The Instigator

How MS Golwalkar’s virulent ideology underpins Modi’s India

01 July, 2017

EVERY CULT OR ORGANISATION typically carries forward the legacy of its founder, and it is rare for those who build upon that legacy to exercise the same influence—let alone exceed it. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, has never been a typical organisation, and, in this regard too, it stands out. It was founded in 1925 by Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, but it bears the far more emphatic stamp of his successor, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. While Hedgewar is referred to as Doctorji within the RSS, Golwalkar is known as Guruji.

Golwalkar took over as the RSS’s sarsanghchalak, or chief, after Hedgewar’s death, in 1940, and held the post till his own death, in 1973. When he assumed charge, the RSS—also known as the Sangh—was still establishing itself, and did not have a major presence outside Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. Under him, the organisation passed through great turbulence: it played an incendiary role in the Partition violence, and was banned after the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi. But under Golwalkar’s leadership, the RSS also set down its written constitution and began to expand beyond its shakhas, or local branches, and into front organisations such as the Jan Sangh in politics, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad among students, the Vishva Hindu Parishad in religion, and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh among industrial workers.

By the time Golwalkar died, the RSS had extended across the entire country, and its network of allied organisations—the Sangh Parivar—had penetrated almost every aspect of Indian society. His ideological influence did not end with his death: Bunch of Thoughts, a text that distils the vast spread of Golwalkar’s writings and speeches, remains the Sangh’s bible to date.

In 2004, MG Vaidya, currently the RSS’s leading ideologue, articulated what amounts to the organisation’s official view on Golwalkar. Vaidya, according to the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, “described Shri Guruji as the biggest gift to Hindu society in the 20th century. He said that the credit for today’s importance of the Sangh in national politics should be given to Shri Guruji, who worked tirelessly for spreading the Sangh work in every nook and corner of the country.”

I met Vaidya early in June at his home in Nagpur. In his living room, which is lined with bookshelves, he spoke to me for nearly an hour, often getting up to pull out a book and make me read a particular paragraph to emphasise a point he was making. His energy belied the fact that he was 94 years old; at the end of our interaction, he hopped onto a motorcycle and rode pillion to see a colleague admitted in hospital. “When I joined the RSS in 1941,” Vaidya told me during our conversation, “I took a pledge to make India independent.” After this goal was attained in 1947, he added, “a conceptual storm hit us: what should we do?” Golwalkar, Vaidya said, “inspired the Sangh with a fresh purpose. He said that we have to consider the organisation of the whole society, not just one aspect of it. Life has many fields, like education, industry, agriculture, religion. We have to inspire and organise people in all these areas.”

Golwalkar’s continuing influence is clear from the reverence in which the country’s only two Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministers have held him. In 2006, speaking on the occasion of Golwalkar’s centenary, Atal Bihari Vajpayee described his first meeting with Golwalkar, in 1940, when Vajpayee was studying in the tenth standard. His account of the experience, published in a 2006 issue of Organiser, has an almost spiritual overtone to it. “Shri Guruji had come to Gwalior station,” Vajpayee said. “I was also among those who reached there to welcome him. When I met him he looked at me as if he recognised me. In fact, there was no reason of recognising, as it was our first meeting. But that meeting left a lasting influence on me. It was at that time that I decided to work for the nation.”

In 2008, Narendra Modi authored a book titled Jyotipunj (Beams of Light), in which he retold the biographies of 16 RSS men who had inspired himThe longest piece was on Golwalkar, later translated into English by the writer and journalist Aakar Patel. In it, Modi compared the RSS leader to the likes of Buddha, the Maratha warrior-king Shivaji and the freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, concluding, in a rare moment of humility, “We are not capable of knowing or analysing Guruji’s life. This is a humble attempt to recount those beautiful moments of his life.”

Golwalkar’s critics have seen him rather differently. The writer and historian Ramchandra Guha has referred to him as the “guru of hate,” while the political scientist Jyotirmaya Sharma titled his book on Golwalkar’s ideology Terrifying Vision. Today, when the RSS wields more control than it ever has over Indian politics and society, matching or perhaps even exceeding the Congress at its zenith, the India that we are dealing with, for better or worse, does not make sense without making sense of Golwalkar.

GOLWALKAR WAS BORN on 19 February 1906, into a Brahmin family in the city of Ramtek, Maharashtra. He was the fourth of nine children in the family, and the only one to survive to adulthood. Soon after his birth, his father took up a job as a schoolteacher in a remote village in what is now Chhattisgarh. Golwalkar’s father took charge of his son’s education and ensured that he learnt fluent English and Hindi early on.

Although Golwalkar grew up in the kind of upper-caste milieu from which the RSS would later draw its leadership and ideology, his early educational and professional path did not lead directly to the Sangh. A science student, he finished his schooling in Nagpur, and then went on to pursue his higher education at Banaras Hindu University, or BHU, completing an MSc in biology in 1928.

It is difficult today to get a clear picture of Golwalkar’s life because of the hagiographic filter through which the Sangh views him, and through which most information about him has passed. One biography of him, by CP Bhishikar, originally published in Marathi and endorsed by the RSS, is titled Shri Guruji: Pioneer of a New Era. Describing the four years he spent studying at BHU, the biography noted that he “studied hard but he leaned more towards a spiritual life. Those days no other student must have used the library as he did. His reading was diligent and wide-ranging: Samskrit, Western philosophy, inspiring thoughts of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda, the main scriptures of various religions and sects and many books on scientific subjects.” After a year doing research at the Madras Aquarium, he returned to take up the post of lecturer at BHU in 1930. It was during this phase that he first came across the RSS, which had been formed five years earlier.

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 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.

