Amit Bhardwaj

In April 2017, West Bengal stood witness to scenes like never before. Districts after districts were taken over by men wearing saffron bandanas. They chanted “Jai Shree Ram,” and wielded swords and trishuls—tridents. Cities and townships such as Asansol and Birbhum had thousands of men thronging the streets. The saffron flags were mounted on vehicles, on houses and on shops. In Kolkata, tableaus featuring Hindu gods were taken out from different locations. In a state where Durga Puja is considered to be the biggest cultural-religious function, such gigantic fanfare around Ramnavami—a festival marking the birth of the Hindu deity Ram—was unprecedented. But as state leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh told me, it was not unexpected. This transformation was by design, a result of years of groundwork by the RSS. In the 2021 assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to reap the benefits of this labour.

Similar scenes were witnessed during Ramnavami the next year, during which scuffles led to communal violence in Asansol and Raniganj. Soon, the “Jai Shree Ram” chant became BJP’s primary tool against the Trinamool Congress and the chief minister Mamata Banerjee. In the ongoing assembly elections, polarisation along religious lines appears to be the biggest factor influencing West Bengal’s voters—and the BJP appears to be the top contender against the incumbent TMC government. A decade ago, in the 2011 state assembly polls, the saffron party got a mere four-percent vote share. In the 2016 assembly election, it won only three assembly seats. But in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP surprised everyone by securing 40 percent of the votes in West Bengal.

In the 2021 assembly election, irrespective of the final result, there would be no denying that the BJP turned the tides in its favour. The TMC and Banerjee are facing their toughest electoral battle and opponent. The saffron party is claiming that Bengal is set to witness a BJP-tsunami. Many political pundits believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and the home minister Amit Shah’s electoral strategy are the sole reasons for the party’s rise in the state. But behind the curtains, it was the RSS that laid the ground for these changes years back. Senior RSS functionaries in the state as well as ground-level workers told me the Sangh’s massive mobilisation and recruitment efforts, how it conducted awareness campaigns that focused on Hindu nationalist issues, and the successful expansion of the organisation.

The RSS leaders said that the Sangh Parivar had set a “Mission Bengal” in 2016 itself. In March 2017, the RSS passed a formal resolution to this effect. “Sangh jab nischay kar leta, to uss lakshay ko paane ke liye puri taqat laga deta hai”—Once the RSS decides on a target, it uses all the resources and might at its disposal to achieve it—Shibaji Mandal, an RSS leader, said. “RSS ne Bangal par resolution 2017 mein pass kiya. Tabhi se Bangal ko sudharane ka kaam chalu hua hai.”—The RSS passed a resolution of West Bengal in 2017. Since then, the work to mend Bengal has been going.

Mandal, a 43-year-old school teacher, is the baudhik pramukh—or intellectual head—of the RSS’s Central Bengal state unit. In the Sangh’s organisational framework, until recently, West Bengal was divided into two prants, or state-level divisions—South Bengal and North Bengal. The organisational expansion in districts around the state’s Birbhum district led to the formation of the third state, Central Bengal. The RSS’s Central Bengal unit exercises jurisdiction over five vibhags, which are divisions comprising roughly two or more organisational districts—these vibhags are Birbhum, Bardhaman, Bankura, Hooghly and Nadia. Possibly, the presence of factories and a sizable population from Hindi-speaking states had made the Sangh’s expansion easier specifically in areas such as Asansol, Raniganj, Durgapur and Birbhum.

I met Mandal, a second-generation swayamsevak—as the RSS’s activists are known—at the organisation’s Birbhum headquarters in April this year. The Sangh Parivar functionaries in the state and their karyakartas—workers—had been keeping busy for the past three months, and I had visited during a peak time of their packed schedule. Mandal was supposed to join another round of strategy and execution meeting to be held on the first floor of this RSS building that day. During our conversation, he addressed why it had become necessary to dislodge Banerjee and her party from West Bengal, and why the eastern state was so important for the Sangh.

The March 2017 resolution was passed by the RSS’s top decision-making body—the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha. In it, the Sangh expressed concerns over the rise of “jihadi elements in West Bengal,” and “encouragement to the anti-national elements by the state government due to its Muslim vote bank politics and declining Hindu population in the state.” To strengthen its case, the ABPS resolution referred to previous incidents of violence in the state. It criticised the Banerjee government for its “appeasement politics,” and urged the citizens “to create awareness against this Jehadi violence.” The RSS’s top-decision making body had also urged the Central government to take “firm action against these anti national Jehadi elements of the state”.

