Considering how insulated we were from global influences, impact of the First War on India was far greater than one would have expected.
By the time the dust settled not only had we lost over a hundred thousand soldiers and greatly diminished our economy but also gone through some tectonic social changes that would affect us forever.
To understand what was happening lets go back to the turn-of-the-century.
The country had started getting restless. Bengal already had a strong radical tradition influenced by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Anand Math, Anushilan Samiti, Jugantar and others . The partition of Bengal in 1906 had strengthened it further. And the unrest had spilled over to the west and the north and even the somnolent Congress had split vertically with Tilak, Lajpat Rai and Aurobindo Ghosh creating the so-called garam dal within the party.
Firebrand Bal Gangadhar Tilak was exiled to Burma for six years in 1908. On his return in 1914, though he offered support for the British war effort, he also demanded Swaraj or Home Rule. The very next year Gandhi relocated from South Africa.
Initially he was low-key, participating in only a few localised protests. But when the British desperately needed help in the war in 1917-18, Gandhi went way beyond Tilak’s offer of support. He actually travelled across the country with the British enlisting recruits for the war. This may or may not have been an attempt to upstage Tilak but that the two shared a testing relationship is a fact. Both were devout Hindus but that was where the similarity ended. Tilak was a radical nationalist keen to go the extra mile even if it meant violence and Gandhi was a votary of non violence and reconciliation.
Tilak’s death in 1920 put a lid on any public airing of their differences but their correspondence reveals a philosophic conflict which was to become a major social fault-line in Indian politics in the future.
Around this time, the Ottoman empire which had once stretched from central Europe to the Gulf and Russia to Africa was on its decline. Towards the end of the war when dismemberment of Turkey was imminent, there was sympathy for the Caliph among Indian Muslims. This led to the birth of the Khilafat Movement to pressure Britain to treat the Caliph honorably.
Though it had been started by a group of Muslims, Gandhi decided to include Khilafat as part of the Congress’s non-cooperation movement of 1919. Mixing an entirely unrelated event in a distant land with the Indian freedom movement no sense at all and opposition to it was immediate and stiff. The Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha were up in arms. So were most Hindus and many Muslims including his colleague Jinnah. It had been an expedient political decision taken unilaterally by Gandhi only to outflank the Muslim League and make Congress the first choice of the Muslims. Today it would be called appeasement. But soon he realised his mistake and looked for a face-saver to withdraw the agitation. That came in the shape of the Chauri Chaura incident in which many policemen were killed by a rioting mob.
By first including Khilafat in his non cooperation movement and then withdrawing it, Gandhi made enemies on both sides. Hindus felt that they had been taken for granted and Muslims felt let down when he called the agitation off. To add insult to injury, within a year of Gandhi’s unilateral decision to support Khilafat, the Caliph was deposed by the Turks themselves.
But this was just the beginning; more trauma was to follow. The chasm between the two communities would only deepen.
Racked under the burden of heavy taxation and greedy Hindu landlords, the Muslim Mopallah community of the Malabar region of Kerala had long felt oppressed and exploited. The Khilafat Movement gave them a cause to unite and fight for. Initially their target were the British but the protest soon degenerated into a full-scale war against the Hindus of the area. A crude version of Islamic law was imposed and atrocities meted out mercilessly to the Hindu population. Casualties and forced conversions were said to be in thousands not hundreds.
After the Mopallah uprising communal rioting became the norm rather than the exception. Typically happening around festivals and religious processions and sometimes for reasons more trivial. Interestingly even then cow slaughter was a bone of contention. Year after year, from Bengal to Bombay to Lahore to Delhi, hundreds would be killed on either side in a surreal dance of death and destruction.
Our official history downplays this but the big story of the twenties and thirties was not so much the freedom struggle as the deepening divide between the Hindus and Muslims. And neither the Government, nor the Congress nor the Hindu Mahasabha nor the Muslim League had any solution to offer.
As someone born in 1889, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, whose efforts would go on to create an alternative narrative for India a century later, had lived through all of this.
After his matriculation from Nagpur, he headed for Calcutta as much to pursue medicine as to dabble with ‘nationalist’ organisations like the Anushilan Samiti which believed in the ideal of ‘cultural, political and economic independence’ achieved with ‘muscles of iron and nerves of steel’.
This was the Calcutta of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Anandmath and Vande Mataram, Aurobindo and Barin Ghosh, Hemchandra Quanungo, Praful Chaki and others. At the Anushilan Samiti, he connected with Prasad Bismil and Sarvakar, fine-tuned his Hindu orientation, imbibe a shriller, more radical brand of nationalism and reinforce his instinctive commitment to physical and mental toughness which he believed should be the cornerstones of a good Hindu. Though the RSS, keen to associate him with Nagpur more than any other city plays down his Calcutta influences, the fact is that his core philosophy was nurtured in that city.