The former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (second from right) revered MS Golwalkar (third from right). and described his first meeting with the Sangh head in nearspiritual tones. HT PHOTO

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 itself was not a new one. In an essay published in the first decade of the twentieth century, Margaret Noble, an Irish disciple of Vivekananda, described the Congress as “merely one side,—the political side,—of an incomparably vaster, though less definitely organized host.” She asserted that the “National Movement must have another, and non-political limbs, as it were.” Noble called on students to assume the role of missionaries, and “travel with the magic lantern, with collections of postcards, with a map of India and with head and heart full of ballads, stories, and geographical descriptions.” These missionaries would, she imagined, present “stories and songs and descriptions of India! India! India!” Through them, the message would spread wide that “this and no other is our Motherland! We are Indians every one.” 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.

The Sangh’s early recruits were schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 15. When the time came for them to go to college, Hedgewar encouraged them to study outside Nagpur and expand the reach of the RSS. The training imparted at the shakhas reflected the needs of the young recruits Hedgewar first attracted, but its thrust remained unchanged even when the age of recruits increased. Hedgewar’s biographers describe the early training imparted to RSS recruits as including activities “relating to physical training,” such as “Training in drill, marching” and “discourses on national affairs.” Hedgewar also instituted a “tradition of commencing the daily activities with salutation to the Bhagawa Dhwaj”—saffron flag—“and concluding with the prayer.”

The structure of the organisation evolved over a few years—even its name was settled on a year after its inception. According to Deshpande and Ramaswamy, the name Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh echoing the Bharat Swayamsevak Mandal “was evolved by Doctorji after long and intense deliberation. Especially, the choice of the word ‘Rashtriya’ to denote the work of Hindu consolidation was intended to emphasize the fact that it is the Hindus who form the backbone of the nation in Bharat and that organization of Hindus is a task of supreme national importance.” The following year, a process was instituted whereby the Sangh’s volunteers donated money as “guru dakshina” to sustain it—this practice continues to this day.

VD Savarkar was among those who sought to define the Hindu identity and offer an explanation for why the community had been subjugated by foreign powers. His writings formed the ideological basis for the work of KB Hedgewar and for the founding of the Sangh. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

Among the Sangh’s early recruits was Prabhakar Dani, who, in keeping with Hedgewar’s idea of seeding campuses across the country with shakhas, went to BHU for his bachelor’s studies. Golwalkar was by this time working at the university. Dani opened a shakha in BHU in 1928, with the blessings of Madan Mohan Malviya, the university’s founder. While Golwalkar was a lecturer in zoology, according to his biographer, Bhishikar, “he was also willing and able to teach his students and friends subjects like English, Economics, Mathematics and Philosophy.” Dani “tried to benefit as much as possible from Shri Madhavrao Golwalkar’s qualities as a teacher. This led to Madhavrao occasionally visiting the Shakha. The boys not only took Madhavrao’s help in studies but also arranged for his speeches at the Shakha.”

The shakha’s recruits seem to have recognised Golwalkar’s leadership abilities immediately. “The Swayamsevaks also used to behave with Madhavrao as if he was the patron and chief of the University Shakha,” Bhishikar wrote.

In 1932, Hedgewar invited Golwalkar to Nagpur for the Sangh’s Vijaya Dashami celebrations. “In their personal contact during this stay, Doctorji gave Shri Guruji a clear idea of Sangh work,” Bhishikar wrote. “As a result, Shri Guruji on returning to Banaras, began to take more interest in the University branch.”

In 1933, Golwalkar returned to Nagpur. Hedgewar was quick to assign key responsibilities to Golwalkar: he gave him charge of the Nagpur shakha—which has always been central to the RSS’s work—and entrusted him with expanding the Sangh in Bombay. Unlike almost all of Hedgewar’s other associates, Golwalkar had no connection with either the Congress or the Mahasabha, which may have made Hedgewar believe he would be totally dedicated to the RSS.

But even as Golwalkar began handling these responsibilities, he also started spending a considerable amount of time at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram in Nagpur. He seems to have genuinely faced a dilemma in choosing between the Sangh’s work, ostensibly dedicated to the nation, and the activities of the ashram, presumably aimed towards spiritual self-realisation. In 1936, Golwalkar left Nagpur for the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram in Sargachi, in West Bengal, where he was initiated into the spiritual path by Akhandananda, who had been a direct disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. It was only after Akhandananda’s death, a year later, that Golwalkar returned to Nagpur to restart his work with the Sangh.

In his essay on Golwalkar, Modi recounted an occasion where Golwalkar was questioned about his divided attentions. “The daily Tarun Bharat’s editor Bhausaheb Madkholkar had spoken to respected Guruji at length. Doctorsaheb was also present,” Modi wrote. “One question was: ‘I’ve heard that you left the Sangh midway to go to Bengal’s Ramakrishna Ashram. There you took deeksha under Swami Vivekananda’s gurubandhu,” or fellow disciple. “Then how did you return again to the Sangh?”

Golwalkar, Modi recounted, was “stunned by the question. He thought it over with half-open eyes. After a while he began to speak, slowly. He said: ‘You’ve asked an unexpected question. Whether or not there is a difference between the role of the ashram and the Sangh; that Doctorji will be able to answer more authoritatively. I was always inclined to spiritualism along with the task of nation building. That I would be better able to do this in the Sangh I learnt from my visits to Banaras, Nagpur and Calcutta. And so I have devoted myself to the Sangh. I think this is in line with Swami Vivekanand’s message. I’m more influenced by him than anyone else. I think I can only take forward his goals by remaining in the Sangh.’”

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN Hedgewar and Golwalkar in terms of intellectual output was stark. In Hedgewar’s biography, the question of his foundational beliefs was dealt with in the paragraph that stated, “Savarkar’s inspiring and brilliant exposition of the concept of ‘Hindutva,’ marked by incontestable logic and clarity, struck the chord of Doctorji’s heart.” Hedgewar, too, the book claimed, “out of his clear historical insight and practical experience, had arrived at the same truth of Hindu Nationhood.” In contrast, Golwalkar’s writings and speeches filled a 12-volume set after his death.

