Hindu revivalism remains a growing force in India today. It is also a concernamong the millions of displaced Hindus scattered around the world. Its roots liein the belief that Hinduism is an endangered lifestyle. This notion is fuelledby the political assertiveness of minority groups, efforts to convert Hindus toother faiths, suspicions that the political authorities are sympathetic tominority groups and the belief that foreign political and religious ideologiesare destroying the Hindu community. Every morning at sunrise, groups of men inmilitary-style uniforms gather together before saffron coloured flags, in allparts of India, to participate in a common set of rituals, physical exercisesand lessons.Order now
For one hour each day, they are taught to think of themselves as afamily with a mission to transform Hindu society. (Andersen and Damle 1) Theyare the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the largest and most influentialorganization in India committed to Hindu revivalism. The RSS or NationalVolunteer Organization, is perhaps the most interesting of any of India’s socialmovements. The growth of the RSS provides a detailed illustration of India’schanging face. The purpose of this paper is to provide the reader with an earlytwentieth century view of an organization that emerged out of frustrations amongIndia’s Hindu revivalists.
These revivalists were discontent with the work ofnationalists in politics, and determined to unify the Hindus of India againstthe “alien” threats within the nation. The origins of nationalist movementsin nineteenth century India can be traced to the expansion of Western, Englisheducation. Those attracted to the new education came primarily from high casteHindu groups. Many of the proponents of social, political and religious reformamong Hindus were drawn from this English educated class. Until very late in thenineteenth century, most politically articulate Indians were willing tocollaborate with the colonial administration. However, a shift fromcollaboration to criticism began in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Two broad movements emerged among Hindus seeking to define their nationalidentity: modernists and revivalists. The modernists adopted models of socialand political change based upon Western patterns; they appreciated many of theWestern philosophies and wanted India to follow suit. The revivalist view wasbased on returning to a Hindu antiquity that was thought to be superior forgoverning India?a “Hindu” nation. Many felt that this desire to recreatethe age of Hindu grandeur was also a result of English education; ideas ofpatriotism and nationalism crept into these peoples way of thought. It was theEnglish study of the Indian way of life that added to the revivalist movement.
Revivalism included those who wanted to preserve the traditional social order aswell as those who sought to reform Hindu society as a way of strengthening Hindusolidarity. The RSS traces its roots to the revivalist feelings that werepresent at that time. The Hindu revivalists sought to recover fundamental truthsabout their people. They argued that the loss of national consciousness hadcreated conditions that facilitated British domination of the land.
By appealingto an idealized past, the revivalists reminded the Hindu public of the sufferingand degradation experienced under British rule. The call for independence was alogical next-step, for the degraded present could only be overcome byeliminating the foreign intruders who had supposedly disrupted the originalblissful society. Muslim rulers and the British were identified as sources ofthat disruption and many revivalist spokesmen sought to place limits on theirpolitical power and on their cultural influence. The proposed changes in Hindusociety were justified by the proposition that the changes were not new at all,but were in fact a revival of older, purer forms of Hindu culture that haddegenerated during foreign rule. Opposition to British rule increased among boththe moderates and the more extremists, as the contradictions between colonialrule and new aspirations became obvious.
Criticism of India’s colonial statuswas supported by observation of British attitudes. The British viewed Indiansand Indian culture as inferior. Educated Indians were considerably upset whenthe British began to characterize them as feminine, cowardly andunrepresentative of the native culture. The racial arrogance often expressed byEuropean officials, businessmen and missionaries, made a substantialcontribution to the nationalist sentiment. Constitutional reforms that offeredincreased Indian participation in the legislative bodies and bureaucracy did notmatch expectations. The Western educated Indians believed that they should enjoythe same civil liberties as the English.
With the development of new techniquesof agitation, the government undermined popular trust by enforcing regulationsthat further diminished civil liberties. The claims that British economicpolicies caused a drain of wealth from India, further enforced the view that theBritish were fundamentally unconcerned with the country’s well being. (Andersen and Damle 30) Developments in the late nineteenth century createdconditions conducive to the expansion of revivalism. Nationalism was beginningto assert itself.
The revivalist message, based on traditional Hindu conceptsregarding society, was appealing to many Indian Hindus. In pre-independentIndia, the premier nationalist organization was the Indian National Congress, anumbrella organization that accommodated a variety of interests including thoseof the revivalists. However, the Congress was not entirely successful inadequately satisfying all groups. Many Muslim leaders felt that WesternizedHindu elite, who controlled the Congress, did not adequately respond to Musliminterests.