Once back in Nagpur after his medicine, for a while he toyed with the idea of fomenting a violent uprising and set up Krantidal which by today’s definitions was a simple terrorist organization. He recruited a force of 150 volunteers and trained them for an uprising planned for 1918. Unfortunately the ship carrying the weaponry was intercepted by the British. After this failure, Krantidal lay abandoned and he joined the Congress, the only option for a young man wanting to be in public life. But his differences with Gandhi and the Congress on the Hindu-Muslim dynamic were very basic. Within two years of joining including the one spent in jail on charges of sedition, he left the Congress.
Out of the Congress, he was able to crystallise his own thinking and vision. This shifted his focus from the British to the need for a Hindu renaissance. "Even if the British leave, unless the Hindus are a powerful nation, where is the guarantee that we shall be able to protect our freedom?” he had once asked. Creating such a powerful nation now become the raison d’etre of his existence.
His frustration was two-fold. He felt Hindus lacked the physical and emotional strength necessary to fight back and that in any case, the religion was too fluid and random for them to unite and fight as one. In fact he had once complained that uniting Hindus was like weighing a bowl filled with frogs; one or the other would keep jumping out.
But that was not all. After the Khilafat experience in which he felt Muslims had shown their loyalty to someone beyond the boundaries of India, he had decided that Muslims could not be depended upon in the fight for India’s freedom. "If the yoke of British slavery has to be overthrown, we have to mainly trust the Hindus. We have to awaken patriotism, discipline and bravery. Then only will the Muslims shed their separatist tendencies and stand shoulder to shoulder with the Hindus in the nationalist movement.”
The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh was formed by Hedgewar in Nagpur on the Vijaydashmi day in 1925. With the objective of forging ‘the scattered Hindu society into an organised and invincible force both on the adhyatmik and material plane’.
Using ‘Rashtriya’ as a kind of surrogate for Hindu was an incredibly smart move. In one swoop the ownership of nationalism became a private Sangh affair.
He chose the extraordinarily simple format of a shakha to be held in a park or any public space where those interested would gather for a couple of hours every morning or evening. The routine included exercise and yoga, playing games, undergoing martial training, reciting shlokas and shouting and singing nationalist slogans and songs. Occasionally there would be discussions or discourses on spirituality (read Hinduism) or nationalism related subjects. And this diverse mélange of activity would be bound by activities like saluting the Bhagwa Dhwaj, taking the RSS pledge, singing Vande Mataram and other songs and the literature from the central office from time to time.
The Shakha concept was self-sustaining, easily replicated and therefore easy to grow. Expansion was fast, helped by the rising antagonism between the communities to which neither the government nor the Congress seemed to have any solution. He took care to exclude any direct political activity within the shakha. For one thing, with the setting up of the RSS his personal focus had shifted away from politics. Secondly he was aware that a confrontation with the Congress and Gandhi would not be easy to handle for the fledgling RSS and thirdly, anything remotely subversive could invite action by the government.
Whatever his objectives may have been have been, on the ground the RSS existed as the very anti-thesis of the Congress. If the Congress was a loose non-ideological construct of people coming together to fight the British, the RSS was a disciplined army with a clear ideological bias. If the Congress spoke of Hindu-Muslim amity, the RSS believed India was a Hindu nation in which the Muslims and Christians were welcome to stay. If the Congress preferred to paper over religious differences, the RSS believed only an understanding of the glorious Hindu past would create the pride that is necessary in building a nation.
In his mind Hedgewar saw the Congress as a continuation of the old British idea of an India that had been united and brought together by them and believed instead in the idea of a rich and and ancient cultural heritage that needed to be made relevant for contemporary times. In fact, when the Congress drafted a committee to decide on a flag for the country, he was against the idea of a tricolor and lobbied (all but managed) that the Bhagwa Dhwaj be chosen as it best represented India. Later in 1930 when the Congress gave a call for the Indian flag to be hoisted, the RSS office was an exception which continued to fly its own flag.
The riots of 1923-1927 helped RSS expand its footprint into other states as well. Hedgewar personally visited Punjab, Bengal, Karnataka, Delhi, UP and several other parts of the country creating more and more shakhas. His message everywhere was simple. If the country has been ruled by invaders for 800 years, the problem was bound to be within us. We need to look within and fix it. Fighting the British was, by now, just a footnote in the RSS scheme of things. By the time he died an early death in 1940, he had pretty much established presence of RSS in most large cities in the country.
But the philosophy that he espoused has not only remained but grown over the years. Was he wrong? Possibly not. After all despite the fact that India was non-existent as a unity before the British, there must have been a powerful cultural synergy which enabled the British to unite it without too much pain.
He simply overlooked the fact that culture is a continuous creation. And that many of the so-called ‘invaders’ from the ninth century onwards had not only made India their home but had also imbibed and contributed to the culture he so valued.
It was an oversight India, that is Bharat, would pay a big price for in the decades to come.