional: “Lalu and Nitish are dividing Hindus.” But then, he adds as if in self-reflection, the BJP too is following a caste-based model. “They too have started ignoring the forward castes. Look at the list of candidates. It seems like a list from Lalu with a lotus,’’ he says. “It is a mistake. But if they (BJP) win Bihar, nothing can stop Modiji.”