Before dawn, men gather in a suburban Mumbai park to play team-building games, meditate, chant Sanskrit mantras from Hindu scripture and salute a saffron-orange flag — the color, sacred to Hindus, of robes worn by Hindu monks.
There are potbellied, middle-aged dads, retirees and a young boy in a soccer jersey and no shoes — all members of a local cell of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It's part of a vast all-male network that runs Hindu catechism classes, yoga sessions and these morning drill sessions, called shakhas. The idea is to celebrate more than 5,000 years of Hindu culture.
"We recite the names of great people — sons and daughters of India — right from the ancient times to modern India," explains Ratan Sharda, 64, who has been an RSS member since childhood. "See, we have forgotten our history. We have forgotten the great deeds our people have done."
Sharda believes that centuries of non-Hindu rule — British colonialism and the Mughal Empire before that — have left Indians without a strong sense of their culture and heritage. The RSS, he says, helps supplement their knowledge.
But it's not simply a celebration of Hindu culture. The RSS also runs summer camps, where volunteers train with rifles, and a political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose candidates now hold the highest offices in the land. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a longtime RSS member, and the group's influence is apparent in his Hindu nationalist policies.
The RSS, founded nearly 100 years ago, has profoundly shaped Indian society and politics — and Modi himself. As he runs for a second term, the RSS' influence is more apparent than ever — something that alarms members of India's religious minorities and those who believe in the country's secular basis, who accuse the RSS of chauvinism and fostering intolerance and hate.
When Indians won their freedom from British rule in 1947, they established a pluralistic democracy based on secular principles, embracing their diversity. But the RSS' goal is to redefine India according to its majority Hindu faith.
Promoting a "Hindu nation"
Led since 2009 by longtime stalwart Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS is India's most prominent proponent of Hindutva — Hindu-ness and the idea that India should be a "Hindu nation." About 80 percent of India's 1.4 billion people are Hindus, but there are also millions of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. The constitution defines India as a secular country. (The word "secular" was actually a late addition to the document's preamble, in 1976, though many of the constitution's original articles embody secular values).
The RSS and many of its members want to change that. The group's mission statement describes it as "firmly rooted in genuine nationalism" and decries an "erosion of the nation's integrity in the name of secularism" and "endless appeasement of the Muslim population."
"The Hindus have been treated as second-order citizens by successive governments," it says. "Expressed in the simplest terms, the ideal of the [RSS] is to carry the nation to the pinnacle of glory, through organising the entire society and ensuring protection of Hindu Dharma." (Dharma is a Sanskrit word used to describe Hindu religion, its culture and its entire worldview and system of living.)
Today, many members interpret that as a mission to bring Hindu scripture into Indian law and strip Indian Muslims of equal rights, or even expel them.
In 1925, when the RSS was founded, India was under British rule. The group was started by a doctor named Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a contemporary of Mohandas Gandhi, who was agitating for independence. Where Gandhi preached nonviolence, the RSS emphasized military discipline and Hindu scripture. Hedgewar was critical of the diversity and political hierarchy of India's main independence movement, the Indian National Congress, or Congress party, and he wanted RSS members to be uniform, equal volunteers.
The RSS started with 17 members in the living room of Hedgewar's family home in the central Indian city of Nagpur. Now it claims to be the world's biggest volunteer group, with a membership across India of at least 5 million. That's still a small fraction of India's 1.4 billion people. The group does not publicize its annual budget but says all its funds come from private donations. Membership is free, and people can join by filling out a form online.
Hedgewar's house is now a museum with exhibits about his life and the history of the RSS. But it leaves out some key details, like how the group initially opposed the idea of a secular state and how an early leader, M.S. Golwalkar, referred to Christians and Muslims as "internal threats" and praised Nazi Germany as an example of "race pride" from which India could learn. In 2006, the RSS tried to distance itself from Golwalkar's writings, saying it no longer agreed with some of them.
There's also no mention at the museum of the most infamous RSS member: Gandhi's assassin.
Nathuram Godse was a Hindu extremist who disagreed with Gandhi's efforts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims. The RSS acknowledges he was a member, but it considers him an extremist rogue who had distanced himself from the group by the time of Gandhi's killing. Others, including some of Godse's own relatives, say he never left.
On Jan. 30, 1948 — only months after India had won its freedom from British rule — Godse shot the 78-year-old freedom leader three times at point-blank range as Gandhi was on his way to pray in New Delhi.
Godse was arrested, and the Indian government swiftly banned the RSS. Members went to jail, and angry mobs attacked their homes.
"My grandfather's house was burned," says Sameer Gautam, 44, an RSS member in Nagpur who comes from a long line of RSS men. "My grandmother was alone, because my grandfather was jailed — and he might not have even known Godse! He might not have ever seen Godse!"
Godse was convicted of Gandhi's murder and was hanged. But in July 1949, the government lifted the RSS ban. An official investigation later absolved the RSS of any involvement in Gandhi's death.
"We had absolutely no idea of their reach"
In the decades since, the RSS has rebounded and become more assertive. It has dozens of affiliates representing women, youth and students, all loosely linked under an RSS umbrella of Hindu nationalist organizations. It also runs thousands of schools across India. Its affiliates hold shakhas, the morning marching-and-meditation sessions, in dozens of other countries, including the United States.
The RSS gained prominence in the 1980s by calling for a Hindu temple to be built in Ayodhya, in northern India. A 16th-century mosque sat on the same spot where Hindu faithful believe the Hindu god Ram was born. In 1992, Hindu activists destroyed the Babri mosque. Thousands of people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots afterward. It was a shock for many Indians who hadn't realized the extent of the RSS' reach.
