Why there is con­tro­versy within the RSS—and out­side it—about its re­la­tion­ship with the Ma­hatma


Adi­a­mond is just a stone, but it is pre­cious. Why is it so? Be­cause of its match­less abil­ity to hold out. If this be taken as a prin­ci­ple, then we may say that Ma­hatma Gandhi is a di­a­mond among hu­mans. He is ab­stract, yet om­nipresent by virtue of his long, ac­tion-filled life and his ideals. The urge to un­der­stand the mes­sage of his life has in­creased. His mes­sage is for­mu­laic, con­tained in a sen­tence. The tal­is­manic code he left be­hind takes some de­ci­pher­ing. But it’s easy enough to bear in mind his life’s mes­sage; in his own oftre­peated words: “My life is my mes­sage.” The mes­sage is also in­scribed on the cov­ers of two thick vol­umes that con­tain a his­tor­i­cal ac­count of Se­va­gram. But what is the mes­sage?

Has the Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh (RSS) in­ter­nalised this mes­sage? The ques­tion may ap­pear odd, but it is ger­mane and timely. Be­cause the RSS holds sway over the life of com­mon In­di­ans. It is a power cen­tre. One may or may not like its ex­is­tence, but that does not af­fect its power, and its ex­is­tence is im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. It’s only right, then, to ask what the Sangh’s plans are at a time when, co­in­cid­ing with Gandhi’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial (150th an­niver­sary), peo­ple both at home and abroad are try­ing to grasp the essence of Gandhi.

A lec­ture se­ries was held at New Delhi’s Vi­gyan Bha­van last year from 17-19 Sep­tem­ber. The speaker was Dr Mo­han Bhagwat. He is the sixth sarsanghch­a­lak of the RSS. Peo­ple were keen to lis­ten to him, and Vi­gyan Bha­van proved too small a venue for the throng. He was there to talk about the RSS. He spoke and took ques­tions. The Sangh has a seasoned re­la­tion­ship with con­tro­versy; even now, it’s mired in con­tro­ver­sies. Which is why the sarsanghch­a­lak had to come to the cap­i­tal to ex­plain what is what.

No­body asked him if the Sangh wants to go the Gand­hian way. Why? Pos­si­bly be­cause it has been as­sumed that the Sangh has adopted Gand­hiji. Or the op­po­site may also be true. But what needs to be as­cer­tained is some­thing else: did the Sangh learn from its in­ter­ac­tions with Gandhi, did it adopt his ideas? To com­pre­hend his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, the present needs to have a con­tin­u­ous di­a­logue with the past. This end­less di­a­logue be­tween the Sangh and Gandhi con­tin­ues in many forms. There is a con­tro­versy within the Sangh—and another out­side it—about its re­la­tion­ship with Gandhi. It’s eas­ier to un­der­stand this con­tra­dic­tion if we ex­am­ine these two strands sep­a­rately. Within the Sangh, Gandhi has been seen mainly from the per­spec­tive of Hindu-Mus­lim re­la­tions. Oth­ers have looked at the Sangh po­lit­i­cally. On this ba­sis, there have been al­le­ga­tions, even base­less ones, about the Sangh. It’s not nec­es­sary to enu­mer­ate those al­le­ga­tions here; they are well known.

There is an old dis­cus­sion and de­bate over why Dr K.B. Hedge­war, who went to jail on Gandhi’s ap­peal for a non-co­op­er­a­tion and civil dis­obe­di­ence move­ment, set up the RSS. Hedge­war left the Congress and de­cided to cre­ate a na­tional move­ment to counter the plau­si­ble ill con­se­quences of the Khi­lafat move­ment. It was the time when Gandhi was about to take

