Believers’ dilemma – I

Believers’ dilemma – I

Never before has the RSS been more confident of its role in shaping India’s future. (This is part one of a two-part essay)
KB Hedgewar, MS Golwalkar (sitting second and third from left, respectively) and other volunteers during an RSS meeting in 1938. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
KB Hedgewar, MS Golwalkar (sitting second and third from left, respectively) and other volunteers during an RSS meeting in 1938. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In early January 2016, I went to meet MG Vaidya, a popular ideologue of the Hindu nationalist behemoth Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in Nagpur. Ninety-three-year-old Vaidya is small, and age seems to have further shrunk him. But surprisingly fit and articulate for his age, Vaidya said he would be quite happy to see his 23-year-old grandson marry a Muslim woman: "I would in fact bless the couple with an inaam a prize of ten-thousand rupees."

Vaidya has been associated with the RSS in Nagpur, which has also served as the organisation's headquarters, since 1932. Over eight decades, he has been shaped by the RSS ideology and has also helped shape it. He became its first prachar pramukh (head of publicity) in 1994, a post he held till 2008. He continued, informally, to influence important decisions even after that. In 2009, he successfully lobbied in getting the present sarsanghchalak (Chief), Mohan Bhagwat, selected for the top job. On most issues of importance, Vaidya's opinion always final is not very different from the official RSS position.

I was amused that Vaidya had given a bit of personal touch to our otherwise stiff conversation. To test the limits of his liberalism, I asked if he would be happy if his granddaughter marries a Muslim man. He shot back, "Haan, par baaki dharmon ko maanta hai ya nahi" (yes, but only if he believes in all religions). But for all that, he insists that India must have a uniform civil code (UCC): "If Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs can come under the Hindu Marriage Bill, why can't Muslims and Christians?" When I argued that implementing the UCC was maybe a little less easy than he made it sound, he responded, unequivocally: "No, it can definitely happen."

Soon after, we discussed Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the architect of India's constitution and the biggest hero to the Bahujans, the non-upper caste Hindus. Why doesn't the RSS, I asked Vaidya, talk about Ambedkar's criticisms of Hinduism? In 1956, after being convinced that there was no hope for the lower castes in the four-fold varna system, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, coincidentally in Nagpur. Vaidya said, "Ambedkar did us a great favour by remaining in the Hindu fold. He didn't become a Muslim or a Christian or a communist." I tried quoting Ambedkar, who had said that the only real way to eliminate caste was through an all-out attack on the scriptures, but Vaidya turned brusque: "No, I haven't read anything of that sort."


The RSS is often believed to be an ideological monolith. In actuality, it has a multi-pronged approach to organising support through key affiliations – sometimes strategically, sometimes impulsively, as a survival instinct – to propagate and achieve its fundamental vision of India as a grand Hindu rashtra. The topics Vaidya and I discussed – the UCC, the mobilisation of non-upper-caste Hindus into a single umbrella – are but a small component of that grand vision of restoring to India its supposed ancient glory. To implement this vision, RSS has more than 30 affiliates. The most important among them is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently has a majority government at the centre as well as in eight Indian states. It has also won the majority in the recent Assam state assembly election held in April 2016. Other prominent affiliates include the student union Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the labour union Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), and its religious wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). RSS also has separate affiliates to bring under its fold other minorities – women, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and tribals. Their latest affiliate, launched in January 2016 for Christians, is called the Rashtriya Isai Manch. Together, they form the Sangh Parivar.

RSS is a cultural organisation – on paper. In reality, it has always yielded an influence over BJP. Narendra Modi, who became India's prime minister in May 2014, spent his youth as a pracharak – a full-time RSS campaigner – keeping vows of celibacy to fulfill the criteria for holding such a post. In fact, most ministers in the central cabinet have either been a member of the RSS or one of its affiliates at some point in their lives. The same is true also of the office bearers of the BJP. (The women in BJP often trace their political lineage from a male member in their family who has been associated with the Sangh) But there are also more direct ways of controlling the party: the RSS generally appoints one of its senior-most pracharaks as their liaison with the BJP. Currently, the post is held by Krishna Gopal, whose protégé, Mahesh Sharma, became the Union Minister of Culture in 2014. Two of RSS' senior members, Ram Madhav, and Ramlal, are on 'deputation' to the BJP and are among the party's eight national general secretaries. Ramlal also holds the crucial post of organising secretary, considered to be second-in-command only to the party president. RSS has similar arrangements with its other affiliates.

