Circles: Starting the Indian Revolution

Published December 2-10, 2020


Libraries and More

In January when I was in the Bay Area, one of my meetings took place at an unusual venue – the Mountain View Public Library. Unusual because most meetings tended to be at Starbucks or some café. (Fun fact: The US has more public libraries than Starbucks or McDonalds.) When I arrived at the library, I was amazed at how big it was. There were also meeting rooms where one could have privacy. There were also computers with Internet access. The library was much more than a home for books; it was a resource for the community. And perhaps the person I needed to thank was Andrew Carnegie.

During 1883 to 1929, a total of 2509 libraries were built from money donated by Carnegie. These libraries – across the US, UK and Ireland, and Canada – became knowledge hubs and meeting points for local communities. Here is an overview from NPR on the impact: “Public libraries became instruments of change — not luxuries, but rather necessities, important institutions — as vital to the community as police and fire stations and public schools… Temples of learning, ambition, aspiration for towns and cities throughout the United States.”

I thought about my own experience with libraries in India. When I was in college, I visited Mumbai’s British Council Library at Nariman Point often. They had a very good collection of books. I discovered the Asiatic Library at Fort quite late in life. For some reason, it didn’t seem as attractive – dark and gloomy. (Or maybe that was my mood the day I went.) One of the best libraries I have visited has been the Kavi Narmad library in Surat – the collection of books is huge, there is a separate children’s section, and there is a large well-lit room for reading newspapers and magazines. Friends talk about the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi, but I have never visited it.

Most libraries are places of silence – they did not encourage community. They are lonely places – and perhaps that’s the right focus for libraries. Besides the fact that India lacks an adequate infrastructure of public libraries, what we also miss are places where people can gather and connect with each other.

If we had to start India’s political and economic revolution that I recently wrote about, it would be very important to bring people together and change minds – one at a time. For this, there would be a need for neighbourhood cells all across India with a dual purpose – creating the social infrastructure and an organised cadre.

It was in this context that I started thinking about the shakha (meaning, branch) – popularised by the RSS in India. Friends who had attended the RSS shakhas in their youth spoke positively about the fun and game activities and the bonding – and of course, the indoctrination. But when I asked if they would send their kids to the shakhas, the answer was a universal No. While the physical shakhas may not be as active as they once were, how could we rethink the concept of the shakha to bring people together in neighbourhoods and foster a common bond between them? Could a new version of the shakha – the local “Circle” – become the foundation for building India’s social infrastructure?


Social Infrastructure

Eric Klinenberg, in his book “Palaces for the People”, discusses the importance of social infrastructure. He explains:

Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Community organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructures when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, furniture, clothing, art, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments can also be important parts of the social infrastructure, particularly when they operate as what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third spaces,” places (like cafés, diners, barbershops, and bookstores) where people are welcome to congregate and linger regardless of what they’ve purchased. Entrepreneurs typically start these kinds of businesses because they want to generate income. But in the process, as close observers of the city such as Jane Jacobs and the Yale ethnographer Elijah Anderson have discovered, they help produce the material foundations for social life.

What doesn’t qualify as social infrastructure? Transit networks determine where we live, work, and play, and how long it takes to move between places. But whether they’re social infrastructure depends on how they’re organized, since a system designed for private vehicles will likely keep people separate as they travel (and consume enormous amounts of energy), whereas public systems that use buses and trains can enhance civic life. Although they have obvious social impacts, waterworks, waste treatment facilities, sewage systems, fuel supply lines, and electric grids are usually not social infrastructures. (We don’t congregate in these places.) But conventional hard infrastructure can be engineered to double as social infrastructure.

So, why is it important? Eric Klinenberg elaborates in an interview with Fatherly:

I think that when we invest in good, shared spaces we get all kinds of returns. We can build bridges. People who live around each other can create something that feels more like a community. And that’s important. In disasters, creating networks of care, and mutual support [is important.] But it also matters every day for people’s feelings of life satisfaction. We can give people access to happiness that they don’t get from just succeeding in an individualized market economy.

I think for a lot of people, good social infrastructure is a lifeline. It’s not just about relationships. A good library creates opportunities for personal fulfillment, for learning, and for mobility. That’s one of the reasons that the United States has invested so much in that in the past.

Parks created opportunities for recreation. But also for health. We have all sorts of evidence that people are healthier when they spend time outdoors and in green environments and a little less time hunkering down at home in front of a screen.

Even as India has not built its hard infrastructure, it has also under-invested in social infrastructure. Can we change this? What we need to do is to think how to create social infrastructure in post-Covid India – one where we are socially distanced but virtually just a click away. What would a 2020s shakha look like?


