This article was first published on April 17, 2017 and is being republished on October 7, 2019 to coincide with celebrations of the organisation’s 94th anniversary.
Whether it was the ABVP’s recent attack on Ramjas college, or the February 2016 incident in JNU, or the number of other attacks on “anti-national” artists and journalists that have taken place under the Modi-government, numerous media outlets – print and electronic – have been all too happy to cast these confrontations into the false binary of “free speech vs nationalism”.
This uncritical acceptance of the label of “nationalist” – which the Sangh parivar has conveniently ascribed to themselves – reflects a poor knowledge of history among many senior journalists. This is being used as an asset by the Hindutva coalition in their attempts to shrug off the burden of historical shame they ought to bear for having betrayed the national struggle for independence. This acceptance of their self-proclamation is being used by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to reinvent themselves, falsely, as hyper-patriots who have put the interests of the nation before all other concerns.
The link between nationalism and the struggle for national liberation is inextricable in India. Recounting the role played by the RSS when India was struggling to break free from colonialism can test the credentials of the self-appointed nationalists.
RSS in the Dandi March
On March 18, 1999, the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, issued a postage stamp commemorating K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, as a great freedom fighter before an audience that consisted mostly of Sangh cadres. This move, Shamsul Islam wrote, was an attempt “to pass off a pre-independence political trend represented by the RSS as a legacy of the anti-colonial struggle whereas in reality the RSS was never part of the anti-imperialist struggle. On the contrary, since its inception in 1925, the RSS only tried to disrupt the great anti-imperialist struggle of the Indian people against the British colonial rulers.”
Hedgewar, the freedom fighter, was a pre-RSS Congressman, arrested and sentenced for a year’s imprisonment for his role in the Khilafat movement (1919-1924) – and that was his last participation in the freedom struggle. Soon after his release, Hedgewar, inspired by Savarkar’s idea of Hindutva, founded the RSS in September 1925. And this organisation, throughout the rest of its life under the British Raj, remained subservient to the colonising power and opposed the mass movements for India’s freedom in every phase of the struggle.
According to Hedgewar’s biography published by the RSS, when Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, he “sent information everywhere that the Sangh will not participate in the Satyagraha. However those wishing to participate individually in it were not prohibited. This meant that any responsible worker of the Sangh could not participate in the Satyagraha”.
There was, however, no lack of enthusiasm among the cadres to participate in these momentous events. However this enthusiasm was actively discouraged by Hedgewar. M.S. Golwalkar, who succeeded Hedgewar, documented an incident which is insightful about the role of RSS leadership :
“..there was the movement in 1930-31. At that time many other people had gone to Doctorji (Hedgewar). This delegation requested Doctorji that this movement will give independence and Sangh should not lag behind. At that time, when a gentleman told Doctorji that he was ready to go to jail, Doctorji said: ‘Definitely go. But who will take care of your family then?’
That gentleman replied: ‘I have sufficiently arranged resources not only to run the family expenses for two years but also to pay fines according to the requirements’.
Then Doctorji told him: ‘If you have fully arranged for the resources then come out to work for the Sangh for two years’. After returning home that gentleman neither went to jail nor came out to work for the Sangh.”
However, Hedgewar himself participated in an individual capacity and went to prison. Although, this time, not with the motives of a freedom fighter. He went to prison, according to his RSS-published biography, with “the confidence that with a freedom-loving, self-sacrificing and reputed group of people inside with him there, he would discuss the Sangh with them and win them over for its work”.
Alarmed by the motivation of both Hindu and Muslim sectarian groups to use Congress cadres for their own disruptive purposes, the All India Congress Committee passed a resolution in 1934 which prohibited members of the Congress party from becoming members of the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim league.
By the end of the decade in December 1940, when Gandhi had launched the satyagraha for Quit India, a note from the home department of the colonial government reveals that RSS leaders met the secretary of the home department and “promised the secretary to encourage members of the Sangh to join the civic guards in greater numbers,”. The civic guards was set up by the imperial government as one of the “special measures for internal security.”
RSS and its opposition to Quit India movement
A year-and-a-half after the Quit India movement was launched, the Bombay government of the British Raj noted in a memo, with considerable satisfaction, that “the Sangh has scrupulously kept itself within the law, and in particular, has refrained from taking part in the disturbances that broke out in August 1942.”
However, as in the previous case of the Dandi March, the cadres of the RSS were frustrated by their leaders who were holding them back from participating in the movement. “In 1942 also”, Golwalkar himself pointed out, “there was a strong sentiment in the hearts of many…. Sangh is an organisation of inactive persons, their talks are useless, not only outsiders but also many of our volunteers did talk like this. They were greatly disgusted too.”
But the RSS leadership had a curious reason for not participating in the struggle for independence. In a speech given on June 1942 – months before an unnecessary, British-made famine was to kill at least three million Indians in Bengal – Golwalkar said that the “Sangh does not want to blame anybody else for the present degraded state of the society. When the people start blaming others, then there is basically weakness in them. It is futile to blame the strong for the injustice done to the weak…Sangh does not want to waste its invaluable time in abusing or criticising others. If we know that large fish eat the smaller ones, it is outright madness to blame the big fish. Law of nature whether good or bad is true all the time. This rule does not change by terming it unjust.”
