By : Prof. Rakesh Singha
Prime Minister Narendra Modi evoked the significance of the month of August in India’s freedom movement in a recent Mann ki Baat – today, for instance, is the 75th anniversary of the launch of the Quit India movement. True to form, Congress and the Left were quick to taunt him about the role of his parent organisation, RSS, in that movement.
This was expected – political discourse and academic writings, comprising mainly history textbooks, have for decades incessantly slandered RSS for its alleged communal and pro-British role during the anti-colonial movement. History, however, suffers distortion whenever the present is used to contextualise the past guided by ideological predisposition. Facts reveal an altogether different reality from Marxist and Nehruvian historians’ narratives on RSS.
RSS cadre strength was assessed as nearly 1,50,000, spread among various age groups across the country, in the Home Department’s 1939-40 report on volunteer organisations. The British government initiated a recruitment drive for the army, ARP and Civic Guards when World War II broke out. The Hindu Mahasabha and many other Hindu organisations – which included Nathuram Godse’s Hindu Rashtra Sena – viewed this as an opportunity to militarily train their cadres for waging war against the British at an opportune time. They fully cooperated in organising camps and acted as recruiting agents.
RSS, however, rejected this outlook outright, a fact that wasn’t ignored by the regime. In June 1939, the Home Department suggested the Central Provinces government use Section 16 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (XIV of 1908) to ban RSS, by then the strongest outfit in the province. The province’s chief secretary GM Trivedi wrote to the central government on May 22, 1940, that it was not feasible as it would lead to huge protests in the province.
In the 1930s, even the use of softer methods to curb RSS had brought wrath and humiliation upon the government. The Sangh’s decision to participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement erased the government’s delusion that it was a tail of the Hindu Mahasabha. CP & Berar police’s fortnightly report stated that RSS founder Hedgewar’s participation had invigorated the movement. He led thousands of sataygrahis and suffered a year’s rigorous imprisonment.
The Sangh’s anti-British stance now invited suppression by an infuriated government. The Home Department report 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.”
After a two-day discussion on the ideology, organisation and the role of the RSS on March 7-8, 1934, the government was completely isolated and failed to prove RSS involvement in communal activities. House leader Raghvendra Rao failed to answer MS Rahman’s query on any representation by any Muslim individual or organisations against RSS or of any evidence the government had on its communal activities. Rahman and others praised the RSS; the government had to withdraw its circular.
On August 5, 1940 under the Defence of India Rules, the central government promulgated an ordinance prohibiting drills, use of uniforms and exercises. Any idea that this would stymie the Sangh’s mobilisation proved futile. Hundreds of RSS volunteers courted arrest in violation of the order.
RSS participation in the Quit India movement was the proverbial last straw for British rulers. In August that year, in Chimur and Ashti, RSS cadre dominated Congress processions and attacked police stations, with police in these talukas coming forth with the severest repression of the people. Those hanged and awarded life imprisonment were mostly RSS volunteers. The Sangh’s growing integration with the movement created consternation; the government feared an armed coup with RSS and Indian National Army (INA) sharing common sentiments.
British anxiety had good reason. 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 “the organisation is intensely anti-British and its tone is increasingly becoming militant.”
The noting of Home Department official GA Ahmed, on December 13, 1943, unravels the government’s real intention: “the holding of all camps by any organisation whatever should be prohibited by an order under the Defence of India Rules. This will hit the RSS most, as its main activity is the organisation of camps.” Subsequently, the Sangh’s training camps were raided and literature and arms were seized, besides the arrest of organisers.
RSS participation in Gandhian movements did not annihilate its instinct and ambition to overthrow colonial rule by armed revolution. The Sangh’s weakness is not its absence from the freedom movement, but lack of intellectual rigour among its own academics.
Conversely, communists’ privilege flows not from their participation in any national movement (their treacherous role in the freedom movement is well known), but from a strong contingent of committed academics. We owe it to ourselves not to allow the nation’s history to be circumscribed by ideological dogmas any longer.