Ground Report: The RSS Took Root in Bengal One Haripad at a Time

It was through the persistence of men like Haripad and his brother that the RSS survived and grew across the state.

Hooghly (West Bengal): Standing on his plot of land in Jagannathpur village, Hooghly district, 60-year-old Haripad Singh Roy points to a broken wall that once marked his family home: “That’s where they entered the house and killed my brothers. It’s still so painful, I find it hard to look in that direction.”

This was April 13, 2001. According to Haripad, a mob of men associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) broke into his house at 7 am and grabbed his eldest brother, Hara Singh Roy and the youngest, Dayal Singh Roy. They were beaten to death with rods and lathis. “I managed to hide in time so they couldn’t spot me. Another younger brother was away in Mednipur where he was the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] pracharak, so the two of us survived.”

It was through the persistence of men like Haripad and his brother that the RSS survived and grew across the state. And this paved the way for the BJP’s eventual expansion in West Bengal. Now, in the face of an influx of thousands from the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), it is this cadre that ensures the BJP retains true to its core, down to its exclusionary ideology.

“At that time we were the only active RSS family in the village. The CPI(M) men had been threatening us for a while, asking us to join them or else we’d face consequences.” Haripad says they had complained to the police but they were given no protection. “It was their rule, the police was theirs.”

The day after the murders, the family fled the village. For the next few years, the family lived in hiding, relocating from Howrah to Bankura until one day Haripad walked into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office to seek help. “They heard my story, gave me refuge, kept me safe,” says Hairpad. “Aseem Ghosh was the sabhapati then. When Tathagatha Roy took over as the sabhapati he started giving me an honorarium. You know later he became the governor,” Haripad adds with a sense of pride in his tone.

For the next ten years Haripad lived at the BJP office, working odd jobs, supporting his family and his eldest brother’s widow and children. Two years ago, he was able to construct a house in Kamar Kundu, a few kilometres from his native village, where he now lives with his extended family.

In the immediate aftermath of the murders, Mamata Banerjee had come to Jagannathpur. Haripad recalls how she had gone to the hospital, seen his brothers’ bodies in the mortuary and had got their post-mortem report from the doctors. Her party has listed both his slain brothers, Hara Singh and Dayal, among TMC’s martyrs.

“Mamata came, she promised justice, railed against the CPI(M). Elections were a month away, the killings happened in April, voting was in May,” Haripad says pointedly. “She never returned, not even when she finally got power in 2011. Besides, so many of the same CPI(M) gangs went to the TMC. It is the BJP that has given our family the oxygen we needed to survive.”

Would he have worked at the TMC office if Mamata had given him a job or done more for his family, I ask. Haripad’s response is emphatic. “No, like I said we are an old RSS family and we have always worked to try and establish the RSS’s nation-saving ideology in Bengal.”

Haripad’s village Jagannathanpur, Jangipra assembly constituency, Hooghly.

Such individuals and families were the backbone of the RSS slow rise in Bengal. Naba Kumar Sarkar, more infamously known as Swami Aseemanand, was born and initiated into the Sangh in this very district. His brother was an RSS pracharak and Aseemanand spent four years in Purula working among Adivasis for the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram.

In 1984, when Haripad joined the RSS, no one in his village had ever seen or attended a shakha. Haripad’s reasons for joining are textbook RSS. “There was a lot of goruhatya (cow slaughter) occurring at the time, so I had collected a few boys from my village to protest against the Muslims. Instead of helping us stop these barbaric acts, the police picked us up.” Haripad recounts how Uttam Mandal, an RSS pracharak from Uttar 24 Parganas, came to congratulate him for his stand against cow slaughter. “He understood our pain and said that I had done my duty as a Rajput Khatri (kshatriya), by defending Hindu dharma.”

The reference to his caste would come up again when Haripad spoke of being drawn to the ‘shararik (physical training) camps’ that the RSS would run. “Maybe because I am a Rajput Khatri and traditionally we are the ones who fight for the faith but I found the RSS’s emphasis on physical fitness, on training us to fight with sticks, important for our community’s well-being.”

“We are inspired by the RSS because it is the only force which speaks of the uthan (upliftment) of Hindustan and of Hindus,” says Haripad. Uttam Mandal’s words still resonate with him. “He told us that the RSS is the only force which consistently opposed the carving up of India. We’re still reeling from the impact of India being divided into Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.”

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The men who killed and attacked his family were neighbours, all Hindus, many from the same caste as his. But in his worldview it is still the abstract threat that all Muslims pose that takes precedence over his immediate reality.

Over the course of the day, Haripad was calm in speech, soft spoken and gentle in his demeanour but his analysis of the world around him was in stark contrast – “Muslims want India partitioned; they marry not four time but six or seven; Hindu girls are forcibly abducted by Muslim men and finally ‘Bangaldeshis’ (he used the terms Muslims and Bangladeshis interchangeably) are overrunning Bengal, only the BJP can stop it.”

Once Haripad joined the RSS in 1984, his brothers Hiralal and Dayal Singh, and a few other men from his village, followed suit. Haripad describes how the first RSS shakha in Jangipara (the assembly constituency his village was in) was established and run from the family home. Haripad became the shakha pramukh. Dayal Singh, who was killed, rose to become the head of the RSS’s shararik (physical training) camp in Hooghly. “There were less than 20 shakhas in Hooghly at the time, now there must be definitely more than 150,” Haripad says confidently.

