The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is India’s far right nationalist group. The RSS was founded by ex-congressman Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in 1925, after the impact of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation movement (Andersen 589). The RSS was founded with two major themes involved; to unite Hindus after the initial separation from British rule, and to rally Hindus against invading religious beliefs such as Islam (Andersen 589). The RSS drew most of its beliefs from the Maharashtrian tradition, which combined gymnastic and military traditions. Many of RSS members were a once part of the Maharashtrian tradition, where leading ideologies of the RSS originally emerged (Andersen 589). Savarkar, a nationalist Hindu scholar, had a large impact on the RSS beliefs.
Savarkar’s thesis argued that any Hindu person in the subcontinent is considered a unified nation, (Andersen 592). Savarkar, along with many other Hindu nationalists, disagreed that the Aryans were not the only ones to invade the subcontinent; instead, Savarkar believed that Aryans were originally from the Sindh valley, and their ideologies spread throughout India over time (Andersen 592). Savarkar argued that the sufferings endured from foreign invasions over the years created a more cohesive nation (Andersen 592). This view was widely accepted by Hedgewar, and many other Hindu nationalists. By March 1925, The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang was created by Hedgewar alongside Savarkar in Nagpur.
The RSS’ activities were very limited during this time. On Sunday mornings they would gather as a group; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, intellectual gatherings, later known as Baudhik, were held (Andersen 592). In April 1926, The RSS’s first activity was recorded. Hedgewar took the swayamsevaks, a grouping of RSS members, to the Shri Ramchandra festival, where they formed queues, and provided drinking water for the locals. The RSS also prevented Brahmins and Muslim beggars from taking money from the locals (Andersen 593). Initiation into the RSS was rigorous, acceptance into the organization showed absolute devotion to India and her people. Additional testing was done even after being accepted into the RSS, done by Hedgewar himself (Andersen 593). By 1928, the RSS began to spread out of Nagpur and into neighboring provinces (Andersen 593). The RSS had 18 shakhas (units) at their disposal at this time. On November 9, 1929, the leaders of the RSS decided that they should have one guide. Hedgewar was appointed to this position, along with two all-Sangh officials. In 1930, Hedgewar was arrested for breaking India’s forest laws and was sentenced to nine months in prison, where he spread the ideology of the RSS. By 1931, the RSS was composed of 60 shakhas (Andersen 594). The RSS was established in the Benaras Hindu University, greatly benefiting from the spread of RSS beliefs through students word of mouth (Andersen 594). On June 21, 1940, Hedgewar passed away after a long illness, and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar was named his successor (Andersen 594).
From 1940-1948 RSS membership grew extensively, with 500 branches and 60,000 members in the Sangh (Andersen 594). The RSS had two major concerns during the Second World War: the protection of Hindu culture and community in case Japan invaded, and to prepare for the post-war period hardships that would likely follow (Andersen 595). In an attempt to prevent dissolution of the organization, the Sangh cooperated with government policies. On August 5, 1940, the British Government banned para-military drill and uniform activities (Andersen 595). The RSS complied, and was later recognized for this in an analysis done by British government officials. The compliance the RSS showed allowed them continuance to operate as an activist group (Andersen 595).
After Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Golwalkar was thrown in jail and the RSS was banned from operating due to suspicion that the RSS were acting in crimes of arson, robbery, and murder (Andersen 674). The government wrongfully assumed that the RSS was a political body, and in retaliation the RSS believed the only way to survive was to become a political party. The Sangh ran on a Hindu monastery model, making it difficult for them to become part of congress. The RSS became democratic in order to better their chances of joining congress, although it was still not used within the Sangh (Andersen 677). Many members within the RSS were acting members of congress. However, they were representing parties separate from the Sangh. (Andersen 677). Hedgewar originally created the RSS with the strict idea of leaving it as an organization; Golwalker continued this idea further with no intention of changing the policy. It was forbidden to have the pracharaks (cadres) to participate in congress at all (Andersen 678). But to much of the RSS’s beliefs, they were allowed entry into Congress on October 7, 1949. However, this lasted only a short while. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister at the time, allowed RSS men to join congress only if they gave up RSS membership (Andersen 678). Still unsure of what to do, the RSS instead became a part of many other organizations to spread their ideology.