Despite the centrality of Savarkar’s book on Hindutva, when ordinary swayamsevaks discuss ideological issues, most of their responses are rooted in Bunch of Thoughts, which was published in 1966. Even if a swayamsevak has not personally read the book, through the discourses of baudhiks—roughly, ideological discourses—during shakha training he will have repeatedly heard much of what it contains.

Though the RSS has argued that Nationhood is an abridged version of another work, Golwalkar’s claim to full authorship is clear from the title page of the book.

But there is another book by Golwalkar that even the Sangh has officially distanced itself from. This is We or Our Nationhood Defined, published in March 1939, a year before Golwalkar became head of the RSS—but unquestionably after he was already a key member of the organisation.

That Golwalkar’s book and the Sangh’s evolution were not at odds with each other is apparent from the timeline of events during this period. In February 1939, Golwalkar was one of a select group of RSS insiders at an important meeting of workers at Sindi, in Maharashtra. According to his biography, the meeting was convened to discuss “a variety of subjects,” including “the shakha system of work, the commands used therein, the prayer, and so on.” Though Golwalkar had been invited “as a new colleague,” this account suggests that it was during these meetings that Hedgewar first mooted the idea of Golwalkar succeeding him as sarsanghchalak.

Golwalkar’s biography recounted an account of the meeting given by Appaji Joshi, considered Hedgewar’s right-hand man, himself a prospective candididate to lead the Sangh. “What do you think of Shri Guruji as the future Sarsanghchalak?” Joshi recounted Hedgewar asking him. “On the basis of my observation during the discussions in the meeting I unhesitatingly replied, ‘Excellent! A most proper choice,’” the book quoted Joshi as saying. The book also noted that after Hedgewar’s death, there was apprehension within the Sangh about Golwalkar’s leadership. A lawyer who admired Joshi apparently called him and said, “Appaji, you were the right hand man of Doctorji. So you should bear the entire responsibility of Sangh work. Shri Guruji will not be able to handle it.” To this, Joshi is said to have replied, “If I was Doctorji’s right hand, Guruji was his very heart.”

Golwalkar brought out Nationhood the month after the Sindi meeting. It is safe to assume that if he was concerned that the views he expressed in it would place him in conflict with the Sangh, he would have refrained from publishing it. Conversely, since he was appointed sarsanghchalak the next year, if the Sangh believed that his views diverged from those of the organisation, it would probably have prevented his ascension. Since neither outcome transpired, it is reasonable to conclude that Hedgewar and the Sangh were comfortable with the views Golwalkar expressed in the book.

Only later did the Sangh feel the need to distance itself from the text. After the Indian government banned the RSS in 1948, in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination, the organisation began to exercise great care in the language it used in public and the image it projected. But writing in 1938 and 1939, Golwalkar did not feel the need to exercise caution. Thus, Nationhood is the clearest uncensored expression of Golwalkar’s beliefs—and despite the Sangh’s later disavowals, Hedgewar’s decision to make him sarsanghchalak immediately after the book’s publication must have served as a clear institutional endorsement.

In Nationhood, Golwalkar unambiguously compares the project of promoting a Hindu culture with German anti-Semitism. “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic races—the Jews,” he wrote. “Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”

Golwalkar takes this view to its logical conclusion, arguing that “the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, ie of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.” Today, even by the standards of fringe Hindutva organisations—leave alone the RSS, which considers Golwalkar its leading light—these views would be unacceptable.

Golkwalkar appearing at a rally in Delhi in 1968. Though Hedgewar founded the organisation, Golwalkar steered the RSS through turbulence after Independence and articulated the vision that continues to guide it today. VIRENDRA PRABHAKAR/HT PHOTO

As the political scientist Shamsul Islam noted in his excellent critique of Nationhood¸ which also reproduces the full text of the book, the Sangh’s efforts to deny its origins in such a poisonous ideology have forced its supporters into the strangest of postures. In his book Shri Guruji And Indian Muslims, the RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha articulated what has become the official RSS position on Nationhood. “Selective and out of context citation of his”—Golwalkar’s—“views is unparalled” in Indian academia, he wrote. “They largely quoted a treatise ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined,’ which was published in 1939. A baffled and elusive domestic and international politics certainly influenced the contents of the book.” Sinha argued that “The fact is that the book ‘We’ neither represents the views of the grown Guruji nor of the RSS. He himself acceded this when he revealed that the book carried not his own views but was ‘an abridged version of GD Savarkar’s work Rashtra Mimansa.’”

VD Savarkar’s elder brother, one of the five RSS founders, is variously referred to as GD Savarkar, BS Savarkar or Babarao Savarkar. Golwalkar, in his preface to Nationhood, wrote, “In compiling this work, I have received help from numerous quarters, too many to mention. I thank them all heartily; but I cannot help separately naming one and expressing my gratefulness to him—Deshbhakta GD Savarkar. His work Rashtra Meemansa in Marathi has been one of my chief sources of inspiration and help. An English translation of this work is due to be shortly out and I take this opportunity of directing the reader to that book for a more exhaustive study of the subject.” Clearly, then, Golwalkar knew of GD Savarkar’s book and endorsed it, while making it clear that his book was not a translation but his own work.

Golwalkar also wrote in the preface, “It is with a deep sense of relief that I place this little work in the hands of the readers. After all that is written in the pages following, it seems superfluous for me to write anything in particular at length. However, I take the opportunity of this preface, to explain the limits which I had set myself when penning this work.” His assertions leave no doubt as to the fact that he was the author of the book. In fact, given Golwalkar’s statements, Sinha’s claims would effectively lead to the unlikely conclusion that Golwalkar attempted to pass off the work of one of the RSS’s founders as his own—which would still mean that he endorsed each word of it.

