After being at the helm of many relief efforts aiding people affected by natural disasters and running social service programs under different flagship organizations, a which made it to the front page of the Indian national daily “The Telegraph” illustrates how effective and extensive Sangh Parivar has been in India. The report may become center of discussion and argument amongst the national parties as well as other politically affiliated bodies like trade unions and student bodies.
Sangh Parivar (Family of Associations) refers to an umbrella of organizations that have been started by the volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or are inspired by its ideals. The ideology of the Sangh Parivar has been seen to have a diverse set of thoughts and opinions that has made it difficult to be categorized by the Western stereotypic divisions of ‘Leftists’ and ‘Rightists’. While some of their policies are seen as ‘Conservative’ and ‘Rightist’, on a range of different issues, they have shared similar concerns as Leftists, Liberals and the Green activists.
Sangh Parivar organizations claim that being away from power and politics has proved to be an advantage, and that the national party inspired by Sangh ideology; the Bhartiya Janta Party’s departure from the power at Centre and loss of ground in some state strongholds has actually helped Sangh. Today the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) (Indian Labor Association), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) (All India Students Council), the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) (Indian Farmers Association) and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (A tribal welfare organization of Sangh) have high enrollments and attract sizeable volunteers.
The BMS, India’s largest trade union alone has over 10 million members. Just to compare the scale of popularity and reach of BMS the last official count by the labor ministry in 2002 had put the BMS membership had 6.2 million members while the Indian National Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) had 3.8 million and the Communist Party of India’s (AITUC) had 3.3million members.
Though both the BMS and INTUC now claim the membership to be about 10 million each, when prodded about the reasons for the leap, INTUC President and Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) member G. Sanjeeva Reddy sounded cautious and said: “A Congress government at the Centre has certainly helped us make inroads into the organised and unorganised sectors.”
On the other hand BMS chief Girish Awasthi had a different viewpoint. He felt that the “government affinity” and affiliation was a hindrance rather than being of any help.
“Trade unions virtually don’t exist in the private sector. We draw our strength and sustenance from the public sector. So each time there’s a major divestment project and we raise our voice, the PSU employees rally round us,” Awasthi said.
“Because the BMS is not attached to a political party but to a service organisation like the RSS, we are not encumbered by compulsions to back a party’s agenda.”
The leaders of some other RSS front outfits too cited their “autonomy” from the BJP as the main reason for their survival and growth.
Similarly the BKS which started in 1979 with a mere 1500 members is today a body representing 900,000 members. Though the Sangh Parivar has supported the BJP due to its pro-Sangh ideology, the BKS was vocal about the seemingly anti-farmer decision of the BJP led Gujrat government’s decision to hike power tariff. So much so that after the arrest of farmers who could not pay up the dues and some BKS activists for protests the Sangh went into a sulk and in the impending elections people felt that the farmer led revolt by the Sangh could topple the BJP govt. BKS and Sangh in line with their policy to remain “neutral” in politics, didn’t work against the govt. either.
Dinesh Dattatreya Kulkarni, organising secretary of the farmers’ union, said: “Our only competitor used to be the Shetkari Sangathan of Sharad Joshi. But he too converted it into a political party, the Swatantra Bharat Paksha. Not being in politics gives a core of integrity to our work because we are not forced to make compromises or deals, or to defend the indefensible.”
Similarly the ABVP, which is the student arm of the Sangh, is convinced that “political neutrality” is the way to success. ABVP claims membership of around 1.9 million (the Congress-backed NSUI did not reveal its figures saying its elections were on). The fact that ABVP has largest membership in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh where the BJP is almost non-existent amazes some people and disproves the claim of some organizations that Sangh Organizations don’t have widespread acceptability.
“Students are attracted to us because we work beyond the campus for the betterment of society. Our biggest slogan is against the commercialisation of education and that affects one and all,” said Ravi Kumar, ABVP national secretary.
The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram is an organization which has been working in Naxal-infested tribal areas for betterment of the tribal masses. It runs programs like schools in tribal areas and projects for socio-economic upliftment of tribal masses. It runs projects like the Ekal Vidyalaya (single teacher schools) which is like any other Sangh run project based completely on the concept of volunteer service. These schools are run in some of the most inaccessible areas where even govt. runs schools don’t exist. The Joint Secretary of the organization, Kripa Prasad Singh, is also of the view that an “apolitical” outlook was the best way of ensuring that state governments did not stand in the organization’s way. Vanvaski kalian Ashram today runs more than 14,000 seva (service) projects throughout India.
“Congress governments have never harassed us because they appreciate the services we render to the tribals,” Singh said.
“Even the CPM government in Tripura has been friendly. But not the (West) Bengal government — they deprive the tribals who use our schools and hostels of the monthly stipend they are entitled to.”
Tribal students in India are entitled to various scholarships under central and state led programs.
Seva Bharati is another Sangh affiliated body which has been rendering humanitarian services. In the recent floods that killed hundreds and affected millions of people Seva Bharati volunteers pitched in their services.
The volunteers of Seva Bharati today are involved in more than one lakh service projects in remote areas of the country. Seva Bharati runs 13,786 projects in education, 10,908 in health care, 17,560 in social welfare and 7,452 self-reliance projects. These projects, serving the economically weaker and socially neglected sections of the society range from medical assistance, crèche, library, hostel, basic education, adult education, vocational and industrial training, upliftment of street children and the lepers.
Sangh Parivar organizations have been at the center of many blame games by many national parties and organizations of running activities that help only Hindus. Charges of religious hatred have also been leveled against the Sangh but the fact remains that none of such charges has ever been proved in any enquiry by national or international bodies. Further the rescue missions in the face of natural disasters help people across the board irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. The growing popularity and reach of Sangh also defies such claims leveled against it.