August 18, 2022
(The article was originally published in Malayala Manorama Magazine on August 15, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)
India’s independence movement had many small and big streams flowing parallel to each other. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) too was one such stream.
Dr K B Hedgewar, the founder of RSS was a prominent Congress leader in Nagpur. He was a member of the organising committee of the annual Congress session at Nagpur in 1921, where he met Gandhi for the first time. He proposed to Gandhi that ‘poorna swaraj’ – total independence – should be declared as a goal. Although Gandhi did not support the idea then, Congress had finally adopted resolution for Poorna Swaraj at its Lahore session in 1929.
Despite reservations over Khilafat, Hedgewar joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. A fiery speaker, he was arrested in May 1921. He defended himself in the trial, listening to which, judge Smiley complained that “his defence was even more seditious than his original speech” and sent him to jail for nine months. When Hedgewar was released in July 1922, a public reception was organised in his honour, which was addressed by senior Congress leaders like Motilal Nehru.
The RSS was started in 1925 as a non-political socio-cultural organisation. However, the volunteers were encouraged to participate in the freedom movement. The oath accorded to the RSS functionaries used to begin with the phrase “Rashtra ko Swatantra Kar” – ‘By Liberating the Nation’.
During the “Jungle Satyagraha” in 1930, Hedgewar and eleven other colleagues were arrested and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. The local Congress had organised a rally in support of Hedgewar. A report of the CP & Berar Police stated that Hedgewar’s participation had invigorated the movement, leading to the first order against the RSS. A report of the Home Department stated, “Of late, the Sangh has started taking interest in political movements of the country, as a result of which the CP government in their circular letter No 2352-2158 IV; dated 15/16 December 1932, was compelled to issue an order warning government servants of the communal and political nature of the Sangh, and forbidding their becoming members or participating in the organisation’s activities.”
The ban was challenged in the provincial legislature of CP. The government was isolated. The House leader, Raghvendra Rao, when asked about any complaints from the Muslims against the RSS, admitted that there were none. MS Rahman and other members praised the RSS, and the government was forced to withdraw its circular.
When the 2nd World War broke out, the RSS refused to support the government inviting its wrath once again. In June 1939, the Home Department asked the Central Provinces government to ban the RSS using Section 16 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. When the provincial Chief Secretary, GM Trivedi, insisted that it was not feasible, it resorted to another trick. A new ordinance under the Defence of India Rules was promulgated prohibiting drills and uniforms. The obvious target was the RSS. Hundreds of RSS volunteers courted arrest against the order.
Quit India was an important, but hastily planned movement. The RSS cadres had dominated the Congress protests during the movement in places where they were strong. In Chimur and Ashti tehsils of CP, the police brutality on RSS volunteers had resulted in killing some while many were sent to jail.
Many in the RSS had their sympathies with Subhash Bose’s Indian National Army increasing government’s suspicion that together they might incite a revolt in the British Army. A report warned that RSS volunteers had “infiltrated into various departments of the government such as the army, navy, post & telegraphs, railways and administrative services so that there may be no difficulty in capturing administrative departments when the time comes”. It further stated that “the organisation is intensely anti-British, and its tone is increasingly becoming militant.”
Orders were issued for banning camps. A Home Department official, GA Ahmed, noted on December 13, 1943, that “This will hit the RSS most”. The training camps were raided, and cadres arrested.
As communal frenzy engulfed the country in the wake of the Partition, the RSS plunged into action saving and safely transporting the Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan to the Indian side. Golwalkar issued directions to the volunteers that they should leave the villages only after the last of the Hindu and Sikh citizens was escorted out to safety. Many volunteers sacrificed their lives in the process.
When Gandhi came to the refugee camps in Delhi teeming with hapless millions, he was impressed by the work of the RSS volunteers. He called the RSS “a well-organised and well-disciplined body”. In the committee formed under Maulana Azad’s chairmanship to restore sanity and harmony, leaders of the RSS were also invited to join. India’s freedom is the result of the efforts of many such forces. It is appropriate that all such efforts are remembered and appreciated when we celebrate the Amrit Mahotsav.