When I spoke to MG Vaidya about the book, he said he had never read it, and added that, in any case, it dated back to a time before Golwalkar became the sarsanghchalak. He insisted that it was Bunch of Thoughts that was central to the RSS. But the fact remains that Golwalkar publicly espoused the views in Nationhood at a time he was a senior functionary in the RSS.

Within the Sangh, among swayamsevaks, there is no confusion about who has written the book. Golwalkar’s family home in the town of Ramtek, about 50 kilometres from Nagpur, has now been refurbished and altered to serve as a memorial for him, while also functioning as the location for the Sangh’s district headquarters. A shrine to his family deity stands at the entrance, and in a meeting hall on the ground floor is displayed, in a framed portrait set up on small stool, the standard RSS map in which India is deified as Bharat Mata. On the wall behind it hang pictures of Hedgewar, Golwalkar and Golwalkar’s parents. After taking me through a tour of the first floor, which has old pictures of Golwalkar adorning the wall, the swayamsevak who showed me around, Rahul Wankhade, told me, “I’ve heard this is where We was written. Guruji wrote it over one night, in a single sitting.”

AFTER TAKING OVER THE RSS, in 1940, Golwalkar continued the organisational expansion that Hedgewar had overseen—particularly in the Vidarbha region and the Central Provinces—in the last three years of his life. Under him, however, the Sangh took a different stance on the question of participation in the then burgeoning freedom movement.

Hedgewar had largely supported the freedom struggle, led by the Congress. In 1930, when the party called for complete independence, Hedgewar endorsed its stand, and stated that it was “our duty to co-operate with any organisation working towards that goal.” The same year, when Gandhi announced the salt satyagraha, Hedgewar declared that while the Sangh as an organisation would not participate in this movement, “those who would like to participate in their personal capacity are free to do so after obtaining permission from their Sanghachalaks.” While he criticised the Congress, saying it had “given no thought to protecting the Hindu Dharma and Hindu culture,” he asserted that the Sangh would “co-operate with the Congress in the efforts to secure freedom, as long as these efforts do not come in the way of preserving our national culture.” It became clear that the decree was sincere when Hedgewar himself resigned as sarsanghchalak that year and joined the satyagraha, which entailed violating forest laws in the Central Provinces. He was arrested and jailed for nine months.

Golwalkar, in contrast, had almost no direct exposure to political activity. When the Congress announced the Quit India movement in 1942, Golwalkar said, “Right from the beginning, the Sangh has decided to observe certain constraints in some matters.” He then argued that “the Congress leaders did not make what they considered adequate preparations before giving the necessary directive for the agitation.” This apparent lack of planning was his justification for keeping the Sangh away from the freedom movement. “On careful thought, I have realised that we cannot reach our goal even if we took part in it with all our might,” he said. He added: “In such a situation, I think the Sangh’s participation in the movement would serve no purpose.”

Unlike Hedgewar, Golwalkar showed no personal inclination to take part in the movement. In some ways, the RSS benefitted from this decision because it was one of the few organisations whose leadership remained intact in these years. Despite some disenchantment among its cadre with the decision to abstain from the national movement, this perhaps allowed it to expand significantly. In a book on the early years of the RSS, Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle noted that according to the home department of the British government, 76,000 men regularly attended shakhas in British India.

The RSS has long been proud of the fact that its volunteers did considerable work in helping refugees in distress in the aftermath of Independence and Partition. It has been careful, however, to conceal that fact that amidst the tumult, Golwalkar also gave vent to the virulent ideas that he had expressed in Nationhood, and of which Hedgewar had tacitly approved. Two instances in particular stand out for the detail in which they have been documented. Both point to an inescapable fact: Golwalkar sought to plan and instigate communal violence on a large scale.

The bureaucrat Rajeshwar Dayal wrote in his memoirs that he had seen “incontrovertible evidence” of Golkwalkar’s involvement in plans to spark communal violence. KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

The first instance was documented by Rajeshwar Dayal, who was home secretary of the United Provinces at the time of Partition, and who went on to serve as the Indian ambassador to Yugoslavia, and was awarded a Padma Vibhushan. In his autobiography, A Life of Our Times, he wrote that shortly after India became independent, “when communal tension was still at a fever-pitch, the Deputy Inspector-General of Police of the Western Range, a very seasoned and capable officer, BBL Jaitley, arrived at my house in great secrecy. He was accompanied by two of his officers who brought with them two large steel trunks securely locked. When the trucks were opened, they revealed incontrovertible evidence to create a communal holocaust throughout the western districts of the province.”

According to Dayal, the trunks contained accurate blueprints of every town and village in that area, with Muslim settlements and routes to them clearly marked “and other matters which amply revealed their sinister purport.” He brought the matter to the attention of GB Pant, then premier—a post akin to the present chief minister—of the United Provinces. “Timely raids conducted on the premises of the RSS had brought the massive conspiracy to light,” Dayal wrote. “The whole plot had been concerted under the direction and supervision of the Supremo of the organization himself. Both Jaitley and I pressed for the immediate arrest of the prime accused, Shri Golwalkar who was still in the area.”

Pant, however, prevaricated and placed the matter before his cabinet. Dayal noted that it was a politically sensitive matter because “the roots of the RSS had gone deep into the body politic.” RSS sympathisers, he wrote, “both covert and overt, were to be found in the Congress party itself and even in the Cabinet.” The cabinet decided merely that Pant should write a letter to Golwalkar detailing the evidence and asking for an explanation. “Golwalkar, however, had been tipped off and he was nowhere to be found,” Dayal wrote. “He was tracked down southwards but he managed to elude the couriers in pursuit.”