The RSS launched their first organization, the Akhil Bharatyia Vidyarthi Parishad, an organization of students (Andersen 725). This group has grown into the one of the largest student organisations in India. The ideologies of the RSS drew the attention of middle to lower class students, who now compose the majority of the organization (Andersen 726). The organisation was most influential in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh, all of which had great RSS strength. Another project was to establish a newspaper for the RSS. The newspaper was not very successful, with many news agencies refusing to publish the RSS stories (Andersen 726). Desperate to get their foot in the political doorstep, the RSS began to support the nationalist political group called the Jan Sangh, created by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on April 5, 1980.
Mookerjee held many of the same values as the Sangh, with a desire to unite all Hindu castes and bring the lower castes into the light (Andersen 679). The RSS acted as a mentor for the BJP, guiding their views to be more aligned with the Sangh. (R. Sarkar & A. Sarkar 333). The BJP was created with the viewpoint of creating a unified, politicized Hinduism (Odgen 304). The BJP had a great distrust in outsiders, and believed that any outsider would have to pledge allegiance to Bharat, the Indian subcontinent (Odgen 307). The Jan Sangh’s first and major concern was to protect the country and her culture from the invasion of Muslim ideologies, going as far to associate Pakistani Muslims with terrorism within India (Odgen 307). The BJP were determined to get back Pakistani occupied land, and believed that restoring and strengthening India’s nationalism through militaristic means were necessary (Odgen 307). These beliefs became the norm for the BJP party by 1998. Aggression towards Pakistan increased tremendously in May 1998, when the BJP came into power and began nuclear testing.
The BJP and RSS still play a role in politics today. Many BJP high-ranking officials were once part of the RSS, including India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, and BJP president Amit Shah (R. Sarkar and A. Sarkar 333). They still hold the same beliefs today, with many BJP decisions having close ties with the Sangh agenda. Recently, the RSS core goal has been the protection of cows in India, a sacred animal to the Hindu religion (R. Sarkar and A. Sarkar 334). In order to protect Hindu values and to strengthen culture, the BJP banned the sale of beef products in India. 22 of the 29 States in India already have imposed a ban on the slaughter of cows, all with varying degrees of punishment (R. Sarkar and A. Sarkar 331). It is a punishable offence in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh to consume beef products, with jail time of up to 10 years in Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Haryana, and Rajasthan. With the new BJP law in effect, it is a punishable offence to sell, consume, or be in possession of beef all throughout India.
The RSS is also trying to make change to the national curriculum (Overland 2001). Longtime RSS member Murli Manohar Joshi was India’s Minister of Education. He seeked to change the education system to become more Hindu orientated, with the slogan to “nationalize, Indianize, and spiritualize” India’s educational system (Overland 2001). Joshi’s education draft required children to learn Sanskrit, along with Hindi as well. His draft also touched on history books, making it mandatory to learn about Hedgewar and his beliefs (Overland 2001). The Human Resource Ministry introduced value education, designed to teach Hindu traditions, such as spiritual principles and practices (Overland 2001). Many textbook have had changes made already, with RSS teachings as the predominant subject (Overland 2001).
The RSS has shown their ability to shape Hindu culture very well throughout their history. With the BJP in power, the RSS demonstrates that they have the ability to push their agenda via voting power. Their dedication to Hinduism is still shown today, through education reforms, policy changes, and international relations, specifically with Pakistan. The Swayamsevaks and the BJP will continue to transform India into a nationalized, unified Hindu society.
Andersen, Walter (1972) “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: I: Early Concerns.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 7 No. 11: 589 591-597.
Andersen, Walter (1972) “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: III: Participation in Politics”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.7 No. 13: 673 675 677-682.
Andersen, Walter (1972) “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: IV; Jan Sangh and Other Organisations.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 7 No. 14: 724-727.
Odgen, Chris (2010) “Norms, Indian Foreign Policy and the 1998-2004 National Democratic Alliance.” Round Table (London), Vol. 99 No. 408: 303-315.
Overland, Martha Ann (2001) “A Right-Wing Hindu Group Exerts Its Muscle in India Academe.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sarkar, Amar and Radha Sarkar (2016) “Sacred Slaughter: An Analysis of Historical, Communal, and Constitutional Aspects of Beef Bans in India.” Politics, Religion & Ideology, Vol. 17 No. 4: 329-351.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
India in WWII
Education System in India
Pakistan and India Relations
Indian National Congress
Early Life of Keshav Baliram Hedgwar
RSS Headquarters in Nagpur
Article written by: Alex Moumdjian (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.