The Early History of the RSS: A Reading List

Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to attend an RSS event in Nagpur has been widely debated. Many saw the visit as granting the RSS legitimacy, and helping it to mainstream itself. [Read EPW's editorial on the topic here]

We compiled a reading list to trace RSS’ genesis and trajectory over the years, and its subtle crafting of its own narrative. 




1) In this article written in 1972, the first of a four-part historical narrative of the origins and growth of the RSS, the author deals with the disenchantment of many Congressmen with Gandhi's Non-Co-operation Movement and with efforts at Hindu-Muslim togetherness. One of these disaffected Congressmen, Hedgewar, whose early years are recounted in detail, goes on —inspired by Savarkar — to found the RSS in 1925.

The emphasis in the early years of the RSS is on initiating unity, discipline and culture-consciousness among Hindus. By the late 1930s the RSS is an organised and trained group with its own para-military organisation. This attracts the attention of the Government of India which begins to keep a close watch on it In order to prepare for the post-War period and the expected Hindu-Muslim troubles, the RSS decides at the beginning of the Second World War not to antagonise the Government in any way. Part of the strategy is to avoid scrupulously any political activity or any help to the Hindu Mahasabha. This decision proves to be controversial within the ranks of the RSS. The general approach of Golwalkar, Hedgewar's successor, is extreme caution in order to avoid the wrath of the British. The RSS does not take part in the 'Quit India' movement in 1942. 

Read the entire article here.


2) The second section deals mainly with the relationship between the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. Upto 1937 the Hindu Mahasabha was a loosely organised group collected around prominent individuals. The two major issues dividing the reformers (in the Hindu Mahasabha), led by Lajpat Rai and Sharaddhanand, from the Sanatanists (the orthodox ones), led by Parmanand, Munje and Kelkar, were the elimination of caste restrictions and political participation.

In 1937 Savarkar was elected President of the Mahasabha and settled these differences by resolving to build it into a political organisation representing the Hindus. By turning the Hindu Mahasabha into a political organisation, Savarkar ensured that whatever support the RSS had rendered to the Mahasabha would cease. Many RSS members were active in the Congress. And the RSS did not want to be associated with a group which would have placed it in direct opposition to the Congress. During World War II, the Mahasabha sought to enroll Hindus in the army and to negotiate with the British to get itself represented on various government councils. This policy was to fail The British at the Simla Conference in June, 1945 treated the Congress as the representative of caste Hindus and the Muslim League as the representative of the Muslims. The weakness of the Hindu Mahasabha was the more apparent because — unlike the RSS — it lacked any youth, peasant or para-military foundations. It tried to make up for this lack by appealing to the RSS, but in vain. It could not become a mass organisation because so many of its supporters were big landlords who were unwilling to allow any hint of mass mobilisation. Meanwhile, the RSS — due to its unstinted help to Hindu refugees during and after partition — had increased its influence throughout northern India.

Read the entire article here.


3) Part three covers Gandhi's assassination and the subsequent banning of the RSS. Following Gandhi's assassination Golwalkar was arrested and the RSS was banned. Throughout the period of the ban (and after as well), the government assumed that the RSS was a political body. However, the government's assessment of the RSS's political nature was wrong, at least at that time. The government often considered the RSS to be the volunteer arm of the Hindu Mahasabha.

But what connections the RSS had with the HM were extremely tenuous and these connections had virtually ceased in 1940. Upto the time of the ban, many swayamsevaks were members of the Congress. Hedgewar had refused to allow the RSS, as an organisation, to champion the cause of any political party. Until the ban on the RSS in 1948, Golwalkar gave the same advice. Members might participate in politics, but not as representatives of the RSS. The pracharaks (the full-time cadres) were, and still are, explicitly forbidden from being members of any political party. The ban shocked the swayamsevaks. Many felt that the RSS had to transform itself into a political party if the movement were to survive. Sardar Patel, then Home Minister, himself feared that it might do this. He sought to prevent this and to bring the RSS cadres into the Congress. For a time, it looked as if he might succeed. In October 1948 the Congress Working Committee ruled that RSS members were permitted to join the Congress. The Working Congress decision immediately set off a controversy within the Congress, with the supporters of Patel favouring the decision and the followers of Nehru opposing it. Eventually, Nehru persuaded the Congress Working Committee to deny membership to RSS men by stipulating that they could join, but only if they gave up their RSS membership. These developments prepared the ground for those elements in the RSS who proposed more direct political involvement receiving a hearing within the Sangh that would not have been possible earlier. 

Read the entire article here.


4) The fourth, and concluding, instalment of this study of the RSS examines the genesis of the Jan Sangh and the role played by the RSS in its formation. There is much evidence which suggests that the RSS leaders expected to influence politics in a Congress Party dominated by Vallabhbhai Patel. When the Congress Working Committee passed its resolution preventing RSS members from joining the Congress in late 1949 and when Patel acquiesced in this, the RSS did begin to look for some alternative way to influence politics.

Those elements in the RSS who proposed more direct political involvement received a hearing within the organisation that would not have been possible before 1948. This was the backdrop to the formation of the Jan Sangh and the RSS's role in it. To extend the RSS's influence, a large number of other institutions were formed to spread the RSS ideology among various types of groups (i e, students, labour, teachers, etc). Rather than 'infiltrate' existing institutions, the RSS helped form separate groups. Because RSS members were excluded from many interest groups and political parties in the post-independence period, this option was, in a sense, forced on the RSS.  

Read the entire article here

5) A more recent article looks at how the Emergency rendered the Jan Sangh and RSS respectable, paving the way for it to enter the mainstream of Indian politics. With the taint of the Gandhi assassination, the RSS was truly a political pariah. But after the Emergency, acquiring political power came within reach. This paper states that the importance of the Emergency in the growth of the RSS needs to be emphasised because it helps to periodise Hindutva’s active involvement in national politics, rather than seeing such involvement as a bolt from the blue.

Read the entire article here.


Read More:

RSS in Sindh: 1942-48 | Rita Kothari, 2006

Hindutva's Entry into a 'Hindu Province': Early Years of RSS in Orissa | Pralay Kanungo, 2003

How the Ban on the RSS Was Lifted | Rakesh Ankit, 2012

Paradigm Shifts by the RSS? Lessons from Aseemanand's Confession | Christophe Jaffrelot and Malvika Maheshwari, 2011

Memories, Saffronising Statues and Constructing Communal Politics | Badri Narayanan, 2006




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