Deep inside the saffron lair in Bengal: What the RSS is up to in the eastern state
A novelist and playwright infiltrates into the RSS to gain insight for his upcoming ‘novel’ and provides an account of his time spent in the Sangh
It was the summer of 2016. I was part of a play in which a minister said to his PA that Lord Ganesha’s was the world’s first successful head transplant. The Qutb Minar, another part of the script, had the minister say, was actually a Vishnu Stambh. It left the audience in splits. But soon thereafter, I stumbled upon an article which claimed that they were actually parts of textbooks taught in RSS schools. I felt I could use this material in a novel I was plotting at that time. I needed to speak to teachers and students in these schools.
But then RSS schools, I discovered, did not allow outsiders on their campus. Infiltrating the Sangh seemed the only way out for conversing with the teachers. Thankfully, the RSS was desperately trying to establish itself in Bengal and was looking for converts.
I submitted an online application and received an automated reply with the number of an RSS member. The next day, I was subjected to an extensive telephonic interview. Several other phone calls followed from different people. They did not appear to have bought my story that I was a playwright. And they were all wary as to whether I was a journalist. I was eventually advised to attend the daily RSS shakha in a locality of my choice.
I had, of course, taken precautions. The name I gave on the form was of Saibal Majumdar. If they had searched for Saibal Dasgupta (I write my name with an ‘o’), it would have led them to my namesake, a journalist with The Times of India. Saibal Majumdar was already 100 per cent Google-proof and I was reasonably certain that my fake identity would hold.
At the shakha at Chinar Park, we would sing songs and salute a somewhat soiled saffron flag that I reckoned had not been washed for a year or two. We would also perform light exercises. We discussed neither religion nor much of politics. The routine was fixed and the lectures dwelt on how the RSS helps a man develop through discipline and the need for us to serve the nation.
At the end of the session, however, we would be engaged in animated conversations involving glorification of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unofficially, we would also be handed out video clips of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat pontificating on Hindu culture, patriotism and nationalism.
I must confess I developed a liking for the Sangh during those initial days. This was the period when I devoted much of my time in reading Hindu right wing literature. As days passed, I gradually wormed my way into the inner circle of the RSS in Bengal. I was no longer an outsider but a part of the RSS.
What was disconcerting was to find the utter contempt many of them had for Bengal and Bengalis. For them, all Bengali-speaking people were Bangladeshis, who were conspiring to stop the Sangh’s juggernaut. I once overheard even as young a member as Ashutosh Jha, a first-year law student in a better-known law college, being harangued by one Mayank Jain, a Bhopal resident, to beat up 50 Bangladeshis or leave the Sangh.
Others would openly ask members to collect arms to take on Muslims and the state police.
I was lucky to enter the good books of some senior Sangh members. From Prashant Bhatt to Dr Vijay P Bhatkar, almost every senior Sangh intellectual known to me, admired my existing works on Hinduism.
I must also confess that I was tempted to exploit the Sangh for my own interest. I am a struggling writer with uncertain means. The thought did cross my mind that I could make a killing by simply writing books and use the Sangh to sell them. A large number of people seemed willing to buy books written by anyone associated with the RSS.
But then, there are some principles such as humanity which cannot be put up on sale. I now have recorded conversations and statements of leaders of the RSS. But my intention is just to use the material in the novel that I am writing. Tentatively titled “Unfettered”, the novel is expected to be ready by the end of this year.
WORLD AYURVEDA CONGRESS (WAC) 2016
The turning point was when I volunteered to assist organisers hosting the World Ayurveda Congress in 2016 in Kolkata. Those five days were an eye-opener.
The day before it started, I was taken to the National Research Institute of Ayurvedic Drug Development (NRIADD) in Salt Lake. The friend from the RSS who escorted me boasted that the Director had been told in no uncertain terms to take orders from Vijnana Bharati. “Our party is ruling at the Centre,” he chuckled with satisfaction, adding that the institute had been forced to allot a room to the RSS-affiliate within the campus. A room, I found, was indeed occupied by Vijnana Bharati in the administrative block.
We then travelled to Science City, where preparations were on. I was introduced to Anand Pandey, a senior RSS member, whose apparent claim to fame was that he survived only on milk products. I tried to look suitably impressed, even bewildered and asked in wonder how he endured the routine. Pandey, however, appeared to be a nice person who said he believed in equality of all. He also seemed to have an open mind.
