Freedom Movement, Savarkar and RSS

Ram Puniyani

Ram Puniyani

The rise to dominance of the RSS in the political sphere has been accompanied by its claim of being most patriotic organisation and that it has contributed to nation building and to the freedom movement. It has also been trying to act as an aggressive judge, classifying people as patriots or otherwise. It has propagated that minorities are not patriotic and have not contributed to the freedom movement. Lately, all those disagreeing with its politics are being labeled as anti-Nationals (Desh Drohi). At the same time, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the major Hindutva ideologue, has been adorned as veer (brave), swatantryaveer (brave freedom fighter), his statues have been raised at several places and roads named after him in different cities. During the BJP led NDA (1998–2004), his portrait was put up in the central hall of parliament. This government also named the Port Blair airport in his name. The word of mouth propaganda has been eulogising him as the real ‘Father of the Nation’.
With the change of regime at the Centre (2004), the new petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyer replaced his plaque at Andaman’s with that of Mahatma Gandhi. This again became a matter of controversy. The BJP–Sena alliance tried to capitalise on this during the elections in Maharashtra, where Savarkar has been projected as a great revolutionary and efforts have been made to show that he was the guiding figure for all the great freedom fighters apart from being a progressive person of sorts. Those opposing Savarkar being given these honours have been insulted. Similarly Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJPs’ mask, also claimed that he participated in the freedom movement. Where does the truth lie?

Freedom Movement

India’s freedom struggle is acknowledged to be world’s greatest mass movement ever. It assumed a mass character after the efforts of Gandhi from 1920, before which it had more of an elite character. This movement primarily aimed at throwing away the British rule. Parallel to this, there were several other phenomena taking place in society, and they were affecting the entire network of social equations and life pattern of society. All this was taking place in the backdrop of process of industrialisation and the introduction of modern education. These twin processes resulted in the emergence of a new business industrial class, an educated middle class and the working class. These twin processes also resulted in the change of social hierarchy of caste and gender. Women and Dalits began to have access to education as well as were participating in the social and political movements as equal beings. This whole process of change was captured in the phrase, ‘India as the Nation in the making’. The Indian National Congress, majority of sections of the left and the Dalits leaders articulated the need for democratic values, the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, which became the slogans of India’s struggle for independence.
In contrast to these emerging classes and the concept of India as a nation in the making, those associated with declining classes, that is, the landlords, the kings and the associated clergy, stuck to the pre-modern values of birth-based inequality of caste and gender. They believed in the existence of a Muslim Nation from the 8th century onwards, and a Hindu nation since times immemorial, in contrast to the concept of India as a united nation in the making. The political streams coming out of this section were the Muslim league, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, amongst others. These groups never participated in the freedom movement. The major reason for this was that the freedom movement aimed at democratic values, while these groups believed in birth based inequality. Here, it should be clear that those Hindus and Muslims who believed in democracy and in the concept of India being a ‘nation in the making’ participated in the freedom movement, while those who belonged to the declining classes remained aloof from the freedom movement and indirectly contributed to the implementation of the British policy of divide and rule. While most Hindus participated in the freedom struggle, the followers of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS kept aloof. Likewise, while most Muslims participated in this movement, the followers of Muslim League did not do so. Incidentally the Maulanas of Barelvi and Deoband did associate with the struggle for independence of India.

