A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.
When I heard about the contents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat on Sunday July 30, the first political pejorative I learnt almost four decades ago came to my mind: revisionism. Back in the late 1970s, it took a while to understand that calling anyone revisionist was not exactly complimentary.
The word, after all, derives from the word revise, a practice that school teachers teach as essential before handing over a submission or answer paper. But eventually, after attending several ‘study circle’ sessions, I comprehended that in the context it was used, a revisionist meant a communist who rewrites or reinterprets Marxism to justify a retreat from the revolutionary position.
Is Modi then the first saffron revisionist? Has the prime minister moved away from a position held by his predecessors?
Modi’s celebration of Quit India
It was indeed heartwarming that Modi spoke at length about the importance of the Quit India movement and two other major milestones of the freedom struggle: the non-cooperation movement and eventually independence. August, he pointed out, was the “month of revolution.” He described the 85-year period between 1857 and 1942 as the period when people “came together, fought together and suffered hardships; these pages of history are an inspiration to us for building a glorious India.”
Modi affirmed that the Quit India movement “made the entire nation determined to attain freedom from British rule. This was the time when the people of India, in every part of the country – be it a village or city, the educated or illiterate, the rich or poor, everyone came together shoulder to shoulder and became a part of the Quit India movement. People’s anger was at its peak. Millions of Indians responded to Mahatma Gandhi’s clarion call and the mantra of ‘do or die’; they flung themselves into the struggle. Millions of the youth of the country renounced their studies, gave up their books. They set out on the march to the sound of the bugle for freedom.”
Modi’s unrestrained mention of the Quit India movement, or August Kranti, as it is popularly called in large parts of India, would not, however, have been pleasing to the ears of many of his political clansmen, because swayamsevaks were not among the millions Modi lavished praise on. Just as the communists in the country have been at pains for several decades to explain why the Communist Party of India did not support Gandhi’s dramatic call, the Sangh parivar and connected organisations have struggled to explain why the RSS did not join the struggle.
Not just the RSS, but even the Hindu Mahasabha stayed aloof from the struggle. Modi stated that the power of the movement was unprecedented and its “clarion call was such that within five years, in 1947 the British were compelled to leave India. 1857 to 1942 – the yearning for freedom had reached the grassroots, had reached everybody. And 1942 to 1947 – these decisive five years became integral for the masses to successfully attain through resolve, freedom for the country.”
The person whose standpoint most starkly depicted the stance of the Mahasabha during the Quit India movement was none other than Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who barely nine years later founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s preceding party. He too kept himself at an arm’s length from the movement. Modi has turned into a saffron revisionist because as prime minister, he can but not take note of the 75th anniversary of the epochal anti-imperialist struggle. From the onset of his tenure, Modi set 2022, when India will celebrate the 75th anniversary of independence, as a target for some of his initiatives.
Modi’s ambition to remain at the helm of affairs during this important landmark for the nation underpins a paradox. Although RSS ideologues of yore disparaged the Congress-led freedom struggle, Modi as prime minister feels compelled to walk over those precise steps.
The symbolism of Modi’s midnight speech in Central Hall to roll out the GST can be best understood by comprehending this yearning. Glowing references to the Quit India movement are a similar attempt to co-opt the anti-imperialistic narrative into the Sangh system of belief. This, however, is being done without formal repudiation of the past positions of iconic leaders of the Sangh parivar. In its absence, there will always be the lurking doubt that his utterances are but another instance of posturing.
The Hindu Right’s silence on the movement
Few would remember that in the initial years of his career, the founder of the RSS, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, was a member of the Congress like his mentor, B.S. Moonje. After attending the Amritsar session of the Congress in 1919, he was part of the Reception Committee for the 1920 session in Nagpur and instrumental in raising a 1,000-member strong volunteer force. Yet, Hedgewar was opposed to Gandhi’s decision to intermesh the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements, and only reluctantly became part of the struggle.
Hedgewar went to jail for a year in 1921 for being part of a movement which he did fully support. His associate, G.M. Huddar, who later became the first general secretary of the RSS after its formation, explained Hedgewar’s action decades later. Hedgewar, he claimed, went to jail to “demonstrate that they (he and his supporters) were as unafraid of imprisonment as any other patriot having faith in a mass movement.”
After his release, Hedgewar, however, ploughed his own furrow and began distancing himself from the Congress. The RSS was formed with the principal objective of harnessing Hindu consciousness and organising Hindus. The RSS was not to be ‘political’ in the way the Congress – or even the Hindu Mahasabha – was. Though he remained a member of the Congress for the second half of the third decade of the 20th century, Hedgewar kept the RSS out of the civil disobedience movement launched in the wake of the Dandi march.
