As India celebrates the 75th year of her freedom, it is time to recall events and examine narratives related to our Freedom Movement. Close on the heels of this momentous occasion comes the centenary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS. A question that is often asked – what role did the Sangh play in our Freedom Movement? Here we examine the role of the Sangh in the Civil Disobedience Movement (popularly called Salt Satyagraha) of 1930. We shall lean heavily on original documents in the Sangh Archives as also on contemporary Marathi newspapers such as the Kesari and Maharashtra bi-weeklies that were published from Pune and Nagpur respectively.
Sangh and Swayamsevaks
To the general question – what role did the Sangh play in our Freedom Movement, the answer is pretty straightforward. The role of the Sangh is virtually zero but the role of Swayamsevaks is certainly significant. Lest this statement causes misconceptions, let us examine the thinking of the Sangh’s founder and maker Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. This thinking determines Sangh’s policy to this day.
At a time when the question on everyone’s mind was ‘When and how shall we get freedom’, Dr Hedgewar asked himself, ‘Why did we lose our freedom and how should we preserve it?’ Not only did Hedgewar contemplate on this moot question, he devised and started a framework to rid society of those shortcomings which in his view led to slavery. The task of nation-building that he embarked on was long-term.
A Balancing Act
In contrast, agitations by their very nature have short-term objectives. Maintaining a judicious balance between contemporary agitations and the abiding task of nation-building can be challenging. The ingenious Hedgewar met this challenge by insulating his nascent organisation from the rough and tumble of agitations but allowing Swayamsevaks to participate in them. As was his wont, Hedgewar led by example. He himself participated in such agitations but kept the Sangh aloof from them. Hedgewar conceived of a society wherein the need for such agitations would not arise. He had certainly not conceived the Sangh as a firefighting entity that would content itself by rushing to the aid of a weak society on an ad hoc basis. He sought to increase the innate strength of Hindu society such that the Sangh itself would be rendered superfluous.
Chimaji Balaji Bhat
Chimaji Balaji Bhat, often known as Appa or Bhau, was the son of Balaji Vishwanath Bhat and the younger brother of Bajirao Peshwa of the Maratha Empire and was given the title Pandit. He was born in a Chitpavan caste household in 1707. He was a capable military leader who led the liberation of India western coast from Portuguese domination. The capture of Vasai fort in 1739 from the Portuguese in a hard-fought fight was the pinnacle of his career. Vasai victory was a dharmayudh. It was also the first time an Asian power had vanquished a European one in a battle in millennia. As a result, Chimaji Appa victory was hailed as a major victory. The Lord sudarshan smacked the skull of the extremists who harbour religious ill will, and they were flung down,' Chimaji stated in his letter to Brahmendra. He was recognised for controlling the Maratha Empire strategy and planning all of Bajirao battles.
A more fundamental thought was uppermost in Hedgewar’s mind. He abhorred even a hint of duality between the Sangh and the wider Hindu society. Hedgewar had not started Sangh on the lines of the Arya Samaj or Ramkrishna Mission as separate organisations within Hindu society. He looked upon the Sangh as an organisation of Hindu society, not within Hindu society. This distinction is borne out by at least two incidents in Hedgewar’s life.
In 1938, a Civil Resistance Movement was started in protest against the Nizam’s atrocities on Hindus in Hyderabad State. Hedgewar’s refusal to give directives to shakhas to participate in the Movement attracted criticism from pro-Hindu quarters. However, Hedgewar made it a point to write congratulatory letters to those who participated in the Movement. His refrain was, “The Sangh swayamsevak is a member of Hindu society. He does not resign from this membership when he joins the Sangh. As such, he is free to do whatever is required of him during such agitations as is the case with each member of Hindu society” (Sangh archives, Hedgewar papers, registers\ Register 1 DSC_0056).
