February 13, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

The saffron flutters high, yet again

It has been unbelievable and perhaps unparalleled: the aid has been as quick and colossal in coming as the tragedy itself. The Gujarat earthquake has stirred the conscience and united the hearts of an entire nation of one billion, and the rest of the world has empathised in equal measure. Discordant notes and criticism there undoubtedly have been, but which human tragedy in history has come without its faults and failures, warts and all? Nothing but nothing can lessen the praise for every individual and institutional hand of support that has been extended to those thousands upon thousands men, women and children on whom the earth literally opened up so cruelly on Republic Day.

What has also been unbelievable in the country's worst natural disaster in decades is the encomium showered by the 'secular' press on the relief work of the RSS that has in recent months been so often debunked as a 'fanatic-cum-Fascist' Hindu organisation, 'barbaric and uncivilised.'

Chris Tomlinson of the Associated Press filed a story datelined February 2, detailing the splendid work of those who walk the streets of Bhuj with 'Saffron scarves flung around their necks and pickaxes and shovels slung over their shoulders, collecting the dead.' His report concluded with the quote of a swayamsevak summing the RSS creed that "Everyone here is a volunteer and we do not receive any pay. We take India as our mother, not just a nation, and this is our duty."

Even our swadeshi Outlook magazine, that otherwise doesn't spare a chance to spit at the 'lunatic fringe in khaki knickers,' devoted a full-page article, written by one bearing a Muslim name, extolling the role of the RSS in Gujarat. And even that fundamental 'secularist' newspaper, The Times of India, headlined the praise for the RSS given by Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma's great grandson who is normally allergic to the Sangh Parivar.

Such character certificates for the RSS from English language writers must seem odd for those moderns who have been brought up only on a particular view of the 75-year-old proponents of Hindutva. However, anyone who cares to dispassionately read the organisation's biography, A Vision in Action by H V Seshadri, will find that its role in India's calamities has been deserving of a separate chapter in its history.

It began with the Muslim riots at Rawalpindi in March 1947 when Hindus in hundreds of thousand were rendered homeless. As the day of Partition approached and passed by, a whole community was uprooted, murdered, mutilated, dishonoured and thrown out. The swayamsevaks organised the Punjab relief committee and opened camps in every tehsil centre in the province. The over five million rupees collected were spent for running relief camps where tens of thousands maimed men and women were lodged, fed and comforted. In a single relief camp at Wah, 20,000 refugees were taken care of. Eighty-seven of the RSS's finest workers lost their lives while defending and escorting these people to the camp. One hundred and twenty swayamsevaks were subjected to inhuman torture in the notorious Shahi Quilla of Lahore.

The role of Sangh swayamsevaks in rescuing Hindus from the jihad-mongers in the whole of west Punjab during the Partition holocaust has been best capsuled in Professor P N Bali's book Now It Can Be Told as follows:

'They organised evacuation of the Hindu and Sikh women and children from dangerous pockets to comparatively safe centres. They arranged for their feeding, medical aid, clothing and care. Even fire brigades were formed in various towns. Arrangements for transport by lorries and buses, and provision of escort on the trains carrying the fleeing Hindus and Sikhs were made. A day-and-night vigil was kept in various localities and people were taught how to defend themselves when attacked. These young men were the first to come to the help of the stricken Hindus and Sikhs and were the last to leave their places for safety in East Punjab. I could name several Congress leaders of note in the various districts of Punjab who openly solicited the help of the RSS even for their own protection and the protection of their kith and kin. No request for help from any quarter was refused and there are cases which came to our notice where Muslim women and children were safely escorted out of the Hindu mohallas and sent to Muslim League centres in Lahore by the RSS men. Their discipline, their physical fitness and their selflessness in face of dangers came to the rescue of the people in the Punjab when the whole province was burning and when the Congress leaders were helplessly fiddling in New Delhi.'