The RSS grudgingly endorsed the Purna Swaraj resolution of the Congress, but kept away from the path of confrontation with the British because for its chief the emerging anti-colonial stir was irrelevant when seen through the prism of rearming Hindu society. But Hedgewar’s predicament was that it was necessary to be seen to be part of the movement.
Consequently, swayamsevaks were despatched to attend to injured salt satyagrahis and later Hedgewar himself joined the ‘jungle satyagraha’, one of the sub-regional protests. But before courting arrest, he appointed an interim sarsanghchalak to continue managing the affairs of the RSS, which remained organisationally uninvolved in the civil disobedience movement. Yet, swyamsevaks participated in protests – for which Hedgewar was livid with them. His non-confrontational posture was opposed by many within the RSS, and in that period several important organisational leaders left the organisation.
M.S. Golwalkar, who became RSS chief after Hedgewar’s death, also chose the path of non-confrontation. The RSS under Golwalkar stayed out of the Quit India movement for two reasons: First, the chief’s goal was to consolidate the organisation which, besides its limited presence in central India, was facing dissidence. Second, Golwalkar felt that the movement was launched without drawing a clear blueprint and was uncomfortable about spontaneous upsurges.
Yet, like Hedgewar, Golwalkar allowed swayamsevaks to participate in the struggle in their individual capacities. The permission was given when his followers unambiguously asked that if the Sangh was to do nothing even at such a crucial juncture, what was the use of all its strength built up so far?
Despite not being part of the movement and the limited presence of the RSS, Golwalkar expected recognition from Gandhi and other Congress leaders. He criticised Gandhi and others when this was not forthcoming. The fear of falling foul of the imperial government also motivated Golwalkar to keep the RSS away from Quit India movement. While others increased activities that symbolically challenged the government, the RSS discontinued military drills and directed swayamsevaks, pracharaks and senior functionaries to stop wearing the uniform. An internal circular from Golwalkar stated that the objective was to “keep our work clearly within the bounds of law.”
The British appreciated this and noted that the RSS posed no threat and had kept itself scrupulously clear of the ongoing unrest. His penchant for political safety became the proverbial albatross around Golwalkar’s neck. He was opposed within the organisation by several, including Balasaheb Deoras who later became sarsanghchalak, but this viewpoint prevailed. Hedgewar at least maintained a pretence of participation in the freedom struggle, but for Golwalkar such tokenism was also redundant to his ultimate objective of empowering Hindu society.
The backdrop to the Quit India call was provided in Bengal by the deteriorating communal situation and Mookerjee’s decision in December 1941 to join the Fazlul Huq-led Progressive Coalition government as finance minister. The decision raised eyebrows as it was a classic case of a politically-convenient marriage, like several in contemporary India. After Gandhi called upon the British to quit India, the Congress asked its ministers in different provincial governments to resign.
In sync with the RSS stance to remain aloof from the Quit India movement, V.D. Savarkar, who had by then assumed control of the Hindu Mahasabha, directed Mookerjee not to turn in his papers. His argument was that if Mookerjee quit, Muslim ministers and the British would get a free run of the government and his presence would ensure checks and balances on the government.
The move, however, did not bolster support for Mookerjee in his core constituency for two reasons. First, his joining hands with Huq could not prevent Bengal from slipping deeper into the communal abyss. Second, after the start of the Quit India movement, the Hindu Mahasabha, Muslim League and the communists were painted as British collaborators. The British government responded to the Quit India call with brutal repression, and not resigning either in support of the agitation or against repressive measures eroded Mookerjee’s credibility. He was trapped between two discomforting choices: defending the rebellion would lead to dismissal and defending the crackdown by the Raj would end in public censure.
Eventually, Mookerjee resigned three months after the start of the agitation. He, however, did not extend support to the Quit India movement and instead focused on other issues in the Bengal assembly, where he consolidated his position as opposition leader. Seventy five years after both the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha refused to be drawn into the Quit India movement, Modi has acknowledged its decisive role in shaping India’s destiny. Der aaye, durust aaye, better late than never!
The only fear is that the Quit India movement, its memory and interpretations should not get co-opted into the Sangh narrative. Efforts are on to establish its role in the freedom struggle by passing off individual actions as organisational actions. Several such attempts – scholarly and half-baked – will be made over the next five years as Modi has unveiled the objective of projecting the saffron clan as the legitimate heirs of the national movement.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.