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.


RSS Shakhas – 2

Ratan Sharda’s book, “RSS 360°: Demystifying Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh” outlines the vision and working of the Shakha:

Shaakhaa (shakha or local branch) of RSS is the public face of RSS. It is the powerhouse that energises and powers ordinary people to successfully carry out extraordinary feats and nurture pan-India organisations.

People often wonder how a small group of 10 to 20 people who come together for an hour and while away their time in playing games, doing some physical drills, singing patriotic songs or discussing some social issues and praying together, can build an organisation with 56,000 shakhas all over India with a daily collective attendance of more than half a million. If you consider approximately 100 members per shakha who don’t attend it every day this figure would come to nearly 5.6 million regular members. This network is spread upto district level all over India and in most of the places to Tehsil level. You can find village level shakhas in many states.

…The thought behind this unique set of tools or working style of RSS through daily shakha is that a person should willingly dedicate at least one hour in one’s day for the nation. Once this thought becomes a part of his personality, he will willingly increase his participation as the nation demands. Ultimately he reaches a state of mind reflected in a Sangh song that says, “tan samarpit, man samarpit, aur yah jeevan samarpit, chaahata hoon maan, tujhe kuchh aur bhee doon” (i.e. I have dedicated my body, soul and life to you, O’ motherland, I long to give you something more)

Writing in the foreword, Madhu Kishwar summarises it thus: “Running a Shakha needs no money, no infrastructure. All it needs is human capital and the willingness to offer time.”

Sunil Ambekar has more in his book, “The RSS Roadmaps for the 21st Century”:

The shakha timetable is an hour long. Its main components are standardized and have been the same since the time of its commencement. These are sharirik physical drills, boudhik intellectual or academic discussions, khel games and samta practice sessions for systematic parade. The RSS flag hoisting at the beginning of the shakha is protocol driven and swayamsevaks are taught to stand in attendance. The shakha closes with a prayer…Those assigned as ‘shikshak’ or teachers in the shakhas go through a vigorous training process.

…Just like the cell is the basic unit of a living organism, the shakha is the basic unit of the RSS. Every swayamsevak has a shakha to which he belongs.

…Shakhas are held in the morning, evening and night to cater to the increasing numbers and to incorporate diverse time schedules for people of various age groups. Weekly get-togethers called ‘saptahik milans’ are also held. Those who cannot come to the shakha can come to the monthly ‘Sangh mandalis’ or groups. These are non-shakha formations, informal setups convertible to shakhas on maturation. If Sangh mandalis gain critical mass in terms of engagement, they are moved up the value chain into weekly meetings, and if these experience traction, they progress to become daily shakhas and acquire a more formal structure. Through such sequential progression, the shakha network expands.

The pandemic’s digital disruption can create opportunities for new political entrepreneurs who can rethink the shakha and build on its strengths for the future.


Shiv Sena Shakhas

Shakhas are not unique to the RSS. The Shiv Sena in Mumbai has also organised itself around Shakhas. In a 1980 paper, Dipankar Gupta details how the shakhas worked and facilitated its rise:

The shakhas are the “organizational wing” primarily because they take the major responsibility of organizing the Shiv Sena activities. It is also through the shakhas that the Shiv Sena retains its contact with the masses. They are the backbone of the Shiv Sena. One municipal ward of 25,000-30,000 voters is under the jurisdiction of a shakha.

…The shakhas generally excel in municipal work like building and repairing roads, solving drainage and water problems. The bulk of their day to day activity is of this kind. The complaints are taken down in writing, and then their corporators, if they have any in that ward, are appraised of the problem. If they do not have any corporators then Shiv Sainiks take the case to their other corporators and help to solve the problem. In this process many Shiv Sainiks have learnt the formalities and procedures of getting things done in the corporation. This alone is a big help to the complainants of the ward as they are mostly unaware of the complex procedures of the municipal corporation. In rural and semi- rural areas outside Greater Bombay they have to face different problems like those of land rent, the fixing of water and electricity connections, the problem of state transport buses and so on.

…The shakhas participate heartily in cultural festivals like the Ganapati,Janamashtami, and Shivaji Jayanti, and they usually organize these festivals in their locality. These festivals are occa- sions for building up the Shiv Sena ethos.

…The shakhas are the basic units through which the Shiv Sena reaches out to the rank and file of the population. They are primarily responsible for enlarging and consolidating the mass base of the Shiv Sena.

