Idol Chatter

Neerja Chowdhury presents RSS myth on Ayodhya as history

Neerja Chowdhury's How Prime Ministers Decide perpetuates the RSS myth that Nanaji Deshmukh was involved in placing a Ram idol at the Babri Masjid on the night of 22 December 1949. SONDEEP SHANKAR / GETTY IMAGES
28 October, 2023

It is well known that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, aimed at constructing a temple at the site of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid, was the most pivotal Hindu majoritarian campaign for capturing the centre stage of Indian politics. It is an equally established fact that the Sangh Parivar launched this campaign only in 1984, when the issue was made the central plank of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The critical turning point of this dispute—the placing of a Ram idol inside the mosque on the night of 22 December 1949—was the handiwork of another section of Hindu communalists, belonging to the Hindu Mahasabha. In fact, it was this act, seen as the first attempt to convert the Babri Masjid into a Hindu religious site, that led to the decades-long legal battle that culminated in the Supreme Court, on 9 November 2019, mandating the construction of a temple at the site of the mosque.

Given the significance of the issue, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh seems to have long desired the stamp of antiquity on its association with the dispute. Until the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, on 30 January 1948, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha had acted almost like sister organisations, with overlapping membership being widespread. But, after the assassination, in order to de-hyphenate itself from the assassin, Nathuram Godse, the RSS quickly disassociated from the Hindu Mahasabha, even though they remained in the same ideological space. The Sangh’s move emanated from Godse’s claim, during his trial, that he had left the RSS and joined the Hindu Mahasabha long before he killed Gandhi. To give credence to Godse’s lie and cover its tracks, the RSS fabricated history to push the false notion that it had existed in total separation from the Hindu Mahasabha since the 1930s.

This line of argument became a hurdle for the Sangh when it sought to associate itself with the Hindu Mahasabha’s 1949 bid to convert the Babri Masjid into a Ram temple. Even after launching its own campaign, in 1984, the RSS did not seek any such association, for a very practical reason: to avoid being implicated in the crime of breaking into the mosque. However, years later, when a legal victory began to appear imminent, some members of the Sangh, in their typically nuanced way, quietly circulated stories that Nanaji Deshmukh, the RSS pracharak—full-time worker—in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh in 1949, had played an important role in placing the idol.

In an attempt to give credibility to these stories, Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle wrote in their 2018 book, The RSS: A View to the Inside, without providing any supporting evidence, that Deshmukh had “organized non-stop bhajans (devotional prayers) in December 1949 at the Ram Janmabhoomi site.” While this was probably the first published item that linked the RSS—nominally at least—with the placing of the idol, the fabrication of history takes a more bizarre shape in the senior journalist Neerja Chowdhury’s recent book, How Prime Ministers Decide.