The sixty lakh member strong Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s organising and information dissemination capabilities are legendary. Sources have claimed they can organise a crowd in any corner of India within hours. A message originating in a Delhi troll farm is said to reach millions of phones in the country within a few score minutes. Add to this that the RSS helping during past calamities and you realise that the COVID19 crisis was tailor-made for them to show off.
What’s the point of being the ‘world's largest voluntary organization’ if you can’t organise food for desperate migrants or a few thousand oxygen cylinders for dying Indians? Yet, RSS – which will soon enter its centenary year – has largely been absent in the nation’s worst calamity in a century.
In the months of both April 2020 and April 2021, there was little time to wonder about this. But as the dust made by ashes from tens of thousands of daily pyres in the country settles, the nation is beginning to ask: where are the king's men when you need them?
The central and many state administrations seem largely absent on the ground and their place has been taken over by rag-tag citizens groups on social media and the ground looking for the nearest empty hospital beds, oxygen refill center, even a medicine shop with stocks of paracetamol.
These are mostly in cities. In rural areas – especially the rural north – the invisible forest fire of COVID villagers fearfully call ‘the fever’ is wiping out thousands every day. Wood to cremate has run out and bodies are found floating on sacred rivers. There’s no social media, no hospitals, no vaccines, and no means for a villager to procure an oxygen cylinder for a loved one.
Fear is rampant and these scary times could have been perfect for the BJP and RSS workers to emerge as heroes who plug the administrative holes. Ideological affiliations are for the healthy. The dying need survival no matter who gives it. With their strong network the Sangh Parivar – the umbrella term for Hindu nationalist organisations that include other than BJP and RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, ABVP etc. – could have reached the farthest corners of the country.
Instead, they have reduced their help into an international face-palm. BJP Surat General Secretary Kishor Bindal tweeted his video of feeding a COVID patient cow urine. An ABVP worker was seen removing a critical patient's oxygen mask to feed juice. They have organised gau-mutra drinking parties, bathed followers in cow dung and their followers are taking cow dung cakes abroad.
The Prime Minister and central government seem preoccupied with image management. The Indian high commission in Australia took the unprecedented step of criticising an Australian newspaper for denouncing PM Modi when the numbers were surging. And top government officials found time to attend a joint meeting on image management amidst rising numbers. The state of Uttar Pradesh is doing it better: filing FIRs on people asking for help on social media, confiscating oxygen cylinders from begging relatives. Delhi police – managed by the central government – said it is conducting an inquiry into ‘illegal distribution of medicines’ and summoned AAP MLA Dilip Pandey, BJP’s Gautam Gambhir, and Youth Congress’ B V Srinivas.
Seems like the rag-tag citizen’s army helping people in need when the administration has failed is the greatest internal security threat to an invisible, inept and impotent administration.
What has the RSS done in all this? Oh yes, one octogenarian RSS functionary is said to have given up his bed to a woman in Nagpur and the expert distributor of info that RSS is, this news reached all of India via social media before it reached actual media. The RSS’ claims have been questioned but even if we believe it to be true, is this the extent of the help that six million RSS members can provide the nation in the times of their greatest need?
After their members were involved in killing Mahatma Gandhi resulting in their ban by home minister Sardar Patel, the social stigma attached with this militant organisation became so bad that they remained mostly underground. They emerged from the shadows to fight the corruption and tyranny of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency after – ironically – Gandhian Jayprakash Narayan (JP) helped them out in 1974, something that has been called his greatest blunder.
Since then the RSS has branched out exponentially. It became the main force behind the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that felled the Babri Mosque. The violence that ensued claimed thousands of lives. Besides their known pogroms like in Gujarat 2002, they have also been named in others like the Sikh genocide in Delhi and the Nelli massacre of Assam in 1983.
Two groups in this nation did not salute its national flags: the Maoists living in the jungles of India who salute a black flag on Independence day and the RSS which for the first 52 years of the republic till 2002, never hoisted the Indian Tricolour at its Nagpur headquarters and instead celebrated their saffron flag.
However, the RSS has grown in strength in the new millennium and the last 10 years have doubled their membership growing at an “annual rate of 20-25%.” This made them perfectly poised to rise to the COVID second wave challenge vehemently predicted by scientists and experts. Officially since March 1 this year, 100,000 people have died but unofficial estimates of true numbers peg it anywhere between three times to ten times that number. Tens of millions of people have suffered from COVID and the health infrastructure in most parts has collapsed.
If there was ever a time for the Sangh Parivar to shine, to mobilise their ranks to help the country – this is it. In this moment of crisis: almost 50 years since JP helped them emerge from the shadows – they could have cemented their place in the hearts of the people without needing massive propaganda that they have relied on so far.
Knowing that RSS is communal and will only help its religious base, even if they had rescued only the Hindus of the nation, it would still have been a tremendous help as the rag-tag secularist of the nation would have tried their best to take care of the rest somehow.
With their tremendous message dissemination abilities, they could have found ways to spread information about handling this pandemic to the remotest corners of the nation.
Why didn’t they? Why are they back to their propaganda sans work? The answer lies in the oft used Hindi phrase: mulla ki daud masjid tak which means that one does only what one knows. The RSS is anti-science. They rightly claim that ancient Indians did maths, science, and medicine better than perhaps anyone else in that time but fail to promote it in the present so we could do the same right now.
They promote pseudo-science, fake cures, and quackery like gau-mutra and cow-dung. The health minister of the nation Harsha Vardhan who’s been an RSS member since childhood – in the middle of a pandemic – lied about and promoted a fake COVID cure Coronil only because it was made by a saffron wearing Yoga guru with a penchant for lying and fake news. The nation’s science ministry spent precious public money to find out the effects of Gayatri Mantra on COVID. The RSS pracharak PM of India lays the foundation for a grand temple instead of a hospital. And worst of all, they preponed Kumbh Mela that was to be held in 2022, and even fired Uttarakhand CM T S Rawat who opposed this.
Is it any surprise that though COVID has ravaged every state in India, except Delhi the states that have been the worst affected in the deadly second wave – have been those where BJP+RSS is strong – Gujarat, MP, UP, Uttarakhand, Bihar – each of which is suffering incalculable human loss way beyond the capacity of the system to even record?
Maharashtra – who the BJP/RSS mocked endlessly and helped miserly last year for their large COVID numbers, has surprisingly managed better this year. The first time CM of the state – Uddhav Thackeray – from a party ironically belonging to the same Sangh Parivar – has been wearing a much lighter shade of saffron since he rode to power on the shaky wheels of a coalition. That is perhaps the reason that despite a crushing first wave and vaccines running out, things are manageable in the state.
The problem with the RSS is that their members can only be roused to action on ideas of hatred, bigotry, and pseudoscience and not out of love, scientific temperament, and the spirit of genuine service. In normal times or even during lesser waves of COVID like last year where RSS claimed Muslims were doing ‘Corona Jihad’ - the devastating fallout can be masked by hatred. But when deaths overpower the system's capacity to even burn dead bodies, hatred fails to deliver because the single worst thing about the dead is that corpses don’t lie. The dead can often be more dangerous, than those who claim to be alive.
It remains to be seen what degree of its famed organising and info disseminating abilities the RSS employs to wash away the stench left behind by the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)