The second instance concerned events that unfolded in December 1947, in Delhi. Details of these can be found in the archives section of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which house the yellowed pages of Delhi Police records, among them documents that deal with RSS activities in the national capital in the year of Independence. Some of these reports were the work of a Crime Investigation Department inspector named Kartar Singh, who, with neat handwriting, sloping to the right, detailed the Sangh’s day-to-day activities in impeccable English. His notes expose the gulf between what Golwalkar was saying publicly and what the Sangh was preparing for in private.

Kartar Singh wrote that on 7 December 1947, “The annual function of the Delhi ‘Shakha’ of the RSS was celebrated in the Ramlila Ground today from 3 pm to 5:30 pm.” The event was attended by about 50,000 volunteers and “an equal number of visitors,” Singh noted.” MS Golwalkar, the ‘Guru’ of the Sangh arrived shortly after 3 pm.” According to Singh, Golwalkar spoke for about 90 minutes touching on, among other subjects, the spread of the RSS and criticisms of it. He asserted that it “was not a political body, and despite requests from many organisations, it had declined to merge into or cooperate with any.” About criticism against it, Golwalkar said, “there was no intelligence” in it. He added, “The Sangh was being called a militant body. It was a pity that the present Government betrayed the same ignorance as the British Bureaucracy.” He denied that the Sangh was working towards a Hindu nation. “There was loud talk in many circles that we wanted ‘Hindu Raj,’” Singh recorded Golwalkar saying. But Hedgewar “had never talked of it, and as far as he remembered, he had not heard it talked in Sangh circles.”

The very next evening, Kartar Singh filed a report about another meeting, on Rohtak Road. “No outsider was admitted to this meeting,” Singh noted. Golwalkar struck a very different tone in his address at this event, attended by “about 2500 volunteers.” “We should be prepared for guerilla warfare on the lines and tactics of Shivaji,” he said. “The Sangh will not rest content until it had finished Pakistan. If anyone stood in our way, we will have to finish him too, whether it was Nehru Government or any other government. The Sangh could not be won over. They should carry on their work.” About Muslims, Singh noted, Golwalkar said, “no power on earth could keep them in Hindusthan. They shall have to quit this country.” He alleged that Gandhi “wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress may profit by their votes at the time of the election. But, by that time, not a single Muslim will be left in India. If they were made to stay here, the responsibility would be the Government’s, and the Hindu community would not be responsible.” Gandhi, Golwalkar said, “could not mislead them any longer.” Then, he issued an ominous threat: “We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too.”

In the course of two days in 1947, Golwalkar had gone from publicly claiming the RSS was not a militant body to stating, behind closed doors, that recruits must prepare for guerilla war; from claiming the RSS had never called for Hindu Raj to asserting it would not allow a single Muslim to live in India. In the closed-door meeting, but never in public, Golwalkar, while specifically naming Gandhi, threatened to silence any man who came in the way of the RSS’s plans.

A month later, on 30 January 1948, Gandhi was shot dead in Delhi by Nathuram Godse.

ON 3 FEBRUARY, four days after the assassination, Golwalkar was arrested. A day later, the RSS was banned. The government communiqué justifying the ban stated that it was imposed because “undesirable and even dangerous activities have been carried on by members of the Sangh.” The details were sinister. “It has been found that in several parts of the country individual members of the RSS have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity, and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunition,” the notice stated. “They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect firearms, to create disaffection against the government and suborn the police and the military.”

The government’s actions represented a challenge to the very existence of the RSS. But Golwalkar maneuvered the organisation through this crisis over the next year, allowing it to eventually return to prominence. To do this, he used a combination of mobilisation—both covert and overt—public statements and arguments, and political lobbying. The deputy prime minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, seems to have played a key role in ensuring the organisation’s survival.

To begin with, a day after the ban, Golwalkar issued what sounded like a carefully phrased, almost diplomatic statement. “It has always been the policy of the RSS to be law-abiding and carry on its activities within the bounds of law,” he said. “Therefore, since the Government has declared the RSS an unlawful body it is thought advisable to disband the RSS till the ban is there, at the same time denying all the charges leveled against the organisation.”

According to Andersen and Damle, “Despite this instruction and subsequent ban, a large number of swayamsevaks continued to meet together.” The book noted that while “RSS officers from all levels of the organization were arrested,” younger members “constructed and maintained the clandestine apparatus” of the organisation.

It became clear in the days that followed that, while the immediate conspiracy for the murder had been hatched by a section of the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS had played a key role in creating the atmosphere in which the crime occurred. In a letter dated 18 July 1948 to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, a former president of the Hindu Mahasabha, Vallabhbhai Patel, who was also the home minister, wrote of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha’s role in Gandhi’s killing, “as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in the conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State. Our reports show that these activities, despite the ban, have not died down.” Despite these acknowledgements of the RSS’s role in fomenting violence, the government did not find direct evidence linking any of its members to Gandhi’s assassination. As a result, most of them were released.

Golwalkar, too, was released, in August, subject to certain conditions—including that he not address public gatherings, and that he obtain government approval before publishing anything. Later that year, Patel wrote to him, expressing his concerns about the RSS’s activities. “Organising the Hindus and helping them is one thing but going in for revenge for its sufferings on innocent and helpless men, women and children is quite another thing,” he wrote. Patel also decried the RSS’s “opposition to the Congress, that too of such virulence, disregarding all considerations of personality, decency or decorum” and argued that it “created a kind of unrest among the people.”

According to Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, the activities of the RSS had created an atmosphere in which Gandhi’s assassination by Nathuram Godse became possible. MONDADORI PORTFOLIO/GETTY IMAGES

Patel added that the Sangh’s leaders’ “speeches were full of communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison in order to enthuse the Hindus and organize for their protection. As a final result of their poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji.” Patel asserted that the government and people now opposed the RSS. “Opposition turned more severe, when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death,” he wrote. “Under these conditions it became inevitable for the Government to take action against the RSS.” And though the government had hoped that the RSS would amend its ways, more than six months after the ban, “from the reports that come to me, it is evident that attempts to put fresh life into their same old activities are afoot.”

