The Foreign Exchange of Hate
IDRF and the American Funding of Hindutva
2002, Sabrang Communications & Publishing Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, India, and The South Asia Citizens Web, France
Download / Print

Appendix C
Sewa International: Service With An Ideological Edge


For those attempting to understand the operations of the RSS, especially the role of foreign funds in its work, an examination of the role of its Sewa Vibhag is critical. Within the Sewa Vibhag, the Sewa Bharati and the Sewa International are two of the most critical organizations. Their criticality as the Sangh organizations lies in the fact that both are excellent examples of the precise way in which the Sangh’s service work is organized, as well as key organizations in coordinating foreign funds for these service projects. Accordingly, this appendix is organized into two broad sections:

1. Linking the service Institutions: The RSS. Sewa International and IDRF

2. The Work of Sewa International: Little Service, More Hinduization

C.1 Linking the Sewa Institutions: The RSS. Sewa International and IDRF
At the very outset, Sewa International is a Sangh organization. Its historical connection to the Sangh is visible from the fact that in older Sangh literature, the address of Sewa International is the same as that of the RSS headquarters in Delhi.[99] Further, this fact is established time and again in much Sangh literature that describes the Sangh’s Sewa karya (Service work). In its mission statement Sewa International characterizes itself as “an umbrella for more than 2000 projects and programs all over India” overseeing “more than 50000 Swayamsevaks (volunteers) involved in running 76 types of activities.[100] Similarly, Sewa Disha, the Sangh’s Sewa Vibhag report introduces Sewa International as follows:

Yet another development is the establishment of an international organization titled ‘SEWA INTERNATIONAL’ which now has branches in many countries. Sewa International will look after the interests of seva [service] related issues not only in the respective countries where they have chapters but also take up ‘GLOBAL’ level care of sewa [service] work carried out under the Sangh ideology. [101]

So also, the RSS website documents its links with its operations abroad, “in over 100 countries”:

where volunteers are busy organizing Hindus under different organizations. Hindu Council, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Sewa International, Friends of India Society International, etc. are some of them.[102]

The missing link in the above quote is clearly IDRF. However, the IDRF lists Sewa International as ‘IDRF India’ and Shyam Parande, the General Secretary of Sewa International, as IDRF Advisor in India. [103] Shyam Parande is incidentally characterized by Observer an Indian news magazine as “the organizer of Sangh activities abroad.[104] The connections are also established in the reverse direction. Sewa International, on its website, also states that it is ‘associated with the IDRF, USA and Sewa International, UK.’ It is interesting to note here that Sewa International, UK [105], calls itself the ‘service project’ of HSS-UK [106], thus providing the usual surfeit of connections between these seemingly independent organizations.

C.2 The Work of Sewa International: Little Service, More Hinduization

As we argued in section 2.1 of the main report, the basic focus of Sewa activity as coordinated by Sewa International is the various community activities taken on by the Sangh and the resulting spread of Sangh philosophy in different areas. [107] This clarity – where “development” is merely the pretext for sectarian ideological training, is expounded in detail by H.S. Sheshadri, the ex-General Secretary of the RSS:

Our programmes and activities are but the outer form of our Sewakarya [service work]. The ultimate object of all these endeavours is Hindu Sangathan - consolidation and strengthening of the Hindu society. [108]

The key phrase in the above passage is “consolidation of Hindu society” – indicating that there are many parts of Indian society that are at a distance from what the RSS defines as Hindu society. It is to “convert” these people who are “insufficiently Hindu”, that sewa karya is a cover for. For instance, “Hindu consolidation”’ very often happens through celebrating Hindu festivals such as Holi, Raksha Bandhan, Yugadi, Sankranti—all festivals described by the VHP, as those promoting Hindu consciousness and ‘national integration. [109]

C.2.1 Less Service, More Hinduization

The centrality of consolidation work within sewa karya is amply visible in the following description where a ‘social service’ project in the slums often leads to the establishment of an RSS shakha (an RSS cell) in the locality:

After the day's tuition, the Bhagwa Dhwaj [saffron flag—the symbol of the Sangh] is hoisted and the Prarthana [the RSS prayer] too takes place. On Sundays, a regular full-fledged Shakha is conducted. [110]

Clearly, the flag, the prayer and the Shakha dominate the activities of Sewa International. In noting this trajectory of work, where a theological core is what constitutes the work of Sewa International, what is critical to understand is that all of this work is carried out in the name of “development.” Most Sewa International projects are defined in terms of “rural development” or “tribal education” or some similar “developmental” category. In other words, there is a clear effort to mislead people who would otherwise be favorably disposed to developmental activity. Development with a Hindutva twist is mostly Hindutva and very little development.

