Every year, the rss organises Bharat Mata pujas on Republic Day. This year too, on January 26, all the shakhas in Gujarat were in full uniform. The bhagwa-dhwaj—the rss flag—had been saluted and Bharat Mata invoked. Suddenly, Mother Earth shook and rumbled. As calamity struck Gujarat, the men and boys in khaki shorts swung into action.
Across Gujarat, the cadres were the saviours. Even as the state machinery went comatose in the first two days after the quake, the cadre-based machinery of the Sangh fanned out through the state. Approximately 35,000 rss members in uniform were pressed into service. In addition, there were thousands of Sangh sympathisers like doctors, engineers, traders, contractors and other middle-class professionals whose services were tapped.
Take the example of Hitesh Vyas, the mukhya shikshak of the Vastrapur Nagar shakha, Ahmedabad. The shakha had just completed the Bharat Mata puja when at 8.45 am, the quake brought down one block of the 10-storey Mansi apartment nearby. Vyas and 100 volunteers rushed to the site. A few hours later, eight rss volunteers were involved in a heroic rescue effort: 30 persons trapped in another wing of the Mansi complex were rescued with the help of a rope from a window on the 6th floor.
For the next week, the cadres set up camp outside the complex. The manner in which they functioned is typical of rss mobilisation. Jayanti Panchal, who claimed to represent both the rss and the local Lions Club, took charge as project coordinator. Another local resident, Dhaval Chandora, donated the services of hydraulic cranes. Diesel to run the cranes was bought with Rs 23,000 raised locally. And the rss lads were always there to rush first aid, clear the rubble and provide security.
Similar scenes were repeated in all the collapsed multi-storeys across Ahmedabad and Bhuj, where the operation to find survivors and the dead went on for nearly a week. Says Panchal: "Whenever we hear of a calamity, rss people reach out at their own cost." Adds Vyas: "In Gujarat, the rss is always seen as an organisation committed to public service." Ahmedabad's collector K. Srinivas agrees: "This is an old tradition in the rss. To be the first at any disaster site: floods, cyclone, drought and now quake."
In Kutch too, the rss was the first to reach the affected areas. At Anjar, a town in ruins, the rss was present much before the army and took the lead in finding survivors and fishing out the dead. In rural Ratnal, again the rss played saviour. Arvind Chaudhary, an rss volunteer, says that 30 cadre members are here to take care of around 40 remote villages. "Where is the government?" he asks. "Not a single government official has visited Ratnal days after the quake though 400 deaths are reported here."
Even as the rss does fantastic work in the aftermath of the quake, it is also rushing to take credit for it. Mukund Rao Deobhankar, prachar pramukh of the Gujarat rss, distributes photos of the cadres doing relief work. Says he: "We are the biggest ngo in the world. In Gujarat certainly, we are the biggest voluntary organisation."
The rss is in fact openly positioning itself to be one of the major beneficiaries of the massive amounts of aid which is pouring in. With a bjp government in place, and with the rss having public support in Gujarat, Sangh-backed ngos will undoubtedly garner a large chunk of the funds earmarked for relief and rehabilitation. Deobhankar has prepared a list of what the cadres have already achieved: set up 53 mobile dispensaries, fed over 50,000 people, brought out over 4,000 bodies, found over 1,000 survivors and so on.
rss general secretary H.V. Seshadri has been camping in the state for some days now. Last year, Seshadri had turned down the post of sarsanghchalak, citing his failing health as the reason. But frail health did not deter Seshadri from touring every major town that has been devastated in Kutch. And he did so much before many bjp leaders had the courage to do so. And unlike the bjp netas who flew in and out like vips, Seshadri has done most of the journey by road.
There's little doubt the rss has come to the aid of the people of Gujarat. What takes away from it is that it has also used the tragedy as a PR exercise.
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