Biplab Roy, the 63-year-old pracharak pramukh—head of publicity—of South Bengal, shared two major concerns of the RSS while passing the March 2017 resolution, which, he said, was aimed to stop “the atrocities by the Islamic Jihadi elements.” He said, “There was a need to end the reign of terror including a crackdown on the corridors being used for trafficking of cows to Bangladesh. Hence, the resolution was passed. There was an understanding that if Bengal is not fixed, then it will become another Kashmir.” He further added, “It was also aimed to stop the idea of Bengali nationhood.”

Roy claimed that after the passage of the resolution, the Sangh Parivar used its energy in aggressive expansion. Targets were set for 2017, 2018 and 2019, and Ramnavami was to be used as a strength expansion exercise.

“The Ramnavami procession is a way to display aggression of the Hindu youth,” Mandal told me. “It was our shakti pradarshan”—show of strength. “And the groundwork for this was being done for months, since 2016.” Through different bodies and organisations, the Sangh Parivar had reached out to shrine and temples across Bengal in order to persuade them to organise grand Ramnavami processions. The target was to mobilise thousands of Hindu youth for the processions in every possible district.

The RSS facilitated setting up Ramnavami Udyapan Samitis for the purpose, and its sister organisations, such as Hindu Jagran Manch and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, were used as the face of the mobilisation drive. The RUSs were formed first at the district level then till the ward level. Mandal said that the procession taken out in April 2017 in Birbhum’s Siuri sub-division had 15,000 Hindus participating and in Rampurhat subdivision the procession had 15,000 to 20,000 supporters.

“In one stroke, thousands of youths ended up joining us in every district. The RSS’s organisational strength increased,” the 43-year-old RSS functionary said. He added that the BJP got the political dividend of this mobilisation and that the TMC was pushed on the backfoot to the point that even they were “forced to organise similar processions.”

This aggressive assertion of Hindutva in the name of Ram was something that West Bengal was witnessing for the first time—and the Ramnavami function was just the beginning. The Sangh Parivar kept upping the ante. That year, the Ramnavami processions were followed by the announcement by the Hindutva outfits such as VHP that they would be organising a Shastra Puja—a Hindu ritual that honours weapons during the festival Dussehra. But Mandal said that the extensive display of strength on Dussehra was discontinued after 2017 itself.

“While Shastra Pujan is an old tradition, we stopped the aggressive expansion of the programme right after the events that followed the 2017 event,” he told me. “Hundreds of cases were lodged against our workers for the Shastra Puja event.” Notably, even after the first grand Ramnavami procession, several participants including the BJP state president, Dilip Ghosh, were booked under the Arms Act for brandishing weapons. However, these developments had placed the BJP as the principal opponent to the TMC. And “Jai Shree Ram” became their principal slogan to target the party and Banerjee. The more she retaliated, the more legitimacy their actions appeared to gain.

The RSS functionaries told me that the Sangh Parivar swung into action in West Bengal from 2016 – the year when  the BJP failed to make a dent in the assembly elections. The organisation’s insiders said that the Sangh did not want West Bengal to become “another Kashmir.” One of the central planks that the RSS focused on—which the state BJP unit under Ghosh has focused on as well—has been a propaganda campaign that “infiltration” from Bangladesh is disturbing the demography of West Bengal. To support their claim, they often pointed at the increase in the Muslim population in the state. After the partition, the Muslims formed roughly 19 of Bengal’s population. As per the last census, 2011, the Muslim population in the state stood at a little more than 27 percent.

“In 1980s, the RSS had conducted its own census to find out the impact of the infiltration in every district of West Bengal,” Roy, the prachar pramukh, told me in Kolkata. “But the CPM dubbed our census as bogus,” he added, referring to the Communist Party of India (Marxists). To make their case sound stronger, Hindutva leaders often compared the increase in the Muslim population in Bengal.

