Saturday, June 3, 2023

RSS, World’s Largest NGO

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Talk about having double standards. While this sector has been under intense scrutiny from the NDA government, how many know that the largest NGO is the RSS itself? Is there a conscious effort going on to create space for RSS-inspired voluntary activism? 

By Bhavdeep Kang

Governments and political parties are typically uncomfortable with voluntary agencies, except the ones they control. In this respect, the NDA is in a peculiar position. The imm-ense banyan that is the RSS, “the world’s largest NGO”, has some 1.38 lakh offshoots. The BJP, its most thriving branch, is thus intimately linked with a large and complex web of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from which it draws human resources.

There include the Ekal Vidyalayas (single-teacher schools) in villages, some 25,000 of them; the Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, 17,000 and counting; hostels for students; coaching institutes for civil service aspirants; think tanks under the collective banner of Pragya Pravah; research institutions; hospitals; gaushalas—literally thousands of organizations working in the fields of education, agriculture, healthcare (including leprosy missions—move over, Missionaries of Charity!), tribal welfare; rural development and information technology. There are profession-wise organizations—for lawyers, teachers, professors, journalists, scientists and IT geeks. You name it, they have it.


They have never had a say in public policy, in the institutionalized manner that NGOs did during UPA-I, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi constituted the National Advisory Council (NAC). While Indira Gandhi was suspicious of NGOs—she targeted Gandhian organizations which had aligned with Jaiprakash Narayan through the Kudal Commission— her daughter-in-law appeared to embrace them. And her grandson, Rahul Gandhi, grants NGOs more access and bandwidth than he does his own party colleagues. 

“They (Sonia and Rahul) have a deep distrust of politicians, their own party included. They prefer to rely on non-political players—academics, intellectuals, social workers,” explains a senior Congress leader.

BJP vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, however, feels that the NAC was set up less as a brains trust than a special purpose vehicle to give Sonia Gandhi an official position. “Beyond that, I don’t think it had a lofty goal to participate in policy-making. If that had been the case, they would have ensured all kinds of voluntary organizations found a place in NAC or were at least heard. But as in other areas like academics or intellectual activism or even sections of the media, the voluntary sector was a victim of ideological bias. The contribution of people from the Sangh ideology was never officially recognized. That untouchability continued under the NAC. As for this government, it does not recognize or require any extra-constitutional power centre like the NAC,” says Sahasra-buddhe.

The RSS blames the liberals for ignoring the work done by its NGOs and fostering intellectual untouchability.

The NGO sector has been left-liberal by definition, as have civil society movements. Thus, the intimate association of the RSS with Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement deeply offended Arvind Kejriwal & Co, eventually leading to a parting of ways. While the political affiliation of civil society movements or NGOs with the Congress is not always obvious, the ideological concurrence is. Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, for instance, admitted to receiving funds from the Congress and Left to target the BJP.

RSS worker during landslid at an unknown site jpeg

 RSS workers clearing a mound following a landslide

The Congress may have used social acti-vists on occasions but has been deeply suspicious of the voluntary sector. As chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh said he wanted all NGO grants routed through the state government and foreign funding of NGOs probed by the state Economic Offen-ces Wing. More recently, UPA Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly lashed out at NGOs, ordered an investigation into this sector and cancelled Foreign Contri-bution Regulation Act (FCRA) licenses of over 1,000 organizations. Furious with Greenpeace, he denied it the right to invite a Fukushima survivor to visit Kudankulam. The NDA has only picked up where the UPA left off, cancelling another 9,000 licences and disallowing a Greenpeace activist from visiting the UK to give a presentation. And now, Samit Aich, Greenpeace India’s executive director, has made it public that the organization, faced with funds squeeze, might close down. .


The Left has always feared foreign funding of voluntary agencies, as not just a means to acquire policy clout but to promote political activism. Back in 1984, CPI (M) leader Prakash Karat (whose three-year tenure as general secretary recently came to an end) observed that “the utilisation of this network of (voluntary) agencies has become a new factor in imperialist strategy…to penetrate the Indian society and influence its course of development”. The strategy, he said, went beyond the traditional charity or aid app-roach to active interventions in development.

