LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The world's biggest democracy - India - is holding elections. Voting started about two weeks ago and lasts through May. While that's underway, we're bringing you a series of stories about Hindu nationalism. India has a Hindu majority, but its constitution calls it a secular country. Some devout Hindus want to change that. NPR's Lauren Frayer looks at an influential Hindu group that's reached the highest levels of Indian politics.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting) Ohm.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It looks like a collection of men from all walks of life. There are middle-aged, kind of pot-bellied men. There's some retirees. There's a young kid in a football jersey and no shoes. And they come here every morning at dawn and do these exercises - yoga - and chant mantras from ancient Hindu texts.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in foreign language).
FRAYER: Go to a neighborhood park in India at dawn and you may find a cell of the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It's a huge network that runs Hindu catechism classes and these morning drill sessions called Shakhas. The idea is to celebrate 5,000 years of rich Hindu culture.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
RATAN SHARDA: We recite the names of the great people - sons and daughters of India - right from the ancient times to the modern India. See; we have forgotten our history. We have forgotten the great deeds that our people have done.
FRAYER: My host, Ratan Sharda, is one of 5 million RSS volunteers. They march.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting).
FRAYER: And salute a saffron orange flag, the color of robes worn by Hindu monks.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
FRAYER: But they do more than morning calisthenics. The RSS also runs summer camps, where cadets train with rifles and bamboo batons. It goes back to 1925, when India was still ruled by the British. Mohandas Gandhi was agitating for independence. A doctor named Keshav Hedgewar broke with the pacifist Gandhi and founded the RSS. Where Gandhi preached non-violence, the RSS emphasized military discipline and Hindu scripture.
This is the house here?
SAMEER GAUTAM: This is the house. We are at the place where RSS was started. And 17 people were present.
FRAYER: It started with 17 men in the founder's living room, says RSS member Sameer Gautam, who gives me a tour. The house, in the central Indian city of Nagpur, is now a museum.
So this is a visitors book.
FRAYER: People from all over India who've...
The museum leaves out some parts of RSS history, though, like how the group initially opposed the idea of a secular Indian constitution and called Christians and Muslims internal threats to India. One of the most famous RSS members was Nathuram Godse - better known as Gandhi's assassin.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: January 30, 1948 - Mahatma Gandhi was murdered - shot to death on his way to a prayer in Delhi by a Hindu, who was maddened by Ghandi's efforts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims.
FRAYER: The Indian government immediately banned the RSS. Members were jailed and their homes attacked by angry mobs. My tour guide Sameer Gautam comes from a long line of RSS men.
GAUTAM: My grandfather's house was burnt. My grandmother was alone because my grandfather was jailed. And he might not be knowing Godse, or he might not have even seen Godse.
FRAYER: Godse was convicted of Gandhi's murder and hanged. The ban on RSS was lifted after a year and a half. An investigation absolved the group itself of any involvement. And since then, the RSS has rebounded. It gained prominence in the 1980s by calling for a Hindu temple to be built in northern India, where faithful believe one of their gods, Lord Ram, was born. Problem is - there was already a 16th century mosque on that very spot.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Yelling).
FRAYER: Hindu activists destroyed the Babri Masjid, or Babri Mosque, in 1992. Historian Tanika Sarkar says it caught even scholars like her by surprise.
TANIKA SARKAR: We knew of the RSS vaguely. But we had absolutely no idea of their reach, of the ground-level organizations. And they do some good also. They provide schools in remote areas. But along with literacy and so on, they also teach this kind of vicious ethnic hatred.
FRAYER: Thousands of people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots when the Babri Mosque came down.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)
FRAYER: On a leafy college campus in New Delhi, Vikas Pathak strolls the quad where, 20 years ago, he used to hand out pamphlets for the RSS student wing. Campuses were dominated by left-wing secular groups. But then, Pathak says, in the late 1990s...
VIKAS PATHAK: That changed immediately. Secularism suddenly went out of the window. It is not there even today.
FRAYER: Pathak says it wasn't just his campus. It was the country. Two decades on, Pathak has since left the group. And the RSS has poured itself into politics, says Pradip Kumar Datta, a historian and political scientist.
PRADIP KUMAR DATTA: It started as remaking the personhood of the Hindu. But now it seeks to run the country.
FRAYER: It does that today, he says, primarily through its political arm - the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP. That's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party. He, the president and most of the cabinet are all RSS members. Modi joined when he was young. The RSS shaped him. And he's still consults it on policy, says columnist Neerja Chowdhury.
NEERJA CHOWDHURY: Couple of years ago, there was this conclave of RSS leaders. And the prime minister and senior ministers went there to get the RSS's views. You have the economic wing of the RSS - their leaders going to see the finance minister of India before the budget is formulated.
FRAYER: Chowdhury says the RSS helps shape public school curriculum. It scuttles legislation it doesn't like. And it pressures the government to be more protectionist when it comes to big, multinational companies entering India.
CHOWDHURY: Walmart, for instance - the entry of Walmart - negotiations are going on. But the RSS has problems with it. So they're much more rooted in the Indian soil. That's the way they put it.
FRAYER: All of this matters because the RSS is an unelected group that has managed to profoundly shape Indian policy. And it's done so with an ideology that's often at odds with India's secular constitution.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in foreign language).
FRAYER: The Muslim call to prayer rings out in a typical Mumbai neighborhood that's dotted with mosques, temples and churches. About 1 in 6 Indians is Muslim. They're the largest minority. And they've been here for centuries. But some RSS members call them invaders because some of their ancestors may have come from abroad. Others say that deep down, India's Muslims are actually Hindus because their Hindu forefathers may have converted to Islam - some say under force.
SYED AHMED ANSARI: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: "They want to erase our Muslim history and identity," says Syed Ahmed Ansari, a rickshaw driver with a bushy, white beard. "When Indians were struggling for freedom from colonial rule, we were united. We were all in it together. Why should we focus now on what divides us?" he asks.
A lifetime ago Indians got their freedom and established a state with secular principles reflecting their diversity. But as RSS gains power, it has a new vision - to redefine India according to its majority-Hindu faith.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.