US Imperialism


WSF In India






Gujarat Pogrom






Join Mailing List

Contact Us


Hedgewar And RSS
Revising History In The Light Of BJP Perception

By Sushila Ramaswamy

The Statesman
26 June, 2003

Voltaire once remarked that history is just the tricks we play with
the dead. This is amply vindicated by a book release on Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (1889-1940) as part of Builders of Modern India by the Prime Minister. The book written in Hindi does not either have references or a bibliography. Obviously the felt need of bringing out such a volume is to revise history in the light of the BJP perception. This is reflected by the fact that even two decades ago no scholarly work on Modern Indian History or the nationalist movement ever included references either to Dr Hedgewar or the RSS.

Terror Techniques

Dr Hedgewar, an Andhra Brahmin settled in Maharashtra, a discipline of Balkrishna Shivram Moonje and a close friend of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, established the Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Singh in 1925 in Nagpur. Hedgewar was sent to Kolkata by Moonje in 1910 to pursue his medical studies and unofficially learn the techniques of terror from the secret revolutionary organisations like the Anushilan Samiti and
Jugantar in Bengal. He became a part of the inner circle of the
Anushilan Samiti to which very few had access. In 1915 after
returning to Nagpur he joined the Indian National Congress and
engaged in anti-British activities through the Kranti Dal. He was
also a member of the Hindu Mahasabha till 1929. Such dual membership was common at that time. He was imprisoned for sedition in 1921 for one year and again for nine months in 1930.
The anti-Muslim feeling following the riots in Nagpur in 1923 and in the aftermath of the suspension of the non-cooperation struggle the dissension within the Congress over the issue of boycott of councils were the background to the formation of the RSS. During Gandhi's stewardship there was constant stress on Hindu-Muslim unity as evident in the support lent to the Khilafat movement. But certain sections of the Hindu intelligentsia felt threatened by the Muslim mobilisation for the Khilafat movement and invented like Scottish nationalism a sense of Hindu identity through organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. In response to the shuddhi and sangathan movements following the suspension of the non-cooperation movement in 1922 with the aim of fostering unity among the Hindus were the tanzim and tabliqh among the Muslims.

Hindu interests

Many Congress leaders were distressed and considered the growing Hindu-Muslim animosity as a set back for creating a climate for swaraj. The 1923 December convention of the Congress tried to review the activities of the shuddhi and tabliqh movements but felt helpless in bridging the Hindu Muslim gulf. Interestingly many prominent Congress leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malaviya and NG Kelkar became spokesmen of Hindu interests and espoused a form of Hindu nationalism by identifying with the Hindu Mahasabha but they did not, like Hedgewar, sever ties with either the Congress or the Hindu Mahasabha.

The continued domination of India by a handful of British officials
led to a lot of soul-searching among the nationalist leaders. The
weakness of the nationalist movement allowed the British to increase repression during World War I. Hedgewar attributed it to our inherent weakness and lack of discipline. He was disturbed by the fact that the British could rule a huge territory like India with such ease with the help of a few administrators.

However, in spite of his anti-British sentiments he instructed the
RSS to remain aloof from political activities including the salt
satyagraha (1930), Quit India movement (1942) and the Naval mutiny (1946) in Mumbai and continue mainly as a social organisation. Despite this, Seshadri strangely considered Hedgewar as a major activist in the national movement and a vigorous and indefatigable fighter for India's freedom colonial rule, indeed at the "forefront of the freedom movement".

Hedgewar, through the RSS, tried to dedicate himself tointroducing into the Hindu society elements of cohesion and strength, features that he considered the positive side of the British. The purpose was to dispel the British perception of Hindu as weak and effeminate. He emphasised character building and arousing pride among Hindus in their culture. Character building was through physical exercises, bodybuilding, sports mainly wrestling and weight lifting. Hedgewar assigned protection of pilgrims during the Ramnavami celebrations in Ramtek (near Nagpur) in 1926 as the first public task for the RSS.
Once again in 1927 the martial nature of the organisation became clear when Hedgewar led the Ganesh procession playing music while going through the mosque road in Nagpur. Both the events were directed against the Muslims.


Organisationally, the RSS since its inception emphasised vigorously the need for renunciation and sacrifice incorporating the sentiments of an influential stream of the Indian nationalist discourse. Ever since Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's Anandamath (1882) emphasised Bhakti, Dayananda, Vivekananda and Aurobindo reiterated it with renewed stress. This total devotion of the RSS celibate workers attracts considerable number of people. In 1927, Hedgewar organised an officers' training camp with the tack of forming a corps of pracharaks to establish the backbone of the RSS. He called upon the pracharak to become sadhus first.

Since then, even today its cadres renounce their professions and
remain celibate with the intention of rejuvenating the Hindu
community. They lead an austere life with complete dedication to a cause without any personal gain. Its pracharaks symbolise the revered karmayogis of India's glorious past.