Ideological-driven movements and organisations like the RSS and Shiv Sena have built a bottom-up network of people who become the cadre during peace-time and booth workers during war-time (elections). This is one of the keys to the electoral success of the BJP and the Shiv Sena – the ground force works as a “get out the vote” machine on election day.

The question to think is: how does this change in the post-pandemic world of digital politics?


Networked Neighbourhoods

The RSS Shakha itself is being modernised in these pandemic times. From a May 2020 story in the Economic Times:

“We have shakhas in various parts of the region which operated from playgrounds and open spaces where volunteers used to gather on a daily or weekly basis. After the lockdown was enforced, we began audio conferences around April 1,” [Sangh’s regional functionary Madhukar] Jadhav said.

Later, video conferences were also started by shakhas as per the availability of internet and other facilities there, he said…”Now, activities have changed a bit as meetings are not being held on playgrounds. Sitting exercises are practised, and lectures and discussions are held more,” he said.

ThePrint had an April 2020 story headlined “Online shakhas, free ebooks, an app contest: RSS makes big web push amid lockdown.”

As we all know and sense, the challenges India faces going forward in the aftermath of Covid are immense. Government actions have been limited and inadequate. Economic difficulties are on the rise for many in a shrinking pie. Could a new generation of shakhas help foster the creation of local political entrepreneurs who could lay the foundation for a new freedom movement in India?

An idea which came back to me was of Neighbourhood Action Committees, which I had written about in 2010.

These will be apolitical and based on volunteering. They will focus on making the neighbourhood better across the country, especially in urban India. This means ensuring delivery of local services, working to solve local problems, creating citizen activism. This idea came up because the weakest link in the governance chain in India is the delivery of local services. The neighbourhood is where we all live and where we also have the greatest angst and frustrations.

What we need to create a society which starts to think and solve its own problems at the local level. Governance is weak in India, and to strengthen it needs work at the lowest level. We need to show people how to self-organise, how to create proposals, conduct meetings, debate issues and arrive at decisions, and finally get action done.

People should be able to help out in the NACs with as little as an hour or two a week. They can use the Web and mobile to help inform, educate and organise.

To bring about change in India, it would need a bottom-up movement. What would these Neighbourhood Action Committees – combined with the shakha idea – look like in the 2020s? How could a new construct help build India’s missing social infrastructure? What would motivate political entrepreneurs to create McDonald’s-like franchises across India?


Building Blocks

As we look ahead to what is needed in India to create an alternate socio-cultural platform to kindle an electoral and economic revolution, it is important to list out 10 characteristics of what such an organisation will need:

  1. Target audience: The focus needs to be on the two-thirds of Indian voters who are non-aligned and non-voters (NANVs). These are people not committed supporters of any of the existing political parties.
  2. Core Ideology: There has to be a unifying idea that brings people together. This has to centred around the idea of a free and prosperous India – a belief that none of the existing political alternatives talk about.
  3. Local: It has to have a presence at the neighbourhood-level. The polling booth with its aggregation of 250 families could serve as a good basis for eventual organisation.
  4. Meeting Place: What will be the equivalent of the public library or the shakha office for the people to gather and interact? A virtual interaction can be a start, but a physical meeting place will be important to reinforce the feelings of community and solidarity.
  5. Social Infrastructure: One of the best ways to win people over is to have a cause to unite them. Building neighbourhood meeting places (libraries, community halls) could be a good starting reason.
  6. Engagement: There have to be reasons for people to come together and then stay on. These could be meetups, micro-campaigns, debating clubs, tree planting, educating kids, mentoring youth, or other such activities. They will also help attract new people to the organisation.
  7. App: An app on the phones of members will maintain connection and enable co-ordination.
  8. Virality: An organisation like this has to spread person-to-person. Members have to get members. When local units become big, they should split like amoeba and begin their independent growth.
  9. Scale: Since the eventual objective is political power, this organisation needs to spread to every part of India. India has a billion (100 crore) voters spread across 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, 4000 Assembly constituencies and a million (10 lakh) polling booths. The eventual goal must be to have an operating cell in every booth.
  10. Political Entrepreneurs: None of this is going to happen automatically. It will need people with passion and purpose – a new generation of political entrepreneurs willing to think long-term, like the RSS founder Keshav Hegdewar did nearly a hundred years ago, and Balasaheb Thackeray did with the Shiv Sena 50 years ago.

Taken together, these are the foundational ideas for a national decentralised organisation of Circles and citizens who believe in a new vision of India and are willing to devote a few hours a week to make it happen. This may seem like a daunting mission, but as the Chinese say, “cross the river by feeling the stones” and “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

What are our stones and steps?