In October, Golwalkar’s travel restrictions were lifted. He travelled to Delhi for discussions with the government—but these were terminated without success. Golwalkar was again arrested and returned to Nagpur.

Through this period of uncertainty and confusion, Golwalkar articulated a vision for the Sangh’s future. Responding to demands from within the RSS, he said, “One more idea has been suggested that the RSS convert itself into a political party—which will mean that besides political parties nothing else, not even pious cultural works have any right to exist. This position is unbearable and does no credit to those who may hold it.” He argued that “cultural work should be entirely free from political scramble for power and should not be even tagged on to any political party. I therefore, must say that their suggestion is not in the best interests of the people.”

Golwalkar decided to challenge the ban on the RSS with a satyagraha, which was launched on 9 December in Delhi. The leader was still under arrest at the time the protest kicked off, but, according to RSS sources, it nevertheless drew 60,000 participants.

By some accounts, despite expressing wariness of the organisation, Patel was also keen on engaging closely with it. Andersen and Damle wrote that Eknath Ranade, a member of the RSS central executive who was involved in secret negotiations with the government around this time, told them that Patel “told him that Swayamsevaks should join the Congress and help build the party’s organisational base.” The authors added that RSS leaders “close to the negotiations” claimed Patel “wanted to utilize the RSS cadre to oppose some of Nehru’s policies.”

There may be some truth to these allegations. Golwalkar had written to Patel repeatedly, asking him to substantiate the claims he was making about the RSS with evidence. As deputy prime minister and home minister, Patel would have been well aware of the material Jaitley had presented to Pant, as well as the information available in the Delhi Police records. It remains unclear why he did not present this evidence to Golwalkar or make it public.

Patel’s leanings towards the RSS also became clear later that year, after the ban on the RSS had been lifted. While Nehru was abroad, the Congress voted to allow RSS members to join the party. The decision, which was backed by Patel’s supporters and opposed by Nehru’s supporters, was amended a month later, after Nehru’s return, so that individuals could only join the Congress if they gave up their membership of the RSS.

As one of the conditions for the government lifting the ban on the RSS, Golwalkar agreed to submit to the government a written constitution for the organisation. In this document, Golwalkar projected a conciliatory front. “The Sangh is aloof from politics and is devoted to social and cultural fields only,” read a key clause. “However, the Swayamsevaks are free, as individuals, to join any party, institution or front, political or otherwise, except such parties, institutions or fronts which subscribe to or believe in extra-national loyalties, or resort to violent and/or secret activities to achieve their ends, or which promote or attempt to promote, or have the object of promoting any feeling of enmity or hatred towards any other community or creed or religious denomination.” He insisted that people “owing allegiance to the above-mentioned undesirable elements and methods of working shall have no place in the Sangh.”

THE CONGRESS'S DECISION to bar RSS members from entering the party set off a churn amongst Sangh leaders, many of whom harboured political ambitions. According to Andersen and Damle, it led to an “an internally divisive debate” within the organisation, “which involved questions of strategy and goals. The end result was a decision to get far more deeply involved in politics than Golwalkar had originally anticipated.” This debate also led to a move “sanction the establishment of affiliated organizations round the Sangh.”

Golwalkar was released from prison in mid 1949 subject to certain restrictions. But he continued to challenge the government’s ban on the RSS, even organising a satyagraha that drew 60,000 participants, according to RSS sources.

The first of these affiliate organisations was the students’ organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP. According to Andersen and Damle, in July 1948, many “scattered groups” of students that had become used to acting with some degree of autonomy during the RSS ban met in Delhi “to draw up a constitution for an all-India organization” of students. The body was soon registered with the government.

Golwalkar’s vision for any affiliate organisation was clear. “All such organisations, in addition to their own specific roles in their respective fields, should also work as recruiting centers for the Sangh from the ideological point of view,” his biographer quoted him as saying. “Those who work in the Vidyarthi Parishad for example, should see that other new students too become dedicated Swayamsevaks.” Though these other organisations might be focussed on other fields, Golwalkar believed their members should “ideologically capture all other fields, but we ourselves should not become their captives.”

Golwalkar had previously argued against the RSS entering politics, but after the ban on the organisation was lifted, the Organiser published a series of articles in favour of such a move—it is unlikely that they would have been carried without his approval. Yet, it wasn’t an RSS member, but a former Hindu Mahasabha member, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee—also a member of Nehru’s cabinet—who founded the body that would go on to form the organisation’s political wing.

Balraj Madhok, a pracharak from Punjab who had played a key role in setting up the ABVP, wrote in 2008 that Mukherjee quit Nehru’s cabinet and then “made an appeal to all sections of Hindu society particularly those connected with Arya Samaj and RSS to extend their support to his proposed party.” The “response of Arya Samaj towards the new party was encouraging,” Madhok continued, but “no response came from the RSS.” Mukherjee went ahead with his plans anyway, and announced the formation of the party, which he called the Indian Peoples Party.

Golwalkar and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee tread a fine line with regard to the link between the RSS and the party Mookherjee had founded. Eventually, by Golwalkar’s account, they agreed that the party “should have the same ideal as the Sangh.” COURTESY K NATARAJAN

Though the Sangh had been sluggish to respond at first, Madhok recounted, “The announcement of a new party created a stir in the RSS. Already, its leadership had felt the need of political support at the time of its ban by the Congress after Gandhi murder. It, therefore, asked me to convey to Dr. Mookerji RSS’s willingness to extend support to Indian Peoples Party.”

The RSS also quickly sought to assert control over key aspects of the new outfit. “Its leadership also suggested its preference for a Kesari flag and a Hindi name for the new party,” Madhok wrote. “The names suggested by it were Bhartiya Lok Sangh and Bharitya Jan Sangh.” Mukherjee preferred the latter, “as Lok implies crowd while Jan means people and a closer association with motherland. This marked the beginning of the foundation of Bhartiya Jan Sangh as a national party.”