The same sentiments were shared by Hindu revivalist leaders regardingthe Hindu community. The founder of the RSS doubted whether the Congress, whichincluded Muslims, could bring about the desired unity of the Hindu community. Asthe Hindu and Muslim leaders within these communities continued to feel unfairlyrepresented, they turned to forming other political organizations claiming torepresent their respective groups. It would be appropriate to note that therewas no cohesive community, either Hindu or Muslim, in India that was united.
These communities were divided by many barriers, and developed in each regiondifferently, both politically and socially. What these organizations didrepresent was a certain aspect of their respective communities that was verydefensive in nature. The RSS was established in 1925 as a kind of educationalbody whose objective was to train a group of Hindu men who would work togetherto unite the Hindu community, so that India could once again become anindependent country. The RSS emerged during a wave of Hindu-Muslim riots thathad swept across India at the time. The RSS viewed communal rioting as a symptomof the weakness and division within the Hindu community, and argued thatindependence could be achieved only after the splintered Hindu community,divided by caste, religion, language, and sect, united.
(Andersen and Damle 32)The formation of the RSS can be attributed to the defensive nature of the Hinducommunity at the time. The deterioration of Hindu-Muslim relations and thecontinual frustration with the Indian National Congress led to the rise of theRSS. During India’s pre-independence period, the two leaders of the RSS, itsfounder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalker, felt that afundamental change in social attitudes was a necessity before any changesoccurred in the nation. The creation of a properly trained force of nationalistswould be the first step in altering such attitudes. Most revivalists argued thatGandhi’s efforts in the early 1920s to strengthen Hindu-Muslim bonds by liningup the Congress organization behind the Muslim protest against the dismembermentof the Turkish Empire encouraged Muslim separatism. When he launched his firstmajor non-cooperation movement in India on August 1, 1920, one of the issues wasthe British unwillingness to satisfy Muslims on the Turkish issue.
Gandhi calledfor a complete boycott of government institutions, while simultaneouslyincluding the doctrine of ahimsa as an integral part of the movement. Aconsiderable number of Congress members, including many revivalists, opposedboth the objectives and tactics of the boycott. Widespread communal riotingfollowed the apparent failure of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. (Malkani5) Hindu revivalists were particularly alarmed by the widespread communalrioting which took place on the Malabar coast of southwestern India duringAugust 1921. Events there, emphasized the revivalist concern about the dangersfacing the Hindus of the subcontinent.
Muslim resentment against British rule inthe Malabar area, was coupled with anti-Hindu sentiment, and the rioting grew tosuch proportions that the civil administration was unable to contain theviolence in many places. This uprising confirmed the fears of many Hindus thatthe violence on the Malabar coast was a covert attempt to enhance the politicalinfluence of Muslims at the expense of the Hindu community. It was difficult formany to conceive how a country comprised of 85% Hindus could be unable to defendthemselves in that situation. Many Hindus feared that similar outbreaks wouldoccur elsewhere, and these apprehensions fuelled revivalist sentiments. Thechallenge from Islam in the early 1920s was viewed by many Hindus as a threat totheir self-esteem.
The proliferation of Hindu sabhas, and other “defensive”Hindu associations, were reactions to the growing communal violence, theincreasing political articulation of Muslims, the cultural “Islamization” ofthe Muslim community, and the failure to achieve independence. Thus, this setthe stage for the emergence of the RSS within the historical setting of modernIndia. The RSS’s discipline and ideological framework were shaped by Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a medical doctor who had abandoned a potentiallylucrative practice to participate in the struggle against colonialism. As ayouth, Hedgewar was keenly interested in history and politics.
During the early1920s, Hedgewar became deeply engaged in Congress Party activities. At the 1920annual Congress session in Nagpur, Gandhi had promised freedom within the yearthrough peaceful non-cooperation. Many including Hedgewar, decided to give theexperiment, in non-violent disobedience, a chance to prove its effectiveness. The year 1921 ended without the promised swaraj. Gandhi called off the muchheralded non-cooperation campaign in early 1922, because a mob had killed anumber of policemen in the United Provinces.
