No Indian democrat should have misgivings about Nehru’s emphatic rejection of the RSS’s overtures to him in 1949. Had our first prime minister allowed the RSS into the Congress fold 70 years ago, the Republic would have been corroded from the start
Long before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh invited Pranab Mukherjee to Nagpur, they had sought to build bridges with a far greater Congressman. On August 30, 1949, the head of the RSS, MS Golwalkar, and Jawaharlal Nehru had a 20 minute meeting at Teen Murti House. This prompted a lead story in the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser (issue of September 6, 1949) titled Two Men of Destiny Meet: A Happy Augury for the Future of Bharat. The article spoke of the ‘cloud of misunderstanding’ that had created ‘a gulf’ between the Congress and the RSS, which it hoped would now be bridged.
Commending this apparent rapprochement, Organiser wrote that ‘no party prejudices or past recriminations should be allowed to stand in the way of full utilisation of all the strength and energy that the nation possesses’. It is ‘hoped and wished’, ended the article, ‘that this meeting between the sage and the statesman, the cultural force and the political power will pave the way for the all round unity of the patriotic forces which is the crying need of the country today’.
A few weeks later, Golwalkar and Nehru had another meeting. Afterwards, the RSS chief said they ‘had a free exchange of views and tried to understand each other‘s mind’. The Organiser now went so far as to say that ‘the Congress and the Sangh have a more or less similar vision of the Bharat as it should be. Surely no other two movements in the country have closer aims’. It then essayed a rather tortured explanation of what it claimed were these parallels, writing that there ‘can be no doubt that secular or theocratic, no State can afford to allow the citizens, whom it rears and protects, to undermine it and denounce its national culture. Surely, neither Panditji nor Shri Guruji would concede that in the name of secularism’.
Like his mentor Gandhi, Nehru was a man of courtesy and civility, always willing to engage with both admirers and critics. Yet there was no doubt in his mind that the RSS and he were, ideologically speaking, on different pages. However, conservative Congressmen were keen on a reconciliation with the RSS. In October 1949, when the prime minister was away in the United States, senior Congress leaders said they would allow RSS members to join the party. Welcoming the move, Organiser crowed: ‘It is the end of the Congress war on the Sangh. It is a right step in the direction of national consolidation’. With ‘Communists out to enslave Bharat to Russia and Socialists still trying to find their feet’, commented the RSS journal, ‘mutual goodwill and co-operation between the Congress and the Sangh is the surest guarantee of national unity in this hour of crisis’.
Meanwhile, Jawaharlal Nehru was undertaking a triumphant tour of the US, with major rallies in American cities and honorary doctorates from Ivy League universities. The acclaim accorded overseas to Nehru prompted a full page edit in Organiser, (November 16, 1949), which said that ‘every Bharatiya is proud’ of ‘the ‘honours showered upon’ Nehru, and continued:
‘Nehru leads Bharat; and Bharat adores Nehru. But Bharat is not its economics and politics alone. Bharat is an integral entity with a rich control of Bharaiyata. … Today Nehru is big because he is trying to stabilise the state and strengthen the economy. But Nehru can be great only by harking back to the voice of Swami Vivekananda and of Gandhiji.’
The prime minister had just turned 60. The RSS mouthpiece offered wishes for his good health, while asking Nehru to ‘ponder what he has done to restore the spirit of the Nation by reviving its culture and stirring its soul’ — implying that a collaboration of the Congress with the RSS would be the vehicle of this restoration.
On his return from the US, Nehru came to know of the plan to have RSS members admitted into his party, and immediately had it reversed. He said the Congress could not have members of other organisations, unless it was its own body of volunteers, the Congress Seva Dal. This prompted a hurt editorial in Organiser (November 23, 1949), which blamed the shutting of the Congress’s door to the RSS to the ‘pro-Muslim predilections of some of its leaders and the petty selfishness of a majority of its workers’.
Reading these old microfilms of Organiser was a revelation. For it is clear that the unctuous praise of the prime minister by the RSS had a purpose. MS Golwalkar wanted to be Nehru’s Rajguru himself. And he wanted RSS men to join the ruling party so as to reshape the nation’s priorities. Fortunately, Gandhi’s heir would have none of it. Nehru knew the RSS to be opposed to universal adult franchise, to full equality for women and Dalits, to equal rights for minorities, and to modern science as well. Besides, the RSS had publicly expressed its detestation of Nehru’s law minister, BR Ambedkar, who was finalising a Constitution embodying these values and principles. Nehru knew that admitting the RSS into the Congress fold could have gravely undermined the Constitution’s commitment to democracy and pluralism. So he declined to succumb to their flattery.
Among liberal circles, opinion is divided on Pranab Mukherjee’s recent visit to Nagpur. Some praise what he said there; others claim the optics of his going relegated the contents of his speech to the background. However, no Indian democrat should have misgivings about Nehru’s emphatic rejection of the RSS’s overtures to him in 1949. Had our first prime minister allowed the RSS into the Congress fold 70 years ago, the Republic would have been corroded from the start.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India