Though the Sangh remained organisationally aloof from the Hyderabad Civil Resistance Movement, Hedgewar took care to ensure that an adequate number of resistors participated in it. Shankar Ramchandra Date, a Secretary of the Maharashtra Provincial Hindu Sabha, was closely associated with this Movement from its inception. In May 1938, Hedgewar was in Pune to preside over a Hindu Youth Conference. Date met Hedgewar and impressed upon the latter the need to raise at least 500 resistors. Hedgewar assured Date, “You need 500 people to participate in the Satyagraha, is that all? Do not worry. You take care of other logistics.” The confidence and empathy with which Hedgewar uttered these words left a lasting impression on Date’s mind (Sangh archives, Hedgewar papers, Dr Hedgewar Athavani 2 0001-A to 0001-D). Hedgewar was confident that even though Sangh as such remained passive, Swayamsevaks who had received their lessons in patriotism in shakhas would dissolve their organisational identities and spontaneously take part in any movement that was in national interest.
Hedgewar’s confidence was not misplaced. Several office-bearers and Swayamsevaks of the Sangh took part in the Movement as ordinary Hindus. To give direction to the Movement in Satara district and in the Princely States in Southern Maharashtra, a War Council was constituted in February 1939. Its President was none other than the Sanghachalak of Satara District Shivram Vishnu Modak. Another member of the War Council was Kashinath Bhaskar Limaye who was Maharashtra Provincial Sanghachalak (Kesari, February 17, 1939). A huge rally was held on April 22, 1939 at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada grounds to see off a contingent of 200 resistors, who were to depart the next day under the leadership of Hindu Mahasabha leader LB Bhopatkar. Hedgewar was on the dais (Kesari, April 25, 1939). The next day, Hedgewar went to the Railway Station to personally see off these resistors. Hundreds of Swayamsevaks took part in the Civil Resistance Movement in their personal capacity. Among them was Hedgewar’s nephew Waman, who was confined to a dark cell for four days and severely thrashed by the Nizam’s Police (Kesari, June 9, 1939).
Borphukan was known for his leadership in the Battle of Saraighat, 1671 in which an attempt by Mughal forces to capture Assam was thwarted. He was the inspiration behind strengthening India’s naval force and revitalising inland water transport and creating infrastructure associated with it due to his great naval strategies. Lachit was born on 24th November 1622 to Tai Ahom father Momai Tamuli Borbarua and mother Kunti Moran in Gargaon which was the capital of Ahom Kingdom, geographically located in the present day Brahmaputra Valley. Lachit didn’t fight for religion or his own glory but he fought for his land. The determination, perseverance, intelligence, statesmanship, valour and bravery shown by him were unrivalled for centuries to come. Though the Mughals managedto regain the Ahom capital of Guwahati briefly when it was deserted, the Ahoms wrested control in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 and maintained it till the end of their rule.
In April 1939, District Magistrate of Pune passed an order prohibiting playing of musical instruments in front the Sonya Maruti Temple on the pretext that it disturbed namaz at the nearby Tamboli Mosque. Hindus in Pune launched a Satyagraha in protest. Hedgewar happened to arrive in Pune at the time. Some people asked Hedgewar, “What will the Sangh do in this Satyagraha?” Hedgewar jocularly replied, “This satyagraha is for all citizens. Hence, hundreds of Sangh swayamsevaks will take part as citizens. But if it necessary that they be identified separately, I shall place a pair of horns on each one’s head.” Hedgewar had recently bought a pair of bison horns to hang on the wall of his Nagpur residence. That reference found mention in his reply! (Sangh archives, Hedgewar papers, Nana Palkar\Hedgewar notes – 5, 5_141). It is noteworthy that Hedgewar himself took part in the Satyagraha and courted symbolic arrest. Yet, he steadfastly refused to involve the Sangh as an organisation.
One significant exception to Hedgewar’s general rule exists. In December 1929, the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress adopted the goal of Purna Swaraj or Complete Independence and called for January 26, 1930 to be observed as Purna Swaraj Day. Hitherto, the Congress had Dominion Status as its goal. Hedgewar, who had always been an ardent supporter of complete Independence, was overjoyed. In a directive to all shakhas dated January 21, 1930, Hedgewar wrote, “On 26/1/1930, all shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh should hold meetings of all swayamsevaks of their respective shakhas at their respective Sanghasthans (lit.assembly place of the Sangh) and salute the national flag that is the Bhagwa, explain through lectures what is freedom and how it is the duty of every Indian to keep this objective before oneself and conclude the programme by congratulating the Congress for championing the goal of Independence” (Sangh archives, Hedgewar papers, A Patrak by Dr. Hedgewar to the swayamsevak – Jan 21, 1930).
