Political parties swear by the ‘masses’, but almost all of them crave the approval of educated elites. So it is that a group of young achievers gathered in Bangalore on a wintery Sunday morning at 8 am has come to hasten heartbeats hundreds of kilometres away, further north. At an average age of 25, these youngsters dress casually in jeans and T-shirts, exchange collegiate banter, and express glib views on a range of subjects—development, nation building, Bt brinjal and cow economics. They are Bangalore’s infotech professionals, and they are attending a weekly ‘IT Milan’.
In attendance is Nihar S, a software developer with MindTree, and he takes himself as an earnest sevak (helper), both online and off. He helps run a shelter for ragpickers, teaches slum children and sets up counselling centres. It’s his way of giving society something back, he claims.
Radhakrishna Holla, who works with Philips, says he uses his internet blog to raise issues, dissect problems and mould public opinion. So does Roshan Kumar, a techie with Textron, whose innate patriotism brings him here week after week.
There is, of course, a larger agenda—crafted in Nagpur, Maharashtra. An IT Milan is a techie-adapted version of the daily shakha (gathering) held by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) across the country. There are as many as 3,000 techies in Bangalore who meet regularly this way. They are all RSS flag bearers, steeped in Hindutva, described as a cultural ideology drawn from Hindu culture. And the Bangalore model, with 62 weekly Milans, is already being taken to other parts of India. Gurgaon, for example.
Young techies are being drawn to these IT Milans—started in 2001—as the RSS spreads its tentacles to draw young blood, as demanded by the new RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, who is two decades younger than his predecessor and wants the Sangh to adapt to modern lifestyles. “People no longer have nine-to-five jobs, we are focusing on weekend shakhas,” he said last year.
Going by the attendance of 40-plus people at an IT Milan at south Bangalore’s well-off neighbourhood of Banashankari III stage, Bhagwat’s plan is working. This is not a regular shakha. Here, most ‘volunteers’ don’t wear the trademark khaki shorts, white shirt and black cap; it is not compulsory. The mental drill is more important than the physical drill—a prayer, suryanamaskar, yoga, games, song and sermon just about sums up the 90-minute meeting.
So, what draws these code-writers here? “These professionals live a fast-paced life,” says Suresh Nayak, an RSS pracharak in charge of Karnataka’s IT Milans, “Money has forced some to change their values, but luckily they still have a strong head on their shoulders and still think about their contribution to the country; IT Milans fill this gap.” Adds Arun Kumar, a pracharak equally pleased by the zeal of today’s youth in the noble effort to conserve Indian culture: “They are all professional achievers. Despite their busy schedule, they come and participate. They are also involved in our social activities.”
The RSS is big on voluntary work. Its sevaks made a mark with Tsunami relief work in 2005, and also helped raise donations for north Karnataka’s flood-afflicted people last year.
Says Roshan, a volunteer, “It is because of our own interest. We want to participate in change.” Kartheek NS, who works with GE Healthcare, enrolled three years ago, lured by a ready platform. “I wanted to awaken society and could not do it on my own,” he says, “So I chose this group and I have no regrets.”
It helps that IT Milans are user friendly; the prayer is available as a printout, everyone is addressed in English, and there are enough people to aid newcomers on the suryanamaskar and seven yoga asanas. “These exercises have been designed for IT professionals who suffer from chronic lower backache due to long hours at computers,” says Kartheek.
It also helps that their employers respect their RSS links. “It is my personal choice and nobody has forced me to come here,” avers Ritesh Rao, another volunteer, who works with M Portal, “My office too does not mind, as there is nothing illegal here.” Adds Raghavendra Hiranyappa, a 34-year-old with Hewlett Packard, “We have had no objection so far from any of the companies. No volunteer has been overlooked for promotion or lost an increment for having associated with the RSS.” In fact, says Nihar, “We try and involve colleagues whenever we do social service, as it is similar to corporate social responsibility efforts.”