Hedgewar felt Gandhi had made aserious tactical mistake. Hedgewar became increasingly disenchanted with Gandhiand politics. (Malkani 10) The outbreak of communal rioting in 1923 causedHedgewar to question the previously attempted methods used to rid India ofcolonial rule. The riots in his view, were the signs of a deeper socialproblem?disunity among Hindus?that would have to be addressed if India wereto become independent.
During this period of escalating Hindu-Muslim animosity,Hedgewar began to develop the intellectual foundations of the RSS. A majorinfluence on his thinking was Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar’s Hindutva, whichadvances the thesis that the Hindus are a nation. While Sarvarkar’s work mayhave provided Hedgewar with an intellectual justification for the concept of aHindu nation that embraced all the peoples of the subcontinent, it did not givehim a method for uniting the Hindu community. From his youth, Hedgewar searchedfor a reason to explain India’s inability to ward off foreign domination. Hewas disturbed that a small group of colonial administers could rule a vastcountry like India with such ease.
Hedgewar felt that much of India’s ancientterritory, referring to Tibet and Afghanistan, had been lost due to a lack ofHindu unity. He believed that independence and national revitalization could beachieved only when the root cause of India’s weakness was discovered. Sometime between 1924 and 1925, Hedgewar satisfied himself that he had discoveredthe cause; the fundamental problem was psychological and what was required wasan inner transformation to rekindle a sense of national consciousness and socialcohesion. Once having created a regiment of persons committed to the nationalreconstruction, he believed there would be little difficulty in sustaining amovement of revitalization, which of course would include independence as one ofits objectives.
In its inception, the RSS had two basic aims: (1. ) to unite andtrain Hindus to face the enemy, any alien party that was attempting to subjugateHinduism; and (2. ) to radicalize the Hindus to hasten the British withdrawalfrom India. It was founded on the auspicious day of the Hindu festival Dusherah. The first recruits were largely Brahmin, although all Hindus were encouraged tojoin.
Gymnasiums or Akharas, associated with the Kshatriya life style, proved tobe the most successful grounds for finding recruits. (Jayaprasad 58) Thesetrained recruits would go on to be the future leaders of the country, and keepwith them the teachings and discipline of the RSS. They would also keep a closenetwork with the organization. The RSS argued that their strengths lay in theirability to develop close bonds among their members and to sustain links whenmembers moved on or joined various RSS affiliate groups. In the communal riotsof September 1927 in Nagpur, RSS took steps which captured the attention ofHindus far beyond the city.
Eighty-nine RSS members were organized into sixteensquads to protect various Hindu neighbourhoods. This generated widespreadpublicity and captured the attention of Hindus everywhere. The paramilitarynature of the RSS soon convinced the Central Provincial government that the RSScould develop into a dangerous revolutionary group. It soon became the mostsuccessful of a class of associations, which specialized in recruiting young menand adolescents into uniformed militia bands called Shakhas.
The Shakha was thefirst stage of involvement, where boys would work and train together and developa camaraderie. Those that excelled were moved up into the full-time rank of theorganization?an organization that was extremely effective in managing andmobilizing many people. These Swayamsevaks belonging to the “SanghBrotherhood” were dedicated to the improvement of Hindu society, culture,religion, and to the eventual creation of a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu nation. Shakha technique was evolved by Dr.
Hedgewar to achieve these aims. It offered aunifying experience, stressing commitment and loyalty to the ideologies of theRSS. The uniqueness of the technique lay in the active participation on nationalaffairs by each and every member. The physical, intellectual and mental trainingwas designed to prepare all sections of society for effectively involvingthemselves in nation building (i.
e. a grass roots philosophy). The membershipwas free to all castes of Hindus as equal participants, without prejudice. TheRSS believed in the equality of all castes.
They did not accept the practice ofuntouchability. All members must participate in common meals, a controversialpractice at the time, but one that was used by many reformers such as the AryaSamaj, Swami Vivekananda, and Gandhi. All followers had to conform to thebehavioural standards of the RSS, which appeared to be a mix of Brahmin andKshatriya standards. Prior to his death on June 21, 1940, Dr. Hedgewar chose theRSS general secretary at the time, Golwalker, to succeed him as leader.
