Hindu nationalists like to cast themselves as patriots that put the country first. Their history of non-participation during the independence movement suggests that they were anything but patriots in India’s battle for freedom.
As India ushers in 73 years of independence from British colonial rule, it finds itself in the grip of a virulent politics that resembles the antithesis of its founding principles.
Enthralled by the divisive potency of Hindu nationalism, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its figurehead Narendra Modi as premier, have unleashed a toxic strain of majoritarian bigotry upon Indian society since coming to power in 2014.
While the BJP functions as a political party, it is the right-wing front of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a semi-secretive organisation that propounds the ideology of Hindutva, which aims to transform Indian society in all domains of religion, culture and civilisation into a ‘Hindu rashtra,’ or Hindu nation that marginalises non-Hindus within its body politic.
Violence against those who dissent against that project are deemed patriotic; voices that deviate from Hindutva’s narrow vision of India are branded ‘anti national’ to silence any dissonance toward their hegemonic political endeavour. Coordinated attacks have become increasingly commonplace on journalists, artists, and activists across the country.
Yet during India’s anti-colonial struggle, many of Hindutva’s chief ideologues were openly anti-national, doing all they could to stifle and subvert the freedom movement at every phase.
“They played no role,” Akshaya Mukul, author of Geeta Press and Making of Hindu India, told TRT World. “At all flashpoints of history its [RSS] leaders as well as other Hindu nationalist organisations looked the other way. Their non-participation in the national movement and communal agenda helped the British government.”
Given this historical context, the fixation on a binary that neatly posits patriotic ‘nationalists’ in contrast to seditious ‘anti-nationals’ gnaws at something deeper.
“The acceptance of the label nationalist which the Sangh conveniently ascribes to themselves, is wielded as an attempt to absolve guilt from the burden of historical shame they bear for having betrayed India’s struggle for independence,” Ajaz Rahman, a postdoctoral researcher specialising in South Asian history at Sheffield University, told TRT World.
On March 18, 1999, then BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee issued a postage stamp commemorating K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, as a freedom fighter.
This move, the historian Shamsul Islam wrote, was an attempt “to pass off a pre-independence political trend represented by the RSS as a legacy of the anti-colonial struggle whereas in reality the RSS was never part of the anti-imperialist struggle.”
And long before the Muslim advocacy for the two-nation theory that laid the basis for the formation of Pakistan, Hindu nationalists openly propagated the idea to thwart the chances of the freedom struggle attaining an undivided nation.
Whereas Gandhi preached nonviolence in agitating for independence, the RSS emphasised military discipline and Hindu scripture. Hedgewar was critical of the diversity and political hierarchy of India’s main independence movement, the Indian National Congress.
Hedgewar founded the RSS in 1925 after being inspired by writings of V.D. Savarkar, whose book Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? was published two years earlier and would eventually become the foundational text of the Hindu right. Hedgewar, and M.S. Golwalker in particular, borrowed and reframed much of Savarkar’s ideas for the organisation.
Broadly speaking, the RSS arose as part of a wider proliferation of organisations during the interwar years, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as part of an international far-right response to the Russian Revolution and global upsurge in workers’ movements and communist parties.
“Like the Brotherhood, the RSS subscribed to a religious-based majoritarianism and cultural revivalism. Both found the Nazi conception of nationalism appealing in terms of race and religion as opposed to the universal idea of citizenship,” said Rahman.
The RSS was particularly inspired by European fascism, to the extent that Savarkar noted how the Nazi “solution” for the Jews could be similarly applied to Indian Muslims.
Dr. Benjamin Zachariah, a research fellow at Trier University, called the RSS “a fascist paramilitary whose purpose was to intimidate minorities, mostly Muslims,” in their attempt “to establish a ‘Hindu’ state in India.”
“The founders of the RSS were heavily influenced by the Italian fascists. Today, the RSS and the BJP stand in the same relation to one another as the Hitler Youth and the Nazi Party. They’d have to rewrite a lot of history and to destroy a lot of documents to change that,” Zachariah told TRT World.
The RSS did not have a monopoly on what could be termed ‘Hindu nationalism’ in contrast to the ‘secular nationalism’ of Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru. Founded more than a decade before the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha remained the largest such organisation well into the 1950s before it got disbanded.
For Zachariah, the distinction between the sacred and the profane are not so neat and ultimately not very useful in diagnosing the Hindu right at a deeper level.
“The RSS is in fact a secular movement, in the sense of not being even slightly interested in religious or spiritual matters, of which they know absolutely nothing. [Savarkar] wrote in his manifesto that Hindutva was a political movement, not a religious one, and was not therefore Hinduism.”
Zachariah highlights how the RSS’s majoritarian vision was based on “blood and soil – whoever was born in the landmass that was India, and regarded that as their fatherland and sacred soil, was a Hindu. Everyone else was an outsider and should be expelled or destroyed.”
The challenge to the Hindu far-right’s vision of a post-colonial Hindu state was the inclusive character of the independence movement, which drew upon liberal notions of citizenship and discourses of nationhood not exclusively premised on race or religion.
They understood the moral high ground of elite anti-colonial politics had been claimed by advocates of a unified Indian nation on multi-ethnic and multi-religious grounds, with lofty ideals of universalism espoused by esteemed thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore held in high regard.
That is not to say that religion was insignificant. Indian colonial society was one structurally grounded upon the axes of caste and religion, and when an era of mass politics and the freedom struggle began, Indian liberals and leftists alike were reluctant to confront these realities head on.
The Gandhian approach, while not fundamentally challenging that social order, mobilised mass agrarian agitation across caste and religious lines in what became the largest political movement in history – an achievement not demographically possible if the independence leadership did not, at least nominally, adhere to a secularised nationalism.
