Nagpur: The Ideological Heartland Of RSS

Counted as a powerful social-cultural organisation today, RSS also believes in the adage ‘catch them young’. Several schools run by it in the city have been the alma mater of many professionals, and its values are deeply ingrained in them.

Photo by Sunny Shende via Getty Images
RSS workers take part in a foot march (Pathsanchalan) on the occasion of Vijay Dashmi Utsav celebration, on October 18, 2018 in Nagpur, India. Photo by Sunny Shende via Getty Images

Located in the centre of India, Nagpur is often described as a clearing in the middle of a jungle. Thus, the city feels the need to keep reinventing itself. It takes pride in being the winter capital of Maharashtra, is known for its oranges and has bragging rights as a Tiger gateway. But what has actually catapulted it to fame is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, headquartered here. Its ideological imprint on the city has become apparent over the last 100 years.

Nagpur was ruled by Bhosles, the royal Marathas, whose kingdom extended across what came to be known as CP and Berar. Mahal, where the royals resided, was dotted with many opulent Wadas of the prosperous landlords and temples built by the Bhosles. To this day, it retains the name and most of its ancient flavour, with arches, carved gates and delipidated mansions that speak of a bygone era. It is in Mahal that RSS was first established in 1925.

Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a practising physician and a Ram devotee, wanted to serve the lord through community service. Along with 16 others, he formed what was spoken of as ‘Sangh’ on September 17, 1925. It was the auspicious day of Vijaya Dashami. The purpose was to volunteer at the Ram Yatra held at Ramtek, a small town 54 km from Nagpur. It took two more years of thinking to adopt the name Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1927. A triangular orange flag was taken up as a symbol of a guru and was worshipped before every event. The first guru-dakshina, a euphemism for donation, was also given to the flag. The ambition was to extend the reach of RSS across the country. So, in 1929, a prayer written for the organisation, Namaste Sada Vatsale Matribhume was in Sanskrit. The previous one in half Hindi half Marathi would not have worked for shakhas that were to come up from North to South and from East to West.

Dr. Hedgewar built RSS around his belief in Ram and His philosophies. Communal tensions were high during the 1930s in India, and the sentiment was to protect the Hindus. There was also a need to train them as fighters. Ram was a warrior king, and the Sangh drew inspiration from Him. Ram was the only god who travelled from North to South of India, which RSS aspired to do. Thus, Ram became a hieroglyph for the RSS. It was to fight for Ram’s cause that during the Ram Janambhoomi movement, the RSS kar-sewaks led from the front.

Nagpur often wakes up to the sound of rhythmic claps of bamboo sticks. It is a shakha in progress at a nearby public garden or community space. Then, there are even more subtle signs of its presence. A doctor’s cabin could have a picture of lord Ram along with the triangular saffron flag; a dusty utensils shop may have a bamboo stick leaning against its crusty walls; one may spot a black topi harmlessly perched atop an almirah in a friend’s house. All are the essential leitmotifs of RSS. Any of this rarely obstructs Nagpurians, whatever ideology they may be following.

Counted as a powerful social-cultural organisation today, RSS also believes in the adage ‘catch them young’. Several schools run by it in the city have been the alma mater of many professionals, and its values are deeply ingrained in them. The full-throated singing of Vandematram during the morning prayer is a norm, while India’s map displayed in the principal’s room is personified as Bharat Mata.

For the better part of the last century, RSS did not wield much political clout. The city was not politically evolved. Even those who attended shakhas would vote for Congress. The various training camps organised on the grounds of its headquarters at Reshimbagh in east Nagpur, were an assimilation of caste, culture, and creed. This characteristic reflected across the city too, which is like a crunchy cosmopolitan salad bowl.

When the states were carved on a linguistic basis, Nagpur, the capital of CP & Berar, was included in Maharashtra. However, Nagpurians are more comfortable conversing in Hindi on a social level. The city has had its share of migrants. It borders Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Telangana. The Bengal-Nagpur Railways, operational during British rule, helped many from Bengal to migrate here for jobs and livelihood. The settlers created a rich tapestry of culture, language and cuisine. RSS reached out to all, dispelling the impression that it is only a domain of Maharashtrian Brahmins.

Nagpur’s saffron hue can effortlessly gradate into blue for the Dalits and green for Muslims. Like Dr Hegdewar, in 1956, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar also chose Dusshera for his Dhamma Chakra Paravartan Diwas, when he led more than 50,000 Dalits to embrace Buddhism at a ground in west Nagpur since christened Deeksha Bhoomi. On Vijay Dashami every year, when RSS celebrates its Foundation Day, lakhs of Dalits from across the country congregate at Deeksha Bhoomi to pay obeisance to their messiah. Until a decade back, Anees Ahmad, a Congress MLA from Nagpur, would whisk every heavyweight politician on a visit to the city to Tajbagh, the shrine of a Muslim saint.

At the turn of the century, Nagpur shifted political gears. Jambuwantrao Dhotewas the first non-Congress MP to win the Nagpur elections in 1971, helped by the erstwhile Jansangh, the political wing of RSS. It took two more decades for Karyakartas to break into a frenzied dance when Banwarilal Purohit won the elections in 1996 on a BJP ticket.

Over the last ten years, Nagpur has been hyperventilating politically. With Nitin Gadkari and Devendra Fadnavis, who have risen from RSS ranks, representing Nagpur at the national and state levels and occupying important positions in the governments, the saffron hues of this city of oranges have deepened. Cultural events are carefully curated to push the agenda. A surge in activities to mark Shivaji Jayanti, the reciting of Ram Raksha Stotra and Hanuman Chalisa at the community level, and the emergence of theatre that gently ushers the Sangh ideology are the norm rather than the exception.

Religious processions to celebrate Ram Navami have been an important feature of Nagpur. This year, barely an hour after canvassing for the Lok Sabha constituency ended on April 17, for the first time in its history of 54 years, Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Sarsangh chalak, flagged off the traditional Shobha Yatra from the Poddareshwar Ram Mandir in east Nagpur, amid chants of Jai Shri Ram. It was the coming together of Dr Hedgewar’s devotion to Ram, the Lalla’s consecration at Ayodhya and the social-cultural-political ideology of RSS.