The Sangh Parivar also kept itself focused on appealing to the Bangladeshi Hindus who settled in the eastern coastal state phases. Tathagata Roy, the BJP leader and former governor of Meghalaya and Tripura, told me, “The RSS had kept itself focused on the Bangladeshi Hindu refugees and tried to bring them on board. Earlier, the CPM had control over this vote bank and used them to foster their electoral prospects.” Over the decades, the RSS has tried to set a narrative that the Hindus coming from Bangladesh are “refugees,” while the Muslims are “infiltrators.” Modi himself has used this distinction between “refugees” and “infiltrators” in his election speeches in West Bengal and Assam. The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed by the BJP government in 2019 is a legislative reiteration of this narrative.

The option of online registration for RSS membership, which was introduced in 2013, also significantly helped the organisation’s expansion. It enabled the shakhas—the basic unit of the Sangh’s organisational structure—to easily find fresh recruits in their localities. According to Biplab Roy, the RSS has recorded one of the highest online membership registrations in West Bengal among the Indian states. He added that the memberships had witnessed a sharp surge after the former president of India Pranab Mukherjee visited the RSS headquarters in Nagpur in 2018. Following the visit, professionals such as doctors, designers, and teachers began showing interest in joining the Sangh in West Bengal.

The pracharak pramukh said that due to this new trend in Bengal, they had to change the strategy of only focusing on shakhas by introducing more milans—weekly meetings in a room or hall. Over a period of time, many of these got converted into shakhas. Between 1 and 15 March 2021, South Bengal alone witnessed over 400 new registrations, Roy told me.

He said there are 1,700 shakhas, 800 milan units and 300 mandalis—a unit that holds monthly meetings—operational in the state at present. He claimed that on average, nearly 4,000 swayamsevaks work in each of 294 constituencies of the state. There are pockets where the RSS is strong and then there are areas such as Murshidabad, a Muslim-majority district, where their presence is weak “due to demographic reasons.”

The Sangh Parivar has also been conducting “Jan Jagrans”—campaigns to spread awareness—among the voters in West Bengal. The RSS’s mobilisation in the state has been elaborate and massive. For instance, in February this year, it launched a forum called the Sachetan Nagrik Manch, which aimed to form a thousand groups in each constituency comprising RSS sympathisers and those who sought to oust the TMC from power, and use them to execute the Sangh’s mobilisation strategy. The RSS also formed committees at the state and at district levels.

According to RSS functionaries, through the Manch, the Sangh planned and executed a three-phase campaign in the state to oust the TMC. In the first phase, the RSS identified issues that they believed concerned the voters of West Bengal, which were compiled in leaflets and handbills for distribution. These issues included demanding due recognition to Bengali language, industrial development, a campaign against toshan—appeasement—and stopping Islamic influence in Bengali textbooks. The leaflets—roughly 40 to 45 lakh, according to Roy—were then distributed from February till the last week of March in Hindu localities and even in Muslim areas where the RSS had a presence.

The awareness campaign also included changes in the state’s school textbooks. The RSS officials claimed that words that reflected the Hindu culture were being replaced with alternative words or Urdu words under an “Islamic influence.” When asked about this, the prachar pramukh Biplab Roy told me, “Over the years, the words in the Bengali textbooks that reflected our culture were being changed in West Bengal.” Referring to the words for “rainbow,” “sky” and “mother,” he added, “For instance, they changed ramdhanu to rangdhanu, akash became aasmaan, maa was replaced by amma.”  Roy questioned the intentions behind replacing “Ram” with “rang” in the Bengali word for rainbow.    

In the second phase of the RSS’s voter-awareness campaign, the Sangh organised meetings of different groups such as women, intellectuals, youth and students, and influential personalities of the localities in each assembly constituency. According to RSS functionaries, nearly 800 to 1,200 such Jan Jagran meetings were held in each of 294 constituencies. As per their estimate, for every thousand meetings, nearly 8,000 RSS workers and sympathisers were mobilised. Through these meetings, the RSS’s campaign reached to the booth level. The target was to also increase the voter turnout, RSS officials said.

The third and final phase of the Jan Jagran campaign was more carefully woven. The senior RSS functionaries focused on the constituencies in a phase-wise manner instead of spending resources on all constituencies in one go. For instance, many senior Sangh Parivar functionaries, including those from the VHP, had camped in the Asansol-Birbhum area around 15 April. The voting in this belt was in the seventh phase and eighth phase—on 26 and 29 April. In these constituencies, the Sangh carried out a door-to-door campaign calling upon voters to use their democratic right.

