Hindu 'stormtroopers' fuel religious revival: India's secular constitution is under attack from zealots eager to entrench the power of the majority at the expense of Muslims and other minorities, writes Tim McGirk from New Delhi

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Shortly after dawn, in thousands of villages and towns across India, youths wearing khaki shorts and carrying bamboo clubs file out to an empty playground. After hoisting the saffron banner of Hinduism, they begin a drill of militaristic exercises ending with the chant: 'A Hindu society is an invincible society.'

Many of these Hindu militants - members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - will converge on New Delhi for an anti-government rally on Thursday. Despite a ban on the rally, and police searches of buses and trains, more than 100,000 RSS volunteers are thought to have infiltrated the capital already. They are joined by what one newspaper calls 'the stormtroopers' of the Bajrang Dal, an extremist group named after the monkey-god of Hindu mythology whose army of forest creatures helped Lord Ram rescue his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the evil kingdom of Lanka.

The violent nature of the Bajrang Dal surfaced in Ayodhya last December when its troops pulverised an ancient mosque, setting off a wave of religious strife that engulfed much of India. The prospect of confronting these militants has alarmed Delhi's police and its Muslims. An RSS leader, Rajender Singh, warned: 'The government never should have banned the rally. We could have made sure that it was disciplined, peaceful. But now our people feel so much anger and frustration. Who knows what will happen?'

India stands on the edge of what some regard as a Hindu renaissance but others see as a Hindu revolution trying to force political and social changes, by-passing parliament and the judiciary. Revivalists claim that Indian society is a mess. Government is corrupt and inept, they say. Muslims want a separate state in Kashmir, as do the Sikhs in Punjab and the tribes in the north-eastern forests. They urge the Hindu majority to assert itself. Their slogans speak of purity, discipline, sacrifice and of mounting anger.

Some intellectuals see a sinister side to this Hindu revivalism. They claim that the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - the largest parliamentary opposition group - is a front for more extremist Hindu forces who want to establish a totalitarian regime and impose an ethnic uniformity on India.

The rise in Hindu militancy began after the RSS began giving martial training to volunteers - mainly young urban upper-caste Brahmins - after the 1923 Muslim riots in Nagpur. Self-defence with swords, lances and clubs was taught along with tales of great Hindu warriors. One RSS founder, M S Golwalkar, made no secret of his admiration for Hitler.

Initially, the Hindu identity was defined as anti-Muslim. The RSS opened schools, charities and, when Partition came, organised relief for Hindus fleeing from Pakistan. Today, the RSS sponsors more than 6,000 schools and 26,000 clubs. Boys who started as RSS scouts are now doctors, lawyers, military officers, senior policemen and politicians. In recent riots, police often sided with the Hindu mobs against the Muslims. And a government ban on the RSS was ignored by many police who brazenly sympathised with the Hindu militants.

Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister, was once an RSS volunteer and all three leaders of the BJP - Lal Krishna Advani, Atal Vajpayee and Murli Joshi - were groomed by the RSS for politics. The BJP's political success has depended on the RSS network. Its 5 million militants canvassed voters and organised rallies. The BJP's fortunes soared from having only two MPs in 1984 to becoming the main opposition party.

The RSS in 1964 began organising a group of holy men, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Hinduism has a multitude of gods and forms of devotion. It has no single holy book, yet the VHP has been trying to impose a structure on Hinduism. Professor Romila Thapar, a prominent historian, said: 'It's totally new to Hinduism. Nobody before has ever tried to define what is true and what is not.'

The holy men are more zealous than the BJP and the RSS. At a recent gathering, they declared India's democratic constitution to be anti-Hindu and said that Bangladesh and Pakistan should be considered enemy states. One VHP member said that a new constitution should be drawn up, establishing the priestly Brahmin caste's supremacy over all Hindus.

'Many rivers, one ocean,' is the answer one Hindu militant gave when asked about the relationship between the RSS, the BJP and the VHP. But insiders said the RSS remained the core organisation and that neither the BJP's leaders nor the VHP move without consulting it. One BJP official said privately that the party's leaders feared they might be losing control to the more extremist sadhus, or holy men. 'The destruction of the Ayodhya mosque and the riots afterwards in Bombay gave some BJP leaders serious doubts. They were no longer sure they could rein in the forces of Hinduism.'