Then there was that huge influx of refugees into Bengal and Assam in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1950. First forming a society at Calcutta with jurisdiction extending to West Bengal and Assam, the swayamsevaks swung into action. They approached millions of our countrymen and pooled resources in cash, foodgrains and clothing. More than 5,000 workers worked round the clock for about eight months in 15 relief centres in Bengal and 11 in Assam. More than 1500 bales of cloth were collected and about 150,000 people received clothes from the society's various distribution centres. More than 100,000 of the needy received food-packs in Sealdah and other railway stations where refugees were pouring in trainloads. In the following months, jobs were found for hundreds of those refugees after being suitably trained. In Cooch Behar, about 150 families were given farmlands.

Those who view the saffron Sangh only with jaundiced eyes may argue that in the above cases the RSS entered the fray merely because Hindus were the sufferers. Well, look then at the Sangh's role in the Bihar famine of 1966, floods in Bharatpur district of Rajasthan in May 1977, the Andhra Pradesh cyclone in November 1977, the Yamuna floods near Delhi in 1978, the Morvi Dam disaster in August 1979, the Assam riots in February 1983, the Bhopal Gas tragedy in December 1984, the Gujarat drought in 1987-88, the Kerala train tragedy near Quilon in July 1988, the Uttar Kashi earthquake in UP in October 1991, the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra in 1993, the plague epidemic in Surat in 1994, the mid-air collision disaster of Saudi Arab and Kazak aircraft at Charkhi-Dadri in Haryana, in November 1996, the fire tragedy in HPCL's refinery at Vishakhapatnam in September 1997 and the Champa train accident in Madhya Pradesh in 1997. In each of these, the Sangh was the first to come with succour.

Details of each such instance would consume too much space. Proof of it all should come from the words of leaders and the press.

Inaugurating one famine relief centre at Nawda, near Gaya, during the Bihar famine, Jayaprakash Narayan said on February 6, 1967: "None, not even the prime minister of the country can equal the selfless service of the swayamsevaks of RSS."

In the midst of the Andhra cyclone relief work, Indira Gandhi chided the Congressmen that 'I see only RSS men work in the affected area.' And The Hindu of Chennai reporting on the work there of the RSS cadres wrote "The real heroes of the relief operations are these young men and women from different parts of the country who have gone there as a matter of conscientious duty, responding promptly to the call of their leaders for selfless service in an area that is quite remote from their homes." And on March 22, 1978, then Andhra chief minister Chenna Reddy, said "What the RSS is doing today, the government will be doing tomorrow."

During the Morvi disaster that occurred during Ramzan, the Sangh provided nearly 4,000 Muslims, lodged in relief camps, with necessary facilities to go through their religious rites without break even for a single day, with food being cooked for them in the early hours of the day and served to them before sunrise. No wonder Tughlak of Chennai wrote: 'People in Morvi look upon swayamsevaks as Gods!' And The Hindustan Times wrote 'Apart from manning scores of relief camps and helping the residents move back to their houses, RSS volunteers have been removing and cremating dead corpses that nobody else would touch. Service to humanity and alleviation of the sufferings of uprooted countrymen is an endeavour that admits of no ideological or partisan considerations.'

About the Kerala tragedy caused by 14 bogies of Island Express plunging into the Ashtamudi lake, Matrubhoomi wrote 'While all others were hesitant and stood closing their nostrils, the swayamsevaks of the RSS volunteered to remove the decomposed bodies submerged in the backwaters.'

Thus, what was witnessed in Gujarat last fortnight was only a replay of an RSS activity. It is ironic that almost exactly a year ago BJP's political allies and opponents alike succeeded in insistently demanding that the employees of the Gujarat government should not be allowed to be associated with the RSS. Completing the irony was that the Congress Seva Dal, that suffers no such ostracism, was not on the scene in Ahmedabad or Anjar or Bhachau or Bhuj.

One and all must accept the reality. With all its fetishes and frailties, the RSS is a unique institution. With 50,00 branches across India and its volunteers spread in more than a hundred countries abroad, it may well be the only one of its kind in the world. It has arisen stronger from each of the three bans so far on its activities. Despite its apparent conservatism and an ideology that seems so anachronistic, if not asinine, it ensures that the saffron flag flutters when calamity strikes its beloved matrubhoomi. What more can a patriot be expected to do?

Arvind Lavakare

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