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The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Hindu revivalism remains a growing force in India today. It is also a concern among the millions of displaced Hindus scattered around the world. Its roots lie in the belief that Hinduism is an endangered lifestyle. This notion is fuelled by the political assertiveness of minority groups, efforts to convert Hindus to other faiths, suspicions that the political authorities are sympathetic to minority groups and the belief that foreign political and religious ideologies are destroying the Hindu community. Every morning at sunrise, groups of men in military-style uniforms gather together before saffron coloured flags, in all parts of India, to participate in a common set of rituals, physical exercises and lessons. For one hour each day, they are taught to think of themselves as a family with a mission to transform Hindu society.

(Andersen and Damle 1) They are the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the largest and most influential organization in India committed to Hindu revivalism. The RSS or National Volunteer Organization, is perhaps the most interesting of any of India’s social movements. The growth of the RSS provides a detailed illustration of Indias changing face. The purpose of this paper is to provide the reader with an early twentieth century view of an organization that emerged out of frustrations among Indias Hindu revivalists. These revivalists were discontent with the work of nationalists in politics, and determined to unify the Hindus of India against the alien threats within the nation.

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The origins of nationalist movements in nineteenth century India can be traced to the expansion of Western, English education. Those attracted to the new education came primarily from high caste Hindu groups. Many of the proponents of social, political and religious reform among Hindus were drawn from this English educated class. Until very late in the nineteenth century, most politically articulate Indians were willing to collaborate with the colonial administration. However, a shift from collaboration to criticism began in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Two broad movements emerged among Hindus seeking to define their national identity: modernists and revivalists. The modernists adopted models of social and political change based upon Western patterns; they appreciated many of the Western philosophies and wanted India to follow suit. The revivalist view was based on returning to a Hindu antiquity that was thought to be superior for governing Indiaa Hindu nation. Many felt that this desire to recreate the age of Hindu grandeur was also a result of English education; ideas of patriotism and nationalism crept into these peoples way of thought. It was the English study of the Indian way of life that added to the revivalist movement.

Revivalism included those who wanted to preserve the traditional social order as well as those who sought to reform Hindu society as a way of strengthening Hindu solidarity. The RSS traces its roots to the revivalist feelings that were present at that time. The Hindu revivalists sought to recover fundamental truths about their people. They argued that the loss of national consciousness had created conditions that facilitated British domination of the land. By appealing to an idealized past, the revivalists reminded the Hindu public of the suffering and degradation experienced under British rule.

The call for independence was a logical next-step, for the degraded present could only be overcome by eliminating the foreign intruders who had supposedly disrupted the original blissful society. Muslim rulers and the British were identified as sources of that disruption and many revivalist spokesmen sought to place limits on their political power and on their cultural influence. The proposed changes in Hindu society 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 had degenerated during foreign rule. Opposition to British rule increased among both the moderates and the more extremists, as the contradictions between colonial rule and new aspirations became obvious. Criticism of Indias colonial status was supported by observation of British attitudes.

The British viewed Indians and Indian culture as inferior. Educated Indians were considerably upset when the British began to characterize them as feminine, cowardly and unrepresentative of the native culture. The racial arrogance often expressed by European officials, businessmen and missionaries, made a substantial contribution to the nationalist sentiment. Constitutional reforms that offered increased Indian participation in the legislative bodies and bureaucracy did not match expectations. The Western educated Indians believed that they should enjoy the same civil liberties as the English.

With the development of new techniques of agitation, the government undermined popular trust by enforcing regulations that further diminished civil liberties. The claims that British economic policies caused a drain of wealth from India, further enforced the view that the British were fundamentally unconcerned with the countrys well being. (Andersen and Damle 30) Developments in the late nineteenth century created conditions conducive to the expansion of revivalism. Nationalism was beginning to assert itself. The revivalist message, based on traditional Hindu concepts regarding society, was appealing to many Indian Hindus. In pre-independent India, the premier nationalist organization was the Indian National Congress, an umbrella organization that accommodated a variety of interests including those of the revivalists.

However, the Congress was not entirely successful in adequately satisfying all groups. Many Muslim leaders felt that Westernized Hindu elite, who controlled the Congress, did not adequately respond to Muslim interests. The same sentiments were shared by Hindu revivalist leaders regarding the Hindu community. The founder of the RSS doubted whether the Congress, which included Muslims, could bring about the desired unity of the Hindu community. As the Hindu and Muslim leaders within these communities continued to feel unfairly represented, they turned to forming other political organizations claiming to represent their respective groups.

It would be appropriate to note that there was no cohesive community, either Hindu or Muslim, in India that was united. These communities were divided by many barriers, and developed in each region differently, both politically and socially. What these organizations did represent was a certain aspect of their respective communities that was very defensive in nature. The RSS was established in 1925 as a kind of educational body whose objective was to train a group of Hindu men who would work together to unite the Hindu community, so that India could once again become an independent country. The RSS emerged during a wave of Hindu-Muslim riots that had swept across India at the time. The RSS viewed communal rioting as a symptom of the weakness and division within the Hindu community, and argued that independence 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 Hindu community at the time. The deterioration of Hindu-Muslim relations and the continual frustration with the Indian National Congress led to the rise of the RSS. During Indias pre-independence period, the two leaders of the RSS, its founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalker, felt that a fundamental change in social attitudes was a necessity before any changes occurred in the nation. The creation of a properly trained force of nationalists would be the first step in altering such attitudes. Most revivalists argued that Gandhis efforts in the early 1920s to strengthen Hindu-Muslim bonds by lining up the Congress organization behind the Muslim protest against the dismemberment of the Turkish Empire encouraged Muslim separatism.