Savarkar and Freedom movement

Savarkar was the founder of Hindutva ideology, the base of Hindu right-wing feudal values. One needs to look at the trajectory of his life to understand his transition from an anti-British revolutionary to the ideologue of Hindutva. Savarkar was initially an anti-British revolutionary. Later, his life underwent a major transition during his confinement in Andaman jail. He was a changed man after the period of his jail life. He was an anti-British revolutionary prior to his deportation to the Andamans, but later he never associated with anything even remotely sounding as anti-British.
Savarkar had gone to study law in London in 1906. While pursuing his studies there, he formed the ‘Free Indian Society’ committed to overthrowing British rule in India. For this and other anti-British activities, he was denied barristership. When he appealed against this decision, the authorities offered him a call to the bar if he gave an undertaking not to participate in politics. He rejected this offer.
His group had learnt the art of bomb making from a Russian revolutionary in Paris. One member of the group killed a top-ranking official in India Office (London) and was sentenced to death. For involvement in this and for other charges on him in Indian courts, Savarkar was arrested and deported to India for trial on July 1, 1910. The ship carrying him stopped at Marseilles, where he jumped into the sea and swam to the shore to claim asylum on French soil. He was captured and was brought to India. In India, he faced two cases, one in Nasik and one in Bombay, and was sentenced to a total of 50 years in prison in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans.
The conditions in the Andaman jail were very painful. The political prisoners were tortured badly. He could not bear the torture, unlike most other inmates in the prison. It seems that the conditions of jail life broke his spirits. Within a month after arriving in the Andamans, Savarkar submitted his first mercy petition to the British, on August 30, 1911. The petition was rejected. He submitted fresh petitions in November 1913 and then again in 1917 and March 1920. In these petitions, he pledged that “if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government . . .” He further stated, “My conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be.”
Unaware of Savarkar’s clemency petitions, the Indian National Congress in the early 1920s agitated demanding his unconditional release.
After these repeated mercy petitions and promises, the British moved Savarkar to a jail in Ratnagiri in May 1921, and finally released him on January 6, 1924. The British imposed stringent conditions for his release; Savarkar not only accepted them, but also made the statement: “I hereby acknowledge that I had a fair trial and just sentence. I heartily abhor methods of violence resorted to in days gone by, and I feel myself duty bound to uphold law and the constitution to the best of my powers and am willing to make the Reform a success in so far as I may be allowed to do so in future.” The reforms he is referring to here are the Montague Chelmsford proposals of 1919, which did not satisfy the nationalist movement’s demands and were rejected by it.
The British Government released him under the condition that he will stay in Ratnagiri district in Bombay province and will seek permission of the government to leave the district, and also that he will not engage in any public or private political activities without the consent of the government. The period of these conditions lasted till 1937, when the Congress ministry was sworn in. Subsequent to this, he assumed the office of the President of Hindu Mahasabha. This aspect of his total surrender is completely hidden by the Hindutva forces when they confer on him the epithet of ‘Veer Savarkar’.
Why did British government release him? How is it that after his release the track of his politics totally changed and he came to adorn the mantle of the ideologue of Hindu Rashtra? Why is it that he never undertook any anti-British agitation after his release? Why is it that he never joined and supported the major movements of those times, like the Quit India movement? Why is it that instead of being a part of the freedom struggle, he chose to help the British in recruiting Indians for their army? His compromise with the British hides a lot of messages about the nature of his politics from then on. He emerged as the undisputed leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. After 1937, for most of the time, his politics was the polar opposite of the national movement led by Gandhi and ‘no support to Congress move’ was his basic dictum. This can be best exemplified by the 1942 Quit India movement, when Gandhi gave the call for people to leave government jobs. Opposing it, Savarkar issued the edict: “I issue this definite instruction to all Hindu Sanghathanists in general holding any post or position of vantage in the government services, should stick to them and continue to perform their regular duties”. The edict was dutifully followed. Indeed, the Mahasabha’s working committee passed a resolution on August 31, 1942 asking all Mahasabhaites to remain at their jobs.
Savarkar has the ‘honour’ of brewing Brahmanical Hinduism with nationalism, and he was the first exponent of the doctrine of Hindutva. While his initial anti-British struggles were impressive, after his release from the Andamans he assumed the role of the proponent of Hindutva, and all his energy was directed towards strengthening the politics of hate, strengthening the communal Hindu Mahasabha and helping RSS from a distance.
As an aside, we should note here that Savarkar’s anti-British struggles and anti-British activities totally ceased after his release by the British, and from then on all his guns were to be targeted against the Muslims. In his work, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu, first published in Nagpur in 1923, Savarkar argued that the Aryans, who settled in India at the dawn of history, very early formed a nation, now embodied in the Hindus. He writes, “Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of the love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affection warm, but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilisation—our Hindu culture.”
According to Savarkar, Hindutva rests on three pillars: geographical unity, racial features and common culture. He further went on to elaborate the criterion for who is a Hindu? According to him all those who regard this land as their fatherland and holy land are the only ones who are Hindus, and this land belongs only to them. This leads to the automatic interpretation that Christians and Muslims, whose holy places are in Jerusalem and Mecca respectively, are not at par with the `Hindus’ who ‘own’ this country. Savarkar thus initiated the idea of ‘doubting of patriotism of Muslims’. He says, “Besides culture, the tie of common holy land has at times proved to be stronger than the chains of a motherland. Look at Mohammedans: Mecca to them is a sterner reality than Delhi or Agra.”
Savarkar’s politics was in direct opposition to Gandhian politics. Gandhi—the representative of Indian nationalism—was branded by Savarkar as a conciliator and appeaser of Muslims. Savarkar propounded that struggle for supremacy would begin after the British left and that Christians and Muslims were the real enemies who could be defeated only by “Hindutva”. It is also worth remembering that the murderer of Gandhi, Godse, was his ardent follower. Savarkar himself was the co-accused in Gandhi murder, but was let off for lack of corroborative evidence and as Godse took the whole responsibility of this murder totally on his own self.
Today, in order to eulogise Savarkar, his followers are suitably misinterpreting events and his writings, and attributing many anonymous things to him. That he wrote anti-British articles after his release is a pure figment of their imagination. A ‘Savarkar mythology’ is being created to replace factual history, which is available through his actual writings and authentically published works and documents from impeccable sources. One argument being given is that he knew India was in any case going to get independence, so why waste energies in fighting against British. This is an absurd argument. No political movement ends its agitation till its goals are achieved and this is true for the Indian freedom struggle led by Gandhi and Nehru too—the struggle, the negotiations and the manoeuverings continued till India actually won independence. Some of his followers also claim that his apology to British was a clever strategy on the part of Savarkar. The falseness of this argument can be understood by comparing his mercy petitions with those of Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh in fact reprimanded his father when he wanted to pleaded with the British to release his son. Furthermore, not only does history tell us that Savarkar stood by the promise he made to the colonial government that if released, he would give up the fight for independence and be loyal to the colonial government, after his release from jail he propounded the ideology of Hindutva which destabilised the freedom movement by deepening the divisions along sectarian lines and thus helped the British

