RSS Shakhas – 1
Since RSS Shakhas are idespread in India and come closest to a national network of neighbourhood groups, let us start by understanding what they are and what they do. (For the moment, let us set aside any religious biases and focus on the idea and the activities.)
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the RSS Shakhas:
The term shakha is Hindi for “branch”. Most of the organisational work of the RSS is done through the co-ordination of the various shakhas, or branches. These shakhas are run for one hour in public places. As per the RSS Annual Report of 2019, there were a total of 84,877 shakhas of which 59,266 are being held daily; 17,229 are weekly shakhas.
The shakhas conduct various activities for its volunteers such as physical fitness through yoga, exercises, and games, and activities that encourage civic awareness, social service, community living, and patriotism. Volunteers are trained in first aid and in rescue and rehabilitation operations, and are encouraged to become involved in community development.
The RSS website adds: “Simply put, a shakha is a daily gathering of swayamsevaks of different age groups at a predefined meeting place or ground for one hour. The daily routine programs include physical exercises, singing patriotic chorus, group discussions on varied range of subjects and a prayer for our motherland. But that is not the end. As the third Sarsanghchalak of RSS the late Sri Balasaheb Devras said: “The RSS Shakha is not just a place to play games or parade, but an unsaid promise of the protection of the good citizenry, an acculturation forum to keep the young away from undesirable addictions; it is a centre of hope, for rapid action and undemanding help in case of emergencies and crisis that affect the people…The most important aspect is it is a university for training the appropriate workers to be made available for the requirements of the various fields of life of the nation.””
A reddit thread has more info:
Most RSS shakhas meet daily morning for about 1.5 to 2 hours. …Some RSS shakhas have started to meet in the evenings to accommodate the schedule of working professionals. RSS shakhas usually meet in open public grounds or parks. School or college grounds are popular meeting places. Some shakhas may even meet on the grounds of private organizations like factories and offices.
Shakha activities are designed to help an individual develop physically, mentally, spiritually. They are also designed to help a person develop as a volunteer, a team member, a leader. They help a person to become more confident and aware. They also help with personal and professional networking, getting over shyness, fear of public speaking and other personally limiting characteristics. All the activities are mostly based on traditional Hindu or Indian practices.
Shakhas typically start with the hoisting of the Bhagwa Dhwaj, the saffron flag. The assembled swayamsevaks salute the flag, and then they do physical warm up exercises, surya namaskar and other yoga. After the exercises, they play games. Shakhas conduct a surprisingly large number and variety of games, most of which need very basic or no toys or tools. In addition to games, there could also be training in dand (fighting with sticks) and niyudh (martial art with no weapons). All these physical activities are always fun and serve to improve physical fitness, confidence and team spirit. After the games, there could be some singing of group songs or prayers. The shakha would then have intellectual activity like a group discussion or a speech by an individual. The topics of the discussions and speech could range anywhere from current affairs to historical incidents to philosophy. Their objective is always to improve the awareness, intelligence, thoughts of the swayamsevak. At the end of the shakha, the swayamsevaks assemble in front of the flag, do the daily prayer (Namaste Sada Vatsale prayer in Bharat; outside Bharat, the prayer is Sarva Mangala Maangalyaam), salute the flag again and then disperse.
Other than the daily shakha meetings, the shakha aims to keep all the swayamsevaks connected to each other, and connected to the organization at the city, state, region and national/international levels. The shakha members also seek to be connected with the neighborhoods in which they exist and function. They establish connections with individuals, both prominent citizens and average citizens, with other organizations, etc.
The shakhas also celebrate six utsavs or festivals in the year.
The shakhas also have periodic organizational planning meetings (called baithaks) for planning the activities of the shakha. Shakha members also do sampark (contact) meetings for the purpose of staying in touch with each other, with other non-shakha citizens, etc.
The RSS Shakhas and its volunteers have played a huge role in the BJP’s rise over the past 40 years.
Tomorrow: Part 4