Vidya Bharati, short for Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, is a non government educational organization which runs one of the largest private network of schools in India. It is the educational wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It has its registered headquarters in Lucknow, a functional headquarters in Delhi and a sub-office in Kurukshetra.
RSS established its first Saraswati Shishu Mandir brand of school in Gorakhpur in 1952, under the leadership of Nanaji Deshmukh. Prior to that a Gita school was established at Kurukshetra in 1946 with the initiative of the RSS chief M. S. Golwalkar. The ban on RSS in 1948 put a damper on the spread of the Gita school model. However, the Saraswati Shishu Mandir model was quickly replicated in several locations. As the number of schools increased, a committee Shishu Shiksha Prabandak Samiti, was set up to coordinate activities at the state level. Similar schools and committees were subsequently set up in Delhi, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. In 1977-78, an all-India apex body, Vidya Bharati was set up to coordinate the activities between the state committees, headquartered in Delhi. This coincided with the Bharatiya Jan Sangh coming to power in Delhi as part of the Janata Party. Vidya Bharati had an associated National Academic Council with educationists who were not necessarily associated with RSS and enjoyed the trust of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). By early 1990’s, the network had grown to 5,000 schools and, by 2003, further grown to 14,000 schools with 1.7 million pupils. This expansion was facilitated by the growing demand for education in India and the disaffection with the state school system. It was also helped by patronage by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whenever it was in power in the states, or in the Center during 1999-2004 with Murli Manohar Joshi as the education minister.
In addition to formal schools (which go by a variety of names such as shishu vatikas, shishu mandirs, vidya mandir, saraswati vidyalas etc), Vidya Bharati also runs sanskar kendras (cultural schools) and single-teacher schools for cultural education. It controls over 250 intermediate colleges and about 25 institutions of higher education and training colleges. It has schools in remote areas of the north-eastern states as well as states like Kerala and Tamilnadu where RSS does not have much influence. Particular attention is given to underdeveloped regioins and regions inhabited by tribal communities. It has over 50 state and regional committees affiliated to it, making it the largest voluntary association in India. Funds for this expansion have been collected through various means, including charities across the world. According Awaaz, a London-based organisation, a significant portion of the Sewa International earthquake funds for Gujarat have been used to build RSS schools. The network also benefited from favourable allotment of land by Jana Sangh and BJP politicians. Nanaji Deshmukh believed that the movement had turned `materialistic,’ obsessed with expansion, land, buildings and resources but not paying enough attention to recruiting high-quality teachers.
The schools attract the children of urban and small-town shopkeepers and those of professional and government official families.