“Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India,” wrote former President Pranab Mukherjee in the visitor’s book at the birthplace of Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on Thursday.

While Mukherjee’s speech after days of controversy over his decision to accept an invitation to be the guest of honour at the annual graduation event for RSS workers has been greeted with prolific commentary, not much is widely known about Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the man he called “a great son of Mother India”.

When talking about the RSS, the focus generally is on Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak or supreme leader of the organisation, whose views on the Muslims have often been put under the scanner, more recently in a three-part series on this website.

But Golwalkar took over as the head of the organisation only after Hedgewar’s death in 1940. Hedgewar, the man who founded the organisation in 1925, was much influenced by the views of another much-talked-about figure, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Savarkar was the first to spell out his idea of Hindutva in 1923, when he declared that only those who thought of India as the Holy Land as well as the fatherland could be true patriots, thus ruling out the Muslims, suggesting that their patriotism should always be suspect.

Balakrishna Shivram Moonje, a Congressman who later played a leading role in the Hindu Mahasabha, was responsible for sending Hedgewar to study medicine in Calcutta in 1910. He had an important part in Hedgewar’s decision to join both the Congress and the Mahasabha.

This was also the time when some of the Muslim leaders in India were putting pressure on the British government to preserve the authority of the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph of Islam following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The period also saw the rise of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Congress party, who supported the Muslim demand and launched his non-cooperation movement with Khilafat, as it had come to be called, as its major plank. This was deeply resented by Hedgewar, as many others in the Congress also questioned loyalty to religion over motherland.

Around the same time, in the words of Oxford historian Tapan Raychaudhuri, northern India saw “extensive communal riots on a scale without precedent”. It was in their wake, in 1925, that Hedgewar “established the RSS in direct response to the new quest for disciplined cadres of Hindu communalism”.

The founder’s analysis of the political situation that necessitated the new organisation is illuminating, wrote Raychaudhari, quoting a part from what Hedgewar wrote himself, as cited in his biography by CP Bhishikar, titled Keshav Sanghnirmata:

“As a result of the Non-Cooperation Movement of Mahatma Gandhi the enthusiasm [for nationalism] in the country was cooling down and all evils in social life which that movement generated were menacingly raising their head. As the tide of national struggle came to ebb mutual ill-will and jealousies came on the surface. Personal quarrels raged all round. Conflicts between various communities had started. Brahmin-non-Brahmin conflict was nakedly on view. No organisation was integrated or united. The yavan-snakes reared on the milk of Non-Cooperation were provoking riots in the nation with their poisonous hissing.”

— CP Bhishikar, Keshav Sanghnirmata. English translation taken from the chapter 'A Sketch of RSS History' in 'Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags' by Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Sambuddha Sen, Tracts for the Times, Orient Longman

As Raychoudhury was to note, quoting Hedgewar, the riots were Muslim riots because in every single case “it is they who start them”. Thus “it became evident that Hindutva was Rashtriyatva”, that is, Hinduness was the same as nationalism.

Bhishikar’s biography goes on to provide the following account of the origins of the RSS, quoting from one of its own publications.

“A change was coming over the country. The aftermath of the 1921 movement had come to Doctorji [Hedgewar] as a shock. Indian Muslims had proved themselves Muslims first and Indians only secondarily so that when the Khilafat was given up in Turkey, they withdrew from the allied movement for national independence. 

The whole atmosphere was charged with Muslim fanaticism. ‘Allah ho akbar’ and not ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ was heard everywhere. Soon there were Muslim riots in Bannu, Kohat, Multan, Nagpur, Kanpur and elsewhere. 

‘These are not Hindu-Muslim riots,’ he would say.  ‘These are Muslim riots because in every single case it is they who start them and go on the offensive.’ 

These riots culminated in the Moplah atrocity, completed with arson, loot, murder, rape and forced conversion. The nation was dazed. And Doctorji wondered: ‘Is it Khilafat (restoration of Khalif) or Akhilafat (catastrophe for all)?...’ 

It became evident that the Hindus were the nation in Bharat and that Hindutva was Rashtriyatva. While wishful thinkers pretended not to see the writing across the national political firmament, the realist in Dr Hedgewar refused to dream up wishy-washy dreams. The truth was out. Only Hindus would free Hindustan and they alone could save Hindu culture. Only Hindu strength could save the country. There was no escape from the logic of facts. Hindu youth had to be organised on the basis of personal character and absolute love of the motherland. There was no other way. 

The agony of the great soul expressed itself in the formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. With five friends he started the day-to-clay programme of RSS. The great day was the auspicious Vijaya Dashami day of 1925.”

— CP Bhishikar, Keshav Sanghnirmata. English translation taken from the chapter 'A Sketch of RSS History' in 'Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags' by Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Sambuddha Sen, Tracts for the Times, Orient Longman

Writing in Khakhi Shorts, Saffron Flags, historians Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar and Sambuddha Sarkar deconstruct these two quotes from Bhishikar’s biography of Hedgewar.

“The accounts are revealing in a number of different ways. The Non-Cooperation upsurge, highest point in anti-British unity in the entire history of modern Indian nationalism, is unequivocally condemned. The ‘yavan snakes’, it seems, are at their most dangerous when they are fighting foreign rule side by side with the Hindus, when they cease behaving in the expected ‘anti-national’ manner. Hindu-Muslim fraternity is dangerous because the ideal, evidently is not a united, free India but a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ – only Hindus could constitute ‘the nation in Bharat’. This is hard-headed ‘realism’ – a style of argument much favoured throughout by Hindu communalists. Yet the stereotype of the Muslim as anti-national has to be preserved, and so history must be doctored. Khilafatists are blamed for withdrawing from the ‘allied movement’, though it was Gandhi and the Congress leadership which had unilaterally called off that movement in 1922. The catalogue of riots is similarly twisted, to present the Moplah rebellion– actually far more of a peasant rising against landlords than a straightforward communal disturbance– as a culmination (it had in reality preceded the other riots that had been listed by several years. And Hedgewar’s account clearly reveals the centrality for him of the Brahmin-non-Brahmin conflict. Organised Hindutva emerges right from the beginning as an upper caste reaction to efforts at self-assertion by downtrodden groups within the Hindu fold.”

— 'A Sketch of RSS History' in 'Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags' by Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Sambuddha Sen, Tracts for the Times, Orient Longman

For more on Hedgewar, there is additional material by Tapan Raychaudhuri, writing in Hindu Nationalism or Proto-Fascism: the Nature of Hindu Communal Politics in India:

“The animosity to the national movement and its vision of unity transcending ethnic boundaries, so prominent in Hedgewar’s statements, was intensified when the All India Congress Committee announced in 1931 that free India would be a secular democratic republic. The RSS was virtually absent from the mass movements of the 1920s and ’30s. These movements for the achievement of national independence under Gandhi’s leadership were unacceptable, because they were unlikely to lead to the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, their central objective. As already noted, Hedgewar unequivocally condemned the Non-co-operation-Khilafat movement because it had encouraged ‘the yavana-snake’. The enemy of the nation, as perceived by the RSS, was not colonial rule, but the Muslims of India. Absent from the Quit India movement, the RSS cadres were very prominent in the riots of 1946-47.”

— Tapan Raychaudhuri, ‘Hindu Nationalism or Proto-Fascism: the Nature of Hindu Communal Politics in India’

It is difficult to imagine that Pranab Mukherjee was not aware of this history when he signed the guest book at the Hedgewar memorial.