In September 1947, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief MS Golwalkar assured Mahatma Gandhi that his organisation was not involved in the communal violence that was accompanying Partition. He claimed the RSS only aimed to protect Hinduism, not to kill Muslims. After Golwalkar’s assurance on this score, Gandhi agreed to attend an RSS rally in Delhi soon after.

Yet, less than three months later, Golwalkar was singing a different tune. Addressing an RSS camp in Delhi on December 8, he said that the RSS would not allow a single Muslim to live in India. He also said Gandhi could not mislead the RSS any longer and warned that the organisation had the “means whereby such men can be immediately silenced”.

It is an episode former President Pranab Mukherjee may want to remember when he addresses a convocation of RSS workers in Nagpur on June 7. Historian Dilip Simeon, who has written about the RSS and communalism, noted that it is good to engage in debate with all quarters in political life. “Coexistence requires openness,” he said. “However, dialogue requires truthful speech and the acknowledgement of wrongdoing.”

Simeon offered a checklist of questions for Mukherjee to consider: “Has the RSS family spoken the truth about their hatred for Gandhi and their sympathy for his assassin. Has it reconsidered its relentless animosity towards India’s Muslims, Christians and communists?”

Indeed, doublespeak has always marked the RSS, with its leaders forcefully defending its Hindutva ideology but periodically appearing to disown it as well. Its engagement with Gandhi in 1947 was of a piece with this strategy.

In his book Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal recounts that Golwalkar visited the Mahatma in Delhi on September 12, 1947. “It was common knowledge that the RSS…had been behind the bulk of killings in the city as also in various other parts of India,” Pyarelal writes. But Golwalkar and his associates denied this, claiming “their organisation was for protecting Hinduism – not for killing Muslims. It was not hostile to anyone. It stood for peace.” As Pyarelal notes sarcastically, “This was laying on a bit thick.”

Gandhi said if this was indeed the case, the RSS should issue a public statement refuting the allegations against it and clearly condemning the killing and harassment of Muslims. Golwalkar and his associates said Gandhi could do it on their behalf. “Gandhi answered that he would certainly do that but if what they were saying was sincerely meant, it was better that the public should have it from their own lips,” Pyarelal writes.

At this point, a person from “Gandhi’s party” praised the RSS for its work at the refugee camp in Wah, now in Pakistan’s Punjab. “‘But don’t forget,’ answered Gandhiji, ‘even so had Hitler’s Nazis and the Fascists under Mussolini’,” writes Pyarelal. Gandhi, he said, characterised the RSS as a “communal body with a totalitarian outlook”.

Yet, he decided to attend the RSS rally on September 16 because he “felt he must give everybody a chance to make good his bona fides”.

Mahatma Gandhi speaks with a delegation of RSS workers in 1944.

‘RSS is expert at masking itself’

At the rally, Golwalkar described Gandhi as a “great man that Hinduism has produced”. In his speech, Gandhi said he was indeed proud of being a Hindu, but his Hinduism was neither intolerant nor exclusivist. “If Hindus believed that in India there was no place for non-Hindus on equal and honourable terms and Muslims, if they wanted to live in India, must be content with an inferior status, or if the Muslims thought that in Pakistan Hindus could live only as a subject race on the sufferance of Muslims, it would mean an eclipse of Hinduism and an eclipse of Islam,” Pyarelal reports Gandhi telling the audience of RSS workers.

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In his speech, Gandhi also spoke about his meeting with Golwalkar and his associates. Pyarelal reports Gandhi saying “he was glad…to have their [RSS leaders’] assurance that their policy was not of antagonism towards Islam”.

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Simeon belives the RSS’ motivations for inviting Mukherjee are similar to the reasons it invited Gandhi to attend its rally in 1947. “The RSS is expert at masking itself,” he said. “Sensing popular disaffection, it is now positioning itself for the future by smiling at Mukherjee. The Sangh conflates truthfulness with cleverness; politics with cunning; and genuine religion with nation-worship, which is a form of atheism. It denounces Naxalite violence while celebrating that of its associates.”

The RSS was indeed being clever and cunning in 1947: it sought to allay Gandhi’s doubts about its intentions even as Golwalkar harboured another plan. The plan was first disclosed by the historian Ramachandra Guha in an article in Outlook and, subsequently, the journalist Bharat Bhushan wrote about it on Catch News website. This writer has seen the records of the Delhi police’s Criminal Investigation Department on which the articles were based.

Pranab Mukherjee with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2015. Photo via Twitter

Gandhi can be silenced’

It was GB Wiggins, superintendent of police, CID, Lucknow, who tipped off the Delhi CID about an RSS meeting in the city. Wiggins’ alert, in turn, was based on a CID report from Mathura. He was informed that 50 RSS men had met at the home of one Antu Lal Vaish at Gobardhan, Mathura, on December 1, 1947. They were told that a “meeting of the delegates from all over India is to be held on or about 8 Dec 1947 and the future programme would be chalked out”.

Based on the information provided by a source identified as “Sewak”, CID inspector Kartar Singh filed a report confirming that on December 8, 1947, Golwalkar addressed 2,500 RSS volunteers at the organisation’s Rohtak Road camp. After a drill, he explained to the volunteers the principles of the RSS and told them to prepare for “guerrilla warfare on the lines of the tactics of Shivaji”.

Golwalkar said the Sangh would “not rest content until it had finished Pakistan”. “If anyone stood in our way we will have to finish them too, whether it is Nehru government or any other government,” he declared, according to the CID report. “The Sangh could not be won over. They should carry on their work.”

It was at Rohtak Road that Golwalkar also belied his avowal to Gandhi that the RSS was not antagonistic to Islam. Inspector Singh reported Golwalkar saying about Muslims, “No power on earth could keep them in Hindustan. They shall have to quit the country.”

Then came his attack on Gandhi. “Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress may profit by their votes at the time of election,” Golwalkar is quoted as saying the report. “But, by that time, not a single Muslim will be left in India. If they were made to stay here, the responsibility would be the Government’s, and the Hindu community would not be responsible.”

Golwalkar was clearly hinting at violence that was to spare no one, not even Gandhi. According to the report, he said “Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead [the RSS] any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too.”

A little less than two months later, Gandhi was assassinated.

Given the RSS’ track record, Simeon’s note of caution is pertinent. “Genuine conversation is impossible in an atmosphere of deceit,” he said. “By all means, let us have a serious debate about Indian politics – on communalism of all hues including Muslim communalism; and about violence from every quarter, including Maoist violence. But for such a debate we need honest speech. Is the Sangh ready for it?”

This is the last of a three-part series on the RSS. Read the first part here and the second part here.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist who lives in Delhi.