RSS in Sindh: 1942-48 (Part-II)
An article build upon the memories of some Sindhi Hindus who attended RSS shakhas in their teens and early youth and brought with them distinct memories to divided India.
Once the Partition of the Indian subcontinent had become a reality, a team of RSS activists in Sindh had two urgent aims in mind: to facilitate a smooth evacuation of the Sindhi Hindus who had begun to repose considerable trust in them, and to blow up a few government structures before leaving.
The RSS in Sindh drew partial sustenance from the first and most enduring “reform” institution in colonial India – the Arya Samaj. Although the Arya Samaj was founded by Dayanand Saraswati who was from Gujarat, one of its most fertile spheres of influence was the Punjab, and eventually its neighboring province, Sindh. The Arya Samaj was founded in 1875 with a view to combating conversion and providing Hinduism its due place among competing religions like Islam and Christianity. The Arya Samaj aimed at taking Hindus “back to the Vedas”, and reinstating a “pure” state preceding the Puranas and other later accretions in Hinduism. This made the Arya Samaj eschew caste distinctions, which it saw as a post-Vedic phenomenon, against the grain of pure Aryan identity. This side of the Arya Samaj is concerned with social equality. However, the Arya Samaj also originated as a response to new threats posed by missionary activity in the 19th century. Revivalist organizations of the 19th century such as the Arya Samaj forged an all-inclusive Hindu identity (as opposed to caste identities of brahmins, vaishnavs, etc.) to create notions of collectivity that could withstand threats from Christianity and Islam. The emergence of the Arya Samaj needs to be located not only against the background of missionary activity and its attendant controversies, but also the peculiar political and ethnic solidarities of the early 20th century.
If Punjab showed a tendency for conversion to Sikhism and Christianity [Sharma 2000: 95], Sindhi Hindus were prone to converting to Islam. In either case, certain tools were handy, “shuddhi” (purificatory rite by which the converted were brought back to Hinduism) being one of them. This brought the Arya Samaj in direct confrontation with other religious groups and led to sporadic religious tensions especially in Sindh.
According to Gobind Chellani, a rising tide of ‘amil’ conversion into Islam was the chief context for the arrival of the Arya Samaj in Sindh [Chellani 1983: 53]. It is difficult to determine the precise number of people who were drawn into the revivalist vortex or of those who refused to do so.
According to the figures available on the Arya Samaj in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, it currently has 8,000 members. There are strong affiliations with the Arya Samaj among some Sindhis in Mumbai and Ulhasnagar in Maharashtra, and in Ajmer and Jaipur, Rajasthan. The respondents from these organizations trace the existence of the organization in Sindh. Gobind Chellani’s book on the Arya Samaj in Sindh provides a list of over 90 well known Arya Samajis from Sindh. The chairman of the Arya Samaj in Sindh was Khemchand Gurnomal Shuddhimal and he was so committed to the cause, says Chellani, that he was “rightly called the Savarkar of Sindh” [Chellani 1983: 52]. Both Chellani and K R Malkani recount frequent incidents of conversion among the amils of Hyderabad (Sindh) and the controversial case of Tharumal Makhijiani who had converted to Islam but later wanted to revert to Hinduism. The furore surrounding this incident and the division of opinion in the Hindu panchayat as to whether reconversion should be allowed, serves as a prelude to the arrival of the Arya Samaj. As far as the case of Tharumal Makhijiani (1878) was concerned, the Hindu panchayat in Hyderabad pronounced judgment against re-conversion. However, this set off intense debates about what seemed like a rise in conversion because other amils such as Moorajmal and Deoomal had also converted in 1891, and whether they could be re-converted. Consequently the issue led to seeking “outside” help and Diwan Dayaram Gidumal, mentioned earlier as a leading reformer, wrote to the Arya Samaj in Punjab and asked it to intervene. The request was addressed to Swami Shraddhanand in Lahore in 1893. Both the preponderance of the Arya Samaj in Punjab [Sharma 2000], and its close geographical and cultural ties to Sindh (the same context governed the influence of Sikhism in Sindh) had a role to play. As a response to Dayaram Gidumal’s request, Pandit Lekhrajani Arya and Pandit Puran Anand reached Sindh. The first public meeting of the Arya Samaj in Sindh was in 1893. The two pandits worked day and night and the moment they came to know of someone with the slightest desire to change his religion, they would not leave him alone till he had changed his mind [Malkani 1984: 9; Chellani 1983: 57].
The RSS emerged in the peculiar circumstances of the 1920s which witnessed the Khilafat Movement, the Non-Cooperation movement and its abandonment by Gandhi, the disenchantment with Gandhi in certain circles and the beginning of Hindu-Muslim riots in Bengal and Maharashtra.
Its founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, viewed the communal rioting that swept across the country as a sign of the weakness of the Hindu community. He felt that the Muslims had an edge over the Hindus because the latter had lost their manhood and collectivity. It was important therefore to instil a warrior-like pride in the Hindus and forge a Hindu national identity. This was the broad aim of the RSS, which was also following another organization with a similar ideology, the Hindu Mahasabha. The Mahasabha was established in 1915, a decade before the RSS. It was concerned with a variety of Hindu interests such as cow protection, Hindi in the Devanagri script, and caste reforms. However, one of the chief differences between the Mahasabha and the RSS was that the latter never sought direct political power, a bone of contention between the two. Thus the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS shared a symbiotic, but often conflicting relationship. Meanwhile, the RSS was a small provincial organization based in eastern Maharashtra from 1925 (the year of its inception) to 1932.
