PUNE (India) • Tens of thousands of Hindu hardliners, dressed in khaki shorts, white shirts and black hats, staged an elaborate rally in western India yesterday in a massive show of strength.
It was one of the largest gatherings of the controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group seen as the ideological parent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
More than 150,000 activists, almost all men, had registered for the rally, at which RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat delivered a speech from a stage designed to resemble a fort. A marching band composed of 2,000 RSS volunteers played as a giant saffron flag, the colour most associated with Hinduism, was hoisted on a post more than 20m high at the 182ha rally site in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra.
Mr Sarang Wable, the coordinator of the event, said the main purpose of the gathering was to project the RSS as a positive force in the country, reported the NDTV news portal.
"The purpose of the meet is to project the Sangh (organisation) as a positive force in society, and to further open up to the wider audience. The main thing we want to highlight is the ideals of discipline practised among the followers of the Sangh," Mr Wable said.
"We felt there is a need to showcase the core aspects of the Sangh to important people in society," he added.
Analysts said the RSS' influence has never been greater following the election in May 2014 of Mr Modi, a former RSS foot soldier.
We felt there is a need to showcase the core aspects of the Sangh to important people in society.
MR SARANG WABLE, coordinator of the rally
Attendees, who turned up in their hordes throughout the morning, were in a bullish mood.
"People in the RSS look up to Mr Modi as an example of what we can become. He gives our organisation a great image," said RSS member Vinayak Deshpande, 32.
Another volunteer, who asked not to be named, said the RSS had witnessed a 20 per cent increase in activists since Mr Modi became Prime Minister.
"With Mr Modi as Prime Minister, the RSS is on the right track," he said.
The RSS, formed in 1925, is India's biggest grassroots religious organisation and is believed to have around five million activists, who are known as "Swayamsevaks". It styles itself as a cultural organisation devoted to protecting India's Hindu culture, but critics accuse it of being an anti-Muslim pseudo-fascist organisation with a history of fuelling religious tensions.
The RSS is notoriously secretive - volunteers do not formally register as members and communications are often done verbally.
Yesterday's event was rare for its size and for its open invitation to the media.
Mr Pravin Dabadghav, a senior RSS official in Maharashtra who helped organise the gathering, said it was the largest-ever meeting of RSS volunteers in western and southern India.
The previous high was set in 2010 when 90,000 attended a gathering in Kerala.
The RSS has been banned three times in post-independence India, including after a former member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 and following the 1992 demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya that led to deadly nationwide riots.
It favours a uniform civil code for India rather than personal laws for different religions, the protection of cows - which are sacred to Hindus - and the construction of a temple on the disputed Ayodhya site.
Mr Modi helped out at the group as a boy and was a full-time volunteer as a young adult, taking the requisite vow of celibacy, for more than 15 years before joining the Bharatiya Janata Party.