Two years ago, his younger brother, Hiralal, was made the BJP’s district general secretary from Howrah. With great pride, Haripad informs us that Hiralal was scheduled to stand on the dais next to Narendra Modi during his election rally in Howrah but is disappointed he will not be able to make it. Those who were to be in close contact with the prime minister were all tested and his brother was found to be COVID-19 positive and quarantined.

“Since the murders I have kept a low profile, I don’t visibly do any politics as there is still a strong threat against me, but I do work quietly,” says Haripad, launching into his analysis of the BJP’s prospects in the elections.

The conversation has shifted into a room that also act as a store place. While the family no longer lives in Jagannathpur, about 20 bighas of land which they own is still being farmed – dhan, til (sesame) and potatoes. A couple, Munni Kisku and her husband Bimal Kisku, look after the land and Haripad is keen we speak to them. “They are Santhalis and they’ve helped me do prachar for the RSS. You can call them Adivasis but first they are Hindus and so their natural party for voting will be the BJP.” With Haripad watching, they speak of Modi and what he can do for Bengal.

Haripad with the Santhalli couple, Munni and Bimal Kisku, who farm on his land.

In the Lok Sabha elections, despite the BJP’s lack of workers on the ground, so much so that it had no one to man the booth in the village, the party won from this area. But it may not have its way in this election.

Across the road from Haripad’s house, there’s bustle of activities around the pukur (the village pond) – the children are fishing, a few women washing clothes and utensils. As they walk back to their homes, a few steps away, they begin to talk about the elections. They’ll be voting on April 6. “Now what is in my heart, who I cast my vote for is not something I will tell you,” is the response of the eldest woman in the group, Archana Payal.

She grins widely as she continues, “My daughter-in-laws and my daughter, I can tell you, are impressed with Mamata Didi. Her camp was held here and all of us got our Swasthya Sathi card. My daughter also got her caste certificate.” She was referring to the TMC’s massive Duare Sarkar (Government at Your Door) programme, launched in December 2020 after the 2019 Lok Sabha setback. By now, the other women have returned with their shiny blue Swasthya Sathi cards. Archana’s daughter-in-law Manisha says the government camp where the cards were issued was set up near their village and created much excitement.

Jharna and her family with their newly acquired Swasthya Sathi cards.

Haripad walks across to the women and asks them if the cards they’re holding are just pieces of plastic or if they’ve got any benefits. “We only got these cards recently and have had no medical expenses so it’s too early to say,” Archana replies.

Driving from Jagannathpur, his old village, to the new one, Haripad stops at a small tea shop. Two older men, sitting there, are introduced as Sushanto Das and Parthasarthy Banerjee. Haripad says they are the “two oldest and original BJP members of this region”.

Das tells us of the time he went to do kar sewa in Ayodhya in the early 1990’s. Banerjee says he has seen both L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee up close. “Both those great men had a glow on their face,” he says.

“We were the men working quietly, laying the ground for the rise of the BJP,” says Das matter-of-factly. Did they expect greater rewards from the party, tickets perhaps? “The party knows who can win and who can work,” is Banerjee’s reply.

What about all the new faces in the BJP, so many imports from the TMC. The man being showered with attention these days, Suvendu Adhikari, was till recently a TMC leader, I ask.

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“These are compulsions. The BJP needed these people to win elections. But the BJP is not like the TMC, there are asools, and discipline. Doesn’t matter where you come from, once you’re in the party you follow its system,” Haripad elaborates, “In the TMC, it is only about Mamata. In the BJP whether you are Suvendu or Modi, you follow the party line. “

A younger man, in his 20s, arrives to greet them. He’s Ranjit Mullick, who has been made the BJP’s booth head from Aminpur. The village has a large number of Bagdis, the Dalit community Ranjit comes from. “I was impressed with Modi and I can see that among the youth in my community and across the village there is great enthusiasm for him.”

Haripad’s village Jagannathanpur, Jangipra assembly constituency, Hooghly.

Here the counterpoint to Modi is Mamata, and while the BJP has made corruption in the TMC administration a key focus of its campaign, for its own cadre, Mamata’s biggest drawback lies elsewhere – what they term as “appeasement of Muslims”.

“The BJP’s biggest advantage today is Mamata herself. Her men are corrupt and her party is a Muslim party. No one has forgotten her wearing a hijab, doing namaz and flaunting that in the face of Hindus,” says Haripad, referring to the furore over a railway advertisement in 2017 which showed Mamata with her head covered in a namaz posture.

Haripad is convinced that when the BJP comes to power, its first step will be to implement the National Register of Citizens. “There were reports that the BJP is going slow on NRC but Dilip Ghosh [BJP’s Bengal unit president] in his latest speeches had reiterated the commitment to the NRC.” Haripad has praise for Ghosh. “He does not accept situations passively. If Muslims are threatening Hindus or if the TMC is attacking our people, he believes it’s important to hit back. He’s also an old RSS man.”

This is the only time he makes any mention of a local leader or a personality in the context of the BJP campaign. People will vote for the party, not the candidate, he feels, which is why he is convinced Swapan Dasgupta will win from the “neighbouring constituency of Tarakeshwar. People may not recognise him but they’ve been told he’s a Rajya Sabha member, he is highly literate, speaks well and is a Bangla man.”

Haripad says he has never met him but Dasgupta knows of the tragic murders of his brothers. “I hope when BJP comes to power they will remember me and my family will get justice.”

All images by Radhika Bordia.