How an inability to stomach Gandhi's overtures to Muslims led Hedgewar to set up the RSS

Hedgewar's successor, MS Golwalkar, appearing at a rally in 1968, seated in front of a painting of the Sangh's founder. virendra prabhakar / ht photo
10 June, 2018

On 7 June, Pranab Mukherjee, the former president of India, addressed a meeting of the newly-recruited cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, at the organisation’s headquarters in Nagpur. Mukherjee, accompanied by the current RSS head, Mohan Bhagwat, also visited the birthplace of KB Hedgewar, one of the Sangh’s founders. In a note in the visitor’s book of the Hedgewar home—where the first-ever meeting of the RSS took place in 1925—Mukherjee wrote that he had come to pay homage to “a great son of Mother India.”

In his July 2017 cover story, Hartosh Singh Bal wrote about how the virulent ideology of MS Golwalkar, who succeeded Hedgewar as the head of the RSS, continues to underpin Modi’s India. The following extract from the story describes the founding of the Sangh—though Hedgewar was closely associated with several Congress leaders, Bal writes, part of what ultimately drove him to form the RSS were Gandhi’s overtures to Muslims in India, a community that Hedgewar considered “anti-national.”

The RSS’s birth saw the meeting of multiple intellectual and historical currents that had been churning for several decades. Colonialism had brought with it modern technology, government systems and education, but it had also left the subcontinent’s people with a need to explain their subjugation to a foreign power. To do so, many constructed their own versions of history—often using intellectual methods, such as empirical reasoning, that colonialism had made accessible.

Among the most popular explanations, propounded by figures ranging from Vivekananda to Dayananda Saraswati, was that Indian history had seen a steady decline from a glorious Hindu past. Having lost touch with this past, the Hindus were easy prey to foreign invaders, whether they were the Muslims or the British. Most of those who believed in this history believed that this decline could be corrected by reviving this ancient past. Muslims on the subcontinent often put forth a similar version of this argument, maintaining that the decay of their rule in India was the result of their deviation from the fundamentals of Islam. But while, in the latter case, the fundamentals could be traced back to a text—the Quran—the recreation of a great Hindu past seemed to require an invention of a past.

Prominent among the Hindu groups who took this approach was the All India Hindu Sabha, founded in 1915, and renamed the Hindu Mahasabha in 1921. In his 2002 book RSS’s Tryst With Politics, the political scientist Pralay Kanungo noted that the 1923 Benares session of the Hindu Mahasabha “brought together a cross-section of Hindu groups including some prominent Congress leaders.” In his address, the party’s president, Madan Mohan Malviya, suggested that Hindus needed to make themselves strong so that “the rowdy section among the Mahomedans” would not think they could “safely rob and dishonor Hindus.” Malviya’s prescription, Kanungo wrote, “was to educate all boys and girls, establish akharas (gymnasiums), establish a volunteer corps to persuade people to comply with the decisions of the Hindu Mahasabha.”

That same year, VD Savarkar—a one-time revolutionary jailed by the British, who was released conditionally as a result of multiple mercy petitions—addressed an evident gap in the formulations of those who were wrestling with these ideological problems: namely, that the very definition of a Hindu was uncertain. Savarkar’s book Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? sought to answer this question, and became the ideological basis for all subsequent attempts at Hindu consolidation.

It was amidst this intellectual tumult that KB Hedgewar conceived of the RSS. He belonged to Nagpur’s Brahmin community, which had prospered under the Bhonsle clan of kings, who had stood in opposition to Mughal rule. Though the community saw British rule as an imposition, it also gained from the educational opportunities that colonialism brought. Hedgewar first studied at a missionary school in Nagpur and was then persuaded by his mentor BS Moonje, a Congressman who would go on to play a leading role in the Mahasabha, to finish his education in Calcutta. There, he became involved in the revolutionary movement that was underway in Bengal, and joined an organisation known as the Anushilan Samiti, which was heavily influenced by the writings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

Much of Chatterjee’s writing, particularly the novel Anandamath, the source of the national song “Vande Mataram,” was virulently anti-Muslim. Unsurprisingly, then, Hedgewar was initiated into the Samiti with rites that were rooted in Hindu symbolism, and which would have effectively ensured that Muslims would not join the organisation. According to a biography of Hedgewar, Dr Hedgewar, The Epoch Maker, by BV Deshpande and SR Ramaswamy, edited by HV Seshadri, “Each member on enrolment had to take a religious vow in the presence of ten or twelve people, or in the Kali temple or in the crematory.”

Returning to Nagpur from Calcutta, Hedgewar became an active member of both the Congress and the Mahasabha. The divide between the two organisations had not yet appeared, and senior members of the Congress, such as Malviya—who had served twice as president of the Congress and presided over two annual sessions of the Mahasabha—and Moonje (a close associate of the senior Congress leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak) provided both intellectual and practical support to the Mahasabha.

This coexistence grew less comfortable as Gandhi began exercising his hold on the Congress. Hedgewar was repulsed when Gandhi made overtures to the Muslim community during the Khilafat movement—a campaign that called for the restoration of a caliphate spread across several countries, which many Hindu leaders criticised, arguing that its participants in India showed more loyalty to their religion than their homeland.

