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

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.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...