In any case, there was a serious shortage of English speakers and Dr Arka Jana of NASYA invited me to join his group tasked with taking care of international delegates. My English was fluent but I was dressed informally. A lady identified as Puja Sabarwal sternly asked us to wear formal clothes and left the decision of wearing a tie to us.
One of the men joked that the weather of Kolkata was not conducive for formal clothes. When Dr Jana suggested traditional Bengali wear, we were ridiculed further. “What traditional,” said the official, adding “are you going to receive international delegates in your flip-flops?” The men laughed and pointed out that Bengalis everywhere moved in slippers. “From top to bottom, everyone here roams around in slippers,” he said.
I was reminded of Rohith Vemula. The men had reduced me in no time to my immediate Bengali identity. We, the Bengalis in the group, stood in silence with a sickly smile on our faces as Bengalis continued to be insulted for our looks, dress, habits. This was happening in front of at least five senior Bengali Sangh members.
During the event, I also met Devesh Pandey, one of the very few young members who were granted the privilege of meeting Mohan Bhagwat on a one-to-one basis, I was told.
He explained to me why a person can either be a Bengali or a Hindu. “Bengali culture isn’t culture anymore: it’s a deformity,” he said, adding “only 10 per cent of the Bengali Hindus are actual Hindus.”
There is indeed a general belief among BJP and RSS members, including the Bengali ones, that Bengali Hindus are inferior to Hindi-speaking Hindus. This was problematic but as I spent more time in the Sangh, I understood that Bengalis in BJP had only one option in the guise of two to choose from— either accept the superiority of the Hindi speakers or accept the inferiority of the Bengalis. To quote Ramesh Rai, senior BJP functionary and brother of Umesh Rai, vice president of Bengal State BJYM, Hindi-speaking people have an upper hand in BJP in West Bengal.
Bengalis were barred from taking up any responsibility, as stated by two of the organisers. Many stalls remained unoccupied throughout the event but the invited poor village practitioners, of whom most were from the oppressed communities, were made to sit on the ground while some right wing organisations, unrelated to Ayurveda, occupied the stalls. The discrimination was quite brazen.
INVITATION TO IT MILAN
After WAC 2016 was over, I resumed attending the shakha. Soon, I received an invitation to join IT Milan at Keshtopur. It is a weekly meeting, I was told, but it isn’t open to the general public. Unlike shakhas, it takes place inside a house and it isn’t publicly talked about. This meeting is meant for serious discussions about propaganda, future plans and brainwashing at a higher level.
I found Prashant Bhatt, in-charge of RSS in Kolkata, waiting for me. We chatted amiably even as Bhatt denied any diversity in society. We discussed religion and nationalism for half an hour when we were called into another room where preparations for Mohan Bhagwat’s visit was going on. We had drills that were part of the event to be organised in his presence. Later, under Prashant Bhatt’s guidance, we learnt a Bengali song. The song was beautifully composed and Bhatt had a beautiful voice too. These songs were meant to prove the support of Bengalis for the RSS although a majority of members were non-Bengalis.
As the preparations ended, Baudhik or intellectual preaching started under Bipin Pathak (a.k.a Bipin Bihari), a self-claimed intellectual and an IT sector employee. I recognised him immediately but thankfully, he did not recognise me. I was part of a group which had an altercation with him at the Calcutta Book Fair where we were protesting Vemula’s suicide in January 2016.
He met me cordially enough and when he learnt that I was a playwright, he immediately asked me to write a script in which Muslims were depicted as the ‘Other’. He suggested I develop a plot in which a child grew up to find that while he was adopted by a loving foster mother, his real mother was a witch, obviously belonging to the minority community. The discussion was conducted freely in front of other members of the Sangh including Prashant Bhatt.
He had everything ready, he confided. A YouTube channel, actors, viewers and people who would share it on different platforms. All he needed was a script.
“The plot is wonderful,” I exclaimed, adding “We must meet up someday and work on this.” He readily agreed and a meeting was fixed for the next week at Sector 5, Salt Lake. As the meet concluded, others left but I stayed back. I met Prashant Bhatt privately and we exchanged our numbers.
