As COVID plagues India, Indresh Kumar and Shyam Parande stepped forward — on more than one occasion in May 2021 — to release consignments of oxygen concentrators donated by non-profit organization Sewa International.
The raging pandemic is not the first time that the two have publicly partnered. Parande, the global coordinator of Sewa International, is not just linked to Kumar through the non-profit but also through their shared activism with another organization: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In past years, for instance, the two travelled to Cambodia together to prepare a report about how India’s RSS can make a “cultural investment” there.
Parande, whose participation in the Cambodia project was reported as that of a “senior” RSS leader, has additionally been reported as head of the RSS’s “Vishwa Vibhag (foreign department)” and, with his wife, even described as one of “RSS’s power couples.” Kumar, for his part, is a senior member of the RSS’s national executive committee.
In December 2010, Kumar was in Pune, Maharashtra to speak at the Vishwa Sangh Shibir (VSS). “The VSS is a once-in-five-years conclave of the RSS-supported Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh [HSS],” explained The Indian Express. Noting that the event is often the first trip to India for some HSS members, senior RSS executive Manmohan Vaidya said that the conclave focuses on “how to spread the work and the message of RSS.”
Speakers at the multi-day VSS included a “who’s who” of the Sangh Parivar — the “family of organizations” springing from the RSS.
Aside from Kumar, there was RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, who argued that “a Hindu alone can think of the welfare of the humanity” and declared, “The world has to acquire Hindu values to survive.” There was Ashok Singhal, then chief of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious wing of the RSS. From the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the RSS, came the party’s then second-in-command, Ram Lal. From Sewa Bharati — the service wing of the RSS and parent organization of Sewa International — came Sitaram Kedilaya. And from the US and the UK came the presidents of the HSS branches of those countries.
Travelling all the way from Texas to attend was Ramesh Bhutada, the vice-president of HSS-USA. The event gave Bhutada — who has hosted Bhagwat in his Houston home — a chance to not only wear the RSS’s official uniform but meet and pose with the founder of the HSS. It also gave him a chance to travel with a Houston delegation that included Arun Kankani.
Aside from their shared interest in the HSS/RSS summit in Pune, Kankani and Bhutada are connected through their ties to Sewa International USA. Kankani became the non-profit’s president in 2020. Bhutada is the organisation’s chairperson.
Sewa International, according to one report about a VSS from the 1990s, is among “several affiliated organisations of RSS” operating abroad. Sewa USA is, reported The New Indian Express, “a part of the Sangha Parivar in the US.” It is also, as of May 10th 2021, the recipient of a $2.5m donation from Twitter.
Twitter’s donation, announced by CEO Jack Dorsey, has outraged some. Nearly 2,500 people have signed a petition demanding that Dorsey rescind it due to the organization’s connection with the RSS. The money, though it is officially earmarked to aid Sewa International’s campaign to provide emergency relief medical equipment in India’s struggle against COVID, also seems likely to assist the RSS-linked non-profit’s public image.
The RSS and Sewa International are both in need of image rehabilitation. Bhutada, as both the RSS’s number two man in the US as well as chair of Sewa USA, likely knows that more than most. And he — along with Kankani — has a history of playing a crucial role in helping to rehabilitate the image of the man some hold responsible for India’s current COVID crisis: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an RSS member.
In September 2019, Bhutada served as a leading patron of “Howdy, Modi,” a mega-reception organised in Houston to promote the Indian prime minister. While Bhutada’s son, Rishi, was the event’s head spokesperson and his brother-in-law, Jugal Malani, chaired the event’s organising committee, Kankani served as head of operations. Meanwhile, Sewa International (Houston) President Gitesh Desai served, alongside Rishi Bhutada, as an event spokesperson.
