The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and colleges and writes for a many publications, including NYT
You are a kaafir (a non-believer)” is what the killers of RSS worker Rudresh had shouted before murdering him in broad day light in October 2016.
R Rudresh, a Bangalore city secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, was returning from a meeting of the organisation in October 2016 when two men on a motorcycle carrying machetes attacked him near Commercial Street, a busy shopping area in Bengaluru. The two men first knocked Rudresh off his bike and then proceeded to assault him with the machetes.
This was a murder most foul and shook the state, with the Opposition BJP pouncing on the Siddaramaiah government saying the law and order situation was at its worst and asked the government to resign.
The National Investigation Agency, which probed the death of Rudresh, established that a leader of the extremist Muslim organisation, Popular Front of India, was in touch with operatives of the Indian Mujahideen and that there was a large plot behind the murder. It was just a build-up for more such murders. The killers had on their list several other such leaders in Karnataka and other parts of southern India.
The NIA said the five accused were in touch with Syed Ismail Afaaque, a leader of the Indian Mujahideen, based out of Bhatkal. Afaaque was arrested following the revelations made by Yasin Bhatkal, the chief of the outfit prior to his arrest three years ago.
In the Rudresh murder case, five persons, Irfan Pasha, Waseem Ahmed, Mohammed Sadiq, Mujheebulla and Asim Sheriff, were arrested. It was found during the probe that not only were these persons in touch with the IM leaders, but had also hatched a conspiracy to kill several more BJP and RSS leaders.
In another case, a 24-year-old Right-wing activist, Deepak Rao, was murdered at Katipalla on the outskirts of Mangaluru last year, leading to tension in Surathkal and its adjoining areas.
Acting swiftly, the police were able to stop the car reportedly used by the attackers near Moodbidri by opening fire, and took four persons into custody.
According to the police, Bajrang Dal activist Deepak Rao worked as a mobile recharge currency distributor for a franchise of a private telecom service provider. He was returning home in Ganeshpura, near Katipalla, on a motorcycle after depositing money with the franchise, when four persons in a car waylaid and attacked him.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Karnataka media coordinator Rajesh Padmar claimed that the murdered youth was an “active volunteer” for both the Bajrang Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Whether murders were because of internal feud or political rivalry was not clear but what was interesting was that RSS cried foul and squarely blamed the Congress government in the state. Observers say these incidents were used by the right wing activists in the run up to the state assembly elections to discredit the Congress. But in a no-holds-barred attack, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has alleged BJP, RSS and Bajrang Dal have terrorists within their organisations. “They are themselves like terrorists in a way. BJP, RSS and Bajrang Dal also have terrorists within,” he said, taking his attack on the BJP to a new level ahead of the polls. Strongly reacting to the remarks, the state BJP has accused Siddaramaiah of desperately trying to polarise elections on communal lines “by calling BJP-RSS terror organisations”. These were not isolated incidents. Bajrang Dal activists assaulted two girls for meeting Muslim friends in Mangaluru. A video showing four men, with one of them assaulting the students, went viral on social media, evoking angry protests across the state. “The youngsters studying at a Pre-University (PU) college in Talipady (about 23 km south of Mangaluru) were said to have been attacked for meeting their male friends, who are Muslims,” a police official said. VHP and Bajrang Dal also issued a set of ‘moral codes’ to be observed by Hindu girls in order to ‘protect’ themselves from the danger of what they called ‘Love Jihad’. These moral codes ask Hindu girls not to have any kind of links with non-Hindu men, particularly Muslims and Christians, and maintain a distance from them while travelling in buses or going to schools, colleges and work places. Pamphlets detailing the Dos and Donts were distributed to girls near schools and colleges during a fortnight of ‘awareness campaign’ launched here. The Hindu girls were asked to seek help from pro-Hindu outfits in times of crisis, beware of friend requests sent by persons in the name of Hindus, not to share personal information on social networking sites like Whatsapp, FB and others, or upload pictures in them and refrain from accepting gifts on the pretext of love, with a warning that they may have to repent later. In another set of guidelines, Hindu parents of girl children were asked to keep a track on friends of their wards, children spending much time on social networking sites; be informed about organisations and their owners where female members of family work; check when daughters come home late on the pretext of combined study, overtime duty and visit to friends’ places; check if daughters lock themselves up in rooms and talk on mobile phones; enquire when daughters get gifts and keep an eye on persons with whom children interact every day like car driver, bus conductors, persons in provision, fancy and mobile recharge shops. While the RSS has been credited with doing good things like running schools, conducting yoga classes etc., there are fringe elements like the Bajrang Dal and other such `Dals’ who have taken law into their hands in south India and claim they have the support of the RSS.