There is another issue that bears some deliberation: If “Hindu consolidation” is being carried out in the name of development, who is it that the Sangh seeks to “consolidate”? As we noted above, there are large segments of the Indian polity that have little or nothing to do with Hindutva. This not only includes the Muslims and the Christians, two large minority groups in India but also others who are sufficiently outside of Hindu fold – the Dalits (untouchables) and the adivasis (the tribals). Dalits, for centuries considered outside the caste Hindu order, do not easily accept efforts to integrate them into Hinduism because they clearly understand that it would mean the continued subjugation by the caste hierarchy. Tribals (adivasis) similarly, have also traditionally been outside the hierarchy of caste Hinduism and have insisted for generations on a separate identity outside of upper caste Hinduism. Needless to say, the core of Hindutva ideology is a very clearly marked upper caste doctrine that seeks to keep in place many of the traditional and regressive hierarchies of caste Hindu society. While these four groups are the Sangh targets through Sewa work for “consolidation” into a Hindu order, it is equally true that large numbers of those who are statistically identified as Hindus do not necessarily have a consolidated Hindu identity – that is they are not mobilized into action by their Hindu identity. Presented below are three cases of Sewa International’s work, which they present as good textbook examples of their work. As usual, all three are categorized as “development” work.

C 2.2 Hazratpur Becomes Shivaji Nagar: The Essential Limits of Development

Hazratpur is, like many other Indian villages, largely poor, with both a Hindu and a Muslim population living in close quarters, just a small distance away from the town of Bulandshahar in UP. Like many other such villages, a large part of the poorer Hindus in the village are not upper caste and are thus traditionally not part of the Hindutva movement. So also, like so many other villages and towns in the region, the names of areas reflect the complex and rich history of the region. One town may have a tenth century Hindu king’s name, while the next village may be named after a local Muslim saint. Hazratpur is an excellent example of the latter. There are few demarcations and this pattern of complex intermixing is the rule.

Here is an extract from the Sewa International propaganda material on ‘rural development’ that reflects their efforts to intervene in this multi-religious community [111] :

When the Ram-Janma-Bhoomi Mukti Andolan swept the country, this village too energised itself. The karyakartas [Sangh workers] stepped in to orient people's enthusiasm in constructive directions.

They asked the villagers: "Do you have at least a Mandir [Temple] to express your religious sentiments? Is the atmosphere here conducive to progress? Don't you want to change?"

This set the people thinking. As a first step, they decided to build a temple. Because of their determination, a Devimata Mandir was ready within five months. This demonstrated that a great deal could be achieved through harmony and co-operation. Religious feelings became strengthened. Regular Sankeertan began to be held every Saturday. On Sunday mornings people gathered together for Shramdan (Community Labour).

Men, women and youth - all joined to make the Mandir a live centre. They equipped the temple with loudspeaker and other facilities.

An evening of sports was organised for the youths (sic). This led to the formation of a Shakha soon. More and more youths were attracted to Sangh work. Now there are five karyakartas who have undergone Sangh Shiksha Varg training, one of them a tehsil (county) karyawah…. State-level functionaries of Sangh too began to visit the village from time to time….

The villagers decided that in order to reflect the inspiration behind all this activity, the Shishumandir and the Vidya Mandir should both be named after Chatrapati Shivaji. The village itself has now come to be known as Shivaji Nagar.

Many different aspects of this extract need to be highlighted:

a. The Ram-Janmabhoomi Mukti Andolan refers to a violent mobilization of the Sangh which culminated in the destruction of a 16th century mosque – the Babri Masjid – and subsequently a protracted series of religious riots across India, where large numbers of Muslims were massacred by the organized forces of the Sangh. In other words, when this activity was begun in Hazratpur, the Muslim population was potentially feeling great levels of fear and insecurity and thus unable to participate in any democratic manner within a debate on what must be done in the village.

b. RSS swayamsevaks as Sewa International workers entered the village, supposedly to do rural development work, but instead began to mobilize a community of Hindus, who had till then not necessarily held on to a separate rigid identity into building a whole new set of Hindutva institutions – Sishu Mandir and Vidya Mandirs, apart from a temple and the running of a weekly shakha. In other words, they consolidated a community and drew up new lines of division in the village. The village is now ready for a riot. Note that this is what the Sangh calls “progress” or “change.”

c. The final act of consolidation is of course in the effort to change the name. By attempting to change a name that is a product of historic exigencies and is part of a sense of the past of the local people and replacing it with a new name – Shivaji Nagar – symbolic of contemporary Hindu revivalism, the Sangh is not just deepening the divisions it is in the process of creating locally, but also adding to its larger project of wiping out all traces of Islam from the sub continent.

Similar incidents with Christians are also highlighted in the Sewa International literature.

C.2.3 Religious Conversion as Development

Speaking of a poor neighborhood (basti), they write [112]:

The situation in these Bastis used to be rather peculiar. Boys with names like Mohan or Shyam Prakash wore the cross down their rock [sic]. Some had added the suffix "Maseeh" to their names - like Dinesh Maseeh, Govind Maseeh [Maseeh is variation of ‘messiah’ and is a common last name among South Asian Christians]. But change came so fast that it looked as if people were waiting for it. Now the cross has vanished and in its place one finds lockets of OM, Durga, Ram or Hanumanji. There was no temple; now a temple has been built by the residents themselves near the entrance of the Basti. A beautiful garden has been raised adjacent to the temple. This reflects the in-born dharmik [religious] temperament of the Basti residents.

