India

Battling for India’s soul, state by state

Battling for India’s soul, state by state
RSS volunteers at a training session in West Bengal. The group wants minority Muslims and Christians to accept that India is a nation of Hindus, and is pushing some of them to convert. Photo: Reuters
The secular, multi-faith vision of the nation since independence faces challenges
Published: 4:15 AM, October 14, 2015
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KOLKATA — An ascendant Hindu nationalist group wants minority Muslims and Christians to accept that India is a nation of Hindus, and is pushing some of them to convert.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) provided the foot soldiers in last year’s landslide general election victory by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who joined the movement in his youth. The group’s strategy: To spread its Hindu-first ideology to all corners of India by propelling Mr Modi’s ruling party to power in as many states as possible.

An election in the volatile state of West Bengal has become a prime target in its game plan.

Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in the minority in the upper house, wants to govern 20 of India’s 31 regional legislative assemblies over the next four years, top party sources said. It currently controls or shares power in 11.

“We would want the BJP to win all the state elections because only then can significant social, political and cultural changes take place in this country,” Mr Dattatreya Hosabale, joint general secretary of the RSS, told Reuters.

Once scorned as a right-wing fringe group, the RSS is the ideological parent of the BJP. The Modi government has appointed RSS sympathisers to prominent positions in recent months.

This includes the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India, the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, and a board member of the Securities and Exchange Board of India.

Most of the ministers in the federal Cabinet had their political consciousness shaped by the RSS and its affiliates. Mr Modi spent his formative years as a full-time volunteer in the group, which he credits for his work ethic, discipline and success.

BJP president Amit Shah and seven members of Mr Modi’s Cabinet also joined the RSS in their youth. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who was once an RSS official and went on to lead the BJP, is now pushing for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter.

The government has also taken up other issues dear to the RSS, such as the search for the lost Saraswati River. Government archaeologists have been ordered to search for the river, mentioned in ancient Hindu texts. RSS members believe proof of its existence would bolster the group’s narrative of a Hindu-dominated golden age in India prior to invasions by Muslims and Christians.

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