Also, says Venkatesh Bhat, an IBM employee who has returned from the US after six years, “This is a great once-a-week activity to de-stress oneself, as IT professionals are wedded to their desktops. We have to think of other things than just work. It helps unclog the mind. I had been missing this kind of activity in the US.”
There are games played that relieve tension and foster team spirit. And as these youngsters rumble around and kick up dust, playing kabaddi and kho-kho, it’s clear they’re enjoying themselves. “The emphasis is on the mental rather than physical,” says Pracharak Kumar, who’s to speak on ‘Indian culture and pluralism’.
An IT Milan also serves as a forum for discussion, be it organic farming, the Copenhagen summit, West Bengal’s 10 per cent reservation proposal for Muslims in government jobs, or any other pressing issue. Techies thrive on information.
Tushar S, for example, who returned from the US just this morning and has turned out proudly in his RSS uniform, wins vigorous nods for his views on rescuing India’s rural economy. “The cow is not just reverential, but whole economies have survived around it,” says the 28-year-old who works for Unisys Corp. “Even in a consumerist society like the US, most ‘isms’ have failed and they believe they should concentrate on rural economies to sustain agriculture,” he muses, “This is what the RSS has been saying for ages.”
There is also online activism, and techies help shield the RSS from attacks on the internet. One must offer scholarly rebuttals and not just rhetorical responses, philosophises Nihar, an active volunteer-editor on Wikipedia, a free-for-all website. Plus, the task involves suffusing email lists, blogs and social networks with views on Hinduism and the RSS ideology. Some of this work is most effective if done quietly, as Pramod Deshpande, a 25-year-old working for Wipro, prefers to do. “We want to carry on the good work away from the public glare,” he says.
This being a ‘cultural’ exercise, hardcore political issues are kept low key. In fact, volunteers hasten to add, they have diverse views on politics. “We are neither left nor right, nor even centrist,” says 28-year-old Tushar S, “We appreciate good points from everywhere, but also point out bad examples, like how industrialisation failed in West Bengal due to the Left’s policies.”
So, is Gujarat under the BJP’s Narendra Modi a good example? “For what?” they shoot back. “As far as industrialisation is concerned, we are yet to examine and evaluate its success,” says Holla, “But Gujarat has its mammoth pluses like all villages having electricity and the internet reaching rural masses. It makes villages locally self-sustainable and prevents migration to urban areas.” On that count, hasn’t the Narega scheme succeeded? “No, it’s a very corrupt model,” they conclude.
Being employed by MNCs doesn’t always lead them to back corporate interests. In Orissa, where tribals are fighting the UK-based Vedanta, they side with the embattled tribals—who they want to support directly, sans Maoist intervention. Vedanta, they allege, is funded by the Church of England! “The issue is not about Hinduism or conversion,” clarifies Roshan, “but an attempt to raze rural economies.”
It’s still morning, and the rest of the park is also abuzz—with sports activity. Some of them are potential recruits. But there is no coercion. Nor any fees, membership drives, or donations asked. No signed agreements either. It’s all voluntary.
“They are our future leaders,” says Pracharak Nayak, referring to techie volunteers, “We cannot quantify how their participation has helped, but they have helped bring technology into the organisation and its wings.”
Even as Pracharak Kumar speaks at the ground, a couple of onlookers listen from the sidelines. Some Milan members gesture them to join. Says Manjunath K, an onlooker who works with a software firm: “Many of my colleagues are part of these Milans. That’s why they are asking me to join them, but I am not interested. I’m just waiting for them to clear out as we have a cricket match scheduled.”
Others prove more pliable. Says Anand Raj Purohit, 29, who describes himself as a Rajasthani Brahmin with no past RSS association, “My friends and family tell me that the RSS is a custodian of old culture and blocks new ideas. After coming here, I feel this is not true, as I am getting enlightened. It will help me get back to my roots,” says the travel executive.
Purohit is not alone. Madhav and Shripad, young techies, are also interested. Venugopal, a senior Wipro employee, wants more youngsters to join. And they are. Nagpur is in the loop, wired to India’s infotech future.