Bhatt was invited by a fellow Sangh member for dinner but he didn’t seem happy with it since the host was a South Indian. Our day ended with Bhatt’s retarded Sardarji and South Indian jokes that I did not find funny. But he laughed uproariously at the assumed stupidity of these two communities.
A week later, as planned, I met Bipin Bihari at Sector 5, Salt Lake. We sat for two hours and discussed the plot, or more precisely, his attitude towards the Muslims. He seemed upset over Muslims for not saying “Vande Mataram”. He wanted me to include in the script an elder brother (Hindu) ending his relations with his adopted brother (Muslim) because the latter refused to call their mother ‘Ma’.
His rant against Muslims continued and he stressed why exactly a film had to be made for the Hindu cause. He asked me to also include dialogues highlighting the ignorance among Bengali Hindus about Hinduism.
GETTING INTERNAL INFORMATION
I was asked to follow Swami Apoorvananda of Ramakrishna Ashram. One of the most respected monks in Sangh circles, I discovered he was known as Atmananda Avadhoot Babaji in Vadodara (Gujarat). I was surprised, however, by his overt casteist and communal rant. But it seemed to fit into a pattern.
RSS and the BJP have used the name of Ramakrishna Mission for the past several years. A fake profile of Swami Prabhanandaji, vice-president of Ramakrishna Mission, even exhorts people to support the Bharatiya Janata Party. His Facebook followers number over 5,000 and posts are shared by thousands.
One Sarup Prasad Ghosh, a self-proclaimed educationist and a BJP spokesperson in Bengal, dresses as a monk belonging to the Ramakrishna Misson order. The state BJP openly says he is associated with the Ramakrishna Mission. He puts on a saffron robe and a cap that people associate with the monks of Ramakrishna Mission, which clearly prohibits its monks from entering politics. Its monks are also expected to be celibate. But details furnished by Ghosh to the Election Commission show that he is neither a celibate nor a monk. How many of these fake monks have the RSS and BJP unleashed in Bengal, I often wondered.
Several months went by. But while I learnt quite a lot about the BJP’s underbelly in Bengal, I had made no headway in getting into a RSS school. But eventually I did receive an invitation to attend the Kalpataru Divas celebrations at the Saraswati Shishu Mandir School, Hatiara.
We had to walk three to four kilometres from Baguihati and reached a Muslim-dominated area. We were introduced to Keshavji, a senior Pracharak. We touched his feet but while he blessed us, his disinterest in us was obvious. I suffered from a panic attack when we were asked to join a group for a group photo. I had avoided getting myself photographed but here it seemed difficult to escape. I urgently drew my escort away and asked him to seek permission for me to talk to the teachers. Luckily the ploy worked and we hurried away.
I was witness to the ugly scene when a woman approached Keshavji with a complaint against a senior non-Bengali leader. She was heckled and dragged away by boys young enough to be her son. Keshavji smiled indulgently while someone exclaimed, ‘Pagal Hai’.
The secretary was not happy with my request to interview teachers. He was suspicious but relented when my escort vouched for me: Yeh Sangh Ke hi hain. I did hear the one teacher I was able to speak to mouth communal statements. But then this was common enough in the Sangh. I had not picked up anything new.
A few days letter, I went to Keshav Bhavan and met Prashant Bhatt and explained my plan to talk to teachers and write an article for a pro-BJP newspaper. Bhatt did not suspect my motive because he and others in the Sangh had begun to admire my knowledge of Hindu theology. With his intervention, permission was granted in no time.
AT SARASWATI SHISHU MANDIR
I was directed to take the bus plying on route number 30C from Baguihati and get down at the last stoppage. The school, I was told, would be a short walk from the bus stand. But nobody seemed to know the way to Saraswati Shishu Mandir. A shopkeeper asked if I was looking for the Mission school. I replied in the negative and walked away. The Google map on my mobile also showed nothing. Most people had not heard of any school by that name.
It was when I asked about a school with a temple inside that I was directed to the school. The school coordinator, Kalidas Bhattacharyya, a man in his mid-fifties, was waiting for me. I explained why I had got delayed by an hour. “You should have asked them the way to the Ramakrishna Mission School. They know this as the Mission school,” he innocently said. Here finally was proof that the RSS was running an entire school under a false cover.
(To be continued, second part to be published tomorrow)
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