over the lead­er­ship of the Congress. He made a con­sti­tu­tion to con­nect a Congress party of lawyers and the elite to the com­mon In­dian cit­i­zen and yoke the Congress to the In­dian civil­i­sa­tional roots of swara­jya. On the face of it, the paths of Gandhi and the RSS ap­pear par­al­lel and in­con­gru­ent. The sur­face is what we see; only a few are able to plumb the deep sources of val­ues. Where Hedge­war is in touch with the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, Gandhi is im­mov­ably com­mit­ted to non-vi­o­lence—these are ap­par­ently par­al­lel streams. But, go deeper, and you’ll trace their com­mon source— rev­o­lu­tion. Babasa­heb Apte, a widely re­spected sage­like fig­ure and a thought-leader of the Sangh, learnt this through his read­ing of the Gandhi lit­er­a­ture. It was due to his ef­forts that the Sangh in­cluded Gandhi among names in­voked in its morn­ing-prayer rit­ual. This was in the year 1964. Apte used to say that Gandhi was the soul of In­dia and Savarkar the body. He’d ask: “What would be­come of the soul without a body?”

The Sangh dis­sents with Gandhi on the is­sue of Mus­lims. It favours a re­vival of Ksha­triya met­tle. In spite of this dis­agree­ment, Hedge­war hon­oured Gandhi. The Sangh lit­er­a­ture of his time holds Gandhi in re­gard de­spite op­po­si­tion to his poli­cies. Hedge­war and Gandhi first met in 1934. Fol­low­ing his na­tion­wide tour for abo­li­tion of un­touch­a­bil­ity, when Gandhi set his mind on some new ex­per­i­ments, he chose Se­va­gram as the venue. He was liv­ing in Wardha at the time, as a guest of Jam­nalal Ba­jaj. On Ba­jaj’s in­sis­tence, he went to an RSS camp. Hedge­war’s biog­ra­phy, by Narayan Hari Palkar, has a chap­ter on this meet­ing—Gand­hiji se bhent (Meet­ing with Gand­hiji). The day Gandhi went to the RSS camp and spoke to vol­un­teers there, Hedge­war was not present. They met the next day. This has been men­tioned in the Gandhi lit­er­a­ture. On Sep­tem­ber 12, 1947, Gandhi, at his prayer meet­ing, was mak­ing an ap­peal to Hin­dus and Mus­lims to main­tain peace. In the con­text, he said: “Mus­lims wanted Pak­istan, they got it. Why are they fight­ing now? Now that they have Pak­istan, do they want to take over Hin­dus­tan? That will never hap­pen.” On the other hand, about the RSS, he said: “I’ve heard that the Sangh, too, has blood on its hands. Gu­ruji (Gol­walkar) has as­sured me that it is a lie. His or­gan­i­sa­tion is no one’s en­emy… they just want to de­fend Hin­dus­tan the best they can.” Around the same time, Gandhi also went to a Sangh rally, where he said: “I am a Sanatani Hindu.” He also said: “I don’t know the truth of the al­le­ga­tions against the Sangh. It is for the Sangh to dis­prove those al­le­ga­tions with its right ac­tions.”

Three in­ci­dents of mod­ern his­tory have em­broiled Gandhi in un­pleas­ant de­bates. His as­sent to the par­ti­tion of In­dia, his in­sis­tence on trans­fer­ring Rs 55 crore to Pak­istan fol­low­ing Par­ti­tion, and his dec­la­ra­tion of Jawa­har­lal Nehru as his suc­ces­sor. These have to be un­der­stood in their right con­text. A healthy and bal­anced de­bate on these is­sues will cer­tainly find that by the time free­dom came, the Congress had ren­dered Gandhi help­less, even while it con­tin­ued to chant his name. Why did this hap­pen? Who did it? Would it have been dif­fer­ent and bet­ter had Gandhi had the op­por­tu­nity for his newer ex­per­i­ments? Had that pos­si­bil­ity come to pass, the other thing his­tory would have recorded is that to re­alise his dream of



Soft touch A 1940 im­age of Gandhi with (to his left) Abha, wife of his grand­nephew Kanu Gandhi, at Se­va­gram, Ma­ha­rash­tra

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