The most 'Bharatiya' of them all: 100 years of RSS

The BJP's official history says the RSS was formed to address the problem of 'disunity among Hindus' in relation to Muslims

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat (photo: @RSSorg/X)
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat (photo: @RSSorg/X)

Aakar Patel

Next year, the world’s largest NGO or non-governmental organisation marks its centenary. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded in 1925 at a single shakha (branch) in Nagpur and today, according to its website, has over 57,000 daily shakhas across India. The RSS says it does not keep a record of its members so it does not know how many there are.

Why was it formed? We are told the reason in the six-volume official history of the BJP — published by the party in 2006 — which quotes Hindu Mahasabha leader B.S. Moonje as saying that communal violence frequently happened in Nagpur because though Muslims only numbered 20,000, "we (Hindus) felt insecure because the Muslims were never afraid of 1.3 lakh Hindus".

Moonje felt this was because Hindus were divided into watertight compartments, "each having (such) a special and cultural life of its own that there is hardly any association between them". This was in contrast to Muslims, who "form one organic community, religiously well organised and disciplined". And because of this, "any injury done to any part of the community anywhere is felt as keenly all throughout". 

The book says the RSS was formed to address this problem of disunity among Hindus in relation to Muslims. It would work toward the cause of Hindu unity and solidarity and cultural nationalism. Its founder K.B. Hedgewar went about organising Hindu society and addressing its two problems of disunity and the caste system.

He did both through the mechanism of the shakha, where Hindus of all castes would gather for an hour daily to play games, exercise, learn to march, and do some drills. They would also sing songs together addressed to Bharat Mata. The problem of caste would be addressed through their playing and eating together.

M.D. Deoras, the third head of the RSS, described it thus: "I was present in the first Sangh camp. In that there were quite a number of Mahar (a so-called 'untouchable' caste) brethren. At the time of meals, some began hesitating to sit with them. They had never before in their lives sat for meals with Mahaars. They placed their problem before Doctorji (Hedgewar). But he did not enforce the discipline of the camp and ask them to get out. Doctorji simply said: 'Our practice is to sit together. We shall sit accordingly.' All of us sat together for meals. Those few that were hesitant sat in a separate row. But for the next meal, those very people came to Doctorji and apologised and sat with us of their own accord."

Hedgewar died in 1940, by which time the RSS had spread beyond Nagpur and had 100,000 members. His successor was M.S. Golwalkar, under whom the RSS continued to grow and spread. Golwalkar was pragmatic and felt the RSS had to operate within the law. When the British forbade military dress and drill for Indians in 1943, the RSS gave them up immediately. 

The BJP says an RSS rally in Delhi in December 1947 drew a large crowd and also attracted Hindu princes, businessmen and leaders of other Hindu organisations. This popularity was something that alarmed the Congress, especially Jawaharlal Nehru. Then, on 30 January 1948, came Mahatma Gandhi's assassination by Nathuram Godse. 

Golwalkar had sensed that the RSS would get into trouble once details of the assassination were out. He acted immediately. On the day of the murder, he sent telegrams to RSS branches suspending operations for 13 days. The same day, he telegrammed Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Devdas Gandhi with a message of condolence: "Shocked at this cruel fatal attack and tragic loss of greatest personality."

The next day, he again wrote to Nehru, expressing his shock and referring to Godse as "some thoughtless perverted soul" who had "committed the heinous act of putting a sudden and ghastly end to the life of poojya (venerable) Mahatmaji by the bullet". He called the killing unpardonable and an act of treason. That same day, he also wrote to Patel: "My heart is wrung with extreme agony. It is difficult to find words to condemn the person who committed this crime…" 

None of this helped. Patel banned the RSS on 2 February. The notification said: "The professed aims and objects of the RSS are to promote the physical, intellectual and moral well-being of the Hindus and also to foster feelings of brotherhood, love and service amongst them… the Government have, however, noticed with regret that in practice members of the RSS have not adhered to their professed ideals.

"Undesirable and even dangerous activities have been carried on by members of the Sangh (who) 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 firearms … rendering it incumbent on the government to deal with the Sangh in its corporate capacity." Golwalkar was arrested on 3 February along with 20,000 swayamsevaks (volunteers). 

The RSS says it was shocked that no political party or leader spoke up for it. The ban remained for 17 months, and was lifted after the RSS was asked to produce a constitution. This was written up and submitted and the ban lifted on 11 July 1949, immediately after which the RSS began debating an entry into politics in the pages of its house publication, The Organiser.

It published articles from RSS workers including K.R. Malkani, who wrote RSS "must take part in politics not only to protect itself" but also "to stop un-Bharatiya and anti-Bharatiya politics" and to "advance the cause of Bharatiyata through state machinery".

Thus was born the Jana Sangh/BJP, today the largest political party in the world, child of the largest NGO.

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