Most of the people in Bharat today know about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Whether one loves it or hates it, most Bharatiyas have heard the name of the organisation. But very few would know about Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, its founder. His pictures rarely appear in the media even on his birth anniversary, which falls on the first day of the Hindu new year, that is, chaitra shukla pratipada. This year it falls on March 25.
Barring a few, no one — not even a majority of those who vow allegiance to his ideology — would remember this. One reason for this is the RSS doesn’t believe in celebrating individual birthdays. Its cause or ideology holds supreme in its ecosystem, above any individual. Interestingly, it was Hedgewar who ensured that the organisation should adhere to this principle. However, millions of swayam sevaks, at more than 70,000 daily shakhas of the RSS, salute his legacy by doing adhya sarsanghchalak pranam (salutation to the founder-chief of the RSS) on his birth anniversary.
It is time now to take a closer look at his legacy as the organisation he founded has become a deep and decisive influence in all spheres of the Bharatiya society.
Hedgewar was born in 1889, the year Independent Bharat’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was born. In 1989, the birth centenary of Hedgewar, the Sangh — through its swayamsevaks and various organisations run by them — gave a massive boost to what is today known as sewa karya or service projects. A thousand projects were launched in 1989. Today, there are over 1,50,000 such projects. These projects are the outcome of a legacy, which believed in the unity of the Bharatiya society cutting across all barriers. Hedgewar was also a freedom fighter of eminence. But there is hardly any mention of him in contemporary history books due to the dominance of Left historians in academic and intellectual fields.
Hedgewar was a member of Yugantar and Anusheelan Samiti. He deliberately joined the National Medical College in Kolkata to work with Aurobindo, Trailokya Nath Chakraborty and Rash Behari Bose. After completing his degree, he returned to Nagpur. The Central province only had 75 doctors then, but he decided not to join the medical profession. Instead, he chose to work for the independence of Bharat.
Hedgewar disagreed with the Non-cooperation Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi because the Khilafat struggle aimed at restoring the Caliphate in Turkey was a part of it. But he travelled and addressed meetings, inspiring people to join the freedom struggle. In May 1921, he was arrested on charges of sedition for his objectionable speeches. The hearing in the case began on June 14, 1921 in the court of a British judge, Smelly. After hearing Hedgewar’s statement, the judge exclaimed: “His defence is even more seditious than his original speech.” In his judgement, delivered on August 19, 1921, the judge ordered Hedgewar to give an undertaking that he would not deliver seditious speeches in future for a period of one year and that he furnish a bail of Rs 3,000. Hedgewar refused to comply with the order and the judge sentenced him to rigorous imprisonment for a year.
He was released in July 1922 from Ajani jail and a public reception was organised by the Congress where senior leaders, Pandit Moti Lal Nehru and Hakim Ajmal Khan, spoke. On July 12, 1930, at a programme in Nagpur, veteran RSS member L V Paranjpe announced that Hedgewar was going to participate in a “jungle satyagraha”. After Paranjpe spoke, Hedgewar announced his resignation as sarsanghchalak to join the “jungle satyagraha” and Paranjpe was appointed sarsanghchalak pending Hedgewar’s return. Hedgewar courted arrest in Nagpur on July 21, 1930. He broke the “jungle kanoon” (Forest Law)” with 11 people and was arrested. The Congress organised a rally in his support. He was tried the same day and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for nine months. This was Hedgewar’s second jail term. Hedgewar’s satyagraha was one of the most successful programmes of the civil disobedience movement of the Central province. He took over as the sarsanghchalak after returning from jail on February 21, 1931.
Contrary to the narrative that is presented about the role of the Sangh and its leadership during the Independence struggle, Hedgewar was at the forefront in the fight against the British rule. However, the Sangh never tried to take credit for it: The basic ethos ingrained by Hedgewar in the RSS prevents it from claiming credit for any work done by an individual or even by an organisation. The result is that we see the largest voluntary organisation of the world working quietly for the transformation of society. Its detractors often consider its silence to be its weakness, which is not correct.
“Friend, a person’s greatness is not recognised by his current position in public life. But by the length of the shadow he casts over history and remains relevant over time.” These were the words of a communist colleague of Dattopant Thengadi, the founder of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, in the Rajya Sabha in response to a Congress MP’s light-hearted remark, “Who knows Dr Hedgewar? But, see the entire world knows about Pandit Nehru.”
The writer is member of the state executive of Delhi RSS. This article first appeared in the March 25 print edition under the title ‘Remembering Hedgewar’
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines