How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 14: RSS uses religious festivals to embed sense of Hindu identity in locals, widen its base

Greeshma Kuthar

Editor's note: This is the fourteenth reported piece in an 18-part series on the contemporary history of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The series features interviews, videos, archival material and oral histories gathered over a period of four months.

 Read other articles of the series here

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Raghavendra Bhandari is called 'omelette Bhandari' by those familiar with his shop, where he sells omelettes in the evening. As he welcomed me in, I noticed that though his store was small and unkempt, it didn't stop the consistent trickle of customers. Everybody seemed to recognise him. Inside the shop, pamphlets of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) programs are scattered here and there. On one wall is a framed photo of the World Trade Centre with 1973-2001 written on it, almost like it were a person.

Bhandari tells me how he has seen RSS grow from its initial days as a small shakha in Mannaguda to the towering palace-like structure which stands there now as RSS headquarters. Bhandari was initiated into RSS by his brothers, one of whom is Chandrashekhar Bhandari, a full-time RSS karyakarta and the author of Kadal Theerada Sangavate, an RSS publication which goes into the foundational activities of the RSS in coastal Karnataka.

Bhandari is all smiles when he talks about the founding years of the Sangh, "We did everything, from cremating unclaimed bodies to providing affordable catering services." Bhandari said the RSS enjoyed support of acclaimed businessmen like Panchamahal Vasudev Kamath, one of the earliest RSS supporters.

When asked about how things are now, Bhandari starts softly grumbling about the changed political climate. About how the sincerity he saw during his days as a young RSS karyakarta is no longer found among the youth. "Boys come to my shop, distract me and steal cigarette packets. This is what this generation has become," Bhandari said.

Raghavendra B€‹handari at his Mangaluru shop.

Raghavendra B€‹handari at his Mangaluru shop.

Till the 1970s, RSS didn't have a strong mass base in urban coastal Karnataka. The organisation remained Brahmin-centric, with most leaders belonging to the Goud Saraswat Brahmin community. But before the years leading to the Emergency, this RSS leadership spread out with more ease in semi-urban and rural spaces. The resistance was absent as the model of tapping into religious and cultural consciousness with nationalistic overtones was new.

Rajesh Poojary's temple in Kumpala. Greeshma Kuthar

Rajesh Poojary's temple in Kumpala. Greeshma Kuthar

Temples in this land spring up with relative ease, as the story of Rajesh Poojary tells us. Poojary, a businessman from Thokottu which is 20 kilometres from Mangaluru, constructed a temple 15 years ago which has become an adda for himself and the youth in Kumpala, the Hindu ghetto adjacent to Ullal. Poojary is the state vice-president of the All India Hindu Mahasabha. His brother is the priest at the temple. As he recollects the early influence the RSS had on him, he said, "There were around 30 of us. Till I started going to the shakha, I had no knowledge about figures like Ram or about the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There was nobody to explain this to us. But the pracharak at my shakha did. My love for my nation started after I joined this shakha". Poojary added that one of the reasons why everyone was excited about attending the shakha was because they got to play sports like kabbadi and cricket. "The RSS also encouraged us to organise blood donation camps and help the poor."

Poojary recounted a recent case of rescue he was involved in, where a 25-year-old Muslim lover of a 32-year-old Hindu widow was beaten up. Poojary was called by the sister of the woman. Poojary believes this woman was being exploited by her lover. He quickly added that Muslims are not all bad. He brought up the case of another woman in his neighbourhood who alleged that her brother was killed by a miffed Muslim boyfriend. But it later emerged that she killed him in order to be able to elope with her boyfriend. "There are such cases too, not denying it. But some of these Muslims are after our women," he added.

Poojary said he believes in love marriages, and that he has helped more than hundred couples get married. When asked if he has been in love, he said he has. "There were no cellphones at that time," Poojary said. "I couldn't keep in touch with her and hence we fell out. I had to prioritise my work over love". Poojary has had more than 30 cases filed against him.

Shyamala Madhav was the minister of information and broadcasting when India went to war against China in 1962. The portfolio wasn't a central government position, but a school-level leadership position which Shyamala still recollects fondly. "I made everybody in school pledge that they'll forego bursting crackers during Diwali and donate the money towards the war expense", said Shyamala.