The Delhi session of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1932 passed a resolution commending the activities of the RSS and emphasizing the need to spread its network all over the country. In the same year, Bhai Parmanand extended a special invitation to Hedgewar to attend the Karachi session of the Hindu Yuvak Parishad. Hedgewar seized this opportunity to establish contact with youth groups from Sindh and Punjab. The acceptance of the RSS in
During the decade of the 1920s, the Arya Samaj became particularly active and contributed directly to Hindu-Muslim confrontation. Interestingly, as the extract given below testifies, the Samaj was less interested in cultivating the spirit of Hinduism than in ensuring that Hindus remained Hindus:
The mass conversions of Muslims to Hinduism assumed significant proportions only in the 1920s, in the backdrop of concerted efforts by the Muslim and Hindu elite to inflate their numbers so as to enhance their political bargaining power. The Arya Samaj was particularly successful among Muslim groups which were only partially islamised and had still retained many of their old Hindu customs and beliefs. Thus, for instance, the Sheikhs of Larkano (Sind), a low half Muslim-half Hindu caste, were converted by the Sukkur unit of the Arya Samaj as early as in 1905. Similar was the case with the Sabrai Labanas of Ludhiana (Punjab) and the Marwaris of Ajmer (Rajputana), who, like the Larkano Sheikhs, followed a curious mixture of Hindu and Islamic practices. It is interesting to note that these group conversions to Hinduism organized by the Arya Samaj entailed essentially the giving up of certain Islamic customs such as the burial of the dead, ‘nikah’, the visiting of dargahs, and circumcision, rather than the imparting of Hindu religious knowledge to the new converts. This was possibly because the shuddhi movement was motivated far less by the desire to promote spirituality and moral and religious values than by strong anti-Muslim passion [Sikand and Katji 1994: 2215].
The Arya Samaj’s use of shuddhi evoked strong racial and communal prejudices and left a very deep and palpable mark on Sindhi Muslims. Hamida Khuhro describes the “able handling” of riots in Larkano by her father Muhammed Ayub Khuhro, the Muslim League leader remembered very negatively by Indian Sindhis. According to Khuhro, when in March of 1928, her father was visiting Larkano, a sudden riot broke out. “The riot had been caused by the activities of the Hindu fundamentalists of the Shuddhi, Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha movements who were busy scouring the countryside at the time trying to find and “reconvert” or shuddhi (purify) any person they suspected had been converted from Hinduism”.
A Hindu woman who had been converted to Islam and had been happily married for over 14 years was found to be forcibly converted. Says Khuhro, “It was clear that the Hindu extremist organizations like the Shuddhi and Mahasabha movements were bent upon stirring up communal trouble. In this case they had got hold of a woman who had been married for more than 14 years and [had] several children. She was bribed and threatened into abandoning her home and testifying against her husband which resulted not only in personal tragedy for her household but started the first communal riot in Sindh. This was the beginning of the strife between the two major communities in Sindh and the incident was followed by trouble in other towns, creating hatreds which would encourage divisiveness in the province and end in complete polarization between the two communities” [Khuhro 1998b: 72].
In addition to reconverting shuddhis, the Arya Samaj also organized ‘bahasbaazi’ (debates between Hinduism and Islam) in Hyderabad and Larkano. Chellani records a “successful” debate on scriptures in 1929 with Anjuman Naseet Islam and the Arya Samaj representing Islam and Hinduism respectively. The Arya Samaj emerged “triumphant” by showing that they knew far more about their scriptures than the representatives from Islam. A teacher named Ramdev Kundanmal, an active Arya Samaji was suspended for making objectionable statements about Islam. Gangaram Samrat, well known for his anti-Islamic writing was an active Arya Samaji. The Arya Samaj contributed directly to the creation of mutually exclusive categories such as Islam and Hinduism. After the late 1930s the Muslim League was more than happy to take such categories further to the point of Partition.
Of course, not every Hindu was an Arya Samaji nor was every Arya Samaji a Hindu fundamentalist. For instance, notes Lakhmi Khilani, “Our family forbade us from reading Dayanand Saraswati’s Satyaprakash. I can’t remember exactly what reasons they gave, but they must have considered it as a disruptive text” (personal interview). Khilani is one of the directors of the Institute of Sindhology in Kutch, Gujarat. The institution is based upon the principles of Sufi syncretism that binds the Sindhis of India and Pakistan together. It is possible that there were many other families like Khilani’s which may help us to put the success of the Arya Samaj in perspective. But the Arya Samaj paved the way for organizations like the Mahasabha and the RSS. A strong propagator of the Arya Samaj in Gujarat, Gangaram Samrat clearly and proudly admits such interconnections, “Arya Samaj has always supported RSS. I did too. I never went to the shakhas, but the RSS had my support. And for that reason, my sons are with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the present-day avatar of the RSS” (personal interview). According to Kirat Babani, Gangaram Samrat and his ilk represent one of the two strands within the Arya Samaj; people like Tarachand Gajra and Choithram Gidwani who were secular represented the other (personal interview). Nevertheless, the combative role of the Arya Samaj is captured in the words of one of its admirers who says, “To an extent that tit called for tat, the Arya Samaj played a useful role” [Malkani 1984: 85].
Rita Kothari is Professor of English at Ashoka University, Delhi. She is one of India’s most distinguished translation scholars and has translated major literary works into English. Rita has worked extensively on borders and communities; Partition and identity especially in the western region of India. She is the author of many books and articles on the Sindhi community.
Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly (Published on July 8, 2006)