“Howdy, Modi” was the third such mega-reception organized in the US since Modi’s election in May 2014. His visits were an opportunity to pay back his thousands of Indian-American supporters who worked for his election (including people like Bhutada as well as Desai, who actually travelled to India to campaign). They also marked a personal victory as they were the first times that Modi — as a beneficiary of diplomatic immunity in his new position as prime minister — was allowed into the US after being banned from entry in 2005. The US State Department, at the time, held him responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” that occurred in Gujarat in 2002. Extreme anti-Muslim violence erupted days after Modi was appointed chief minister of the state; according to Human Rights Watch, the groups responsible primarily included the RSS and its affiliates.
While Modi and the RSS (which, in 2008, was again implicated in an anti-minority pogrom) had — before the 2014 election — faced a great need for international image rehabilitation, so too did Sewa International.
Founded in 1989 by then RSS Chief Madhukar Deoras, Sewa Bharati — in India — “is an umbrella organisation which constitutes over nine hundred NGOs of the Sangh,” explains The Caravan. In the organisation’s own words, it was founded to provide a formal structure for “volunteers of RSS and other allied organisations” to engage in charity. It is “affiliated to the RSS,” “RSS-led,” and operates as “the main agency for social work in the RSS.”
“We make no secret of the fact that we are members of the RSS,” one senior Sewa Bharati leader has said.
According to political scientist Malini Bhattacharjee, the RSS’s focus on sewa — meaning “selfless service” — “stemm[ed] from the need to rehabilitate the RSS’ image as a social and humanitarian organisation as opposed to a communal and paramilitary body.” As she explains, “Participation in relief and rehabilitation activities have not only helped create a compassionate image for the RSS, but also provided it with opportunities to undertake cadre building, consolidate its organisational network, and even penetrate those regions where it had no traditional support base.”
“The RSS also has an international wing, Sewa International, which organizes welfare work outside India and raises funds for parivar projects in India,” reports sociologist Chetan Bhatt. Founded in 1997, Sewa International has repeatedly described Sewa Bharati as its “local partner organization.“ It has various branches abroad, including, as noted, in the US.
Raising funds abroad while rarely mentioning its connections to the RSS (an organisation about which many non-Indians are already ignorant, anyways), Sewa International managed to make inroads. It — and its sister groups — even secured patronage from politicians and agreements for corporate matching of donations. In the early 2000s, however, a series of events dented the non-profit’s image.
In August 2002, the late Lord Adam Patel resigned as a patron of Sewa International UK (SI-UK). “I very much regret ever having been part of this racist organisation,” said Patel. “Sewa International is a front for controversial militant Hindu organisations, and so I have been forced to resign my position as one of its patrons.” His resignation came “amid claims that it has links with rightwing Hindu extremist groups blamed for provoking rioting in India.”
That was followed in December 2002 by a Channel 4 News special. British authorities, said the channel, were investigating allegations that money raised through SI-UK “might fund communal violence in India.” According to the channel, “We wanted to find out whether money given by British donors to Sewa International, apparently to help the poor in India, could actually end up funding sectarian violence there.”
Meanwhile, in November 2002, a report in the US claimed that Sewa International, in India, was affiliated with the US-based India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF). “Sewa International is [an] IDRF affiliate in India overseeing IDRF’s Indian operation,” stated the report. “In terms of international funding, it may be amongst the most significant of IDRF’s ‘sister’ organizations. It is a Sangh Parivar organization set up primarily to coordinate foreign contributions for different Sangh projects in India.” As Financial Times subsequently reported, “According to IDRF’s tax filings, more than 80 per cent of the almost $3.2m it directly sent to India between 1994 and 2000 went to projects managed by groups that are explicitly part of the RSS family.”
In response, matching corporate donors like Cisco Systems and Oracle Corporation suspended their collaboration with IDRF while the US Justice Department reportedly “launched an investigation into charges that millions of dollars… were used to fund Hindu fundamentalism in India.” IDRF’s spokesperson, Vijay Pallod — a relative of and long-time co-activist with Bhutada who also wore an RSS uniform at the 2010 VSS — shot back: “The accusations are falsehoods packaged by propagandists masquerading as concerned citizens.” Nevertheless, IDRF’s star briefly faded, and, over the following year, Sewa USA was founded with Bhutada at its helm.
