Projecting Futures

Reading RSS comics from the 1980s

The covers of Dr. Hedgewar, written by Sudhakar Raje and illustrated by Nana Wagh, and Shri Guruji, written by Swanand and illustrated by Keshavrao Wagh. Both comics were published by Gyan Ganga Prakashan in Jaipur in the 1980s.
30 November, 2021

AT A TIME WHEN the signs and symbols of Hindu nationalism are ubiquitous in India, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the hegemonic force in cultural and educational spheres, it is useful to analyse the RSS’s cultural output from an earlier moment when the Bharatiya Janata Party was not in power. RSS comics from the 1980s can throw light on both the continuities in Hindu-nationalist ideology over a forty-year period and the departures of the current dispensation from its traditional core of Hindutva ideology.

How did the RSS view itself in 1980? How did it represent and project itself to a newly literate “imagined community” of youth that it targeted for recruitment to the Hindutva cause? Reading RSS comics from the early 1980s allows us to decode the aspirational efforts of RSS cultural production at a time when its ideology was marginal to the national imagination.

These comic books—Dr. Hedgewar and Shri Guruji—also reflected a new sense of organisational self-confidence that enabled such forms of cultural expression and output in the first place. The RSS had acquired its first taste of political power and legitimacy through the Janata Party’s post-Emergency power-sharing arrangement, between 1977 and 1980. It was the main force behind the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a political party formed in 1951 and a member of the Janata coalition. The comics were an early attempt by the RSS to mainstream its own leaders and include them in a nationalist pantheon at a time when secular, left-leaning historians tended to be dismissive about the RSS’s contributions to the independence movement. Modelled along the lines of Mahapurushon ki Kahaniyan—the Great Men Stories—of the Amar Chitra Katha comic-book form, the comics were designed to create a parallel iconography of the RSS leadership that could eventually supplant a secular nationalist iconography.

A reading of Dr. Hedgewar and Shri Guruji offers a sense of the stock themes and tropes emphasised by the comics during the early days of the RSS, which continue to resonate and be used for purposes of Hindutva mobilisation in the present. For instance, definitions of “anti-nationals” and citizens, depictions of minority appeasement, distinctions between good and bad Muslims, and calls to anti-Muslim violence as a defensive strategy all feature prominently in the RSS comics from four decades ago. How should we interpret the images from the past that continue to have currency in the present, often with incendiary and even deadly effects: the scene that depicts the use of a vigilante mob for cow protection; the scene that suggests the removal of a mosque that is an offensive reminder of Muslim imperialism and domination over Hindu India? Are these coincidences and anachronisms, or a reflection of Hindutva’s deep continuities and repurposing strategies over time?

Lalit Vachani makes films and teaches at the University of Göttingen, Germany. His documentaries include The Boy in the Branch (1993) and The Men in the Tree (2002), on the ideology and the growth of the RSS and Hindu nationalism.