Golwalkar’s account in his biography of his discussions with Mukherjee suggest that they treaded a fine line with regard to the link between the party and the RSS, but that ultimately, Mukherjee agreed that the party would acquiesce to the Sangh’s ideology. “In view of Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherji’s expectations from the Sangh I had to naturally caution him,” Golwalkar recounted. “I told him the RSS could not be dragged into politics. The Sangh cannot function under the control of any political party, because no organisation can achieve national revival by becoming an instrument of a political party.” Mukherjee, he said “accepted this position,” but “also added that no political party could remain under the control of some other organisation.” Eventually, Golwalkar said, they agreed “that if the new party expected cooperation from the Sangh Swayamsevaks it should have the same ideal as the Sangh.”

Indeed, it was clear from the start that the ideology of the Jan Sangh—as would be the case with its offspring, the BJP—was the ideology of the Sangh itself. In practice, too, the RSS’s organisational control over the party was absolute. According to Andersen and Damle, “The organizational structure of the new party bore many similarities to the RSS. A well-known local figure, often without an RSS background, was chosen president of the provincial unit. Many of the secretaries were swayamsevaks, usually pracharaks. These secretaries were responsible for establishing district, city, and ward units and for organizing the campaigns for assembly and parliamentary candidates.” Further, they added, “Madhok notes that a party organization tended to take shape in those areas where there were RSS shakhas.”

Golwalkar’s last major institutional initiative was the founding of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, in 1966. By this time, the Sangh’s labour wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, had also been formed, and the Sangh had gained a respectability that would have been difficult to imagine in 1948. After the RSS provided support to the civil administration during the China war, even Nehru gave up his antipathy, and a contingent from the Sangh marched in the 1963 Republic Day Parade. In 1965, Golwalkar was one of the Indian leaders the then prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, consulted at the time of the Indo-Pak war.

With the ABVP, the Jan Sangh and the BMS already well established, Golwalkar turned to the cause closest to his heart: the creation of an organisation that could directly intervene in Hindu religious issues with the support of Hindu religious leaders. According to Bhishikar’s biography, the body was formally launched at the 1966 Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad. Golwalkar’s speeches on the occasion and at subsequent meetings laid down concerns that would dominate VHP work for the next few decades: bringing Hinduism to tribal people, fears of Muslim demographic growth, and the need to reach out to the Hindu diaspora. This potent set of concerns would prove to be key to the growth of the Jan Sangh’s successor, the BJP.

BY THE TIME of Golwalkar’s death, in 1973, the Sangh Parivar as we know it today was essentially in place. The organisations of the Sangh could grow far more quickly by drawing from the vast pool of people in shakhas than by recruiting all their members from scratch.

Through this process, the organisational principles and the discipline of the RSS naturally transferred to these organisations, as did the Sangh’s ideology. This ideology has its roots in Savarkar’s work, but it was Golwalkar who developed its principles in detail and infused the organisation with them.

Though Patel had been instrumental in banning the RSS after Gandhi’s death, his supporters later sought to allow RSS members to join the Congress INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

Chief among the questions that the Sangh’s founders had to wrestle with was that of defining a Hindu. In addressing this, they invariably settled on a definition based on exclusion. Savarkar, whose explication seems to have sufficed for Hedgewar, wrote in Hindutva that a Hindu is “he who feels attachment to the land that extends from Sindhu to Sindhu”— referring to the Indus river and the Hindi word for the sea—“as the land of his forefathers—as his Fatherland; who inherits the blood of the great race whose first and discernible source could be traced from the Himalayan altitudes of the Vedic Saptasindhus and which assimilating all that was incorporated and ennobling all that was assimilated has grown into and come to be known as the Hindu people; and who, as a consequence of the foregoing attributes, has inherited and claims as his own the Hindu Sanskriti, the Hindu civilization, as represented in a common history, common heroes, a common literature, common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.” Though impressively elaborate, this is clearly a circular definition—to define a Hindu, Savarkar invoked a Hindu civilisation and, eventually, manages to say nothing other than that a Hindu is a Hindu.

Savarkar was ultimately forced to define a Hindu by illustrating who is not a Hindu. He wrote that “our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen are not and cannot be recognised as Hindus.” He argued that India “is not to them a Holyland” since their “holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided.” Savarkar argued that the beliefs of non-Hindus automatically precluded them from loyalty to the nation. He wrote: “if some of them be really believing what they profess to do, then there can be no choice—they must, to a man, set their Holy-land above their Fatherland in their love and allegiance. That is but natural. We are not condemning nor are we lamenting. We are simply telling facts as they stand.”

For his part, Golwalkar was astute enough to recognise that defining a Hindu was a challenge. “All the sects, the various castes in the Hindu fold, can be defined,” he wrote in Bunch of Thoughts, “but the term ‘Hindu’ cannot be defined because it comprises all.” In then attempting to arrive at a definition, Golwalkar narrowed his answer down to one key idea. “The Hindu alone, in the vast mass of humanity,” is he who accepts that “the theory of rebirth for the realisation of our oneness with that Ultimate Reality is the one great hope for the human soul,” he wrote. This, of course, is a wholly inadequate definition, since it excludes materialists from any Indian school of philosophy, such as the Charvakas, as well as any modern Indian who has some understanding of science.

Eventually, Golwalkar, too, resorted to exclusion. He cited the term “Bhartiya” as one “associated with us since hoary times” but asserted that it is insufficient for Hindu society because it “is commonly used as a translation of the word ‘Indian’ which includes all the various other communities like the Muslim, Christian, Parsi, etc., residing in this land.” Therefore, the word “is likely to mislead us when we want to denote our particular society,” he argued. “The word ‘Hindu’ alone connotes correctly and completely the meaning which we want to convey.”

