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As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?
The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition?
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The 75th anniversary of independence inevitably turns our thoughts to the hard-fought battle for freedom from colonial rule.
The panorama that opens up before us includes the great revolt of 1857, the graphic theory of the drain of wealth propounded by Dadabhai Naoroji and his contemporaries which laid the economic foundations of Indian nationalism; the founding of the Indian National Congress as the headquarters of the movement for independence; the Swadeshi Movement which brought people out into the streets in Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab; the dramatic turn with the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi; the horrors of Jallianwala Bagh, the stoic non-violence of the Akali jathas at the Guru ka bagh Morcha; the quiet heroism of the Bardoli kisans; the defiance of the salt Satyagraha; the deathly silence on the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades who refused to beg for mercy; the heady slogan of Quit India; the Azad Hind Fauj and the Red Fort trials; and India’s tryst with destiny at the midnight hour of August 15, 1947.
In this vastness, one looks in vain for any presence of those whose claims to being nationalists are the loudest today. Despite this glaring absence, there is not the slightest inclination on their part to acknowledge that the independence whose 75th anniversary is being celebrated with ghar ghar men tiranga was the achievement of millions of people who were inspired by a vision very different from the one espoused by the current regime. Nor is this happening as a result of soul-searching, admission of past mistakes of staying away from the freedom struggle, and remorse for and/or condemnation of actions promoting a communal atmosphere which ultimately led to the assassination of the Mahatma, or of refusal of the RSS to fly the tricolour for a 52-year stretch after independence, till it became too embarrassing once the BJP came to power at the Centre in 1998.
The facts are as follows: The RSS, which provides the organisational and ideological heft to the BJP, was set up in 1925 by K.B. Hedgewar. In the entire period from 1925 till 1947, it did not participate in any campaign or movement launched by the Congress or any other party or group. Nor did it initiate any movement against the British by itself. This is indeed remarkable for an organisation which claims nationalism as its creed. The mystery is solved very easily, however, if we realise that its creed is indeed nationalism, but not Indian nationalism. Its creed always has been and is Hindu nationalism. Its primary purpose therefore was to consolidate Hindu society against the perceived threat of Muslim domination.
Its founder, Hedgewar, had in fact been a middle level leader in the Congress in Nagpur and even went to jail in the non-cooperation movement. But he was a staunch follower of B.S. Moonje, a Hindu Mahasabha leader who had visited Italy, met Mussolini, studied Italian fascist institutions and was greatly impressed by them. It is also believed that he was influenced by V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva which had been published in 1923 but had been in circulation earlier, in which Savarkar set out the essentials of the Hindutva ideology of India being a land that belongs to Hindus and those whose punyabhoomi and pitribhoomi are in India, thus excluding Muslims, Christians, and any others who fitted the bill from being part of the Indian nation.
There is also speculation that Hedgewar was more of an organisation man, and the intellectual and ideological input or directions in fact came from Savarkar, who was still restricted to Ratnagiri after his release from Andaman jail, on the condition that he could not take part in politics or travel outside Ratnagiri.
This is strengthened by the fact that Savarkar’s elder brother Baburao Savarkar was one of the five people present at the founding meeting of the RSS in Nagpur in 1925 and later merged his own organisation Tarun Bharat Sangh with the RSS.
Two years after the foundation of the RSS, the anti-Simon Commission protests swept the country but the RSS was nowhere to be seen. A little later, in December 1929, Jawaharlal Nehru as president unfurled the national flag at the annual session of the Congress at Lahore, and declared complete independence as its goal. The Congress also decided to observe January 26, 1930 as Independence Day when the national flag would be raised in every town and village, and the national pledge taken by all present. Hedgewar claimed that since the RSS believed in complete independence it should observe Independence day but it would raise the Bhagwa jhanda (saffron flag) and not the tricolour. This was a perfect example of the RSS method, of giving the impression that they were nationalists but keeping away from the actual national movement.
In a similar vein, when the civil disobedience movement was launched later in the year, Hedgewar decided that he would join as an individual but the RSS as an organisation would stay away. So he went to jail to keep his nationalist credentials intact, and also, according to his official biographer, to attract Congress cadre in the jail to the RSS. The RSS focus right through the 1930s remained on building the organisation. There was some tension between the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, especially once Savarkar came into the open, as the Hindu Mahasabha wanted to play a more active political role, especially in the electoral sphere, but these relationships remained close at the ideological level with Hindu Mahasabha leaders regularly addressing RSS meetings, and there being a great deal of overlapping membership, as was revealed in intelligence reports before independence as well as in the investigations in the aftermath of Gandhiji’s assassination.
That Savarkar remained politically active from behind the scenes during the period of his internment is also shown by the fact that the moment he was released from restrictions in 1937, he became the President of the Hindu Mahasabha and remained so for six years till ill health forced him to give up the responsibility. It must be remembered that Savarkar had been released from the Andamans and then Yervada prison only on the condition that he would not indulge in any anti-British activity, after he had sent a mercy petition, and he was more than keen to keep that promise. He was even given an allowance for his upkeep. As soon as he assumed charge of the Hindu Mahasabha, Savarkar lost no time in articulating the two-nation theory. Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations, he said, pre-empting Jinnah who followed soon after. His presidential addresses to the Hindu Mahasabha were virulent in their anti-Muslim, anti-Congress and anti-Gandhi rhetoric.