If one were to grasp Hedgewar’s thinking, the question of what the Sangh did in the Freedom Movement becomes redundant. Let us now turn to the Forest Satyagraha
Civil Disobedience Movement
The nature of a future Constitution of India ought to have been discussed by a Convention Parliament or a Round Table Conference. Instead, the British Government announced the constitution of Simon Commission on 8 November 1927 to prepare the future Constitution of India. Bereft of any Indian as a member, the Commission was opposed by all Indians, irrespective of party affiliations. Against this background, the All-Parties Conference, which met at Lucknow from Agusut 28 to 31, 1928, unanimously accepted the Constitution drafted by the Motilal Nehru Committee appointed by it. However, when no guarantee of immediate Dominion Status was forthcoming from the British, the Congress in its Lahore session (December 1929) resolved a “complete boycott of the Central and Provincial Legislatures and Committees constituted by the Government” and authorised the “All-India Congress Committee, whenever it deemed fit, to launch upon a programme of Civil Disobedience, including non-payment of taxes”. The Purna Swaraj resolution at the Lahore Congress also stated, “India has been ruined economically. The revenue derived from our people is out of all proportion to our income. Our average income is seven piece (less than two-pence) per day, and of the heavy taxes we pay, 20 per cent, are raised from the land revenue derived from the peasantry, and 3 per cent, from the Salt Tax which falls most heavily on the poor” (R.C.Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India Vol 3, Firma KL Mukhopadhyaya, Calcutta, publication date unknown, pp.326, 331).
At its meeting held on February 14, 15, 1930, the Congress Working Committee authorised Gandhi to chalk out Civil Disobedience Movement. Taking 79 male and female Satyagrahis with him, Gandhi completed a slow march over 241 miles in 24 days and reached the sea at Dandi. On April 6, 1930, Gandhi picked up some salt left by the sea waves and broke the Salt Law. This act had a profound appeal across the country. Salt laws were broken in many places, salt was made in pans in the cities, and mass arrests and other repressions followed. Sixty thousand political prisoners were put in jails (Majumdar, pp 334, 338).
The Salt Satyagraha found symbolic and limited resonance in Central Provinces and Berar. The Central Provinces consisted of the Marathi-speaking Nagpur division comprising districts of Nagpur, Wardha, Chanda or present-day Chandrapur and Bhandara. The Hindi-speaking region of Central Provinces had three divisions of Narmada (Nimar, Hoshangabad, Narsimhapur, Betul and Chhindwara districts), Jabalpur (Jabalpur, Sagar, Damoh, Seoni and Mandla districts) and Chattisgarh (Raipur, Bilaspur and Durg districts). The division of Berar (present-day Vidarbha) comprised Amravati, Yavatmal, Akola and Buldhana districts. This region neither had easy targets as salt works nor a sea shore. As part of Satyagraha, salt was first made on April 13, 1930 from saline wells in the two villages of Dahihanda (dist. Akola) and Bhamod (dist. Amravati). The Salt Satyagraha in Berar continued till May 13, 1930 (KK Chaudhary, ed. Source Material for a History of Freedom Movement, Civil Disobedience Movement, April-September 1930, Vol. XI, Gazetteers Department, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1990, pp. 873, 921). To circumvent the difficulty in manufacturing salt, provinces such as Central Provinces and Berar targeted other repressive laws.