"I was very politically aware as a child when Jawaharlal Nehru came to Mangalore to speak about the war, I listened attentively to everything he had to say," she added. Her first recollection of Jana Sangh is of the rally that was taken out during Sarvajanika Ganesh Utsav, which the Jan Sangh started to popularise in the late 1960s. "There was only one more Ganesh procession in the city and that was from KMC Medical College," she said. Kasturbha Medical College was established by educationalist TMA Pai, whose name is associated with the famous capitation fees legal battle. A banker and a doctor, Pai was the first to start a private medical college in India.

Ganesh Utsav in Bombay in the 1930s. Image courtesy: Homai Vyarawalla

Ganesh Utsav in Bombay in the 1930s. Image courtesy: Homai Vyarawalla

The connection between Ganesh procession from Sanghaniketan (RSS headquarters) and KMC is that both were institutions with Goud Saraswat Brahmins at the helm. My mother recollects visiting Sanghaniketan a few times as a child to take a peek at the 'Ganesh idol'. My mother referred to Ganesh Visarjan as 'their festival' which made me curious. When I ask if she is referring to the RSS, she replied with an answer which was even more amusing. She said people like her didn't know what RSS was in the early 1970s. Sanghaniketan was a small building in an area which was not frequented by anybody other than Goud Saraswat Brahmins. People associated the building with the starting point of the yearly Ganesh visarjans. Her recollection of the festival is standing by the road and watching the procession pass, like another Goud Saraswat Brahmins celebration €" the Sharada procession €" which starts from Shri Venkatramana Temple in Car street. This temple, till recently, didn't allow non-Brahmins to enter, and still doesn't allow let other castes into its dining hall.

The Ganesh procession became a rallying point for many political activities. After all, it had a similar history associated with it outside Karnataka. Bal Gangadhar Tilak conceptualised Ganesh Utsav celebrations to instil a sense of homogeneous Hindu identity, across castes, in Maharashtra. Dr. Hedgewar followed Tilak's method and decades later, so did MS Golwalkar. Golwalkar understood that such mass cultural celebrations go a long way in creating a support base. He encouraged his karyakartas to initiate such activities in their cities.

The Sarvajanika Ganesh Utsav, modelled after Tilak's Ganesh Utsav was a yearly activity organised at Sanghaniketan. Initiated in 1942 by U Vasudev Shenoy, it was modelled to attract youth to the organisation. An idol would be kept at Sanghaniketan for close to a week at the end of which it would be taken across the city in a procession at the end of which the idol would be immersed in water.

"Initially, only the Goud Saraswat Brahmin community participated in this," said Natesh Ullal, a filmmaker from Mangaluru. "But for their 25th year celebrations, they reached out to all communities in the city. Those interested could create a Ganesh tableau and take part. This time, even shudra communities, who otherwise had no role in such activities took part." What really worked for them is when they started organising festivals new to the region, such as Raksha Bandhan, at their shakhas.

Raksha Bandhan is part of the six religious festivals the RSS celebrates every year, which was initiated by its founder KB Hedgewar. These festivals are points of interaction between the masses and karyakartas. These festivals are also modes for the RSS to build its membership and propagate religion.

In The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism"by Walter K Anderson and Shridhar D Damle, the six festivals and the reasons why they are celebrated is explained:

"Each year the RSS celebrates six festivals (utsav). These festivals not only articulate the experience of those taking part, but like all ritual, they help to shape the spirit of the group. The ritual year begins with the Hindu New Year (Varsh Pratipad). This utsav provides the shakha leadership an opportunity to evaluate the previous year's progress. The date coincides with Hedgewar's birthday and is sometimes celebrated as Founder's Day.

The second utsav is the Coronation Ceremony of Shivaji (Hindu Samrajya Divotsav) which is celebrated to honor the "Hindu victory" over "Muslim Mughal" rule. The baudhiks at this festival frequently emphasize the "virtues" of strength, bravery, and courage.

The third is Raksha Bandhan, a north Indian celebration that Hedgewar introduced into the Sangh. The festival provides an opportunity for a sister to reaffirm her brother's obligation of continuing protection. She does this by tying a silk thread around her brother's wrist. In the RSS adaptation of this festival-, the mukhya sakshak or karyavah gives each swayamsevak a rakhi (a silk thread bracelet) to tie around the wrist of a fellow swayamsevak. The baudhik will emphasize the ties of kinship that bind the swayamsevaks together. Groups of swayamsevaks will also visit those who have either left the RSS or who only irregularly attend shakha and give them rakhis encouraging them to renew their fraternal ties.