Never has the RSS, in its nine decades of existence, been more confident about its role in shaping India's future. This, even as its opponents – which includes most of India's left-liberal media and intelligentsia – monitor its revivalist plans rather closely. "Yes, we have a better coordination within Sangh Parivar now than in Atal Behari Vajpayee's time," Sunil Bansal, BJP's general secretary for Uttar Pradesh, which will go to polls in 2017, told me in the last week of December 2015. He added: "in policy-making and ideologically." This is in stark contrast to the months preceding the 2009 general elections when Bansal, then ABVP's organising secretary for Delhi and Rajasthan, was angry that the BJP had chosen to ignore the two million-plus strong network of the RSS's student wing during the campaigning period.

Virjesh Upadhyay, the general secretary of BMS, feels similarly. In the last week of December 2015, Upadhyay felicitated the finance minister Arun Jaitley after the latter helped pass the 2015 Payment of Bonus (Amendment) Bill. "If the government is willing to talk," he told me when I met him two days after the ceremony was held, "I don't see why labour unions have to protest all the time." Jaitley in turn also thanked the BMS for extending "constructive cooperation". Had he been alive, such talk must have amused Upadhyay's boss Dattopant Bapurao Thengadi, the founder of BMS, who was probably the most vocal critic of the economic policies of Vajpayee. Incidentally, Vajpayee, who became prime minister three times, between 1996 and 2004, is the only other RSS swayamsevak, other than Modi, to have held the post.

Vajpayee is today the most revered leader in the BJP, but as prime minister, he had a tense relationship with some of the most important people in the Sangh Parivar. Apart from Thengadi, this included VHP's Ashok Singhal and, especially, KS Sudarshan, the RSS chief between 2000 and 2009. This is often pointed out as a contrast to the great personal relationship between Modi and the present RSS chief, Bhagwat. "They are like political twins," said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has written the biography titled Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. "They will get along well as long as they don't cross each other's lakshman rekha – the line of control."  To understand how the BJP's relationship with Sangh Parivar has evolved in the last one decade, therefore, one has to first understand how this 'lakshman rekha' came to be drawn.


Keshav Baliram Hedgewar had spent his early 30s distraught and confused. Born into a Telugu Brahmin family in Nagpur in 1889, he dreamt of becoming the next Shivaji, the 17 century Maratha warrior, as a child. After studying medicine in Calcutta, where he rose up the ranks of a revolutionary society called Anushilan Samiti, he returned to Nagpur in 1916, and shocked his family by declaring that he was neither going to practice medicine nor marry. He joined the Congress, which was at the time, dominated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a critic of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s non-violent methods. Hedgewar also believed that Gandhi was giving too much importance to Muslim causes, such as supporting the Khilafat movement, while, at the same time, ignoring the Hindus. He was stunned when Gandhi refused to discuss cow protection in the 1920 Nagpur Congress session.

Sometime around 1923-24, Hedgewar got influenced by a new book, Hindutva, by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Savarkar, born into a Brahmin family in Nashik in 1883, had been arrested in 1910 in London – where he had gone to study law – for being involved in anti-British activities. Following an unsuccessful escape attempt, he was deported to the Kalapani at the Andaman cellular jail to serve two life-terms, totaling 50 years, but was released in 1921. At the time of writing Hindutva, he was again imprisoned, at Ratnagiri, but managed to smuggle the manuscript out of the jail. The central thesis of Hindutva was that Hindus were the ‘indigenous people’ of the subcontinent and that they formed a single national group. Savarkar had laid out two conditions: one, to accept India as their fatherland; two, to accept India as a holy land. By the second criteria, Christians and Muslims couldn’t be called ‘real’ Indians.

But while Hindutva gave Hedgewar an academic framework to position his views about citizenship and nationhood, he didn’t know how to put this into practice. He was certain that neither revolution nor legal reforms could bring about the national consciousness or unity required for such a religion-based nation-building. The essential issue among Hindus, he decided at the time of founding RSS in 1925, was psychological. To this end, he recruited young Brahmin men from the neighbourhood and tasked them with attending an assembly, or a shakha (organisation’s local branch), where they learnt military drills, played traditional Indian games, and were indoctrinated with the ideas of Hindu unity. These exercises were mainly aimed at inculcating discipline, unity and a sense of community among the cadre. In 1943, the colonial government banned military drills and the use of uniforms in non-official organisations, and the RSS duly obliged; but the practice was resumed later.