"We knew of the RSS vaguely. We knew that they were very anti-Muslim and anti-Christian — and that they were banned after Gandhi's assassination," says Tanika Sarkar, a retired professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "We knew all that. But we didn't put everything together."
Sarkar says she and many other scholars underestimated the RSS and its ability to mobilize members around sectarian issues.
"We had absolutely no idea of their reach, of the ground-level organization," Sarkar says. "They do some good also! They provide schools in remote areas. But along with literacy, they also teach this kind of vicious ethnic hatred."
"To be Indian, in the deepest sense, you should be Hindu"
For about half a century, Indian politics were dominated by the Congress party, which helped win independence from the British and write the Indian Constitution. University campuses were filled with left-wing, Marxist and secular groups until the late 1990s, when Hindu nationalist groups, some of them affiliated with the RSS, started cropping up.
"Secularism suddenly went out of the window," says Vikas Pathak, 42, who joined the RSS student wing at his college in 1997.
Pathak says he felt a change on campus, with left-wing secular groups losing support and Hindu nationalist ones gaining sympathy. It was gradual, but by the late 1990s, he no longer felt like his was a minority political view. And he says it wasn't just his campus in New Delhi that he sensed had changed. It was the entire country. He realized then that Hindu nationalism had gone mainstream, thanks in part to the Ayodhya temple controversy. Bharatiya Janata Party governments were elected in 1996 and 1998.
"The word 'secular' isn't even used much anymore," he says, referring to the BJP's brand of Hindu nationalism, which shuns the secularism of left-wing parties like Congress.
What attracted him to the RSS affiliate, Pathak says, was what he calls "cultural nationalism."
"To be Indian, in the deepest sense, you should be Hindu," he describes his thinking at the time.
A decade later, Pathak left the group to work as a journalist and media teacher. He says he felt like he had to leave the RSS to be able to study and write about it objectively. He's also critical of it nowadays, calling the RSS' approach to Hinduism "aggressive" and less tolerant of differing viewpoints.
"A Boy Scouts organization that seeks to run the country"
In recent years, the RSS has poured itself into electoral politics.
"It started, for the first 50 to 60 years, as [pushing for] moral change, remaking the personhood of the Hindu," says Pradip Kumar Datta, a historian and political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "But now, it is what we might call a Boy Scouts organization that seeks to run the country."
It does that today, Datta says, primarily through the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi's party. The prime minister, the president and most of those in India's Cabinet are RSS members. Modi joined when he was young. The RSS campaigned for his 2001 election as chief minister of Gujarat state, Datta says.
The RSS helped shape Modi, and he still consults it on policy matters.
Until July 2015, the RSS had kept a distance from day-to-day politics, preferring to be seen as a moral force rather than a political one. But that month, Modi, in office for just over a year, decided to attend an RSS conclave in New Delhi. He told the crowd he was proud to be swayamsevak, an RSS member, according to Indian news accounts.
"The prime minister and senior ministers went there to report on their policies and to get the RSS' views on policy. So that was a very overt meeting," says Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator and columnist. "You also have the economic wing of the RSS, its leaders, going to see the finance minister of India before the budget is formulated."
The RSS' influence can now be seen in national policies affecting everything from education to commerce and food. It helps shape India's public school curriculum, which, in some BJP-led states, teaches Hindu scripture as historical fact. Through its affiliates, it has been able to scuttle legislation it doesn't like. And it pressures the Indian government to be more protectionist when it comes to big multinational companies entering the country.
New e-commerce rules that took effect during the winter limit the scope of business that big multinational companies like Amazon and Walmart can conduct online in India. The rules reflect RSS views, and the group reportedly wrote to Modi, urging him to not give in to pressure from Washington to ease them. Walmart has a subsidiary in India, with stores in several states, and bought a $16 billion controlling stake in the Indian e-commerce giant Flipkart.
"The RSS is much more for the development of indigenous industry, domestic industry — and against multinationals coming in, foreign direct investment coming in," Chowdhury says. "Their model is much more rooted in the Indian soil."
The RSS also opposes some privatization of state assets, including the national airline. Modi's government has long planned to sell off part of Air India, but the deal has been stalled for months. An RSS-affiliated trade union opposes it, and the RSS' chief was quoted as saying that if Air India is sold, it should be run by an Indian firm, not a foreign airline.
That the RSS has been able to wield such great influence in India, with an ideology that's often at odds with the secularism enshrined in India's constitution, worries some of India's religious minorities — particularly Christians and Muslims, for whom RSS leaders have reserved their harshest views. By contrast, the RSS has described other religious minorities — Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists — as part of India, because their faiths originated there.
More than 14 percent of Indians are Muslim. They're the largest religious minority, making up the fastest-growing major religion in India. For more than three centuries of the Mughal Empire, India had Muslim rulers who left a rich heritage of art, nomenclature and architecture, including India's most famous landmark, the Taj Mahal.
But some RSS members don't recognize that. They call today's Indian Muslims "invaders" because their ancestors may have come from abroad. Some believe that deep down, India's Muslims are actually Hindus because their Hindu ancestors may, on the other hand, have been forced to convert to Islam.
"They want to erase our Muslim history and identity," says Syed Ahmed Ansari, 47, a rickshaw driver in Mumbai with a bushy white beard, standing in the driveway of his mosque in a neighborhood dotted with mosques, temples and churches.
"When Indians were struggling for freedom from colonial rule, we were united. We were all in it together," Ansari says. "Why should we focus now on what divides us?"