Even in March 1947, when the decision was already made by the British to finally quit India following the naval mutiny of the previous year, Golwalkar persisted in his criticism of those RSS cadres who wanted to participate in India’s struggle for independence. Addressing the annual day function of RSS he narrated the following incident:
“Once a respectable senior gentleman came to our shakha (the drill). He had brought a new message for the volunteers of the RSS. When given an opportunity to address the volunteers of the shakha, he spoke in a very impressive tone, ‘Now do only one work. Catch hold of the British, bash them and throw them out. Whatever happens we will see later on’. He said this much and sat down. Behind this ideology is a feeling of anger and sorrow towards state power and reactionary tendency based on hatred. The evil with today’s political sentimentalism is that its basis is reaction, sorrow and anger, and opposition to the victors forgetting friendliness.”
In an editorial published in the RSS mouthpiece, the Organiser, on the eve of India’s independence, the Sangh opposed the tricolour flag, declaring that “it never be respected and owned by the Hindus”. “The word three”, the editorial went on explain, “is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”
A few months after independence, Nathuram Godse – who was a member of both the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS – shot Gandhi three times at point-blank range on January 30, 1948. Historian A.G Noorani, quoting from the records of Pyarelal Nayyar, personal secretary to Gandhi at the time, wrote:
“Members of the RSS at some places had been instructed beforehand to tune in to their radio sets on the fateful Friday for the ‘good news’.
“After the news, sweets were distributed in RSS circles at several places”, according to a letter received by Sardar Patel from a young man, “who according to his own statement was gulled into joining the RSS… but was later disillusioned”
A few days later, the RSS leaders were arrested and the organisation was banned. In a communique by the government dated February 4, the government explained:
“..to root out the forces of hate and violence that are at work in our country and imperil the freedom of the nation.. the Government of India have decided to declare unlawful the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.. [I]n several parts of the country, individual members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity, and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunitions. They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect fire arms….the cult of violence sponsored and inspired by the activities of the Sangh has claimed many victims. The latest and the most precious to fall was Gandhiji himself. In these circumstances it is the bounden duty of the government to take effective measures to curb this re-appearance of violence in a virulent form and as a first step to this end, they have decided to declare the Sangh as an unlawful association.”
Sardar Vallabhbai Patel, whom the RSS claim as their own today, wrote to Golwalkar in September that year, explaining his reasons for banning the RSS. Speeches of the RSS, he said, “were full communal poison.. As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the valuable life of Gandhiji. Even an iota of sympathy of the government or of the people no more remained for the RSS. In fact the opposition grew. Opposition turned more severe, when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death. Under these conditions it became inevitable for the government to take action against the RSS.”
In another letter dated July 18, 1948, Patel said to Hindu Mahasabha leader, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee,“..our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies (RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha), particularly the former (the RSS), an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible.”
However, Godse claimed in the court that he had quit the RSS before assassinating Gandhi, and so did the RSS. This claim, however, could not be verified because “no records of the proceedings.. no membership registers are maintained” by the RSS, as pointed out by Rajendra Prasad in a letter to Patel. Under the circumstances, no evidence could be found to prove that Godse was a continuing member of the RSS.
Nonetheless, Gopal Godse, brother of Nathuram who was also arrested as a co-conspirator and sentenced to imprisonment, said in an interview with Frontline magazine, 30 years after his release from prison, that Nathuram had never quit the RSS and had lied in the courts. “All the brothers”, he said, “were in the RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say we grew up in the RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us. Nathuram has said in his statement that he left the RSS. He said it because Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS.” This claim is also corroborated by another member of Godse’s family in a recent interview with the Economic Times.
In the same interview with Frontline, Gopal Godse went on to accuse L.K. Advani of “cowardice” for disowning Nathuram. “You can say that RSS did not pass a resolution, saying, ‘go and assassinate Gandhi’. But you do not disown him.” he complained.
But long before Gopal Godse chose to testify that Nathuram had remained a member of RSS at the time of Gandhi’s murder, the government, unable to provide any evidence, lifted the ban on the organisation in July 1949, after the RSS, arm-twisted by Sardar Patel, wrote for itself a constitution in which it was made clear that the RSS will be “wedded to purely cultural work” and will have no politics of their own.
Four months later, after the drafting committee had completed the process of drafting the constitution, the RSS raised an objection in an article in the Organiser, published on November 30, 1949:
“But in our constitution, there is no mention of that unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat… To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”
Here perhaps the RSS was offering an insight into its – or at least that of its leaders’ – reactionary mindset by regarding as superior to our constitution the Manusmriti – a legal code according to which, “[t]he service of Brahmanas alone is declared an excellent occupation for a Shudra; for whatever else besides this he may perform will bear him no fruit”; an oppressive regime which prohibited a Sudra from earning wealth “even though he be able; for a Sudra who has acquired wealth, gives pain to Brahmanas”.
The campaign of the RSS to implement the Manusmriti instead of the constitution continued well into the following year, even after the the constitution was officially adopted by the country. In an editorial titled ‘Manu Rules Our Hearts‘, the RSS asserted in a tone of defiance:
“Even though Dr Ambedkar is reported to have recently stated in Bombay that the days of Manu have ended it is nevertheless a fact that the daily lives of Hindus are even at present day affected by the principles and injunctions contained in the Manusmriti and other Smritis. Even an unorthodox Hindu feels himself bound at least in some matters by the rules contained in the Smritis and he feels powerless to give up altogether his adherence to them.”
But now they are patriots
So in conclusion, I ask, what would be a reasonable word to describe a cult which went down on its knees before the colonial government and opposed the mass struggle to create an independent nation; a cult which opposed the national flag and the country’s constitution, and whose “men expressed joy and distributed sweets after” the assassination of a person regarded by the masses as the father of our nation? Are they to be branded as traitors? No. In our times when history is becoming increasingly irrelevant for political discourse, they are the “Nationalists”. And everyone else is anti-national.
Pavan Kulkarni is a freelance journalist.