The first half of the 1920s saw the emergence of many organisations whose aim was to mobilise for the nationalist cause. Disappointed with Mahatma Gandhi’s withdrawal of the Civil Disobedience movement, Motilal Nehru, Chittaranjan Das and others floated the hard-line Swaraj Party within the Indian National Congress. The Hindustan Republican Association, with an umbilical link with Bengal’s Anushilan Samity embarked on a militant course. Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Communist Party of India was launched in 1925. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was launched in the same year by six activists led by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in Nagpur. Hedgewar became its first sarsanghchalak. A year earlier, inspired by the Congress’ Jhanda Satyagraha in Nagpur, the volunteers from Hubli, who had withstood British oppression, formed the Hindustan Seva Dal, led by Narayan Subbarao Hardikar, who, like, Hedgewar, was a medical doctor. This outfit was the precursor of the present day Congress Seva Dal(CSD)—the Kakinada session of the Congress in 1931 renamed the volunteer force and assigned it a vanguard role. Both RSS and CSD uniforms comprised knickers (shorts worn by men): the RSS wore khaki; CSD uniform was black. The Hindu Mahasabha also originated in that period.
Ninety years later, when the RSS has decided to shed its knickers and wear the pants (brown trousers were adopted at the Nagaur conclave), the CSD, which adopted pants years earlier, remains a poor also-ran. It is primarily assigned ceremonial duties of saluting the flag at the start of AICC meets. CPI, now split into two distinct parties, is trying to keep its faltering flag aloft, the nascent spark of Kanhaiya Kumar notwithstanding. In the centenary year of its fourth sarsanghchalak, Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras (Balasaheb Deoras), RSS can take pride that while one of its pracharaks has occupied the chair of Prime Minister, others are Chief Ministers and important members of the Union Council of Ministers. The RSS is now wearing the pants (this idiom, generally applied to women, dates back to the 1550s when women in England wore skirts—pants signified an authoritative and primarily masculine role). CSD functionaries rarely assumed ministerial duties in the days of Congress raj.
The journey of the RSS vis-à-vis the CSD vividly portrays the ups and downs of national political parties in India. Over the years, CSD was used by the Congress as an organisation whose stewardship was assigned to “adjust” those who could not be accommodated elsewhere. Example: Tariq Anwar was shifted from the presidentship of Youth Congress to head the Seva Dal in the 1980s. Ditto for Jagdish Tytler. The present head of the organisation is a political lightweight. At one stage, when Rahul Gandhi was emerging, Ashok Gehlot and Mukul Wasnik floated the idea of having him as head of CSD.
The Kakinada session in 1931 assigned the Congress Seva Dal (a “militia-like” volunteer force) a vanguard role in the movement against the British Raj. A ban was imposed on Congress in 1932. It was lifted in 1934, but the ban on CSD continued for a while more as the British knew its potential in mobilising for satyagraha. In independent India, the CSD was banned by the West Bengal government in 1948. Jawaharlal Nehru, who had served in the CSD, intervened and got the ban lifted. The Seva Dal lost its primacy during Congress rule. Even after the 1977 debacle, the Congress did not revive the CSD as a tool of mass mobilisation—that role had been taken over by the Youth Congress under Sanjay Gandhi. For a brief while, in the days of Rajiv Gandhi, both as party general secretary and as Prime Minister, the Seva Dal was back in the limelight: Rajiv used Seva Dal members for collecting feedback from the grassroots. (Side by side with the Seva Dal, adolescent Indira Nehru formed the Vanar Sena, primarily in Allahabad and other UP towns—adolescents and children helped the Congress, while leaders were jailed. This was abandoned in the years to come.)
Bharatiya Janata Party veteran L.K. Advani once said in the early 1990s that his party was the best alternative as it had no umbilical link with the Congress. (Communists and Socialists functioned within the Congress during the freedom struggle; the Akalis were allies as was the J&K National Conference.) While the BJP has impeccable “Congress-mukt” credentials—with its precursor, Bharatiya Jan Sangh having been formed in 1952 as an alternative platform to the Nehru regime—the same perhaps cannot be said of RSS. Dr Hedgewar came under the influence of the Anushilan Samity while studying medicine in Calcutta. He also interacted with the Hindustan Republican Party and was in touch with Ramprasad Bismil, whose song, Sarfaroshi ki Tammanna, inspires the youth to this day. He participated in the Congress’ Jungle Satyagraha, which took place in the Bombay Presidency almost side by side with the Bardoli Satyagraha in 1930, and was jailed. He attended some Congress sessions until the AICC banned the participation of RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League members from its sessions.