In Asansol’s Burnpur town, I met Sachin Singho, a senior VHP functionary who usually operates from the Delhi office, at a park managed by the RSS, where the Sangh’s karyakartas were busy celebrating the Bengali New Year. The 66-year-old swayamsevak had come down to this region of West Bengal to oversee communications for the Jan Jagran campaign and conduct “background work which cannot be revealed in the public domain.”

He checked on the preparation for the Ramnavami procession and indicated to local workers that it should be grand. When asked for the reason, he replied, “This is the first Ramnavami after the foundation stone of Ram Temple in Ayodhya was laid. Last year, we couldn’t celebrate it due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Hence, it has to be grand.” At the same park, Tarun Banerjee, a swayamsevak and a former BJP functionary of Asansol, told me that the preparations were in full swing and that they intended to distribute nearly five thousand flags—to be mounted on vehicles and houses—in Burnpur on Ramnavami.

At the time, the preparation for the processions had made senior TMC and CPI(M) leaders nervous. A senior TMC leader and state minister told me, on conditions of anonymity, “We are confident of our performance in this region”—referring to the constituencies in and around Asansol. “But we are not sure what will happen after Ramnavami processions. If communal spats are triggered due to the processions, it could change everything in the polls.” Ultimately, the Sangh Parivar instructed their workers to call-off the large processions at the last moment amid a surge in the COVID-19 cases.

But the RSS did continue its Jan Jagran campaigns. “There is a need to unite the Hindus,” Singho said. “And for the same purpose, we are visiting the villages, reaching out to shrines and temples and the community-based organisations.” He added, “The Hindu voters are under attack in this poll. The dignity of Hindus is under attack in the rural areas. For us, the situation is similar to what we had witnessed during the partition of Punjab and Bengal during the Independence … And we are here to give social security to the Hindu voters.”

I also met RSS workers who were visiting voters on a regular basis and appealing them to cast their votes. Initially, they insisted that they do not take the name of any political party and keep themselves restricted to the issues. But their responses made it clear how they were indirectly influencing the voters. At one shakha held near a mosque in Burnpur, Ajay Verma, a 46-year-old RSS worker, listed the issues they discuss with the voters. These included the state of Hindus in West Bengal, appeasement politics, issues of national security, how China could not manage to take “even an inch of land” from India, the changing demographic of the state, and the need for development and industrialisation for job creation. Verma, who said he had served in the RSS for the past 30 years and dreams to see an “Akhand Bharat”—undivided India—before his death, claimed that the RSS workers list these issues to the voters and then ask them to vote for any party they want.

The fund collection for the Ram Temple construction, which was carried out across the nation, has also aided the RSS and the BJP. For instance, Poritosh Saha, a pracharak—full-time worker—in the RSS’s Burdhaman unit, told me that the Sangh Parivar mapped nearly 3.6 lakh households in the Paschim Burdhaman district during the fund collection drive. In Asansol itself, nearly 72,000 individuals had contributed for the construction of the temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya. In Birbhum, according to the baudhik pramukh Mandal, the total collection was nearly Rs 1 crore. Many functionaries overtly and covertly accept that the BJP will get the benefit of the fund collection campaign in the assembly polls because it is happening barely a few months after the drive.

The allegations of Muslim-appeasement politics against the Banerjee government and infiltration were recurrent topics in conversations with top RSS functionaries as well as its lower-rung workers. Predictably, these allegations get prominent space in the Jan Jagran campaign of the Sangh Parivar. This strategy and large-scale mobilisation is part of the RSS and BJP’s determined efforts to dislodge the Trinamool supremo from the power circles of West Bengal. However, barely two-decades back, the RSS-BJP and Mamata Banerjee were partners appreciating each other’s struggles.

While people remember that the TMC was part of the National Democratic Alliance and that Banerjee was a cabinet minister in the Atal Vajpayee government, it is largely forgotten that she was hailed at an RSS function in Delhi. During a book launch in September 2003, attended by top RSS functionaries, Banerjee was hailed as “Maa Durga’s avatar.” In response, she had eloquently praised the Sangh Parivar, noting that it was the first time she was meeting “top RSS leaders, but I realised immediately that these are the real patriots.” Banerjee then appealed to them to help her in dethroning the communists from West Bengal.