The RSS, with its more than 50,000 shakhas, is propagating the idea of a united India, but the idea has been distorted and maligned by the activities of these fringe elements. In Karnataka, their presence is mostly in three coastal districts: Udupi, Uttara Kannada and Mangaluru, says Gautham Machaiah, a senior journalist who hails from Coorg. “I have been watching the RSS for the last 20 years and they have only been concentrating on doing good work, like running schools, and lending a helping hand whenever there has been a natural calamity,” he says. “RSS had great leders like Dr Seshadri and Narahari who was also an MLC, and the cadre was very disciplined. Even when BJP was in power in the state, RSS never used to interfere in the state affairs, though the ministry comprised hard core RSS workers like Suresh Kumar and KS Eshwarappa, who was also the deputy chief minister,” he stressses in all his gullibility.
In the southernmost state of Kerala, which has been ruled alternatively by the Congress-led coalition and the Communists, the RSS has been gaining ground. Thanks to RSS, the vote share of the BJP went up to 15 per cent in the last Assembly elections. But the frequent clashes between RSS workers and the Left activists has led to many deaths and also created a lot of tension in this peace-loving state. The spate of political violence in Kannur district in the recent past is a clear example. One of the reasons for the rising support to RSS has been due to the ISIS threat. The conversion of Hindus, mostly unemployed youth, both men and women, into Islam, is rampant in districts where the Left Democratic Front (LDF) cadre rule the roost. Explains R Shankar, a senior journalist settled in Kerala after working in Hyderabad and Bangalore with the New Indian Express: “RSS is strong in key pockets in Kerala. Mainly in Kasargod, Kannur, Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram. Kasargod is a Muslim stronghold and the RSS wants to end this, as Hindus are also equally strong there. The RSS line of thinking is that if the Muslim domination is not ended, it may spread to other areas too. Muslim parties dominate the neighbouring districts of Kozhikode and Malapuram. Moreover, being the border district with Karnataka, Kasargod gets ample support from the RSS cadres there. There is a sizeable population who speak Kannada here and Mangalapuram (the Malayalam name for Mangaluru) is just a short drive away of 30 km. This coastal town of Karnataka is where the RSS and the BJP have a strong presence.” If RSS has to mark its presence in the next Lok Sabha and Kerala Assembly, Kasargod is probably the best bet. In fact, in Manjeswaram Assembly constituency, which is part of Kasargod Lok Sabha constituency, the BJP candidate lost by a mere 89 votes to the IUML candidate.
It is a known secret that since the CPM and the Congress have no chance to win here, they tacitly support the IUML candidate or leave the constituency to the IUML. IUML is part of the Congress-led United Democratic Front, but the CPM is not shy to support it in order to keep the BJP away. Shankar says Kannur is the hotbed of the CPM politics. “The RSS has grown phenomenally here and this is the district which witnesses political bloodshed between the CPM cadre and the RSS. Kannur has traditionally been a CPM stronghold ever since the first Left government came to power in Kerala in 1957 (It was then the CPI, before the split). Almost all the CPM chief ministers and prominent leaders come from what is known as the Kannur lobby – EMS Namboodiripad, EK Nayanar, Pinarayi Vijayan, Kodieri Balakrishnan. “The RSS strategy is to break this lobby and weaken the CPM. If the Kannur lobby is weakened, the RSS feels it can gain an upper hand throughout Kerala.”
This has resulted in violent clashes between the CPM and the RSS resulting in bloodshed and deaths. Both the groups are still blood-thirsty and it is known that the CPM has a highly trained ‘army’ of professional killers to carry out killings – mainly aimed at the RSS and dissenters in the CPM. The RSS is at the heels of the secret CPM `army’ by having its own trained killer gangs. Though the CPM has denied the presence of trained killers in its midst, the killings were all carried out at the behest of leaders of the Kannur lobby. In Palakkad, bordering Tamil Nadu, the CPM is strong, thanks to the support from agricultural labourers. But with the decline in agricultural labourers, whose children are now educated and employed in non-agricultural sectors, the CPM is getting weakened. This has buoyed the spirits of the RSS, which is growing at a rapid pace. Key municipalities and panchayats are now under the BJP, thanks to the groundwork done by the RSS. Shankar says the RSS is now a potent force in Palakkad, led by leaders like the fiery Shoba Surendran. The RSS has grown so strong in Kerala that a pro-Hindu school defied a state government order and allowed RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to hoist the national flag on Republic Day. Earlier, he hoisted the flag during last year’s Independence Day, defying the orders of the district collector.