Hindu nationalists were hostile to the strategy. Savarkar criticised Gandhi’s idea of the nation as one that was territorially bound; his instead was an all-encompassing cultural nationalism for the “Hindu Race”.
A former freedom fighter turned collaborator, Savarkar represents the starkest trajectory among Hindu nationalists during the anti-colonial struggle.
After being jailed in 1911, in one of his many petitions addressed to the British he assured the colonial authorities of his conscientious conversion. “If the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me,” he wrote, “I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of…loyalty to the English government”. In future mercy petitions, he even exalted the empire.
Far from being a tactical ploy used to escape prison to continue the fight for freedom, Savarkar stood by his promise to the colonial government following his release in 1924.
His writing was filled with animus against Muslims, whose loyalty to the nation was rendered questionable by virtue of them being “divided between the land of their birth and the land of their Prophets”.
This communal attitude did not go unnoticed by the colonial government.
In spite of a blanket ban imposed at the time on political participation, “the British rulers naturally overlooked these political activities as the future of colonial rule in India rested on the communal divide and Savarkar was leaving no stone unturned in aggravating the Hindu-Muslim divide.”
When Gandhi led the Salt March in 1930, Hedgewar’s declared that the Sangh would not participate and actively discouraged cadres to do so.
Hedgewar himself went to prison, but not with the motives of a freedom fighter; rather, according to his RSS-published biography, with “the confidence that with a freedom-loving, self-sacrificing and reputed group of people inside with him there, we would discuss the Sangh with them and win them over for its work”.
In 1942 Gandhi launched Quit India, a nation-wide civil disobedience movement, to which the British swiftly responded with over 100,000 arrests, including Gandhi. Prior to that, a note from the colonial government revealed that RSS leaders met the secretary of the home department and “promised the secretary to encourage members of the Sangh to join the civic guards in greater numbers”.
In response to Quit India, Savarkar instructed Hindu Sabhaites who were “members of municipalities, local bodies, legislatures or those serving in the army…to stick to their posts,” across the country. Savarkar had also been involved in organising recruitment camps for the British army.
As the RSS’s successor to Hedgewar, Golwalkar went as far as to argue the need for Indians to respect draconian British laws in the midst of social upheaval. He even acknowledged the frustration of the organisation’s cadres toward leadership who were holding them back from participating in the movement.
Even British intelligence agencies noted the collusion. One such memo stated, “the Sangh has scrupulously kept itself within the law, and in particular, has refrained from taking part in the disturbances that broke out in August 1942.”
One of the distinctive components of Hindu nationalist ideology is that in reserving retribution for the perceived injustices wrought upon Hindus by medieval Islamic rule, it elevates British colonialism as a liberating force from the clutches of Muslim tyranny.
This dispensation likely accounts for the ambivalence of RSS towards British colonialism – for when suffering under ‘foreign rule’ is invoked by Hindu nationalists, it's almost always in reference to Muslims, not the British.
While they cooperated with the British, what might come as a surprise is the collaboration of the Hindu Mahasabha with the Muslim League – two bodies committed to communal separatism – running coalition governments in Sindh and Bengal by 1942.
The ‘two-nation theory’, which purports that the differences between Hindu and Muslims of the subcontinent are irreconcilable and thus necessitated separate nations, is often associated with the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan.
By advocating for a separate homeland for India’s Muslims, “the Muslim League served as a convenient bedfellow for the Hindutva project. After all, they too rejected the idea that Hindus and Muslims together constituted a nation. Both parties scantily contributed to the struggle for independence on the ground either,” Rahman stated.
However, what is less examined is that various Hindu nationalists had long been articulating the concept of partition on religious grounds before the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution of March 1940.
One of the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha Lajpat Rai wrote in 1924 that Muslims should be given four states: NWFP, Western Punjab, Sindh and Eastern Bengal. Apart from his own writings expounding upon it, Savarkar in a sessional address to the Mahasabha in 1937 said that Hindus and Muslims constitute “two antagonistic nations” that could no longer be ignored nor suppressed.
B.R. Ambedkar, Dalit lawyer and chief architect of the Indian constitution, noted the underlying affinity between the Mahasabha and the League on the topic of the two-nation theory. “Strange as it may appear, Mr. Savarkar and Mr. Jinnah instead of being opposed to each other on the one nation versus two nations issue are in complete agreement about it,” he wrote.
“Once it was clear that Pakistan would be carved out, Hindu nationalists raised the pitch for Indian to become a Hindu Rashtra,” said Mukul, pointing to the role of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha in the mid-1940s.
When India was eventually partitioned in 1947, Savarkar promptly blamed Gandhi for allowing Pakistan to break away from India.
On the eve of India’s independence the RSS opposed the tricolour flag, declaring that it would “never be respected and owned by the Hindus”. A few months later, Gandhi was assassinated by an RSS member. The organisation was banned multiple times post-independence and festered on the political margins for decades before emerging in the 1980s with the formation of the BJP.
Despite this uncomfortable historical record, Modi declared Savarkar to be “the true son of Mother India and inspiration for many people” and commemorated Savarkar on his birth anniversary in 2015 by remembering “his indomitable spirit and valuable contribution to India’s history”.
In an effort to assuage themselves from guilt during a period marked by their betrayal of the national liberation movement, proponents of Hindutva are now left with having to post-hoc redefine nationalism in their favour.
“Hindu nationalists [blame] Nehru and Congress for obliterating the contribution made by others. They have come up with a new version of nationalism which is binary: either you are with them or you are anti-national,” said Mukul.
With those historical contradictions laid bare, Rahman appropriately asks: “How could the RSS be considered part of the movement for Indian nationalism when it stands for Hindu nationalism?”