Several RSS functionaries confirmed to me, on condition of anonymity, that their organisation had unofficially sought votes for the TMC in the 2011 assembly elections to “end the reign of terror” of the Left Front government. Banerjee’s victory that year had ended a 34-year-long rule of the Left Front. The RSS units from districts such as Hooghly, Paschim Medinipur and Purba Medinipur had put more energy to bring the TMC in power.

A possible reason behind the RSS’s support to the TMC was that the Sangh was unable to expand its organisation in the state under the Left Front government. “Communist haanth se nahi maarta tha, pet ka bhaat marta tha”—The Communists didn’t use to physically attack us, they would block our source of income—Saha told me. Another senior RSS functionary alleged that during the Left Front government, individuals organising the shakhas were framed under false cases or trapped in other legal complications. This would then result in the shakhas shutting down.

After the Left’s fall, the shakhas started to mushroom in the state. According to Biplab Roy, in the past decade, the number of shakhas—which had dropped to nearly 800 during the CPI(M) rule—has reached up to 1,700. In fact, Saha, and other pracharaks like him, told me that the credit for the RSS’s expansion after 2011 goes to the TMC. “Her politics of Muslim appeasement created the opportunity for us,” Saha said. “It made Hindus feel vulnerable and we awakened.”

The VHP’s Singho said that the confrontation with the TMC increased after Banerjee was elected as the chief minister for the second time, in 2016. “In her first tenure, she didn’t oppose the Indian culture,” he said. “However, when elected for the second time, she got occupied with appeasement politics. Due to this anger started to simmer.” These are the allegations against a chief minister who provides funds to Durga Puja pandals across the state and had come under fire from opposition parties for announcing a stipend of Rs 1,000 for Brahmin priests.  

One of the top Bengal functionaries made a candid revelation. On condition of anonymity, he accepted that the “Sangh through its off-shoot organisation started a campaign to portray Mamata Banerjee as the harbourer of terrorists in West Bengal.” He did not provide a specific timeline for when this began, but indicated that it was an ongoing process that began some years ago. By 2021, the BJP state president, Ghosh, began making such allegations against the sitting chief minister on the record. The BJP leaders do not substantiate these allegations with any credible reports or facts.

Yet, the Sangh Parivar has continued a campaign that is transparent in its religious polarisation. During the 2016 elections, the BJP-RSS campaign dubbed Banerjee as “Mamata Bano.” In 2021, leaders such as Suvendhu Adhikari kept calling her “Mamata Begum” during the campaign in Nandigram and even went to the extent of dubbing her as Bangladeshi. When asked about the campaign that tries to sully Banerjee’s character, the same anonymous RSS functionary got furious and started to defend the slander campaign against the TMC chief. “Whatever she is facing today is due to her politics of appeasement,” he said. “The highest number of sacrifices of RSS workers has happened in Kerala and West Bengal. This chapter will come to end in West Bengal in 2021.”

Over the years, the Sangh Parivar has witnessed a colossal expansion in West Bengal. Today, the Sangh Parivar is running several educational institutions such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, including schools under different names, such as the Saraswati Shishu Mandir and Ekal Vidyalayas. The RSS also has a number of sister organisations such as the VHP to help it in the state. Through its shakhas, it is attracting thousands of children volunteers, who are known as Bal Swayamsevaks. In fact, the only concern that RSS leaders expressed to me about their presence in West Bengal was that its women’s wings, such as the VHP’s Durga Vahini, had failed to make a mark.

In this election, they have brought together the entire human resource at its disposal to “awaken the voters” which essentially meant to mobilise them to vote for the BJP. The Sangh Parivar—which started its first shakha in Bengal in 1939—waited decades for this opportunity, having been stifled so far by the Congress and the Left Front. In 2011, they helped the TMC overthrow the communists. Over the next decade, they built an organisation to clinch Bengal. The RSS’s Mission Bengal has been a work in progress. In 2021, when the BJP is trying to clinch Bengal, it is the Sangh Parivar that created the fertile land and the tools to tilt. It is clear why the RSS is called the mother organisation of the BJP.

Amit Bhardwaj covers national political developments and tracks election bound states. He was formerly associated with Tehelka, and Tiranga TV.
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