As India commemorates the 152nd birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on October 2, 2021, global nations are simultaneously set to observe the day as the 'International Day of Non-Violence'.
Notably, October 2 is also the birth anniversary of another freedom fighter and India's second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri.
The Indian freedom struggle was a tremendous opportunity to assimilate diverse socio-cultural, political, intellectual, philosophical and economic identities across the Indian sub-continent for the noble national cause. The freedom struggle was a platform for several freedom fighters and organisations to share their ideas and envision independence and post-independent India. Non-violence, armed struggle, cultural awakening, social upliftment, etc., were some methods used by great personalities for achieving Indian independence. A multilingual and multicultural nation that India is, a wide variety of literary writings in regional languages bearing nationalistic spirit and fervour had echoed, united and brought millions of Indians on the street. There have been historical interactions between great personalities who led the freedom movement in one or another way, enabling them to enrich their understanding of Bharat as a living socio-cultural entity. One such interaction was in the year 1934 between Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder and the first Sarsangachalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS was founded on the Vijaya Dashami day in 1925 by Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar or 'Doctorji' (1889–1940), as he is respectfully addressed by millions of swayamsevaks across the world. Dr Hedgewar had laid greater emphasis on the physical and intellectual training of the RSS to create a disciplined volunteer group that shall be ever prepared to serve the society and nation, enabling Bharat to achieve its destiny as Vishwaguru.
On December 25, 1934, after over nine years of founding the Sangh, the visit of Mahatma Gandhi to the Wardha district camp of RSS and his interaction after that with Doctorji was probably a rare, distinguished and constructive interaction between the two nationalistic stalwarts who had envisioned a mammoth socio-political mission for the nation. While Mahatma Gandhi chose truth and non-violence as a medium for achieving India's political independence from the British, Dr Hedgewar realised the necessity for national reconstruction and transformation at the socio-cultural level by imparting Hindu-cultural identity among the masses.
Gandhi visits Wardha RSS Camp
After observing the preparations and commencement of the Wardha RSS camp, Gandhiji had curiously set his footsteps into the Wardha camp from the nearby Sevagram Ashram, where he had stayed. Guiding Gandhiji at the Wardha camp was Appaji Joshi. Gandhiji was delighted to witness the minuscule planning and efforts taken by the Wardha camp organisers and swayamsevaks in commencing the camp. What had even more surprised Gandhiji after his interaction with the swayamsevaks was the total absence of untouchability, caste indifferences or other discriminatory practices at the Wardha camp. On enquiring, a Swayamsevak told Gandhi: "There are no differences like Brahmin, Maratha, Asprishyas, etc., in the Sangh. We are, in fact, not even aware of what castes many of our Swayamsevak brethren belong to, nor are we interested in knowing it. It is enough for us that we are all Hindus."
Gandhi turned to Appaji and asked: "It appears almost impossible to ward off the evil of untouchability from our society. How has this phenomenon been made possible in the Sangh?"
Appaji Joshi replied: "Feelings of high and low, touchability and untouchability can be abolished only by emphasising the inherent oneness of all Hindus. Then only will the spirit of fraternity be reflected in their sincere behaviour, and not merely in words. The credit for this achievement goes to Dr. Keshavrao Hedgewar."
After that, along with the swayamsevaks, who had assembled in the prayer hall as per the Sangh tradition, Gandhiji also offered his salutations to the Bhagawa Dhwaj or the Saffron Flag. As Appaji led Gandhiji towards other facilities of the Wardha camp, Gandhiji noticed a portrait and asked its whereabouts: "Whose portrait is this?"
Appaji said that the portrait was of Dr. Hedgewar.
Gandhi inquired: "Is that the same Dr. Keshavrao Hedgewar you mentioned when we were talking about untouchability? How is he connected with the Sangh?"
"He is the Chief of the Sangh. We call him the Sarsanghachalak. All the activities of the Sangh are carried on under his guidance. It is he who has started the Sangh." replied Appaji.
Gandhi curiously asked Appaji: "Will it be possible to meet Dr. Hedgewar? If possible, I want to hear about the Sangh from him directly."
As Dr Hedgewar was out of Wardha camp, the meeting between Gandhiji and Dr Hedgewar took place on the next day, wherein the discussion between the two stalwarts was evident of the rich Bharatiya culture of acceptance and co-existence of diverse ideas, viewpoints, and practices.
Gandhi's Tryst with Doctorji
As the discussions began, Gandhiji was quick to kindle his mind and ask Dr Hedgewar about the observations he had made at the Wardha camp the previous day: "Doctorji, your organisation is admirable. I am aware of the fact that you were, for many years, a Congress worker. That being so, why did you not build such a volunteer cadre under the aegis of a popular organisation like the congress itself? Why did you float a separate organisation?"
