Mahatma Gandhi leads the Salt Satyagraha
Mahatma Gandhi leads the Salt Satyagraha

“Even during the British times, the Congress party would not have faced so much adversity that we, our dedicated workers, have gone through in 50-60 years,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the event of laying the foundation stone of the BJP’s new party headquarters in New Delhi.

Congress response to the latest Modi swipe was swift and sharp. The senior spokesperson for the Congress party, Anand Sharma, responded during an urgently called press conference: “It does not behoove the Prime Minister of India to lower the dignity of his office by making a statement which is factually incorrect and an insult to the freedom fighters. It is a shocking untruth that the Prime Minister has publicly uttered. He has made a shocking comparison, trivializing the freedom struggle, insulting our national heroes for which he must not only withdraw that shameful statement but apologize.”

Ever since the ascendance of BJP to the center of power in New Delhi two years ago, it appears that a carefully crafted strategy is in place to appropriate icons and legacies that the party is sorely lacking. It is as if the party is so embarrassed by the lack of pedigree that they are even willing to go out and create some history of their own. With unlimited resources at their disposal, they get hold of some hired hands that are ready to scan every nook and corner to find any missing comma or invisible gaps in crumpled pieces of history to recreate a story to fit their narrative.

The recent efforts to diminish the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru to the development of a modern India and to redefine Sardar Patel’s role during the independence struggle and to recast him as anything but pluralistic is quite evident to all keen observers of the fast moving political dynamics in the country. One may also witness the rush by the ruling class to embrace Ambedkar as one of their own while engaged in policies that continue to marginalize the Dalit community – all part of a public relations campaign to build a new image for the party and its faithful.

Despite their best efforts, RSS has failed miserably in proving that they have played any meaningful role to liberate India from the British colonialism. On the contrary, RSS only tried to disrupt the anti-imperialist struggle of the people of India. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi had called upon the people to break different laws as part of the resistance to the British rule. In the context of these efforts, Gandhiji himself launched the famous Salt Satyagraha. However, Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, sent information down to his cadre not to participate in the Satyagraha.

The historical records show that Hedgewar himself participated in the Satyagraha in an individual capacity. However, he had an ulterior motive in doing so. According to his biography published by RSS, “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.”

It became quite evident to the Congress leaders that Hedgewar went to jail not because he was committed to the freedom struggle but rather to break and disrupt the ranks of the Congress cadres who were united under the non-cooperation movement regardless of their religious affiliations. To thwart the sectarian and communal influence over the cadre, the All India Congress Committee passed a resolution in 1934 forbidding Congress members from becoming members of RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the Muslim League.

The tradition of RSS keeping aloof from the freedom struggle that started by the founder Hedgewar continued under his successor M.S. Golwalker. As a matter of fact, he took it a step further by religiously complying with all the instructions from the government, disbanding RSS military department and not cooperating with the ‘Quit India’ movement.

Golwalker was also vehemently opposed to the very concept of a ‘Secular State’. In ‘We. Or our nationhood defined’, Golwalker praised the Nazi campaign against Jews and Gypsies and stated categorically that it was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.” He also excoriated the Chinese for eating pigs, dogs, and rats and said: “Such men cannot be expected to have human qualities.”

Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh which evolved into today’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wrote a letter to the Bengal Governor Sir John Hobart as to how to respond to the ‘Quit India’ movement. In his letter dated July 26, 1942, he wrote: “Let me now refer to the situation that may be created in the province as a result of any widespread movement launched by the Congress. Anybody, who during the war, plans to stir up mass feeling, resulting in internal disturbances or insecurity, must be resisted by any Government that may function for the time being.”

Then there was a mercy plea by Veer Savarkar, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha to the British Government that “if he is released, then he would be loyal to the British Government and was also ready to serve it.” He also opposed the ‘Quit India’ movement and asked Hindus to stay active in the war effort and not to disobey the government.

The words and deeds of these erstwhile leaders of RSS and BJP clearly indicate that they were not only non-participants in the freedom struggle where hundreds of people were risking their lives on a daily basis but also collaborators who supported the British on critical occasions. The British acknowledged that the RSS had “scrupulously kept itself within the law, and refrained from taking part in the disturbances that broke out in August 1942.”

It is quite a sad day when a prime minister of India belittles the sufferings of the freedom fighters under the courageous leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru while asserting that BJP faced much more adversity during the post-independence era compared to the Congress party during the freedom struggle. Political discourse is often riddled with hyperbole. However, the memory of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom deserves much more gratitude and respect from all of us.

If we would like to take a peek into the individual and collective sacrifices, there would be a page to write: Pandit Nehru was sent to jail about nine times and spent a total of 3,259 days; Mahatma Gandhi served time in prison for a total of 2,338 days, and that is equivalent to 6.4 years. Conventional histories have counted, at the minimum, about 100,000 Indian soldiers who were slaughtered in severe reprisals by the British forces desperate to impose order. Also, the death toll at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre alone was around 1,000. Then there was the famine in the East that was exacerbated by British ruthlessness and took millions of lives. Even Ghadar, the first organized movement of overseas Indians, who primarily lived in Canada and the United States, played a role in the struggle for independence for their homeland, and many hundreds paid the ultimate price with their lives.

If the ‘adversity’ Modi refers to is the ban on the RSS after the assassination of Gandhiji, one needs to pay attention to Sardar Patel, the first Union Home Minister, who wrote to Golwalker on September 11, 1948, commenting on the RSS activities: “As regards to RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, our reports do confirm that as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former (RSS) an atmosphere was created in the country in which such ghastly tragedy became possible”.

Patel’s letter continued as follows: “Apart from this, their opposition to the Congress, that too of such virulence, disregarding all considerations of personality, decency or decorum, created a kind of unrest among the people. All their speeches were full of communal poison. It was not necessary to spread the poison and enthuse the Hindus and organize for their protection. As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the valuable life of Gandhiji. Even an iota of sympathy for the Government or the people no more remained for the RSS. In fact, the opposition grew. The opposition turned more severe when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death. Under these conditions, it became inevitable for the government to take action against RSS”.

If the erstwhile Jan Sangh was kept at bay by other secular political parties till the late 70s, Patel’s letter clearly shed light on why it happened. I honestly doubt that if it were not for the Emergency rule imposed by Indira Gandhi, the Jan Sangh would have been rehabilitated so quickly and become the force that it is today.

The BJP, undoubtedly, is the biggest beneficiary of the stable institutions built by the Congress Party, under the stewardship of Gandhi and Nehru, which paved the way for the preservation of democracy and the rule of law. The BJP is the guardian of those institutions now, with little or no investment, and Indians everywhere would like to see them protected and preserved for generations to come!

(The author, George Abraham, is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and Chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, USA)