In his writings, Golwalkar also sought to defend several aspects of culture that emerged from older Hindu texts, including the inequity of the caste system or the subjugation of women in modern India. The Sangh continues to venerate Golwalkar to this day, and has not dissociated itself from any of these pronouncements.

Though Golwalkar did speak against untouchability, he failed to acknowledge how persistent it was. As for the varna system, Golwalkar argued that it gave Indian society an inherent strength to resist foreign influences. However, he decried the appeal for votes on the basis of caste. “Even the state machinery is being prostituted for further widening these dissensions,” he wrote. “Separatist consciousness breeding jealousy and conflict is being fostered in sections of our people by naming them Harijans, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and so on and by parading the gift of special concessions to them in a bid to make them all their slaves with the lure of money.”

His solution was one that the RSS still endorses, downplaying it only because of the electoral problems it creates. “Continued special privileges on the basis of caste only, is bound to create vested interests in them in remaining as a separate entity,” he wrote. “That would harm their integration with the rest of the society.” Arguing that there was no caste “without its own poor, the needy and the destitute,” he suggested that “privileges should be based on the economic conditions of the people.” Such a solution would “ease out matters and the heart-burning among others that the so-called Harijans alone are enjoying privileges will also be removed.”

Prime Minister Modi is a staunch admirer of Golwalkar. In a 2008 book, he wrote, “We are not capable of knowing or analysing Guruji’s life.” SHAILESH RAVAL/THE INDIA TODAY GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

Golwalkar’s analysis of caste atrocities sounds uncannily similar to the arguments offered by right-wing social media users today: he believed that the issue was being exaggerated, if not invented. “There has been a spurt, all of a sudden, during the last few years, of reports of attacks on ‘Harijans’ by ‘caste Hindus’ appearing in newspapers,” he wrote. “I strongly suspect that this type of reporting is all inspired. Many a time, the news itself is not correct.” He added: “I have a suspicion that some foreign hand is behind this systematic and subtle propaganda. Otherwise there is no reason why such news items should be played up so prominently.”

Where women were concerned, Golwalkar believed they were misled by modernity. Citing a couplet that states that “a virtuous lady covers her body,” he lamented that “‘modern’ women think that ‘modernism’ lies in exposing their body more and more to the public gaze. What a fall!” (In another, utterly bizarre argument, he mocked modern Indians for imitating the West’s use of the word “mummy.” Do we know what the word originally conveyed?” he wrote. “In Egypt, there are massive cemeteries entombing their old kings. They are called pyramids. The corpses placed inside are called ‘mummies’! And here we address our living, loving mothers as mummies!”)

He also chided “educated mothers who have spare time and energy” for wasting it “in gossip of fashionable clubs.” He added, patronisingly: “Here is one useful hint for them. There will be many small boys and girls in their neighbourhood who do not go to schools. They can make such children gather either in their own house or in some other convenient place and engage them in games, stories, songs, etc.”

Demands for equality, however, seemed ludicrous to him. “There is now a clamour for ‘equality for women’ and their ‘emancipation from man’s domination’!” he wrote. “Reservation of seats in various positions of power is being claimed on the basis of their separate sex, thus adding one more ‘ism’—‘sexism!’—to the array of casteism, communalism, linguism, etc.”

On the question of non-Hindus living in India, Golwalkar effectively echoed Savarkar’s views that their religions precluded them from loyalty to the nation. He insisted that “the crucial point is whether THEY remember that they are the children of this soil. What is the use of merely OUR remembering? That feeling, that memory, should be cherished by THEM. We are not so mean as to say that with a mere change in the method of worship, an individual ceases to be a son of the soil. We have no objection to God being called by any name whatever.” But, he demanded to know, “what is the attitude of those people who have been converted to Islam or Christianity? They are born in this land, no doubt. But are they true to their salt? Are they grateful to this land which has brought them up? Do they feel that they are the children of this land and its tradition, and that to serve it is their great good fortune? Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone is the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.”

From questioning non-Hindus’ loyalty to the country, it was a short step to terming them traitors. Golwalkar declared that “within the country there are so many Muslim pockets, i.e., so many ‘miniature Pakistans,’ where the general law of the land is to be enforced only with certain modifications and the whims of the miscreants have to be given the final say.” Offering no evidence, he claimed, “Such ‘pockets’ have verily become centres of a widespread network of pro-Pakistani elements in this land.”

Golwalkar’s views on issues such as caste, women’s rights and religion today read like the petty prejudices of a Brahmin male, but they are wrapped in the language of nationalism and fascism. The Sangh has not dissociated itself from these pronouncements. MUJEEB FARUQUI/HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

He went on to cite a riot that he claimed took place in Malegaon, Maharashtra, in 1963. Golwalkar claimed that the incident occurred at around 9 pm one night, and that the “very next morning the Pakistan radio broadcast that there had been ‘a great genocide of Muslims’ in that particular town! How did Pakistan come to know about the affair within these few hours? There must be some pro-Pakistani gentleman with a transmitter and he must be in constant touch with Pakistan.” This bizarre deduction, which he believed was “the only possibility,” led him to conclude that “in practically every place, there are Muslims who are in constant touch with Pakistan over the transmitter enjoying not only the right of an average citizen but also some extra privileges and extra favour because they are ‘minorities’!”

These were the arguments and analyses of the man who constructed and refined the organisational structure that Hedgewar had conceived. Extracted from the halo of reverence that surrounds Golwalkar within the Sangh, the statements read like the petty prejudices and bigotries of an upper-middle-class Marathi Brahmin man from the beginnings of the twentieth century—in Golwalkar, however, these prejudices are wrapped in the language of nationalism and fascism. The ideas would be laughable; but, terrifyingly, they occupy centre stage in Indian politics and culture today.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly spelled the author Walter K Andersen's last name as “Anderson.” The Caravan regrets the error.