Doctorji candidly replied: "It is true that I worked in the Congress. I was also the Secretary of the Swayamsevak Dal at the time of the 1920 session of the congress, when my friend Dr. Paranjape was the Dal President. Subsequently, the two of us tried to build such a volunteer cadre inside the congress. But our efforts were not successful. Hence this independent venture."
Doubting any possible financial constraints that Doctorji had faced in the congress, Gandhiji asked: "Why did your attempt fail? Was it for want of financial assistance?" To which Doctorji replied: No. No! There was no dearth of funds. Money can be a great help, no doubt. But money alone cannot accomplish everything. The problem that faced us was not one of money but of attitudes."
Gandhi doubtfully asked Doctorji: "Is it your opinion that noble-hearted people were not there in the Congress, or that they are not there now?"
Doctorji elaborated on the challenges that he had faced in building such a dedicated cadre within the Congress. He said: "There are many well – meaning people in the Congress. What is at issue is certain basic attitudes. The Congress has been formed primarily with a view to achieving a political end. Its programmes have also been drawn up accordingly, and it needs volunteers to arrange for these programmes. The Congress leaders are therefore used to looking upon volunteers as unpaid servants who arrange chairs and benches during meetings and conferences. The Congress does not seem to believe that the problems of the nation can effectively be solved only when there is a large and disciplined body of dedicated Swayamsevaks who are eager to serve the country of their own accord and without waiting for inspiration from elsewhere."
After interacting with several of the Swayamsevaks at the Wardha camp the previous day, Gandhi asked Doctorji: "What exactly is your conception of a Swayamsevak?"
Doctorji elaborated on the idea of Swayamsevak, an ideal example of a selfless and dedicated volunteer: "A Swayamsevak is one who would lovingly lay down his life for the all – round upliftment of the nation. To create and mould such Swayamsevaks is the aim of the Sangh. There is no distinction between a Swayamsevak and a leader in Sangh. All of us are Swayamsevaks and are therefore equal. We love and respect everybody equally. We give no room for any differences in status. This is in fact the secret of the remarkable growth of the Sangh in such a short period with no outside help, money or publicity."
On hearing the very idea of Swayamsevak, Gandhiji continued the conversation further: "I am indeed very glad. The country will certainly be benefited by the success of your efforts. I have heard of the vast following the Sangh has acquired in the Wardha district. … How do you meet the expenses of such a huge organisation?"
At this instance, Doctorji explained the noblest method of selfless contribution for meeting the financial necessities of the Sangh. Doctorji said that "The Swayamsevaks themselves bear the burden, each offering his mite as Gurudakshina."
The RSS has a tradition wherein Swayamsevaks willingly contribute a part of their earnings as Gurudakshina once a year on the auspicious occasion of Guru Poornima. Gurudakshina is Bharat's ancient Vedic practice and a Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh spiritual tradition of acknowledging one's Guru or the teacher by voluntarily donating an honorarium or daana. Importantly, in the RSS, the Swayamsevaks symbolise and personify the Bhagawa Dhwaj or the Saffron Flag as their Guru and submit their Dakshina after salutations. Indeed, the Bhagawa Dhwaj has a great grand history and eternal ideological teachings of Dharma to learn from as it furls under the blue sky.
Amazed at Doctorji's deep involvement in the affairs of Sangh, Gandhiji asked, "It looks as if your entire time is consumed by this work. How do you carry on your medical profession?" to which Doctorji replied, he has not taken to medicine as a profession.
Amazed at the reply, Gandhiji enquired how Doctorji supported his family: "How then are you supporting your family?"
Gandhiji was then surprised to know that Doctorji was not married and therefore made the following remarks: "I see – you are not married! Very good. That explains the remarkable degree of success you have achieved in such a short duration! Doctorji, with your character and sincerity, there is no doubt you will succeed."
This historic visit of Mahatma Gandhi to the Wardha RSS camp and the detailed discussion with Doctorji about the philosophical evolution of Sangh, its tradition of selfless service and vision for the nation, has been widely diluted, neglected and kept away from the social, cultural and political discourse of India. As India embarks on a journey as Viswaguru, there is a greater need for constructive discourse and critical thinking in society to enable the masses to judge beyond political and social barriers. Therefore, observing 75 years of Indian independence through Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav should motivate us to leap forward as a nation in taking Bharat to its' pinnacle of glory'.
Source: Dr. Hedgewar: The Epoch-Maker A Biography, 1981; Edited by H. V. Sheshadri, Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana, Bangalore. ISBN: 81-86595-34-1
(The writer is a PhD research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is also JNU Vibhag Convener at ABVP Delhi)