Over the next two decades, these early recruits travelled to many parts of the country and recruited young volunteers through the local RSS shakhas; at one such shakha in Gwalior, 700 kilometres north of Nagpur, Vajpayee became a volunteer in 1939. As per the records, in August 2015, RSS had more than 51,000 such shakhas across India. According to an India Today article, the total strength of the RSS cadre in 2014 was 40 lakh.

On his deathbed, in 1940, Hedgewar declared Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who earlier taught zoology at Banaras Hindu University – and who, with his long hair and beard, could easily be mistaken for a Hindu sage – to be the next chief. Like him, Golwalkar too saw ‘character-building’ as RSS’s main aim and kept it away from politics. So when India finally became independent in 1947, RSS was less than happy – it hadn’t played a role in the independence struggle’s defining moments; infinitely worse, though, was the Partition event, which went against the basic premise of its one-nation conception. A bigger shock awaited it on 30 January 1948, when a former member of the RSS assassinated Gandhi. RSS was swiftly banned and many of its members, including Golwalkar, were jailed. Golwalkar was released six months later, but the RSS remained a banned organisation till July 1949. Only after it agreed to reluctantly draft a constitution, that clearly outlined its aims, was it taken off the government list of proscribed groups. Its constitution, co-drafted by its next chief, Balasaheb Deoras, stated: “The Sangh as such has no politics and is devoted to purely cultural work. The individual swayamsevaks, however, may join any political party, except such parties as [those that] believe in or resort to violent and secret methods to achieve their ends…” However, this constitutional framework was sidelined as RSS became more enmeshed in mainstream politics – first, through the Jan Sangh party, and then, later, through the BJP and its affiliates like ABVP.

But till 1949, the ban led to a radical departure from the RSS’ ‘shakha mode’ of operation – there was no longer any way for the outfit to organise students, workers or farmers and influence future events. The ‘affiliate-stratagem’, in that sense, came more out of an instinct to survive than a deliberate strategy. In July 1949, a few young members met in Delhi and founded the ABVP. This was the beginning of the Sangh Parivar. Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram was founded by Ramakant Keshav Deshpande, a Marathi Brahmin lawyer in 1952, in Raigarh (present-day Chattisgarh); its primary aim was to forestall the Christian missionaries’ conversion efforts and, in turn, induce tribals to adopt RSS’ vision of mainstream Hinduism. The brain behind the foundation of these affiliates was almost always a Marathi Brahmin; BMS was founded by Thengadi in 1955, VHP by Golwalkar and Shivram Shankar Apte in 1964. The RSS gave each of them dedicated cadres and a vision, even though they worked autonomously; this is more or less true even in 2016. While the leaders of each group do meet formally at national and regional forums, they don’t interfere in each others’ work on a daily basis. However, with Modi coming to power in 2014, the affiliates, with a political ally at the Centre, are getting more traction and seem to be working more cohesively to achieve common goals.


In April 1950, Syama Prasad Mookerjee resigned from the interim central cabinet as the minister for industry and supply, protesting against the Liaquat-Nehru Pact, because he believed that the Pakistani state had failed to protect the Hindus who had opted to stay back in Pakistan. Mookerjee had done a brief stint with Hindu Mahasabha, founded in 1921, which was, at the time of independence, the only Hindu nationalist party; Mookerjee had been inducted into the Nehru cabinet at Gandhi’s behest. From 1937 onwards, Mahasabha was led by Savarkar, some of whose followers had plotted Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948. Mookerjee generally had a tense relationship with Savarkar, before he finally resigned in November 1948 over the issue of Mahasabha’s membership being confined to only Hindus. Back in his hometown of Calcutta, the bhadralok, angry and impatient, brainstormed about launching a new party. Mookerjee envisioned a strong right-wing party that would, hopefully not very far in future, compete with Congress. He thought of RSS as a forward-looking organisation and envied its cadre of energetic young men, and so, he sought Golwalkar’s help in floating his party. After the ban was lifted, the RSS also wanted to strengthen its influence in party politics, but had received a setback in November 1949 when Congress declared that RSS volunteers couldn’t become party members.

Golwalkar and Mookerjee quibbled for almost a year over the possibility of collaboration; Mookerjee wanted the advantage that RSS’s cadre and resources brought to the table, but clarified that the new party “could not be made subservient to any other organisation”. Golwalkar, an advocate of cultural regeneration, was sceptical about sending his brightest young men “to be used as handmaids of political parties.” The compromise came about at the last moment when Mookerjee had decided to go ahead on his own. Jan Sangh was launched in October 1951, when India’s first general election was only two months away.

