Pranab Mukherjee recently addressed a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) meet in Nagpur on issues around the nation and nationalism. He told the RSS that nationalism could not be defined in terms of one religion, language or region. He quoted Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore to drive home the point that secularism and inclusion constitute articles of faith. The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, also gave a speech which stressed that all those born in India are Indians. It was contrary to what he had said before the Tripura elections, that all living in India are Hindus.
The Congress party said that Mukherjee showed a mirror to the RSS. But the moot point is, will the RSS listen to him? Gandhi addressed RSS rallies twice, once in the 1930s when the founder of the RSS, K.B. Hedgewar, was still alive. Jamnalal Bajaj took Gandhi to the rally organised near Wardha. He addressed an RSS rally for the second time on September 16, 1947 in Delhi. Later, on November 16, 1947 while addressing a prayer meeting, he said that he was reprimanded for addressing an RSS rally and stated that he received letters of complaint about it.
Gandhi’s speech at the RSS rally in Delhi in 1947 was more hard-hitting than what Mukherjee had to say last week. Gandhi in his speech noted that prayers offered at the rally were in praise of Mother India, Hindu culture and Hindu religion only, and said in no uncertain terms that Hinduism had absorbed the best of all the faiths in the world, and so it was not an exclusive religion and could have no quarrel with Islam or its followers. He also categorically told the RSS that “..if the Hindus felt that in India there was no place for any one else except the Hindus and if the non-Hindus, especially Muslims wished to live here they had to live as the slaves of Hindus, they would kill Hinduism”.
This statement was a clear indictment of the ‘Hindu rashtra‘ concept upheld by the RSS. Gandhi also noted in his speech that M.S. Golwalkar had told him that the RSS was purely meant for serving the Hindus and Hinduism, and it did not believe in non-violence. After his speech, when he was asked if Hinduism permitted the killing of an evil-doer and if not how did he explain the exhortation of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita to destroy the Kauravas, Gandhi told RSS workers that the right to punish the evil-doer rested with the duly constituted government, and people should stop becoming judge and executioner at the same time and not take the law into their own hands. He told them point blank that Sardar Patel and Nehru should be allowed to function freely as home minister and prime minister respectively, as they were servants of the people, and asked the RSS not to sabotage their efforts by indulging in unlawful activities.
But this strong speech at an RSS rally a month after India’s independence had made no impact on the organisation. They went on taking the law into their own hands. A number of Gandhi’s prayer meetings were disturbed by RSS workers, whenever the Quran was recited. On one occasion, he said that a big organisation, meaning the RSS, disturbed the prayer meeting.
In fact, reading what Gandhi wrote on the RSS reveals that he was unsparing of their communal and divisive outlook and had anticipated huge troubles from it. On November 16, 1947, while addressing a prayer meeting, he referred to the accession of the princely state of Rampur, which had a Muslim ruler, to the Indian Union. He said that just because the princely state of Rampur had a Muslim ruler, it did not mean that it was a Muslim state where Hindus and Muslims lived together. He referred to the apprehensions of some Hindu friends that though Rampur had acceded to the Indian Union, it was still under the insidious influence of the Muslim League. Gandhi said, “Had that only been the obstacle, it could have been easily overcome”, and further added, “But there is also the Hindu Mahasabha assisted by the members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who wish that all the Muslims should be driven away from the Indian Union.” He wanted to address that challenge by taking a stand against attempts to make India a country in which only Hindus could live as masters. He lauded the All India Congress Committee for building such a country and noted that “There is no room in it for narrow communalism.”
However, the narrow communalism associated with the RSS led to the killing of several Muslims in the formative period following the independence of our country. In fact, on November 15, 1947, Gandhi while addressing an AICC meeting said in so many words, meant for the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, that Hinduism could not be saved by an orgy of murders. While addressing a prayer meeting on November 30, 1947 in Delhi, he said, “I would like to tell the Hindu Mahasabha and also the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – both are Hindu organisations and many influential and educated people are associated with them as in other organisations – that they cannot save Hinduism in this manner. Is it true that they have harassed Muslims? If not who has?” Gandhi’s interrogation of the RSS constituted the strongest measure to question their inclusive credentials, which are now being flagged by top functionaries of the RSS. Only Gandhi could do this.
A bomb was thrown at a prayer meeting to kill Gandhi, but it missed its target. Referring to that incident, Gandhi said that the bomb explosion had in it a bigger conspiracy. Eventually, Gandhi was killed in 1948. Pyarelal in his book Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase wrote, “It was the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh- the militant communalists Hindu organisation, opposite number of the Muslim National Guards,- the logic of whose fanatical creed ultimately claimed as its victim the father of the Nation.”
What pushed the RSS to the margins of society and politics in the post-January 30, 1948 period was not the speech Gandhi made at its rally or his subsequent speeches in prayer meetings, but his supreme sacrifice in facing and stopping the bullets of hatred fired by his Hindutva assassins. It was only by laying down his life that he was able to defeat the drive for a ‘Hindu rashtra’. For all the history that he recounted in Nagpur this week, Mukherjee failed to appreciate this basic lesson. When Gandhi’s spirited words to the RSS counted for little, there was never any chance that a routine speech of the kind the former president delivered would have any impact on this organisation.
S.N. Sahu served as OSD and press secretary to former President of India K.R. Narayanan.