“On 26/1/1930, all shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh should hold meetings of all swayamsevaks of their respective shakhas at their respective Sanghasthans (lit.assembly place of the Sangh) and salute the national flag that is the Bhagwa, explain through lectures what is freedom and how it is the duty of every Indian to keep this objective before oneself and conclude the programme by congratulating the Congress for championing the goal of Independence” — Hedgewar in a directive to all shakhas dated January 21, 1930
The Indian Forest Act, 1927 was particularly repressive to farmers in Berar. Hitherto, there was no restriction or tax on timber, other forest-produce and cattle-fodder. This situation changed as the Government imposed control on forests under the guise of expanding and protecting them. Rather than looking after the interests of farmers, the Government sought to fill its coffers. As cutting of grass and pasturing of cattle in forests was prohibited, cattle-fodder became scarce and expensive. Forest officers compounded the situation with their arrogance. Representations to the Government, both within the Provincial Council and in public meetings, proved to be of no avail. Left with no other option, the Berar War Council which had been formed to oversee the Civil Disobedience Movement in Berar resolved to break the Forest Act by cutting grass without licence in a restricted forest. Madhav Shrihari, alias Bapuji Aney, was to lead the first batch of satyagrahis at Pusad (dist. Yavatmal) on 10 July 1930 (Chaudhary, p. 957).
Political Dacoity at Hinganghat
Where was Hedgewar amidst all this tumult? Hedgewar was under British watch right since August 1908. Detectives continued to hound him even after he started the Sangh in 1925. By 1926, shakhas had started functioning well in Nagpur and Wardha. At this time, a plan was drawn up to bring back those revolutionary colleagues of Hedgewar who were originally from Central Provinces but were still stranded in Punjab. This plan to bring back both men and material was hatched by Hedgewar’s colleagues Dattatraya Deshmukh, Abhad and Motiram Shravane and set in motion in 1926-27. Hedgewar’s revolutionary comrade Ganga Prasad Pande was in charge of this operation. After this plan was executed, Pande fell ill and came to Wardha in 1927. A pistol that he had kept for self-protection fell into the hands of his friend. In 1928, an attempt was made to raid the Government treasure-chest at the railway-station in Hinganghat (dist. Wardha). Newspapers reported that a pistol had been used in this attempted political dacoity. Pande knew that the pistol was his and had it retrieved. Realising that the trail of the pistol would lead to him, Hedgewar and his right-hand Hari Krishna alias Appaji Joshi (Secretary of Central Provinces Congress Committee, Member of All India Congress Committee and Wardha District Sanghachalak) landed at Pande’s place at night. The duo took charge of the pistol. Hedgewar thrashed a waiting detective and the two fled into the darkness.
Henceforth, both Hedgewar and Appaji Joshi were kept under strict surveillance. Not only were their houses but even their activities in shakhas and elsewhere were closely watched. People were scared to meet them. In the beginning of 1930, the Deputy Superintendent of Police summoned Appaji. He told Appaji, “Though you are in the Congress, you do not participate in the satyagraha but go to shakhas. You are young and hold radical views. Hedgewar’s leadership is revolutionary. As you are not taking part (in the satyagraha), why should the Government not suspect that you do not believe in non-violence? You have all the material (arms) and we have the information.” Appaji retorted, “If this is true, do you think you will find it by keeping a watch on us? Stop this whole drama that you are staging!”
Appaji’s stance had the desired effect. The surveillance on Hedgewar and Appaji eased. The Court trial related to the Hinganghat political dacoity case got completed and the suspects were handed down punishment. It was imperative for Hedgewar to show the Government that he was no longer a revolutionary.
In a letter to Hedgewar in February 1930, Appaji wrote that after careful deliberation, he had decided to take part in the satyagraha. To this, Hedgewar replied that he would take a decision after the Sangh’s Officer Training Camp. After the Camp, Appaji again wrote to Hedgewar. Citing Appaji’s health and his own busy schedule, Hedgewar did not immediately give his consent. But when Appaji again wrote to Hedgewar, the latter promptly conveyed his willingness. The two met and finally decided to participate in the satyagraha (Sangh archives, Hedgewar papers, Nana Palkar\Hedgewar notes – 5 5_84-91; as narrated by Appaji Joshi to Hedgewar’s biographer Narayan Hari alias Nana Palkar).