Who are India’s RSS, the Hindu nationalists accused of inciting violence towards Muslims?

Screengrabs from amateur videos showing Hindu participants in riots in Delhi that started on February 23, 2020.
Screengrabs from amateur videos showing Hindu participants in riots in Delhi that started on February 23, 2020.

Deadly clashes between supporters of India’s new citizenship law and its opponents have been taking place in the Indian capital Delhi since February 23. More than 40 people have been killed and more than 200 wounded in the ongoing violence. Videos and photos of the unrest show apparent sympathizers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group often accused of stirring up religious hatred, carrying out acts of violence.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a reform of India’s citizenship laws crafted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his nationalist party the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), was passed in December 2019. It allows undocumented immigrants from three neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) to become Indian citizens provided they are Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist or Christian. Its exclusion of Muslims has raised fears that it will be used to make many Muslims living in India stateless. Another initiative backed by the BJP, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), published in August 2019, excluded hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in the state of Assam.

Many Indians see the two reforms as signals that Muslims will be considered second-class citizens. Since December 4, 2019, thousands of Indians have poured into the streets to protest against the CAA. Police have cracked down on protesters, with a particularly violent example taking place at Jamia Millia Islamia University on December 15, where scores of student protesters sustained injuries.

On February 23, clashes between supporters and opponents of the CAA broke out in majority Muslim neighbourhoods in the northeast of Delhi. Videos on social media show violence being carried out by young men who claim to be Hindu and according to our Observers show signs of affiliation with the RSS, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group that was founded 94 years ago. In the videos, these apparent RSS sympathizers are seen committing arson, tormenting people and carrying out other acts of violence. In some cases, the crimes were even livestreamed.

Many of the images of violence that were posted online were shared by the perpetrators themselves, who are often young, sometimes even very young, as you can see in several posts.

Asked by reporters on February 27 about the unrest in Delhi, RSS General Secretary Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi said only that the government should restore order, adding: "Nobody has the right to take law into their hands."

This Instagram post published Feb. 26, 2020 sees a link between recent sectarian violence in New Delhi and the ideology espoused by "the Sangh," an apparent reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a nationwide Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation.   

'You can recognise them by their chants and Hindu prayers'

Kamran Shahid, a Muslim from the state of Karnataka in southern India, is currently studying engineering in Bangalore. He is in daily contact with Muslim friends in Delhi, helping them identify potential aggressors and share information about which neighbourhoods to avoid.


Even if these RSS-affiliated assailants don’t wear a uniform, you can tell who they are by the chants and Hindu prayers that they often shout out during clashes with Muslims during riots.

The slogan “Jai Shri Ram”, a Hindu prayer, means “Glory to Lord Rama”. It is a used as a symbol of allegiance to the Indian nationalist movement, whether it’s the RSS or one of the many other groups that share the same sentiments.

Some of the group's supporters film their actions and show off their 'exploits' [on social media]. They think it'll improve their standing in their community. In one video, a young man brags that his group just burned down a service station in the Vasanth Pura part of Delhi on February 25. He says things like “Maaro!” [which means “hit them”) and “Jai Shri Ram”. He also says, “The police are with us!” as if to highlight their ability to carry out acts of violence with total impunity.

There was another video that was particularly shocking. It was filmed in northaeast Delhi on Feburary 25 and shows police officers and civilians mocking injured Muslims who are lying on the ground. Those watching hit the Muslims with sticks and tell them to sing the national anthem. The victims comply and begin to sing while still lying on the ground. Police officers look on without intervening. The aggressors seem to think that Muslims aren't Indian, that they aren't loyal to India and will only sing the anthem under torture.

Des hommes se font torturer par un groupe de miliciens qui leur demandent de réciter l'hymne national indien. Vidéo du 25 février à Delhi.
Des hommes se font torturer par un groupe de miliciens qui leur demandent de réciter l'hymne national indien. Vidéo du 25 février à Delhi. Instagram.

Screengrab from a video filmed on February 25, 2020 in Delhi, in which assailants torture a group of Muslims, making them sing the Indian national anthem. (The France 24 Observers chose not to publish the video itself because of its violence.)


An incident in Delhi's Mustafabad neighbourhood also shows these groups’ ability to carry out violence with impunity. On the evening of February 25, a group of armed men wearing ski masks burned down a market. The aggressors also shouted "Jai Shri Ram", a cry used during other violent incidents carried out by RSS in the past. The incident took place in front of police officers who said they were unable to intervene, according to the journalist who posted the video, below.



Another video show uniformed police officers destroying surveillance cameras near Khureji Khas, one of the neighbourhoods in eastern Delhi where protests took place.



On Thursday, February 27, Delhi police asked members of the public to submit video and eyewitness evidence of the violence. The next day, the Commissioner of the Delhi police was ousted and replaced.

'They believe that no matter what they do, they will be rewarded by society'

Ranbir (not his real name), a student in Delhi, has been studying Hindu nationalist movements for the past year.


The young men who are carrying out these acts of violence and posting them on social media are seeking acceptance in their communities by following the ideology of the RSS. The RSS is part of an umbrella organisation, Sangh Parivar, which is made up of numerous organisations including the party in power, the BJP, and other far-right Indian groups.


The RSS is very effective: their ideology is, simply speaking, to create conflict between Hindus and Muslims. When I speak to RSS members, their objective is clear: to make India a Hindu-only nation. They accept Sikhs and Buddhists, but they consider other religious communities, Muslims and Christians, to be outsiders, not part of the Indian identity.

The RSS's form of Hindu nationalism is known as Hindutva. The movement's early leaders openly admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Ranbir says the RSS and its political allies praise supporters who commit violence:


The RSS wants a society where Hinduism is opposed to any minority groups. They want to unite Hindus around a common identity, citing Mussolini or Hitler. The movement rewards its members for carrying out violence. One example is when a BJP minister congratulated the alleged perpetrators of a lynching when they got out on bail, and hung garlands around their necks. When young people see criminals praised and rewarded for their crimes, they see a link between attacking religious minorities and gaining status within their community.

Article written by Fatma Ben Hamad.