A Minor Prophet With A Narrow Base

Hedgewar's call to his followers to become sadhus had two aims.
First, it enabled them to devote wholeheartedly and completely for
the cause of Hindu nationalism and second, the emphasis on asceticism introduced elements of Hindu sect in the RSS. Like the Arya Samaj, the RSS differs from "traditional Hindu sectarian lineages" for it adapted "traditional ideas of guruhood and wedded it to a larger leadership organisation that has acquired a sanctity of its own". Hedgewar initiated the young recruits to weekly sessions where they were acquainted with matters relating to the Hindu nation, its history and heroes.

Troubled egalitarianism

He insisted that the members pay true obeisance to the saffron flag of Shivaji when the shakhas open, a custom that is followed till today and offer guru dakshina which finances the movement. This ceremony takes place six times a year - the Hindu New Year,
coronation of Shivaji, guru dakshina, Raksha Bandhan,Dasahara, and Makarasankraman. In 1926, Hedgewar introduced a uniform consisting of khaki shorts, khaki shirts and black forage caps.
A shortcoming of the RSS in the early years, despite its espousal of cultural nationalism was the absence of any critical dissection of some of moribund Hindu practices and customs. Nor was there a charter of how to recast the Hindu society to meet the twin challenges of western education and scientific-technological developments. The emphasis was on a golden past and the RSS was essentially revivalist in nature.

Furthermore, an important objective of the RSS was to unite Hindus above and beyond caste divisions and make Hindus equal in view of the rise of a non-Brahmin movement led by Jyotiba Phule in the early 1920s. Hedgewar in his last speech in 1940 described the RSS as "the Hindu Rasthra in miniature" regarding it as a kind of egalitarian, alternative version of society, a great "family" or fraternity. Malkani points out that the practice of having meals in common irrespective of caste unnerved some Brahmins who were troubled about sitting together with low caste Hindus, but Hedgewar insisted that the practice should be followed.

Dhooria mentions how at the RSS everyone "played together, sang together and ate together". Despite its efforts to acquire an
egalitarian image the RSS for long has been associated with high
castes. In Maharashtra, the Brahmins were attracted to the RSS mainly because it embodied a synthesis of brahminical and martial values and that was the reason why these segments of Maharashtra society rejected Gandhiji's political style and leadership.

Premodern organisation

Hedgewar was a Telugu Brahmin. Golwalkar was a Karhada Brahmin Moonje, a Deshastha Brahmin who in his diary described the early swayamsevaks as "Brahmin youths" or "Brahmin lads". Regardless of its commitment to egalitarianism, its vision of the ideal society is organic based on a reinterpretation of the varna system. Jaffrelot attributes the "pervasiveness of the Brahminical ethic in the ideology and practices of the RSS" as the "main reason why it failed to attract support from the low castes. The Sanskritised Hindu culture which the RSS championed was that of high tradition, and even its techniques bore the marks of Brahminical culture".

This is because Hedgewar spoke of samskars or good things by which he hoped to refurbish the Hindu character to make it nationalistic and defend itself against the "threatening others", namely the British and the Muslims.The RSS as an organisation is hierarchical. At the apex is the sarsanghchalak or the spiritual head entitled to complete and implicit obedience. In 1927 Hedgewar became a guru to his disciples much against his wishes, notes Andersen and Damle, and assumed the
title of sarsanghchalak in 1929. His mausoleum is still a place of
pilgrimage for the RSS members.

However, this did not affect the decentralised nature of the RSS for, as Jaffrelot pointed out, charisma is not considered the basic
quality of any leader. No leader is projected as indispensable as is the case with most other political and social organisations in India. It is the office and the particular incumbent who is revered. It is the sarsanghchalak who appoints his successor.On the death of Hedgewar in 1940, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar became
the unquestioned guru. There is institutional secrecy that masks the internal working of the organisation and conflict and dissension within it. The RSS organisation, coming in the wake of the post-Gandhi Congress, seems a pre-modern organisation. It did not have a constitution, four-annas membership, an all-India presence with offices in every district and election to its highest office as was the case with the Congress under Gandhi's stewardship.

Myopic world view

Not only with regard to organisation and its principles but even in
vision Hedgewar's cultural nationalism with accent on Hinduism was just the opposite of Gandhi's composite nationalism, which was in tune with the pluralistic nature of Indian society. Gandhi as a moderniser of tradition identified what he called as the three
pillars of swaraj, namely Hindu-Muslim unity, removal of
untouchability and bridging the gap between the city and the village. In comparison to Gandhi's constructive programme aimed at realising swaraj there is nothing comparable in the RSS scheme of things. In the light of these observations, Seshadri's official biography of RSS entitled Dr Hedgewar: the Epochmaker depicted Dr Hedgewar as one of the most significant personalities of the 20th century, whose historical significance is rivalled only by Gandhi. This seems far-fetched and intellectually flawed.

Hedgewar's RSS was a restricted and local enterprise without any broad national vision reflecting the major contradictions that India faced in the 20th century. Compared to Gandhi's elaborate and inclusive plank that included every single Indian, Hedgewar was a minor prophet whose prescriptions reflected a myopic world view resulting in a narrow social base for the RSS. Even this enormous state patronage to resurrect a minor figure who never tried to broaden the base of the organisation, democratise it and make the organisational and financial matters transparent, will not hide the narrow localism and pre-modernity of the founder of the RSS.

(The author is Reader in Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi. )