From every political rally in Bengal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking about Bengal icons such as novelist and reformer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhans, Raja Rammohan Roy, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, among others. While the history of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has no direct connection with these cultural icons, the seed of the formation of the RSS can be traced from the Hindu Revivalism movement of the late 19th Century and these Bengali reformers indeed played a key role in that movement.
The "Hindutva" of the RSS is very different from the "Hindu Revivalism" movement but with time the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is considered as the political front of the RSS , has adopted various cultural icons to connect itself with the cultural Hinduism of India. In the poll-bound state of West Bengal, this is helping BJP which is slammed by Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee as a party of "outsiders" as an integral part of Bengal's cultural tradition.
Understanding Hindu Revivalism
The Hindu Revivalism movement was not solely based in Bengal but it was spread among most of the key presidencies of undivided India including Bengal, Bombay and Punjab. The Hindu Revivalism movement emerged as a part of the nationalist movement in the late 19th century and it was mostly limited to Western-educated elites.
In the book, The Brotherhood In Saffron, Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle write, "Two broad movements emerged among Hindus seeking to define their national identity and we shall refer to them as the modernist and revivalists. The former adopted models of social and political change based upon Western patterns, and the latter look to Hindu antiquity. Both groups found themselves wanting when judged by the new norms... The RSS traces its roots to the latter and hence we shall limit our discussion of revivalism to the Hindu reformers."
The Revivalists focused solely on the Hindu audience and addressed the issue that due to the foreign domination the Hindus are suffering.
Andersen and Damle write, "They argued that the loss of national consciousness created conditions conducive to foreign domination. By appealing to an idealised past, the revivalists reminded the Hindu Public of the suffering and degradation experienced under alien rule. The call for independence was a logical corollary for the degraded present could only be overcome by eliminating the foreign intruders who had disrupted the original blissful society. Muslim rulers and the British were identified as the source of the disruption and many revivalist spokesmen sought to place limits on their political power and on their cultural influence."
Upholding the Hindu pride
As part of the nationalist movement, the Hindu Revivalists focused on upholding Hindu pride and addressing the audience in a much more aggressive manner than the others. This aspect helps the RSS and BJP to connect with the revivalists because they also address the same issues though in a much different form.
Andersen and Damle write, "Organised revivalism had its initial success in mobilising support in Bengal, headquarters of England's Indian empire. The Hindu Mela was formed in 1867 to revive pride in Hindu civilisation. At the annual meetings of this group, self-reliance and self-respect were promoted by exhibitions of indigenous arts and crafts, traditional sports and the performance of patriotic songs and dramas."
On the other hand, this was also the time when noted Bengali novelist and reformer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote his novel Ananda Math around the same time. This novel gave the voice to the Revivalists because here Chattyopadhyay not only brought the concept of Bharat Mata but also wrote the song Bande Mataram. This is considered the turning point of the Hindu Revivalist movement.
In the article named, History lesson: How 'Bharat Mata' became the code word for a theocratic Hindu state, journalist Shoaib Daniyal writes, "Ananda Math's contribution to the development of a proto-form of Hindu nationalism is immense. In the novel, the principal antagonists are clearly Muslims who have ruled over India. Bharat Mata appears in the book as a ten-armed idol in a marble temple. Bande Mataram, contained within the novel, is a hymn to the goddess Durga and, as Tagore wrote: Bankim Chandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end."
However, historians have observed that the depiction of Bharat as the mother can be traced to the 1860s. In a novel named Unabighsho Puran which was published in 1966 Bengali author, Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay used the term, Bharat Mata.
But the popularisation of the word Bharat Mata and connecting it with the Hindu Revivalism happened through Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Social scientist Carl Olson writes: Although not the first author to emphasise the mother for political purposes, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94) transforms Bharat Mata into a fully-fledged Hindu goddess and symbol of India who is experiencing difficult times; her children are indifferent to her sufferings, and they need to awaken to the dire conditions and act. In 1875, Bankim Chandra composed Bande Mataram, a song about a benign goddess figure, which becomes an anthem for Indian nationalists in their struggle for liberation from British hegemony.
This history not only helped RSS and BJP to connect their core values with the Bengal and to project them as an integral part of Bengal's culture but also to adopt a well-respected icon like Chattopadhyay.
Similarly, the RSS and BJP are also focusing on the works of Swami Vivekananda. In the late 19th century revolutionary Hindu nationalist groups were formed to fight the political class. These groups majorly had young students as their part and the concept of Karmayoga popularised by Swami Vivekananda was one of the key ideologies among these groups. Significantly, the RSS also adopted the concept of Karmayoga with time.
Andersen and Damle write, "Swami Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission and its order to teach Karma Yoga and Shakti. Although both the order and the mission remained outside politics, they provided a rationale for political activity and many revivalist activists including the founder of the RSS were inspired by Vivekananda's message. The second head of the RSS was himself an ordained of the Order."
RSS founder Hedgewar and his Kolkata roots
The formation of RSS happened in Maharashtra but the founder of RSS, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, has his political roots in Bengal. This was much before the formation of the RSS when Hedgewar came to Kolkata and joined the Anushilan Samity. Much before Hindu nationalist leader from Bengal Shyama Prasada Mokerjee the founder of Jana Sangh from where today's BJP has emerged RSS traces its root in Bengal.
In the book, The RSS, Icons of the Indian Right, author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes, "In mid-1910, the year when Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was imprisoned in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands cellular Jail, Keshav landed in Calcutta with a letter of introduction from Dr Moonje. He was on his way to becoming a medical doctor and would later acquire the moniker of "Doctor Saheb" within the RSS."
Interestingly, the RSS never boasts on this part of Hedgewar's life and his involvement with Anushilan Samity. But in his 6 years in Kolkata Hedgewar not only worked with the Anushilan Samity but also with the Ramakrishna Mission on relief work.
Mukhopadhyay writes, " Keshav's entry into the charmed circle of Anushilan Samiti finally established him as a young revolutionary. When he went home for vacation that year, he carried books, pamphlets and most importantly revolvers for revolutionary groups in Nagpur. He was expected to maintain a low profile which he did rather successfully and in fact, did not acquire enough importance in these activities to incur the Wrath of the authorities. Curiously, none of the RSS hagiographies nor other accounts makes any mention anywhere of the revolutionary responsibilities which he carried out in this period with who and who he came in contact with and what lessons he drew from his experiences in this work."
How Hindu Revivalism is helping BJP connect its roots with Bengal
A section of historians and academics believe that the history of Hindu Revivalism in Bengal was lost amid the leftist views of Indian history, therefore, bringing this narrative into the popular political discourse is important.
Prof Gopal Mishra, ex-vice chancellor of North Bengal University and noted Sanskrit scholar says, "The history of Hindu Revivalism is very important and it should be popularised. Traditionally this history has been ignored by academics for several reasons. But today if the BJP is connecting its roots to Hindu Revivalism then it's nothing wrong. Politics and history have always complemented each other. The history of Hinduism is very vast and limited to any place, politics, or ideology. But today popularising the history of Hindu Revivalism is important because it will show how rooted Hinduism in Bengal's history."
The author is a fellow at the Delhi Assembly Research Centre and an independent journalist who writes on issues of governance and politics. He tweets @sayantan_gh