Beliefnet
BHUJ, India, Feb. 1 (AP) -- Dressed in khaki shorts and saffron scarves, with pickaxes and shovels over their shoulders, volunteers from the Hindu nationalist RSS walk in small groups down the streets of Bhuj, on their way to collect the dead.

The RSS, known for denouncing Western influence in India and often accused of fanning anti-Christian and anti-Muslim violence, has emerged as one of the leading earthquake relief organizations in this devastated corner of western India.

Distributing relief has allowed the RSS--the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or Association of National Volunteers--to display the discipline and efficiency for which it is known.

The group is helping Hindus, Muslims and Christians equally, said Chetan Sompura, an RSS member in charge of aid distribution. But one function it considers its sacred duty is collecting the Hindu dead and carrying the bodies to crematoriums.

"We make sure that everyone gets a proper funeral," Sompura said.

The grim task is becoming more important seven days after the quake, with heavy equipment uncovering hundreds of badly decomposed bodies.

More than 14,200 people have been confirmed dead across Gujarat, the western state where the quake's epicenter was located. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless, with entire towns and villages reduced to little more than rubble.

The RSS mobilized its followers within hours of Friday's quake, loading trucks with food and relief supplies and dispatching them to Gujarat from across India. Men rode in with the trucks to offer their help, while women stayed home and prepared more food for the survivors, Sompura said in Bhuj, the town nearest the epicenter.

"All of this comes from volunteers and RSS members. We've had no help from the government," said Sompura, who normally works as a civil engineer.

Sompura said the RSS has delivered 141 truckloads of supplies to the Bhuj area, including spices, candles, clothing and blankets. He said about 500 RSS members are working in Bhuj, where their local headquarters is among the few buildings still standing after the 7.7-magnitude temblor.

Volunteers fan out to different neighborhoods everyday, assessing how many people need help, then returning to collect enough relief supplies for them at the RSS headquarters.

At headquarters, volunteers assemble packages filled with flour, tea, beans and homemade snacks to distribute to the homeless.

The volunteers begin and end the day amid the rubble with twice-daily prayers. The prayers are done in unison, followed by shouted slogans and hand-across-the-chest salutes.

When they gather carrying bamboo staves and dressed in white shirts, khaki shorts and black caps to pledge allegiance to "Mother India," RSS members look like paramilitary troops.

The RSS is the ideological father of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's right-wing Hindu nationalist party. The BJP has distanced itself from some of the more extreme positions of the RSS, which was founded in 1925 to promote Hindu unity.

Despite the controversy that surrounds the group, the aid is appreciated. More than 45,000 food packages had been distributed by Wednesday night to 25,400 families in 28 neighborhoods, Sompura said, reading the figures from a ledger. Similar operations are underway in 78 villages, he added.

"Everyone here is a volunteer and we do not receive any pay," Sompura said. "We take India as our mother, not just a nation, and this is our duty."

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