The RSS was launched in the aftermath of the Kakori rail dacoity on Vijaya Dashami day in 1925, thus, while not part of the Congress mainstream, the Sangh has its roots in the freedom struggle. It did not participate in the Quit India movement in 1942. Post Independence, the RSS had differences with Nehru and with B.R. Ambedkar on the question of the national flag. They wanted the bhagwa dhwaj, while the Constituent Assembly opted for the Tricolour. There were serious differences on the style of the Constitution as well. These differences are enunciated in Bunch of Thoughts, penned by the third sarsanghchalak, M.S.Golwalkar.
The RSS was banned in Punjab between 24 and 28 January, 1947 by the Unionist Party government. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948 triggered another ban, which was lifted six months later when Sardar Patel obtained an assurance that the Sangh would be a non-political, cultural outfit. Another ban was imposed during 19 months of the Emergency and again in the aftermath of the Babri demolition in 1992, and was lifted as nothing was substantiated. The emergence of the Jan Sangh provided the RSS with an unobtrusive platform. The Janata Party government, of which former Jan Sangh was a constituent, was jinxed by the “dual membership” issue raised by Raj Narain and enlarged by Charan Singh. This ultimately led to the formation of the BJP.
RSS volunteers, while avoiding open political activity in free India, engaged in a movement for the decolonisation of the Portuguese ruled Dadra Nagar Haveli in 1954. A year later, they started a movement for the freedom of Goa, Daman and Diu. These movements have paid long term dividends—Gujarat and Goa are BJP ruled now.
The 1971 cyclone in Odisha, 1977 cyclone in Andhra, the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster and the 2001 Gujarat earthquake saw the RSS in yeoman role. The Bihar drought in 1965 was an opportunity for the RSS to befriend its one time critic, Jayprakash Narayan, who had opposed the lifting of the ban in 1948. Later, the RSS was to play the role of providing sinews to the JP movement and the anti-Emergency stance.
Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were in dialogue with the RSS during the Emergency after Balasaheb Deoras appreciated the Emergency in writing. Former Intelligence Bureau chief T.V. Rajeshwar has noted in his book that Mrs Gandhi almost met Deoras, but shied away at the eleventh hour. Some observers say that the 1979 December poll was an occasion for the RSS to “take revenge on” Charan Singh, Raj Narain and other Janata leaders inimical to the Sangh, and an invisible hand of support was extended to ensure Mrs Gandhi’s return to power. Rajiv Gandhi revived the dialogue with RSS: Balasaheb’s brother and lieutenant, Bhaurao Deoras was in constant touch with him.
There were two occasions when the RSS stood by Mrs Gandhi. When Jagannath Puri priests opposed a visit by Indira Gandhi as she was married to a “non-Hindu”, Balasaheb Deoras openly backed her right to worship. On another occasion, when Mrs Gandhi offered prayers at Rameshwaram and the RSS mouthpiece’s editor, K.R. Malkani described that as an “election stunt”, Deoras chided the publication.
The Congress Chief Minister of erstwhile Madhya Bharat, Ravi Shankar Shukla sought Golwalkar’s help in handling the trouble in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh. RSS acrivist Ramakant Keshav Deshpande was assigned to it and this ultimately gave birth to the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in Jashpur: the RSS’ roots among the tribals continue to this day and have been the subject of controversy at times.
The stand taken at the Nagaur conclave on women’s right to enter temples is not a bolt from the blue. Since the days of Hedgewar, the RSS has advocated the training of tribals and backward classes as the high priests of temples. In 1934, Mahatma Gandhi went to an RSS camp in Wardha, where he was impressed by the lack of untouchability. He personally enquired from all the swayamsevaks and praised them for “living and eating together without bothering to know their castes”.
Dr Zakir Hussain, who was later President of India, appreciated the RSS on 20 November 1949, barely a year after the ban had been lifted, when he said at a Milad Mehfil in Mungher (Bihar), “The allegations against RSS of violence and hatred against Muslims are wholly false. Muslims should learn the lesson of mutual love, cooperation and organisation from RSS.”
The observations of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Zakir Hussain and Jayaprakash Narain on the RSS and the attitude of Golwalkar and Deoras towards the Congress leadership needs to be understood in the present context. Fringe elements should draw a lesson from these.
The fourth stanza of the jhanda geet with which every session of AICC begins, says:
Ho swaraj janata ka nischay
Bolo Bharat Mata ki jai
Vijayi vishv Tiranga pyara
Jhanda ooncha rahe hamara
As the RSS marches on, the Congress, as a national organisation, need not engage in diatribe on Jai Hind or Bharat Mata ki Jai. It’s its organisation, and not mere rhetoric, which makes the RSS wear the pants today.
Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a former Editor of Sunday and of National Herald.