The modus operandi is similar with the difference that the target for consolidation is a group of poor Christians. In other words, development in this case is in the main religious conversion work. The process of getting to this is similar to the example above, where Hindutva institutions are constructed and certain Hindu symbols are highlighted.

C.2.4 Fixing the Hindu Order: Consolidation of Caste

But as we said, it is more than the Christians and Muslims who are targets for consolidation. Efforts to draw Dalits and tribals into a narrow Hinduism are also on. Dalits and tribals as subjects of consolidation are to be integrated into the Hindu order as lowest within the ritual hierarchy:

A special programme was organised to honour aged men and women, in a Basti. A 'Havan' was performed, after which the Mahanagar Sanghchalak of Sangh [City Leader of the RSS] stood up, invited the oldest couple present to the stage, applied tilak to them and honoured them by offering shriphal on behalf of the entire society. The scene reminded many of the affection with which Sri Ram had embraced Guha of the lowly hunter-tribe while on his way to the forest. [113]

The symbolic positioning of the RSS supremo as upper caste (god equivalent) is embarrassingly clear. Sri Ram – the upper caste (Kshatriya) god -- embracing the “lowly” Guha as a metaphor for a contemporary tilak ceremony (normally used as a welcome/acceptance ritual) leaves no doubts as to where in the order dalits and tribals fit within Hindutva.

What must be noted in summary is the significant levels of instrumentality in the way Sewa International projects are carried out. Using the cover of development, projects are undertaken where the most significant objective has got little to do with economic or social empowerment, and has everything to do with consolidation of a specific Hindu identity that is suited to the project of Hindutva. It would not be wrong to say that the integration-consolidation work is actually well positioned not just to spread a specific and narrow Hinduism, but also to reproduce traditionally oppressive hierarchies. There is little or no “development” work but mostly the building up of religious spaces such as temples and RSS institutions such as Vidya Mandirs or Sishu Vihars. Sewa International, yet again, like IDRF, named innocuously as merely a Service organization is surely more ideology and less service.




99. A website soliciting funds for the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram through the Sewa International gives its address as Sewa International, India, Keshav Kunj, Jhandewalla D.B.Gupta Marg, New Delhi – 110055 INDIA, Phone: +91 11 7779914 , http://www.hinduweb.org/home/seva/vanvasi/ The RSS has its international headquarters at Keshav Kunj, Jhandewallan in New Delhi, and many of its subsidiary organizations such as Sewa Bharti also have their headquarters in the same complex at Jhandewallan. The listed telephone number is also the same as that for RSS’s headquarters in New Delhi (http://www.rss.org/contact/ ) Sewa International has since moved away from that address and is now listed at 515 New Rajendra Nagar, New Delhi

100. http://www.sewainternational.org/intro.html

101. http://www.hssworld.org/seva/sevadisha/sevadisha1/rss_seva_vibhag.html

102. http://www.rss.org/rssho.htm

103. http://www.idrf.org/contacts/contacts.htm#india

104. RSS goes global, chalks out expansion plan, by Suresh Unnithan in The Observer, April 3, 1998 http://www.markazdawa.org/rss.htm

105. http://www.sewainternational.org/index2.html

106. http://sewainternational.com/intro.htm

107. http://www.sewainternational.org/exep.html

108. http://www.sewainternational.org/social.html

109. The Sewa International seems to seek inspiration from the VHP statement on ‘Festivals for National Integration’ http://www.vhp.org/englishsite/d.Dimensions_of_VHP/hHindu%20Parv%20Samanvya/festivalfornationalintegration.htm which states, “Holi, Dipawali, Vijyadashami, Raksha Bandhan, Sankranti and the like have a great impact in keeping the society intact and in promoting unity and integrity of the nation,” although it recognizes that there may be social tensions in doing so, “The festivals and parvas are being celebrated with interruption although there is some adverse effect because of the political atmosphere or economic disparities.” The VHP further advises mass celebrations of these festivals, “So far most festivals are celebrated at the family level or at some limited sectarian or institutional level. The area has to be widened and they should be brought to mass and collective level…Certain universal practices on the festive and other occasions also would be helpful in promotion of national integration. Tilak Dharana on the forehead, cow worship, hoisting of 'om' and 'Bhagava (Saffrron) flags are some of them.” The Sewa International seems to be doing exactly this as evident from its description of a Holi Festival, “People of the Basti affectionately applied chandan and tilak to the visitors. All greeted one another; Holi songs were sung; sweets were shared… Sewa, Sangh and Hindutwa could thus enter the Basti.” http://www.sewainternational.org/social.html

110. ‘Dedication and Perseverance Rewarded’ http://www.sewainternational.org/social.html

111. Building-Block of Progress: "Hazratpur" Becomes "Shivaji Nagar" http://www.sewainternational.org/rural.html

112. ‘Dharmik Temperament the Key’ http://www.sewainternational.org/total.html

113. ‘In the service of the aged and ill’ http://www.sewainternational.org/ennobling.html

Next >>