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.”