In its first phase, the strategy focussed on grassroots developmental work and penetration. In the second, an ideological basis for “intervention” among the people was formulated, with the voluntary agencies “taking to politics if necessary”. This was the “people’s movement” phase, with these agencies emer-ging as activists. So funding came with an ideological package, falling into one of two categories: the secular theorists and the Christian ideologues. Both took a radical or leftist posture. 

Darren Walker President  ford foundation  with local women in the village of Teliya. ?We don't know the strength we have in ourselves,? one of them told me. But they are finding it every day.

Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President, with villagers

The Ford Foundation, currently facing the heat, is a case in point. It set up shop in India in 1952 at the specific invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. But scho-lars have documented its association with US government agencies, particularly the CIA. One of them describes it as a “conscious instrument of US covert operations, with directors and officers who were connected to, or even members of, American intelligence”. Its clout over India’s economic policies in the 1950s and 60s is also well-established. Best known for having launched the Intensive Agricultural Development Program in 1961, it paved the way for massive imports of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, and farm machinery, to the obvious benefit of US-based multinationals.

Since the 1970s, according to the World Social Forum, it has systematically and selectively promoted NGO activism in India. The net was spread wide. Delhi minister Manish Sisodia’s NGO, Kabir, received a $1,97,000 grant in 2007, while Setalvad’s Sabrang Trust received $2,50,000 in 2008. The Foun-dation’s activities—the source and destination of funds—were never questioned. But now, the government has barred the organization from disbursing funds to local organizations without its approval. The US has reacted with predictable indignation against the reining in of its pet agency.

Thus, scrutiny of foreign donors is nothing new—philanthropy being a time-honoured means of pushing agendas (the infamous Project Brahmaputra in Assam, for instance). The trouble is that NGOs say the extent of inquiry has paralyzed their functioning. It is on a scale that has never been seen before. Documents dating back to the early 1990s are being sought and conformity with stated objectives being examined with microscopic intensity. An entire department under the Ministry of Home Affairs has been dedicated to the job of auditing NGOs.

Kavita Srivastava, an RTI activist from Rajasthan, believes transparency in funding and accounting is essential, but admits that drowning organizations in paperwork and insisting on a priori FCRA approvals for organizations like Greenpeace is not the way to go. Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, for instance, found himself being cross-examined because of a tenuous association with Greenpeace.


Much has been made of RSS receipt of foreign funding. Sarkaryavaha Suresh “Bhaiyyaji” Joshi, the RSS No 2, declared in 2014 that RSS-inspired organizations preferably relied on community funding for their activities, NRIs not excluded. The late Jan Sangh doyen, Nanaji Deshmukh, who spurned politics to set up one of the largest NGOs in India—the Deendayal Research Institute in Chitrakut—abhorred foreign funding. “He believed foreign money came with a foreign agenda,” says board member Atul Jain. “Also, he felt India could generate enough resources to finance non-governmental development initiatives. He was alright with accepting donations from individual NRIs or UN bodies, but not other agencies”. In any event, while funding to directly affiliated organizations is quantifiable, that to RSS-inspired agencies is not.

While Indira Gandhi was suspicious of NGOs, Sonia seemed to embrace them and Rahul grants them more access than to his own partymen.

RSS organizations have typically worked below the radar, their activities largely unreported and even underappreciated. Is all that about to change? Is the RSS set to capture the NGO-verse, permeate the vast gaps left by government and colonize civil society movements? Other than reining in the foreign hand, is there an effort to create space for RSS-inspired voluntary activism? Or does the extent and nature of this network negate the need for such an exercise?

national advisory council new


Sonia Gandhi with members of the National Advisory Council, largely comprising NGOs agreeing with Congress policies


RSS agencies, which may be either RSS-owned or RSS-inspired, fall into three tiers: those directly funded by the Sangh or its known affiliates (paper link), those to whom a full-time worker has been deputed (organic link) and those which have no perceptible link with the mother organization.

nana Ji deshmukh-3

 Jansangh doyen Late Nanaji Deshmukh, who criticized foreign funding, started his own NGO in Chitrakut

The first tier organizations are marked by the vehpatra—presentation of a statement of accounts. The second, by the presence of a pracharak (perhaps 2,700 of whom are involved in activities other than the direct working of the RSS) deputed to the concerned agency. Tier-1 and 2 organizations attend the annual RSS pratinidhi sabha and present their reports. The third tier organizations may be self-funded or receive funding through RSS sympathisers and are neither invited nor required to present reports. However, their personnel may be asked to attend meetings of RSS frontal organizations in their personal capacity. To elucidate further, if a former RSS pracharak or full-time worker sets up shop, funding may be organized by calling on businessmen associated with the RSS to ante up. The links are thus organic and unquantifiable and the grassroots reach is tremendous. RSS workers are typically the first to turn out in times of disaster, be it earthquakes or tsunamis.