Deshpande and Ramaswamy recounted that Hedgewar fulminated that Indian Muslims had proved themselves “Muslims first and Indians only secondarily” during the movement. “While the cries of ‘Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai’ continued to reverberate in the air,” they wrote, “its prospect in reality was receding farther and farther. Doctorji became engrossed in finding answers to certain basic questions: Over these years of our fraternization, have the Muslims ever responded positively to any of our gestures? Have they developed any warmth towards the Hindu society? Have they reciprocated the Hindu tradition of tolerance, of ‘live and let live?’ Have they exhibited the slightest willingness to join us in paying homage to Bharat Ma?” Another biography, by Bhishikar, noted that Hedgewar referred to Muslims as “yavana snakes”—using the Hindi term for Greeks, often applied to foreigners generally—and argued that they were “anti-national.”

Pralay Kanungo wrote that riots that broke out in 1923 between Hindus and Muslims in Nagpur were key to Hedgewar’s decision to found the RSS. Among the major causes for the riots was a dispute over the rights of Hindus to carry out religious processions in front of mosques. The situation reached a flashpoint on 30 October 1923, when the collector of Nagpur banned a procession of Hindus. “Influential Hindu leaders called for a march defying the ban in which 20,000 Hindus joined,” Kanungo noted. “Hedgewar and other Hindu leaders were quick to appreciate the potential power of an organized mobilisation.”

Following this, Kanungo continued, a Hindu Sabha—a branch of the national Mahasabha—was formed in Nagpur, with Moonje as vice president and Hedgewar as secretary. This was accompanied by a rise in anti-Muslim triumphalism. “The institution of singing Bhajan in public was popularized with great vigour,” Deshpande and Ramaswamy noted. “The entire city was reverberating with full-throated chanting of ‘Jai Vittal,’ ‘Jai Jai Vittal.’ After seeing the mood of the people, government allowed the Hindus to carry on Bhajan when passing in front of Masjids at any time except at the five stipulated Namaz timings.”

According to the authors, Muslims were “irked by this ‘defeat,’” and Hedgewar and Moonje received some threatening letters. “But they moved fearlessly all over the town with a view to keeping up the morale of the people,” they wrote. “Because of the in-built fear of the Muslims among the Hindus, the band troupes sometimes shirked to play before the Masjid. On such occasions, Doctorji himself would take over the drums and rouse the dormant manliness of the Hindus.”

Building on this aggressive mobilisation, the RSS was founded in Nagpur on 27 September 1925, the day of Dussehra that year. Five people attended the inaugural meeting: Hedgewar, Moonje, VD Savarkar’s brother Ganesh Damodar Savarkar, LV Paranjpe and BB Tholkar. Though all five individuals technically co-founded the RSS, and though Moonje and Savarkar played key roles in establishing it, the Sangh has consistently overlooked their roles and instead focussed only on Hedgewar.

Deshpande and Ramaswamy narrated in detail what they saw as the first “revolution wrought by the Sangh,” in response to a procession of “thousands of Muslims” on 4 September 1927. “The processionists were fully armed with lathis, daggers and other lethal weapons,” they wrote. “Cries of ‘Allah ho Akbar,’ ‘Din din’ etc rent the air.” This “warlike posture of Muslims,” the authors continued, “sent shock-waves through the hearts of Hindus. But a little over hundred young men of the Sangh were determined to protect the Hindu society.” At one point, they wrote, “Muslim goondas began abusing the Hindus and attacking them. However, they were in for a rude shock. Swayamsevaks, who were on the alert, repelled the attacks instantly.” The “encounter” between the groups “went on for three days and ultimately the Hindus triumphed. Hundreds of Muslim goondas were hospitalized, and 10-15 died. 4-5 Hindus too succumbed; one of them was a Swayamsevak by name Dhundiraja Lehgaonkar.”

The Sangh viewed this as a key moment in its growth. “Peace returned after the arrival of the army,” the authors wrote. “After that day history had taken a new turn. The Hindus remained no longer at the receiving end of attack.”

If the Hindu Mahasabha focussed on political activities, the RSS was envisioned as a cadre-based social movement working within Hindu society. The idea of such a group had even taken a preliminary form in 1920, when Paranjpe and Hedgewar formed a corps of over 1,000 uniformed Congress volunteers, called the Bharat Swayamsevak Mandal, which oversaw lodging and food for the 15,000 delegates who attended the party’s Nagpur session.

A year after this session, Hedgewar encountered the book that described a way of thought that put an intellectual gloss over his dislike for Muslims. Deshpande and Ramaswamy wrote, “the historical treatise Hindutva by Veer Savarkar reached Doctorji’s hands. Savarkar had written it while in Andamans and with great difficulty and ingenuity had managed to smuggle it out. Savarkar’s inspiring and brilliant exposition of the concept of ‘Hindutva,’ marked by incontestable logic and clarity, struck the chord of Doctorji’s heart.” Savarkar’s assertions in the book were steeped in suspicion of Muslims, whom he viewed as outsiders. He argued, for instance, that Muslims who truly believed in their faith could never be part of the nationalism he conceived as Hindutva. The book provided an ideological foundation for Hedgewar’s prejudices.

This is an excerpt from the July 2017 cover story, “The Instigator,” by Hartosh Singh Bal.