PUNE, INDIA – More than 150,000 Hindu hardliners, all dressed in khaki shorts, white shirts and black hats, put on a massive show of strength at an elaborate rally in western India on Sunday.
It was the largest ever gathering of the controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group seen as the ideological parent of Indian ruling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, officials said.
Devotees, all men, marched in unison with wooden staffs, chanted, sat in mass prayer and listened intently as RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat delivered a speech from a stage surrounded by walls designed to resemble a fort.
A marching band composed of 2,000 RSS volunteers also played while a giant saffron flag, the color most often associated with Hinduism, was hoisted on a post over 20 meters high at the rally site at Pune, in Maharashtra state.
The RSS styles itself as a cultural organization devoted to protecting India’s Hindu culture. But critics accuse it of being an anti-Muslim pseudo-fascist organization with a history of fueling religious tensions.
Analysts say its influence has never been greater following the election in May 2014 of Modi, a former RSS foot soldier. Attendees, who ranged in age from 15 to 102, were in bullish mood.
“People in the RSS look up to Modi as an example of what we can become. He gives our organization a great image,” Vinayak Deshpande, 32, said.
Another volunteer, who asked not to be named, said the RSS had witnessed a 20 percent increase in activists since Modi became prime minister.
“With Modi as prime minister the RSS is on the right track,” he said.
The RSS, formed in 1925, is India’s biggest grass-roots religious organization and is believed to have around 5 million activists, known as “Swayamsevaks.”
It is notoriously secretive — volunteers do not formally register as members and communications are often done verbally. Sunday’s event was rare for its size and for its open invitation to the media.
Shreerang Godbole, an RSS offficial, said it was the largest RSS camp ever held. Some 160,000 volunteers had registered to attend and practically all had turned up, organizers said.
The organization has been banned three times in post-independence India, including after a former member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 and following the 1992 demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya which led to deadly nationwide riots.
It favors a uniform civil code for India rather than personal laws for different religions, the protection of cows — which are sacred to Hindus — and the construction of a temple on the disputed Ayodhya site.
Modi helped the group out as a boy and as a young adult became a full-time volunteer for more than 15 years, taking the requisite vow of celibacy, before joining the BJP.
Thousands of RSS followers campaigned across India to help end 10 years of Congress rule and propel Modi to the prime ministership.
Almost two years into his term experts say the organization enjoys unprecedented political clout.
Writing in The Indian Express, Shyamlal Yadav, an expert on the RSS, said the organization “wields considerable power . . . sometimes dictating policies.”
Kumar Ketkar, a political analyst in Mumbai, agreed.
“Across the board RSS men are being appointed. For example, they have significant influence in the Human Resources Ministry, which includes education,” he said.
RSS advocates have welcomed a toughened beef ban in Maharashtra state since Modi came to power, but are likely to have been disappointed by his focus on economic growth and his failure to take a stance on Ayodhya.
The relationship has also been uneasy at times.
BJP leaders feel that controversial comments made by Bhagwat last year contributed toward a humiliating defeat for their party in elections in Bihar state.
And Ketkar said the RSS upper echelons are “extremely unhappy” that Modi has not consulted them on big decisions such as his surprise visit to Pakistan last month.
But under a BJP-led government the RSS has never been stronger. Its foot soldiers will be out in force to ensure a favorable result for Modi in Uttar Pradesh elections next year.