Given the reach and scope of RSS organizations, it seems silly to characterize the NDA as anti-NGO. Having said that, Sahasra-bhudde observes: “Certain NGOs consider themselves as holier-than-thou, which goes against the grain of voluntarism. Just as politics suffers from a lack of motivation and parties have become election machines, voluntary organizations too have become social work machines. 

Professionalism has become commercialism. The tantra—the mechanism of getting grants and gaining access to certain social circles—has become more important than the mantra for many. But this does not figure in the contemporary discourse on the voluntary sector.”

Also, he says, the NGO sector is thoro-ughly politicized. For all their liberalism, international agencies and NGOs promote ideological untouchability. Otherwise, why would organizations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) never merit a study, much less awards like the Magsaysay? And if the NDA government was biased in favor of Sangh organizations, why did no member of the VKA or Sewa Bharti figure in the national awards list either during its previous tenure or now?


The other aspect in the disciplining of the NGO sector (other than the probe into foreign-funding or the effort to displace the centre-left) is the anti-feminist narrative being built up around it. The urban, educated, wealthy, internationally well-connected woman who takes up social activism has become something of a cartoon figure in Parivar circles. Given that most social interventions are best targeted at and delivered through women, the fact that leaders of social movements are educated women—Medha Patkar, Kavitha Kuruganthi, Suman Sahai, Vandana Shiva, Chitrarupa Palit, Aruna Roy and others—is inevitable.

The doggedly patriarchal RSS, which does not accommodate women within its ranks, appears uncomfortable dealing with them outside a domestic milieu. The stated mission is the transformation of society through education and character-building. The ideal man or virat purush, imbued with the four purushartha (aims), is a patriot ready to fuse his identity with the nation. Women are typically domestic goddesses and mothers of patriots, ghettoized into organizations such as the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, with a few politically empowered exceptions and token presence in the Sangh’s pratinidhi sabha. Thus, the prospect of English-speaking, education-empowered women seeking to inspire their less fortunate rural sisters does not fit in with the patriarchal world-view.

Sahasrabuddhe, of course, denies anti-feminist bias and touts instead a “home-grown feminism based on compatibility rather than competitiveness”. He acknowledges, however, that with women taking over male bastions, the traditional patterns have to change. That’s happening even as we speak, he says, as we see in TV ads that show men in nurturing roles traditionally reserved for women. “The training syllabus of the BJP has a session on gender, where we explain that the key to gender equality lies in changing the mindset of the traditional male,” he says. Back in 1995, RSS think tanks suggested a reserve quota for men in municipal-level women and child development committees, he points out, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come out strongly agai-nst the practice of “sarpanchpatis”. 

Nisha Susan, the brain behind the “Pink Panties” campaign against the Sri Ram Sene, speculates that the right-wing is uncomfortable with the uppity feminisation of politics. But she adds that men on the Left are consolidating even more. “So you are allowed less to critique men ‘on your side’, supposedly bec-ause the war is on and it’s time for ladies to shut up. It’s a bit like The Shock Doctrine (Naomi Klein’s thesis on disaster capitalism) but applied to gender. Of course, everywhere in the world, from the US civil rights movement to trade unions in Maharashtra, this has always been the case. The men like to say: this is war and we will deal with your little issues later. Why should the Left or the Right be different on this front,” she asks. 

ABVP activist Rashmi Das sees it differently. “In India, the problem for women largely is existential—it has to do with securing the right to life and liberty. Women need a dose of ‘manliness’, similar to purushartha and Virat Purush. I do not know why this virtue of courage and wisdom gets identified with the empowered male—liberated women also fall into that trap. Virat Purush, according to me, means a mighty being—whoever said that it had to be a man?”


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