Circles Playbook

The “Circle” needs to become central to the community. Even as it needs a political entrepreneur to drive and sustain it, others must feel part of it. Here are a few starting ideas on what the Circles could do.


  • Micro-libraries – start with a collection of 50-100 books
  • Debating clubs – organise weekly match-ups
  • Education classes / vocational training
  • Counselling / Mentoring / tutoring kids and preparing them for better jobs
  • Solutions for neighbourhood problems
  • Micro-finance
  • Self-help groups
  • Help local youth get jobs
  • Micro-campaigns eg. tree planting
  • Civic action: Holding government officials accountable for service delivery

Location (for meetings)

  • Someone’s home
  • School hall

Getting Started

  • Get a group of 20 people together
  • Each one can talk up responsibility of improving lives of 5 others
  • Try experiments to see which activities work

Models (to study and learn from)

  • RSS / Shiv Sena Shakhas
  • Rotary Club / Lion’s Club
  • NCC / Boy Scouts
  • Amish / Mormon Church
  • Salvation Army / Red Cross
  • Teach for India / Pratham
  • Micro-finance Institutions (MFIs)

Hopefully, this gives a useful set of ideas for interested political entrepreneurs to get started and create their own Circles.


Getting Started

What are the first three actions that are needed to lay the foundation to create a million political entrepreneurs across India to run local Circles – one in every neighbourhood?

First, identify local political entrepreneurs. Like business entrepreneurs, they have to identify gaps and create solutions in their neighbourhoods. They are the pioneers who have to create the 2020s version of the shakhas. They are people with free time and access to some resources (other people, a workspace, some initial capital if needed). Most importantly, they are unhappy with the status quo and are keen to bring about change. In the early days, they will face many obstacles and frustrations because there is no playbook for them to build on. Their path will be like the hero’s journey (monomyth). Their passion and ability to innovate will lead them on. They will feel the stones in the river and take the first steps on the thousand mile journey.

Second, the political entrepreneurs need to make a start in their neighbourhood by thinking of the social infrastructure they can create within the shakha-like construct. As different experiments are run in a variety of places, they will be learnings on what works and what doesn’t. The goal in this phase is to demonstrate what is possible – create showcases that other political entrepreneurs could replicate and improve. It could be a debating club, a micro-library, an English teaching course, or a mentoring initiative to help youth learn new skills and get a job. The aim should be to show that an initiative like this solves a real world problem and helps build credibility for the local entrepreneur.

Third, there needs to be a small central co-ordination team that helps connect and guide the political entrepreneurs. They can take early learnings and ensure they are shared with others so there is a fast process of incremental improvement. Failures need to be discarded, and the small successes need to be built on. This is not too different from how many innovation processes work – start with a wide pool of ideas and keep discarding what is not working until the best ones survive. This portfolio approach is also how venture investors make bets.

This positive feedback loop of sharing stories about entrepreneurs and their experiments will invite even more innovators into the space. This is the flywheel that will drive the revolution.

I will close this series with a story told by Matt Ridley in his book “How Innovation Works” to show that new ideas can come from the most unexpected places and the least expected people.

Take sliced bread, for example. Best thing since, and all that. Looking back it is obvious that somebody would invent a way of automatically pre-slicing bread to make uniform sandwiches. It is fairly obvious that this would probably happen in the first half of the twentieth century when electrical machines were all the rage for the first time. But why 1928? And why in the small town of Chillicothe, in the middle of Missouri? Lots of people tried to make bread-slicing machines, but they either worked poorly or they led to stale bread because it was not well packaged. The person who made it work was Otto Frederick Rohwedder, who was born in Iowa, was educated as an optician in Chicago and set up shop as a jeweller in St Joseph, Missouri, before moving back to Iowa determined – for some reason – to invent a bread slicer. He lost his first prototype in a fire in 1917 and had to start all over again. Crucially he realized that he must invent automatic packaging of the bread at the same time lest the slices go stale. Most bakeries were not interested, but the Chillocothe bakery, owned by one Frank Bench, was and the rest is history. What was special about Missouri? Beyond a general mid-twentieth-century American affection for innovation and the means to make it happen, the best guess is that it was a slice of random luck. Serendipity plays a big part in innovation, which is why liberal economies, with their free-roving experimental opportunities, do so well. They give luck a chance.

Let a thousand political entrepreneurs bloom, experiments happen, give luck a chance. It is this process of innovation that led to the Industrial Revolution. My hope is that the creation of Circles in every neighbourhood and village can lead to the Indian Revolution.