Underthe new leadership, the RSS continued to expand rapidly during World War II. With the pressing for an independent Muslim state by the Muslim League, theperiod between 1945 to 1948 saw sharp increases in membership within the RSS,including lower caste Hindus in areas that are now Pakistan, Punjab and Delhi. RSS membership had previously been largely, upper caste Hindu’s in Maharastra. The RSS was beginning to attract, and continues to attract, low income Hindusand small shopkeepers, who were concerned with their opportunities in agovernment that favoured the high class or minorities.
The RSS always kept acertain mystery and secrecy of their membership and their future plans. It wasalways under some form of scrutiny or ban from the political authorities. Underthe leadership of Hedgewar, the RSS remained a cultural and social organizationcommitted to the advancement of the Hindu people. Although, the RSS trained itsdisciples to be aggressive and protective of their culture, Hedgewar insistedthat they not get confrontational or purposely attack other communities.
Hedgewar also insisted that the RSS remain out of politics totally. Members wereallowed to join politics on their own, but the organization was to remaincompletely apolitical. Hedgewar felt that politics was a “dirty” businessand he was more concerned with training the youth, which would have a dominoeffect on later politics in India. His successor, Golwalker, respected hiswishes and kept the RSS out of politics.
However, with Golwalker the RSS beganto receive an anti-Muslim sentiment directly from the leader. The RSS membershipalways seemed to have contempt for the Muslims as well as the British, but itwas now more evident in the writings of their leader. In his book, We or OurNationhood Defined, Golwalker made claims of a Hindustan that was to be the landof the Hindus where they could practice their all-prevailing religioustraditions without contamination from European or Muslim culture. “Anynon-Hindus in India must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion,must entertain no idea but those of glorificationof the Hindu race and culture,and could only stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation,claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferentialtreatment. ” (Brown 347) With the insurgence of new blood into the RSS from itsmany student affiliate groups, the RSS began to grow and expand.
The RSSmembership began to divide on its future objectives and goals. Thetraditionalist of the Sangh wanted to concentrate on character building withinthe Shakha and keep out of the country’s politics. The new members of the Sangh,saw the RSS as a growing force on the subcontinent and wanted to use theinfluence in a more aggressive and political way. In the end, the traditionalistof the RSS won and the RSS stayed out of the pre-independence politics of India.
The RSS came under harsh criticism for this move, as many supporters felt thatthe RSS was the only organized and influential group that could have preventedpartition. Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy, announced the partitionof the Indian subcontinent on a communal basis on June 3, 1947, and terminationof colonial rule on August 15, 1947. The British created a boundary force tokeep law and order during partition but dissolved it in September 1947. Millionsof Hindus and Sikhs were left unprotected in West Punjab, and the same forMuslims in East Punjab. Violence was everywhere as early as June 1947 andreached its peak in September 1947. It only subsided when the minoritycommunities of West Pakistan (formerly West Punjab) fled to India.
Golwalker hadset an example of fearlessness by moving through riot torn areas consolingrefugees in their flight to India. The East Punjab government providedassistance, including the issuance of weapons to the RSS, while they wereorganizing rescue squads to bring refugees to India. Armed Swayamsevaks wereassigned to guard Hindu and Sikh homes. They even retaliated against Muslims inPakistan when danger was imminent.
Their rescue efforts helped bolsterconfidence and pride among the demoralized Hindus and Sikhs of the Punjab area. The growing popularity and activism of the RSS proved it an influential force tobe reckoned with. (Andersen and Damle 52) The RSS ?s humanitarian effortsduring the partition had won it respect from the people of the newly establishedIndia. However, the government was wary that the RSS posed a political threat tothe stability of the country.
Many Muslim leaders in India were growing fearfulof the anti-Muslim sentiment that the RSS members characterized. The RSS didrealize that it had to take a more active role in the political activities ofIndia. During the Kashmir war, when Pakistan sent in armed raiders, the IndianArmed forces supplied arms to the RSS volunteers. These Swayamsevaks fought theenemy on the side of the Indian soldiers. The RSS kept the supply lines movingand carried arms and ammunition for the soldiers through hazardous areas. (Andersen and Damle 53) In the closing months of 1947, senior political figuresbecame increasingly outspoken about the danger of the RSS becoming anindependent political force.
The national Herald of Lucknow expressed this fearin editorials published. It compared the RSS with the paramilitary form of theGerman Nazi party. The RSS had been accused of being a secret society in thatwhat they said or showed was mostly meant to hide the reality. The dailyactivities of the RSS were said to be a means of organizing Hindu society andpromoting Hindu culture. To be political is no crime, and in a democracy everyindividual and association has the right to act politically.