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

Coming to the RSS, the RSS combine claims to have contributed substantially to the process of ‘nation building’ and freedom struggle. History textbooks introduced in schools wherever BJP governments have come to power delve at great length about the contribution of their ideologues to the national movement.
The fact of the matter is, RSS as an organisation was never a part of the anti-British movement. Its founder Dr K.B. Hedgewar, had been sentenced to jail before he founded the RSS, in the wake of Khilafat movement. This was on the charge of giving a provocative speech. The second and last time he was sentenced to jail was during the 1930 Civil Disobedience Movement, when Gandhi called upon the people to break the law. Hedgewar told the RSS that the organisation will not participate in this movement, and that those who want to participate in their personal capacity can do so. He himself was jailed during this satyagraha. His biographer clarifies that his main goal in participating in this movement was, “Dr Saheb had the confidence that with a freedom loving, self sacrificing and reputed group of people inside with him there, he would discuss the Sangh with them and win them over for its work.” The aim was therefore not to participate in the movement but to get contacts for building the divisive politics of RSS. From 1931 onwards, Hedgewar dissociated himself from the Civil Disobedience Movement and never again was he a part of any national movement.
The non-participation of the RSS in the freedom struggle was ideologically formulated by M.S. Golwalkar, according to whom fighting against the British was reactionary and he accused the Congress for reducing the national struggle to ‘mere’ anti-British movement. Golwalkar writes, “Being anti-British was equated with patriotism and nationalism. This reactionary view had disastrous effect upon the entire course of the independence struggle, its leaders and the common people.” With this being its ideological formulation, the Sangh Parivar obviously did not and could not fight against the British. The RSS equated its nationalism with fighting Muslims, and hence its constant harping against the national leadership for ‘appeasement of Muslims’. “The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS combine even kept away from supporting the Naval revolt because they (mutineers) used guns against the British and the Sangh Parivar considered fighting against British as “disastrous” and “reactionary”.
Anderson and Damle (Brotherhood in Saffron) point out that “Golwalkar believed that the British not be given any excuse to ban the RSS. When the British banned military drill and the use of uniforms in all non-official organisations, the RSS complied. On April 29, 1943, Golwalkar distributed a circular to senior RSS figures . . . (that said) ‘We discontinued practices included in the Government’s early order on military drill and uniforms . . . to keep our work clearly within bounds of law, as every law abiding institution should . . .’”.
Our description of the role of the RSS in the freedom struggle is necessarily brief, as one cannot describe a non-phenomenon beyond a point. The RSS not only consciously abstained from participating in the freedom movement, on the contrary, it opposed the various movements launched during the freedom struggle (especially the Quit India movement). During those days too, it was active as a communal body, boosting the impact of Muslim communalism and participating in the process of mutual supplementation of Hindu and Muslim communalism.