The outbreak of the Second World War brought the Mahasabha’s and the RSS positions into sharp focus. The Congress Ministries in the provinces resigned in protest against the British declaring India as party to the War without any consultation with Indian political opinion. Immediately, communal forces jumped into fill the gap. The Muslim League, true to its loyalist character, offered co-operation to form governments. Not to be outdone, Savarkar, then the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, told the Viceroy in October 1939 that the Hindus and the British should be friends and made an offer that the Hindu Mahasabha would replace the Congress if the Congress ministries resigned from office. (Linlithgow, Viceroy, to Zetland, Secretary of State, 7 October 1939, Zetland Papers, Volume 18, Reel No. 6.)
He also advised Hindus to join the army. This fitted in with his slogan of “Militarise Hinduism” and with his goal of reducing the weight of Muslims in the Army which he thought was not desirable. In pursuance of this policy, the Hindu Mahasabha then proceeded to join governments, often in coalition with the Muslim League. In fact, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, was a minister in the Bengal government at the time the British brutally suppressed the Congress when it launched the Quit India movement in 1942. The Hindu Mahasabha also had no compunctions in forming coalition governments with the Muslim League in Sind and the North-west Frontier Province during the War, when the League had already declared Pakistan as its goal in 1940.
Also read: How the RSS Betrayed Jayaprakash Narayan
Interestingly, both the League and the Mahasabha saw the Congress as their main enemy and were willing to be friends with the British – at the same time claiming to be nationalists, the former espousing Muslim nationalism and the latter Hindu nationalism! The fact remains, however, that despite their claims, in the specific context of colonial India, when the main nationalist struggle was of all Indians against the British, they can only be described as communalists and loyalists.
The RSS, too, as in the previous big mass struggle, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930-32, remained aloof from the real nationalist battle – the Quit India movement. They advised their young enthusiastic cadre, many of whom believed in the nationalist rhetoric which attracted them to the RSS in the first place, to save their energies for the big battle that was about to come. A Home Department note on the RSS reported that, “At meetings of the Sangh during the Congress disturbances (1942), speakers urged the members to keep aloof from the Congress movement and these instructions were generally observed.” Thus, in the final analysis, we are obliged to say that as an organisation the RSS did not participate in any anti-British movement during the entire period of its existence from 1925 -1947.
But it suddenly came to life when the communal situation took a turn for the worse in 1946. Clearly, this was the real battle they were waiting for. It was easy to emerge as “protectors” of Hindus when communal violence began to spread. Enough documentary evidence exists of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS leaders giving speeches and their followers writing vituperative content in newspapers, both before and immediately following independence and partition. Mahatma Gandhi was a prime target and was vilified as an appeaser of Muslims. The tiranga was rejected as the national flag of India with articles in the Organiser of mid-August 1947 including by Syama Prasad Mookerjee saying that the bhagwa, or saffron, flag was the only true flag worthy of reverence by Hindus, that the number three was considered evil in Hindu tradition and therefore the fact that it had three colours meant that it would bode ill for the country. In keeping with that faith, the RSS did not fly the tricolour till 2002, when the stronger pressures of the BJP being in power at the Centre made it embarrassing to continue the practice.
The months leading up to Gandhiji’s assassination witnessed widespread communal violence in north India, including in Delhi in September 1947. The role of the RSS and other communal elements was widely suspected and pointed out by provincial governments as well. Violent anti-government and anti-Gandhi speeches were common and three days before the assassination. Mahant Digvijaynath of the Mahasabha at a meeting in Delhi asked the gathering to send Mahatma Gandhi and all anti-Hindu elements to Pakistan. On December 18, 1947, RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar at a rally of 50,000 volunteers in Delhi called the attitude of the government “unIndian and satanic” and threatened that they had the “means whereby their opponents could be immediately silenced”.
On January 30, the threat was carried out, and the light went out of our lives, as Nehru said. Immediately after Gandhiji’s assassination, the Government of India, with Sardar Patel as Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, banned the RSS and put some 25,000 of its members in jail. The Hindu Mahasabha chose to dissolve itself when confronted with a ban. Tainted by its link with Gandhiji’s murder, the Hindu Mahasabha beat a tactical retreat and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, its main leader, founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951. This was to be the main political vehicle of Hindu communal articulation from then onwards, its frontline political party, till it merged into the Janata Party after the Emergency in 1977 and then was replaced by the BJP in 1980.
In January 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated, Savarkar was arrested as he was suspected of being the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Sardar Patel, who was overseeing the whole case as the Home Minister, being a fine criminal lawyer, was personally convinced of Savarkar’s guilt, otherwise he would not have agreed to put him up for trial. He told the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in unambiguous terms, ‘It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through’. (Durga Das, Sardar Patel Correspondence, 1945–50, Vol. VI, p. 56.)
In response to the Hindu Mahasabha’s disclaimer, Patel wrote to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, on 6 May 1948:
“…we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets…. Further, militant communalism, which was preached until only a few months ago by many spokesmen of the Mahasabha, including men like Mahant Digbijoy Nath, Prof. Ram Singh and Deshpande, could not but be regarded as a danger to public security. The same would apply to the RSS, with the additional danger inherent in an organization run in secret on military or semi-military lines.” (Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. VI, p. 66.)
Patel further pointed out to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, ‘The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the state’. (July 18, 1948, Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. 6, p. 323.)
We can only wonder what the Sardar would have said today!
Mridula Mukherjee is former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.