NEW DELHI, India, Jan.8, They wore uniform, carried long wooden staves, and were holding a military style parade complete with Swastika flags.
As they stood in line listening to a shouted appeal for militancy from their squadron leader, a Moslem prayer call from a nearby Mosque drifted over the ranks of uniformed men.
The Hindu squadron leader, Balasaheb Deoras of the National Volunteer Force (RSS), twitched angrily and fingered his baggy khaki shorts.
But the speaker, appropriately under the circumstances, eventually triumphed over the Moslem crier to deliver his message of a Hindu reawakening and opposition to radical Moslems.
The clash of voices was a reminder of a year of far bloodier religious battles across the dusty plains of North India which left hundreds dead and wounded.
It also symbolized the growing antagonism between fundamentalists of both religions and the tension between India’s 650 million Hindus and 100 million Moslems.
The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is the biggest of half a dozen groups leading what they call a Hindu revival in the face of growing Moslem assertiveness.
The squadron leader is one of eight thousand instructors the RSS claims train its two million active members.
Behind him on a sunny winter’s afternoon in Delhi stood 1,500 volunteers dressed in black boat shaped caps, white shirts and khaki shorts. They could be mistaken for overgrown boy scouts were it not for the five foot bamboo staves that each of them carried.
Shouting orders in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hindus no longer spoken in India, the leader brings the parade to attention.
As the band plays an old Sanskrit hymn the men, right hands laid across their chests, salute the saffron colored flag and string of Jasmine which is hoisted aloft.
Hindu leaders watch the drill from a platform draped in Marigolds and dotted with Swastika, the symbol of Hinduism’s Aryan origin.
Before the speeches the men recite mantras in unison and go through Yoga based exercises twirling their staves.
The movements came easily as the volunteers drill regularly at their local branches.
The squads, especially the marching band, don’t quite have the drill precision of professional soldiers. In fact, the lines of knobbly knees are distinctly ragged.
Yet the RSS is no joke. It is neither an army nor a political party but its influence is considerable.
Together with its intellectual sister group, the World Hindu Organization (Vishwa Hindu Parishaad or VHP), the RSS tries to push Hinduism in the center stage of Indian politics.
“We are strong”, RSS General Secretary H.B. Sheshadri told Reuters. “We eschew people who advocate violence or hatred to other communities for membership…… but we champion the cause of Hindus”.
The core of RSS ideology is Hindu Nationalism. RSS members worship “Mother India” and think of the country as Hindu— Stan — the land of the Hindus.
The RSS, founded in 1925, has had a controversial history especially since Pakistan was carved out of British India at Independent in 1947’as a home for Indian Moslems.
Government, community and Moslem leaders have accused it and the one million strong VHP of contributing to communal tension.
Briefly banned in 1948 after the assassination of Mahatama Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic, the RSS now claims five million members, two million of them active.
The volunteers receive religious instruction and learn the ancient Indian martial art of Niykudh. They are not armed but carry staves on parade,
“The stick drill is there as an aid to character building”, Sheshadri said. “We are not fascists”.
Besides exercising, the volunteers do social work and help with disaster relief. The RSS says it is progressive and opposes one of the persisting horrors of Hinduism — caste segregation.
“We all eat together irrespective of our caste”, said volunteer Raj Kumar, an unemployed youth. He’ said he liked the discipline and self-respect the RSS had taught him.
He said he was not anti-Moslem but believed Moslems should not get special rights in a Hindu nation.
“The Moslems are always wanting more”, he said.
Militant Hindus are irked by what they see as concessions to Moslems regarding personal law in a nominally secular state.
They also want three famous temples converted into mosques by India’s 16th century Mogul conquerors returned to Hindu control, Moslem leaders have opposed. the return and used the emotive issue as the most potent Moslem rallying cry in 40 years.
Sheshadri blames Moslem activities for the Hindu Moslem violence which has erupted in many north Indian towns in the past year.
“Nowhere have Hindus started riots in India….We have no interest in starting riots in our own community”.
Moslem leaders deny that their campaign for Moslem rights has sparked violence, and they resent the Hindu allusions to “our country”.
Many of those Moslems who did not leave for Pakistan in 1947 complain of being second class Citizens but they profess loyalty to a secular India. Moslem leaders like opposition Leader of Parliament Syed Shahabuddin blame assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son and successor Rajiv of stoking, communal passions and encouraging militant Hindu groups by wooing crucial Hindu votes.
“A Moslem in India today nurses a sense of insecurity, physical, cultural and economic,” Shaha
buddin told Reuters.
VHP General Secretary Ashok Singhal agrees that Gandhi’s ruling Congress (I) Party has departed from its secular roots and gone after the Hindu vote.
“If Congress is to remain in power then they have to align themselves with Hindus”, he told
Congress members reject the charge of communalism although they admit that they cannot ignore the Hindu resurgence.
The men in brown shorts and their fellow militants sense this and are not content just to march and twirl sticks but are carrying their warning that Hinduism is in danger further and further afield.