Vajpayee and Freedom Movement

Much is also made of the ‘participation’ of BJP’s mask, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the Quit India movement. This was the time when young Vajpayee was a recruit of RSS. In an article put out on the internet (it also appeared in the newspapers) The Sangh is my soul for the consumption of NRIs and for soliciting their support for the Sangh Parivar, he says, “When I wrote Hindu Tan-Man Hindu Jeevan, I was a student of class X. . . . Till 1947 I did the RSS work at shakha level . . . I also participated in the Quit India movement in 1942 and was jailed. I was then studying for my Intermediate examination. I was arrested from my native village Bhateshwar in Agra district (italics added).”
This claim by him has been investigated in detail and the findings published in the fortnightly Frontline of February 20, 1998. This investigation nails the lie of his participation in the Quit India Movement. Vajpayee had made a confessional statement before the magistrate on September 1, 1942, in which he says that although “I along with my brother followed the crowd” which attacked the forest outpost and demolished it, and witnessed the event, “I did not cause any damage. I did not render any assistance in demolishing the government building.” In effect, Vajpayee therefore stated: I was part of the crowd, but I did not share its objectives and I did not participate in any culpable act. In a tape-recorded interview with Frontline’s editor N. Ram in January 1998, Vajpayee admitted that he had indeed made this statement.
This makes it clear that Vajpayee did not participate in the Quit India movement as a “freedom fighter” in his home village of Bateshwar. Despite this, many decades later, the Sangh Parivar has been seeking to lionise Vajpayee for the heroic role he played in 1942—a role he explicitly denied then and has denied again, in his January 1998 interview to Frontline.

Freedom Movement: Democratic Values

It should be apparent that only those people participated in the freedom movement who stood for democratic values. These were the ones who held aloft the tricolour, while those who were for the saffron flag or the green flag had no role to play in this mass movement, which built the multicultural, multi-religious plural India that we are today. Unfortunately, today, the retrograde ones, those who kept aloof, criticised and opposed the freedom movement, are claiming to be the custodians of nationalism. Their nationalism is not Indian nationalism; theirs’ is a sectarian, religion-based one, a total anti-thesis to what India actually is!


  • “Savarkar, not Gandhi is the Father of the Nation: VHP”, February 11, 2015,

    “Deoband Ulema’s Movement for the Freedom of India by Farhat Tabassum”, July 11, 2009,

    From facsimile of Savarkar’s letter to British authorities, Frontline, April 7, 1995. Pg. 94.

    Quoted in A G Noorani, Frontline, December 1, 1995.

    V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva, p. 108.

    C.P. Bhishikar, Sanghvriksha ke Beej, Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, New Delhi 1994, p. 20.

    Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, 1939.

    Quoted in A G Noorani, Frontline, December 1, 1995.

    Manini Chatterjee, V.K. Ramachandran, “Vajpayee and the Quit India movement”, Frontline, February 20, 1998, http://www.frontline.


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