In its election manifesto, the Hindu nationalist message was toned down. Loaded with Sanskrit words, the manifesto declared that Indians were Indians by virtue of a common culture rather than their religion or territory: “The whole of Bharat Varsha, from Himalayas to Kanyakumari, is and has been through the ages, a living organic whole… Culturally, economically, politically, as well as internationally, United India is essential… Any talk about composite culture, therefore, is unrealistic, illogical and dangerous, for it tends to weaken national unity and encourage fissiparous tendencies.” It attacked Congress, whose secularism is “only a euphemism for the policy of Muslim appeasement. The so-called secular composite nationalism is neither nationalism nor secularism but only a compromise with the communalism of those who demand a price even for their lip-loyalty of the country.” The party won three seats – two in West Bengal (Mookerjee himself being one of them), one in Rajasthan.

But the real crisis began the next year when Mookerjee died unexpectedly as a prisoner in Kashmir, where he had been jailed after protesting against Article 370, which gave Kashmir a special autonomous status; with his death, the only leader who had a national standing in the party was gone. Apart from young RSS men, Jan Sangh also had in its cadre erstwhile members from Congress and Hindu Mahasabha. But in the succession crisis after Mookerjee’s death, the RSS successfully managed to tighten its grip on the fledgling political party. Leading this political project was a 37-year-old Brahmin pracharak from Uttar Pradesh, Deendayal Upadhyaya, who had become popular for establishing a publishing house in Lucknow in 1947, called Rashtra Dharma Prakashan, which published a monthly magazine called Rashtra Dharma; a weekly newspaper, Panchajanya; and a daily paper called Swadesh (all three continue to be in print).

Upadhyaya ran the party as a general secretary between 1953 and 1968, and gave it a semblance of stability, even as the party had 10 presidents in as many years. This he did through a model of organising secretaries, similar to the one used in the RSS. Upadhyaya appointed organising secretaries in charge of a group of districts, who reported to state general secretaries, who in turn reported to the zonal secretaries, before they finally reported to Upadhyaya. Assisting him in this enterprise were a few young RSS men, who, like him, were upper-caste and mostly from north India – namely, Vajpayee, Nanaji Deshmukh, Balraj Madhok, Sunder Singh Bhandari. Jan Sangh’s pet themes during this phase included implementing the UCC, a ban on cow slaughter and the scrapping of Article 370. The party also unsuccessfully opposed the 1966 linguistic trifurcation of Punjab (which, at the time, included present-day Haryana and Himachal Pradesh), and proposed to remove Urdu from the eighth schedule of the Constitution.


Jan Sangh’s performance in the general elections was less than stellar but improved over time – from four in 1957, to 14 in 1962, to 35 in 1967. Till one day in 1968, soon after he became the party president, Upadhyaya was mysteriously assassinated in Mughalsarai in eastern Uttar Pradesh, while travelling on a train. The Jan Sangh of the early 1970s was a poor imitation of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress. The 1971 general elections were held in the wake of the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh that Indira had supported. Nationalism, along with her garibi hatao rhetoric, saw her back in power with an overwhelming majority.  Soon after Upadhyaya’s death, Jan Sangh got mired in an internal rivalry. Vajpayee represented the leftist perspective, while Balraj Madhok, one of the founding members, represented the right. Madhok opposed Jan Sangh’s support to the Central government employees’ strike in 1968 because it was led by the communists. Madhok wanted Jan Sangh to align itself with the Swatantra party, which advocated market economy by dismantling ‘Licence Raj’.

However, in 1969, when Madhok filed a petition in Supreme Court with Minoo Masani of Swatantra party, challenging the nationalisation of banks, Madhok was reprimanded by fellow party members. This was a sign of the Jan Sangh’s confused approach to economic policy. In the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi went ahead and nationalised other core sectors such as insurance, coal, steel, cotton textiles, and other heavy industries. While Jan Sangh criticised Indira Gandhi’s nationalisation drive in muted terms, the party was equally conscious of not being labeled as anti-poor or being too close to big capital. Golwalkar had confessed to Masani, the first time they met in Delhi in 1967, that “he had no control over them [Jan Sangh] and that they didn’t listen to him. He said that he very much appreciated the straightforward economic policies of the Swatantra Party as compared with those of his followers into which some leftist demagogy had crept [in].”

