How the RSS Became a Key Part of the Jayaprakash Narayan Movement Before Emergency

An excerpt from the book 'India's First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77' says that the association between the two helped confer legitimacy on the Sangh parivar.

There was enough convergence between the JP Movement and the Hindu nationalist organisations for Narayan to remark in 1975 that the “Bihar movement and RSS’s work are fundamentally the same.” Broadly, their worldviews converged: both Narayan and the Sangh championed decentralisation; rejected the socialism and secularism that they saw as the Congress’ ideological imports from the West; claimed they aspired to M.K. Gandhi’s vision of an indigenous utopia, including its eulogy to cottage industry and village life.

Certainly, Narayan let on that he was not particularly hung up on the Sangh Parivar. In his overtures to the CPI (M), for instance, he said to Jyoti Basu in 1974, “if you join” the movement “these fellows [i.e. the RSS] will run away”; Narayan suggested that he had taken them on board only for pragmatic reasons, for “our party is not there [sic], nothing is there, and they have an organisation.” It is likely that these were but superficial extenuations that Narayan cared little about so long as they served his purposes: Basu was convinced and the CPI(M) organised major JP rallies in Calcutta where it was not possible to rely simply on the RSS’ meagre Bengali cadres. But the CPI(M) was not fooled by this game for long: in November 1974, concluding that the Sangh was at the centre of the movement, it decided that the party best sit the rest of it out.

Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil
India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency 1975-77
Harper Collins

The Left could be jettisoned with no love lost, but the relationship between the JP Movement and the Hindu nationalists was another matter. Here, the connection was more organic. Narayan’s personal rapport with RSS leaders helped: in 1967 they had laboured shoulder to shoulder, conducting relief work for the victims of the Bihar drought while the state looked the other way. It was whilst working on such endeavours that Narayan struck up a friendship with Nanaji Deshmukh, a Jana Sangh leader from Uttar Pradesh who too had dabbled in Bhoodan during the mid-1950s. Their comradeship would serve as the isthmus connecting the larger organisations behind them.

If Narayan and Deshmukh were natural allies, it did not mean that the entire leadership of the Sangh Parivar had no reservations about the JP Movement. Since at least the mid-1960s Hindu nationalists had been divided on tactics. As one camp saw it, exorcising political “untouchability” – to use the term in which many of its leaders described the legitimacy deficit that had plagued Hindu nationalist organisations since Gandhi’s assassination – required developing a popular front strategy, albeit one of the Right. For Balraj Madhok and other Jana Sanghis, it was time to replace the RSS’ sangathanist strategy – strengthening the grassroots and eschewing high politics until the time was ripe – with top-down “Indianisation”, which in their vocabulary meant Hinduisation. And here public discourse could be altered by uniting the Congress (O), the Swatantra, and the Jana Sangh behind a common platform. In the other camp were the proponents of a more thoroughgoing populism. As Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, and kindred Sanghis saw it, the times called for the incorporation of socialist themes into the Parivar’s core message of social conservatism. Only by supporting nationalisation and welfare and participating in workers’ strikes and social movements could Hindu nationalists reach out to a wider audience. The dismal showing of all the conservative parties at the polls between 1971 and 1974 made their task considerably easier.

Also read: Past Continuous: How Jayaprakash Narayan Helped the RSS Overcome Its Stigmatic Past

The Parivar, then, was in need of a strategy more in tune with the dispensation. In the event, the top leadership of the RSS showed its preference for Vajpayee’s populism – which at any rate was more in line with the sangathanism it was familiar with – over Madhok’s high-political bridge-building. In practice, the line that Vajpayee toed in the early 1970s, extending support to land ceilings and declaring a “National War on Poverty”, accommodated Madhok’s position through tactical arrangements with the Congress (O) at election time. However, in 1971 this strategy, which found expression in a Grand Alliance, failed to contain the rise of Indira Gandhi. Indeed, in his own speeches, which included “concern for the underdog” and “insistence on social justice and equity”, Vajpayee increasingly sounded like a poor understudy of Mrs. Gandhi.

Jayaprakash Narayan

Jayaprakash Narayan. Photo: Facebook/For the Better India.