The RSS strategy is to consolidate Hindu votes through what is known as the `Temple Route.’ Palakkad district has a strong Hindu presence and numerous temples. The RSS is also wary of the growth of Muslim population, which controls trade and commerce in the district. “In the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, RSS has rapidly grown due to the strong Hindu population. In fact, the BJP opened its account for the first time since Independence in the Kerala Assembly from Thiruvananthapuram, when O Rajagopal got elected. Here too, the CPM and Congress are reported to have reached a secret understanding to keep the BJP away. But with the Congress weakening, the BJP has now occupied the second slot after the CPM,” Shankar says. The RSS is also focusing on Thrissur – another Hindu-dominated district – and Ernakulam, where the educated have started moving towards the BJP. The RSS strategy is two-pronged – weaken the CPM by targeting its bastion of Kasargod and Kannur in the north, and occupy the second slot in the political hierarchy in the state by pushing out the Congress in central districts of Thrissur and Ernakulam and the south district of Thiruvananthapuram.
Just like BJP, RSS doesn’t have grassroots level workers in Tamil Nadu. They are active only in urban areas, mostly in Chennai and Coimbatore. Former chief minister Jayalalitha didn’t like the RSS and she even knocked on the doors of courts to successfully block their rallies in Tamil Nadu. She didn’t want some RSS workers to disturb the communal peace of TN, for which the state is known. After the death of Jayalalitha and formation of the new government, the RSS functionaries in Tamil Nadu openly admired the latter’s less stringent anti-communal policy. With Jayalalitha gone and Karunanidhi out of active politics, TN BJP is very ambitious. In future if BJP dominates TN politics then RSS will also see a rise there. But for the people of Tamil Nadu, language and culture are above any religion. Unless RSS and BJP understand this and solve the state problems, the people of Tamil Nadu – according to rough estimates, 80 per cent of them are Hindus--will never support them. The recent examples of Andal and Periyar controversy are fodder to the growth of RSS. But if RSS has to grow in TN, it has to shed its North Indian / Hindi / Sanskrit / Brahmanical image and create a new image of a socially relevant organisation. It has to focus on themes such as restoration of water bodies and recognise Tamil as the pride and identity of Tamilians. In its more than 90 year-old history, RSS tried to hold an annual meet for the first time in Tamil Nadu last year. But, it ended with a whimper with about 1,500 office- bearers from all the states taking part and public generally ignoring the mega event. However, N Sadagopan, RSS spokesperson for TN says RSS works above party politics and, “the BJP is just another wing of our organisation, which works in the political field with our inspiration”. “Of course, can’t deny the fact that the growth of RSS would automatically reflect positively in the vote bank of BJP,” he adds.
The RSS is slowly but steadily making inroads into Telangana with an addition of 700 more Shakas during the last one and half year. The BJP has focused on seven states in the country, where it feels that the party would has chances of performing well and Telangana is one of the key states. As part of this, Sangh had organised Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal (AKBM) meeting in Hyderabad last year. According to RSS functionaries, at present there are 2,302 Shakas at 1,495 places in Telangana. Apart from the regular Shakas, the Sangh carries out 370 Sapthahik (Weekly) Shakas. The Sangh now has over 1,000 active IT professionals in their network, including the IT managers, team leaders, who carry out IT Milans (meetings of IT professionals) frequently. The Sangh has been actively using the social networking sites to expand itself in the educated sections including youth and it has been fetching good results. RSS Telangana chief E Chandrashekar says: “We are in Telangana for the last 50 years with our various service programmes. We have presence in all the one, two and three tier towns in Telangana. We have 28 registered institutions including orphanages and child labour homes.” According to RSS chief in Andhra Pradesh, Ramakrishna, Sangh activities are most vibrant with its presence in 493 villages and with branches in more than 620. Weekly Shakas in both regions account in more than 1,200 villages. Ramakrishna says the Sangh is educating the masses with its own publications “Loka Hitam” and “Hindu Nagara” in Telugu, which reaches more than 14,000 villages in AP. RSS chief Mohan Bhagvat has been making frequent visits to the south these days to motivate the cadre and work with the single point agenda to bring BJP back to power at the centre.
But with strong regional satraps in south like Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrasekhar Rao, Stalin, Pinarayi Vijayan and of course Siddaramaiah, and with the emerging leaders like actors Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth, the task is going to be Herculean.