However, the RSShas been accused of being an organization that tries to camouflage itscharacters and objectives, thus giving many, every reason to be suspicious ofits on goings. Many felt that the RSS had all the characteristics of a fascistorganization. (Goyal 14) Many senior RSS figures maintained a hesitant attituderegarding party politics in Independent India. Many felt that this was a corruptsystem and the RSS should have no involvement. Nevertheless, the more activistyouths were demanding some RSS involvement in politics. The main objective wasto gain political protection as the RSS was banned after the assassination ofMahatma Gandhi; an event many people held the RSS responsible for.
The RSS wasreinstated only after presenting a new constitution to the government whichstated that it was a non-political, cultural organization and would preachreligious tolerance. (Brown 348) But by this time contempt for the RSS had risento the most top level of government?Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru. Nehru andhis successors would all keep a watchful eye on the RSS with continuousscrutinizing and banning of many of its activities. The RSS maintained a strongrelation and presence with student groups. These groups were a pool for newmembership for the Sangh.
The RSS wanted to expand its base and get involvedwith the masses of India. It was very successful in aligning itself with severallabour unions and agricultural unions. The RSS kept away from the largecapitalistic businesses. Even though the RSS won the support of these unions,the ideology of the organization never appealed to the common peasant in India. The Hindu Mahasabha, the Arya Samaj and the RSS were the most prominentorganizations dedicated to Hindu revivalism. There was a lot of cross membershipbetween these groups.
However, the RSS steered away from the political HinduMahasabha, as much of the public also considered this group responsible forGandhi’s death. The Mahasabha became insignificant in Indian politics. The RSSgave its support to the new Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the Bhartiya JanataParty (BJP). It was time that the RSS expand its affiliation with other groups;it was now a reality if the organization was to improve the country it had to beinvolved somewhat in politics. Of the religious organizations, the Arya Samaj inNorthern India was a close ally of the RSS.
The Arya Samaj predates the RSS inits Hindu revivalism movement. They often supported the RSS or its affiliates,but also kept themselves separate. Other religious organizations came directlyfrom the RSS family tree, the most prominent of these is the Vishwal HinduParishad (VHP). The VHP was seen as the more extreme religious arm of the RSS,just as the Jana Sangh (later the BJP) had been seen as the political arm of theRSS. Many criticize the VHP as an organization that takes on more extremeprojects on behalf of the RSS, such as the destruction of the Babri mosque inAyodhya, December 6, 1992, allowing the RSS to maintain its claim to beingpurely a cultural organization.
The VHP has also grown to become a largeorganization and is at present comparable to the RSS in strength, numbers andideals of higher morals. There was lots of cross membership within the differentorganizations. The RSS lent its prominent members to these groups to help serveor organize projects and campaigns. The RSS’s support of the VHP allowed itsmembers to participate in more activist projects concerning Hindu revivalism. Its support of the Jana Sangh and the BJP also allowed its members to getinvolved on the Indian political scene in a very large way. Although theseorganizations?the RSS, VHP, BJP, Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha andothers?differ in their ideologies or methods, they all seem to be connected bya strong network and a commitment to Hindu revivalism.
In recent years, thesegroups have received a strong nod of popular support and political importance. India’s current government will most likely be a coalition formed around theBJP. The new millenium will be an interesting and trying time for the 1 billionplus of India. Being the major exponent in spreading Hindu nationalism, the RSShad come under much attack for their actions, policies and supposed hiddenagendas. They have always maintained themselves as a cultural organization,despite other allegations.
One cannot help but sympathize with them for theconcept they uphold based on valid fears when one takes a look at Indian historyand politics. The RSS have been credited for much humanitarian efforts duringpartition and after, but they have also been a factor in the rising communalfeelings in India. Albeit the RSS is considered by many as a secretorganization, its claims of rather being a silent organization still remainswith its ultimate goal of seeing India realizing Hind Swaraj. The only thing theRSS must remember is that they are not the only nationals of India.
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Brown, Judith M. Modern India: The Origins ofan Asian Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Goyal, D. R.
Seminar: Secret Societies?RSS. New Delhi: Romesh Thapur, 1972. Jayaprasad, K. RSS and Hindu Nationalism. New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 1991. Malkani,K.
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