The fourth festival is Guru Dakshina. On this occasion, the swayamsevaks offer money to their "guru"-the bhagva dhwaj (the banner). Most of the RSS funds are raised at this utsav. Each swayamsevak goes before the banner, offers pranam, and throws flowers on the base of the banner staff. On each side of the banner are the pictures of "heroes" of the Hindu nation, such as Hedgewar, Golwalkar, Ramdas Swami, and Guru Govind Singh. There are also usually pictures of several well-known Hindu warriors, such as Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Flowers are offered to these pictures as well. The member puts his offering (contained in a sealed, unmarked envelope) along with flowers on a thali (a round metal tray) and presents the offering to the banner. This banner is sometimes the topic of the baudhik. It is the image of the divine which swayamsevaks are encouraged to worship.

Dasara, the festival commemorating the victory of Ram over Ravana, is celebrated with more pomp and on a larger scale than any other festival. All shakhas in a geographic division of the RSS combine to perform the rituals.

Prior to the formal function, the RSS band will march through the city followed by uniformed participants. The public is invited to the ceremony. A well-known person from the area, often with no RSS affiliation, presides over the function.

Concluding the festival year is the celebration of Makar Sankrant (the winter solstice). The major themes of the utsav are personal renunciation and service to the nation. One part of the ceremony is meant to teach a behavioural trait considered "virtuous."

These festivals, as a method for gaining popular support, worked in Mangalore.

"Once, girls went to police stations and tied rakhis to policemen. This became front page news," said Natesh. He believes that the interpersonal relations the RSS built at the grassroots is what worked for them. RSS workers were designated to go door to door to inform the public about the activities of the nearest shakha.

By the mid-70s, the RSS had spread across the region. So even though they were banned during the Emergency in 1975, they had a strong network to facilitate communication. Many Sangh-affiliated leaders such as Ram Bhat and Prabhakar Bhat were arrested during the Emergency. But since the base had been built, RSS karyakartas led activities against the Emergency.

Natesh was then in his early teens. Like children his age, he would do anything for a holligae, a local delicacy. "If one was lucky they would get an extra one in weddings but nobody would indulge you with a holligae regularly because it was expensive," he recalled. When he was offered two a day to circulate a newspaper during the Emergency, he jumped at the offer. Boys like Natesh delivered Kahale (the RSS newsletter) during the Emergency.

Kamath (name changed on request) is a businessman from Mangalore. He remembered the Ganesh Utsav during the Emergency, in 1976, with distinct clarity. Fearing violence, the district collector denied permission for the visarjan. Sanghaniketan continued the pooja for two weeks more than the designated seven days, refusing to end the festivities till they were allowed to take out a procession.

"We were outraged. The government's attempts hurt religious sentiments," Kamath said. "Sanghaniketan became a rallying point for this struggle. Word spread across the city and support flowed in to keep the utsav going. After more than 30 days, we were allowed to take a silent procession through the city."

When the Emergency was finally lifted, victory marches were organised across Mangalore by the RSS and its allies. Writer and poet Aerya LN Alva was celebrated at these rallies.

Alva remembered visiting an underground printing press run by Ram Bhat's brother in Sullia where the newsletter Kahale was printed. One of Alva's poems katthey setthu hogiday (the donkey has died) based on Indira Gandhi's excesses during the Emergency was republished by the RSS in its newsletter. This poem became popular overnight. "They tried to arrest me but congressmen such as UT Fareed saved me," said Alva. "They saw me as a writer and were accepting of my critique. Thereafter, I received tremendous encouragement from Dharmasthala Veerendra Hegde and Pejavar Vishwa Theertha. They pushed me towards VHP and eventually, I became the president of the district".

It was during his tenure as president that the first Hindu Samaja Utsav was organised in 1981. This model was the vehicle through which leaders such as Praveen Togadia and Sadhvi Rithambara emerged with their inflammatory statements calling Muslims "cow-slaughterers and temple-destroyers", the culmination of which saw riots break out across the region.

Also See: How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 8: Bharatiya Jan Sangh emerges amid nationwide crackdown on Hindu nationalists

How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 13: Under Deoras, Sangh widens base in Dakshin Kannada, ramps up support from lowered castes

How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 9: Flag wars hit Dakshina Kannada port, Bunder shows how commerce trumps communalism

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