In 1970, Masani again met Golwalkar, and told him “that he was being harsh with Balraj Madhok, who had complained to me that, in his partiality for Vajpayee, Guruji had found no time to see Madhok.” In 1972, Madhok proposed the abolition of the organising secretary model. He believed that the pracharaks appointed by the RSS, whose worldview was shaped by Advaita philosophy, was responsible for the Jan Sangh’s populist orientation. Soon after, Madhok was charged by LK Advani, who had succeeded Vajpayee as the president, of indiscipline. This led Madhok to quit, cursing RSS’ influence on the Jan Sangh and he faded into obscurity.

In 1973, a few months before his death, Golwalkar, in a dramatic gesture, wrote a letter containing the name of his successor, which was to be made public only after his death. It was Balasaheb Deoras. The choice was odd; unlike other suitable candidates who had been with the RSS since they were recruited, Deoras had once quit over differences with Golwalkar. Like Hedgewar, a Telegu Brahmin born in Nagpur, Deoras had joined the RSS as a young volunteer (the first chief to have done so). But he had quit the RSS in 1956 when the organisation decided that it wouldn’t loan pracharaks to Jan Sangh because its own work was suffering; but he came back in 1963, the year RSS was permitted to participate in the Republic Day parade. Unlike previous chiefs, who skillfully assumed a saintly role that brought them moral influence, Deoras was openly political. Soon after he took over, he vigorously pursued his agenda by encouraging political roles for all RSS affiliates.

ABVP, for example, played an active role in the Bihar movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, an event which ultimately led to the Emergency in 1975. During the Emergency, the RSS was again banned, but it played a significant role in the production and distribution of underground literature. In a sly move, though, Deoras wrote flattering letters to Indira Gandhi from jail, requesting her to reverse her decision to ban the RSS. Narayan’s tutelage had made Jan Sangh and other RSS affiliates more palatable to non-Congress parties. After the Emergency was lifted, Jan Sangh, along with some of the non-communist opposition parties – Congress (O), Bharatiya Lok Dal, Samajwadi Party, Jagjivan Ram’s recently launched Congress for Democracy, and a few others – merged into a coalition called the Janata Party. In the general elections held in 1977, MPs who were originally from the Jan Sangh won 93 of the seats controlled by the Janata Party in the Lok Sabha, the highest number of seats among the parties that had joined hands to form the Janta combine. This was a more than four-fold increase in the number of seats from the 22 seats it had got in 1971.

Deoras’s experiment was paying off, but it simultaneously created other complications. Senior Janata Party leaders Raj Narain and Charan Singh raised the issue of dual membership held by the Jan Sangh ministers; they were asked to refrain from participating in RSS activities. They had earlier seen the RSS group within Jan Sangh successfully cornering the erstwhile members of Congress and Hindu Mahasabha. “Jan Sangh cohesiveness, not RSS manipulation, was the problem,” wrote Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle in The Brotherhood in Saffron, the celebrated 1987 book on the RSS. In the end, though, it was a power rivalry between senior non-Jan Sangh members, rather than dual membership, that led to the Janata government’s collapse.

But the mentorship by Narayan and Morarji Desai had transformed the Jan Sangh members. When, in 1980, they launched the Bharatiya Janata Party after being expelled from the Janata Party over the dual membership issue, motto was ‘Gandhian Socialism’. Vajpayee believed that moderation was the only way for the newly founded party to increase its base support. While much of the economic and social program it advocated were the same as that of Jan Sangh, the symbolism didn’t go well with the RSS leadership: RSS had never been a fan of Gandhi; also, socialism was closer to communism, Sangh’s ideological bête noire. Earlier, the bickering during the Janata government had also disenchanted many RSS members with electoral politics. The BJP and RSS began to drift apart. Around this time, the RSS found a new muse: Ayodhya, where Mughal emperor Babar had built a mosque reportedly by breaking a temple, some Hindus in the region claimed, on the site where the Hindu deity Ram was said to have been born. RSS threw its weight behind its religious affiliate VHP which, after being founded in 1964, had been lying mostly dormant, until it took up the Ayodhya issue.

The second part of this essay is published on 3 June 2016

~ Abhishek Choudhary is a researcher and journalist based in Delhi, and a contributor to Himal Southasian. 

If you liked reading this article, you may be interested in:

Anand Teltumbde’s review of Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India and the correlations between resurgent Hindutva and the ascendance of neoliberalism

Atreyee Sen’s review of Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India

and more

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