The pounding continued. In 2004, a new report emerged in the UK which revealed that SI-UK “is the fundraising arm of the HSS UK,” alleged that it is “directly linked with the RSS and its affiliates, including Sewa International India and Sewa Bharati,” and claimed that “Sewa Bharati has been openly involved in Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] extremist political work in India.” The report argued that SI-UK’s “main purpose” was to “raise funds in the UK for RSS projects in India in order to directly help the expansion of the extremist RSS’s networks across Indian society in line with the long term political and sectarian aims of the RSS.”
“Sewa Bharati is the main recipient of funds from SIUK,” stated the report. “The fundamental aim of these projects is to penetrate communities through service activities in order to promote RSS ideology and organization.” Arguing that the RSS was “distributing relief selectively to higher caste victims and neglecting Dalits and Muslims” as well as “organizing training cells (shakhas) in relief camps,” the report explained:
“An alarming chain links unsuspecting donors in the UK to the active political promotion and glorification of the extremist RSS in Gujarat. UK donors gave funds in good faith to SIUK for humanitarian reconstruction and rehabilitation following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake; these funds went from SIUK to the RSS’s Sewa Bharati which managed the work, with additional funds from government agencies; work was started through RSS ceremonies, or completed villages were inaugurated by very senior RSS officers…. The extremist RSS and its dangerous ideology were actively promoted in Gujarat through these processes. The Hindutva political agenda of the RSS was explicit in the reconstruction and opening ceremonies of several villages funded by SIUK. The agenda to glorify and expand the RSS was well known by SIUK but not revealed to donors.”
It was an inauspicious launch into the 21st century for Sewa International but, 20 years on, the RSS-linked non-profit seems to be successfully rehabilitating its image as it opens its coffers to receive the outpouring of financial support offered by Twitter. A rising tide floats all boats, however. Thus, Indresh Kumar of the RSS seems to also be benefitting from the self-promotional PR opportunities that arise as international aid pours into India.
Kumar certainly needs the image boost. After a series of blasts targeting Indian Muslim locations in the mid-2000s, Kumar’s name figured in the diary of a key accused, another key accused claimed he had prior knowledge of a blast, and yet another accused — Swami Aseemanand, a full-time RSS worker affiliated with Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an RSS-affiliate named as both a participant in anti-minority violence as well as a top recipient of funding from the IDRF and SI-UK — confessed that Kumar (along with Mohan Bhagwat) gave their blessings to his plans for staging the blasts. “This is great,” Aseemanand claimed Kumar and Bhagwat said about his plans. “It’s very important that it be done. But don’t link it to the Sangh.”
Although Kumar certainly never hoped for that (alleged) conversation to be made public, the things he has unapologetically said in public in recent years do little to improve his image anywhere other than in Hindu nationalist circles. He has denounced conversion as an act of Satan, demanded national legislation against “Love Jihad” (the conspiracy theory that Muslim men are systematically duping Hindu women into marrying them), and described protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act (which sets “a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion”) as “traitors.”
From Kumar to Modi and the RSS to Sewa International, image rehabilitation is certainly a need of the past two decades. As COVID continues ravaging India and the nation still faces a catastrophic shortage of oxygen, it appears that the crisis comes as a fresh of breath air to a supremacist movement that has been increasingly hounded by bad publicity. While the Modi regime’s pandemic policy includes suffocating dissent, the regime’s apologists — thanks, in part, to millions donated by a social media giant — are, for now, breathing a little easier.
Chances are, however, that the Sangh, although it thinks the donation is very important, doesn’t want it linked to them.
Pieter Friedrich is a South Asian Affairs Analyst who resides in California. He is the co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. Discover more by him at pieterfriedrich.net.