The troubles in Gujarat and Bihar offered a way out of the impasse. By the early months of 1975 Hindu nationalist leaders, including K.N. Govindacharya, were regularly seen sharing podia with socialists and conservatives alike; by then a third of the BCSS’ steering committee were ABVP members. And on 25 June 1975, Deshmukh was made secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti, the confederacy of opposition parties that hoped to bring down Mrs. Gandhi’s government. In short, they were untouchables no more. The JP Movement is “a force for the good of the society”, the RSS’ sarsanghchalak (head) Balasaheb Deoras declared in December 1974. The encomium was reciprocated: “if you are a fascist, then I too am a fascist”, Narayan told an RSS crowd in March 1975. He was only half joking. What was remarkable was that this new acceptability had involved precious little compromise on the part of the Parivar. There was no sign of moderation, however, defined. The RSS weekly, the Organiser, continued peddling conspiracy theories in its editorials. In early January 1975, for instance, it suggested that Nehru had had M.K. Gandhi “mysteriously bumped off” in 1948 in a move to consolidate power. Similarly, Mrs. Gandhi was blamed for having Sangh president Deendayal Upadhyaya ‘brutally murdered’ in 1968.

In hindsight, the legitimacy that the JP Movement bestowed the Sangh Parivar was, perhaps, its most lasting achievement. In return, the Parivar helped JP to take his movement beyond Gujarat and Bihar: by 1974 it had become national.

Also read: Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan: A Legacy Discarded

Looking back from a distance of over four decades, and from a time of Hindu nationalist prepotency, perhaps the development of greatest importance during the Emergency was the legitimacy that the regime accorded Hindu nationalism, a process that the JP Movement had already initiated. Indeed, poured into the crucible of authoritarianism, the political settlement that emerged was a singularly altered one. The Sangh Parivar (lit. the RSS “family”), via the Jana Sangh, was one element in the motley collection of the LSS that, in the twenty-one months of dictatorship, came to overpower the rest, largely because of the well-oiled organisation of the RSS. Andersen and Damle point out that “the grass roots structure of the LSS included many RSS workers, which presented the RSS cadre with an unprecedented opportunity to gain political experience and to establish a working relationship with political leaders.” These efforts rendered it the bona fides that had been denied it since the early years of the republic, when its political “untouchability”, as some of its leaders used to quip, had been plain to see. But as we will see, even as the Sangh Parivar opposed the Emergency regime, it also tried to win friends across the aisle in prison and without, and even attempted to negotiate for clemency with Delhi’s rulers.

Sangh Parivar leaders took part in an important underground meeting on 26 June 1975 at Kashmere Gate in Delhi, just a day into the Emergency. Preponderant among the participants were Delhi Jana Sangh figures, Congress (O) members being a distant second. The accent of the protests, it was decided, would lie on the organisation of satyagrahas (lit. “truth-force”; civil disobedience) in different parts of Delhi and beyond. The metaphor took inspiration from the anticolonial struggle, another period of scattered protests which grew in number and determination as national consciousness spread, at times being brutally suppressed, at others thriving on account of temporary deals hammered out with the rulers. On the question of tactics, too, the Emergency-era satyagraha drew on the playbook of its inter-war precursor: the use of underground papers and rumours to offset censorship, the courting of arrests, and appeals to the troika of nationalism, democracy, and the rule of law.

This reliance on an outmoded grammar of dissent reflected the deep-seated anxieties of the Hindu nationalists. Long excoriated in the Nehruvian period for their ambivalence towards colonial rule, this epigonic “second freedom struggle” was to be one of their own. By emulating the Gandhian techniques of the first freedom struggle, then, the RSS hoped to make up for lost time by quickly amassing a prestigious repertoire of nationalism from which it had heretofore been excluded.  The most obvious attempt was its re-creation of the Dandi March of 1930, in which M.K. Gandhi and his admirers had walked a 240-mile stretch between Ahmedabad and the coastal town of Dandi to protest the salt laws of the Raj. In the newer version masterminded by the local RSS, former Gujarat chief minister Babubhai Patel was to play Gandhi’s role in a mimetic journey on India’s Independence Day. However, on 9 August 1976, six days before the event, Patel was arrested along with dozens of satyagrahis littered across the villages through which their cortège was to pass.

Even in the first few weeks of the satyagrahas, it was clear that the RSS was the dominant force. To a great extent, this owed to its size. According to its general secretary, the RSS had some 8500 shakhas in 1975, each with around 50–100 participants. The total strength of the RSS, therefore, was between 425,000 and 850,000. Then there was the rest of the Sangh Parivar: the BMS, a labour union of 1.2 million in 1977; the ABVP, a student union of 170,000. There were other affiliates, too. All in all, the Parivar probably counted around 2 to 3 million members.

Excerpted with permission from the book India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77 by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil. Publisher: Harper Collins. 

Pratinav Anil is a Clarendon scholar, and is working on his doctorate on Muslim politics in postcolonial India at St John’s College, University of Oxford.