When he launched his first major non-cooperation movement in India on August 1, 1920, one of the issues was the British unwillingness to satisfy Muslims on the Turkish issue. Gandhi called for a complete boycott of government institutions, while simultaneously including the doctrine of ahimsa as an integral part of the movement. A considerable number of Congress members, including many revivalists, opposed both the objectives and tactics of the boycott. Widespread communal rioting followed the apparent failure of Gandhis non-cooperation movement. (Malkani 5) Hindu revivalists were particularly alarmed by the widespread communal rioting which took place on the Malabar coast of southwestern India during August 1921.

Events there, emphasized the revivalist concern about the dangers facing the Hindus of the subcontinent. Muslim resentment against British rule in the Malabar area, was coupled with anti-Hindu sentiment, and the rioting grew to such proportions that the civil administration was unable to contain the violence in many places. This uprising confirmed the fears of many Hindus that the violence on the Malabar coast was a covert attempt to enhance the political influence of Muslims at the expense of the Hindu community. It was difficult for many to conceive how a country comprised of 85% Hindus could be unable to defend themselves in that situation. Many Hindus feared that similar outbreaks would occur elsewhere, and these apprehensions fuelled revivalist sentiments.

The challenge from Islam in the early 1920s was viewed by many Hindus as a threat to their self-esteem. The proliferation of Hindu sabhas, and other defensive Hindu associations, were reactions to the growing communal violence, the increasing political articulation of Muslims, the cultural Islamization of the Muslim community, and the failure to achieve independence. Thus, this set the stage for the emergence of the RSS within the historical setting of modern India. The RSSs discipline and ideological framework were shaped by Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a medical doctor who had abandoned a potentially lucrative practice to participate in the struggle against colonialism. As a youth, Hedgewar was keenly interested in history and politics.

During the early 1920s, Hedgewar became deeply engaged in Congress Party activities. At the 1920 annual Congress session in Nagpur, Gandhi had promised freedom within the year through peaceful non-cooperation. Many including Hedgewar, decided to give the experiment, in non-violent disobedience, a chance to prove its effectiveness. The year 1921 ended without the promised swaraj. Gandhi called off the much heralded non-cooperation campaign in early 1922, because a mob had killed a number of policemen in the United Provinces. Hedgewar felt Gandhi had made a serious tactical mistake. Hedgewar became increasingly disenchanted with Gandhi and politics.

(Malkani 10) The outbreak of communal rioting in 1923 caused Hedgewar to question the previously attempted methods used to rid India of colonial rule. The riots in his view, were the signs of a deeper social problemdisunity among Hindusthat would have to be addressed if India were to become independent. During this period of escalating Hindu-Muslim animosity, Hedgewar began to develop the intellectual foundations of the RSS. A major influence on his thinking was Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkars Hindutva, which advances the thesis that the Hindus are a nation. While Sarvarkars work may have provided Hedgewar with an intellectual justification for the concept of a Hindu nation that embraced all the peoples of the subcontinent, it did not give him a method for uniting the Hindu community.

From his youth, Hedgewar searched for a reason to explain Indias inability to ward off foreign domination. He was disturbed that a small group of colonial administers could rule a vast country like India with such ease. Hedgewar felt that much of Indias ancient territory, referring to Tibet and Afghanistan, had been lost due to a lack of Hindu unity. He believed that independence and national revitalization could be achieved only when the root cause of Indias weakness was discovered. Some time between 1924 and 1925, Hedgewar satisfied himself that he had discovered the cause; the fundamental problem was psychological and what was required was an inner transformation to rekindle a sense of national consciousness and social cohesion.

Once having created a regiment of persons committed to the national reconstruction, he believed there would be little difficulty in sustaining a movement of revitalization, which of course would include independence as one of its objectives. In its inception, the RSS had two basic aims: (1.) to unite and train Hindus to face the enemy, any alien party that was attempting to subjugate Hinduism; and (2.) to radicalize the Hindus to hasten the British withdrawal from India. It was founded on the auspicious day of the Hindu festival Dusherah. The first recruits were largely Brahmin, although all Hindus were encouraged to join. Gymnasiums or Akharas, associated with the Kshatriya life style, proved to be the most successful grounds for finding recruits.

(Jayaprasad 58) These trained recruits would go on to be the future leaders of the country, and keep with them the teachings and discipline of the RSS. They would also keep a close network with the organization. The RSS argued that their strengths lay in their ability to develop close bonds among their members and to sustain links when members moved on or joined various RSS affiliate groups. In the communal riots of September 1927 in Nagpur, RSS took steps which captured the attention of Hindus far be …

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