By Govindi Dyal
On January 30th, 1948, political activist Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a devoted member of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Commonly referred to as the R.S.S, this group was a violent, right-wing organization that was founded in 1925 and had the sole purpose of promoting and maintaining Hindu supremacy. Just over 6,000 kilometers away, the common occurrence of street violence, infiltrated police and ‘centrist’ political leaders created a new political form: fascism. Under the reign of Benito Mussolini, fascism took off and became known worldwide, catching the attention of Hindu nationalists who were beginning their own movement. The seemingly successful message of Italian unity under the state founded by Mussolini fueled the R.S.S and encouraged them to plow through political, religious, social and cultural climates in order to achieve their goal of a Hindu state. This article will highlight the influence that Italian fascism has had on the development of this nationalist party and will demonstrate their similarities.
Translated into English as the “National Volunteer Organization”, the R.S.S was created by physician Keshav Baliram Hedgewar as a form of rebellion against the British rule and internal tensions between the religious communities, mainly the Hindu and Muslim populations. The R.S.S. mandate states that any person that has Indian ancestry, including the millions of Indian Muslims or those who are part of a religious minority, is Hindu. As a result of their Hindu genealogy, everyone is required to acknowledge this part of their history in order to be a part of the “Bharat Mata”, or Mother India; otherwise, one cannot claim the Indian identity.
Hedgewar established this group as a disciplined cadre that consisted of members who were mainly from the Hindu Brahmin caste (medium). The Hindu caste system is an ancient hierarchal system that was based off of one’s karma and dharma – meaning work and duty, respectively. There are four main categories of the caste system with several subsections, and the Hindu belief is that these divisions came from the God of Creation, Brahma, Himself. The idea behind the categories of the caste system comes from the physical body of Brahma. It is believed that teachers come straight from the head of Brahma, warriors were created from His arms, traders were developed from the thighs and everything else below were those who performed menial tasks. As a result, Brahmins were considered to be the most superior caste because of their position as leaders and teachers. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that while the R.S.S may have been led by Brahmins, members of the organization came from all castes.
The main inspiration for the founding committee of the R.S.S came from the fascist regime of Italy. Hedgewar and his colleague B.S Moonje visited Italy in 1931, where they met with infamous fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A detailed account of their journey was noted in Moonje’s diary, where he describes their visits to highly regarded Italian military and fascist academies. After their historic meeting with Mussolini, Moonje vowed to devote his time and energy to the development of a military school and militant restructuring of the organization and community. He did this by recruiting young boys between the ages of 6 and 18, then implementing mandatory weekly meetings and physical and paramilitary training, which included performing drills. In an interview with The Mahratta, a newspaper from the Indian state of Maharashtra, Moonje stressed the need to “Indianize” the nation through means such as conscription. In this same interview, he made a direct reference to the political structure of Germany and Italy by stating that “leaders should imitate the youth movement of Germany and the Balilla and Fascist organizations of Italy… I have been very much impressed by these movements.”
It was after the interview with The Mahratta that debates about fascism moved from a conversation among party leaders to a subject that was regularly discussed in the Indian media, particularly in the Marathi press. Between the years of 1924 and 1935, the Indian press released numerous editorials about Mussolini, fascism and Italy. Kesari, a Marathi journalistic series, outlined their approval for a dictatorship regime, as it was seen as the best way to restore social order. They did this by showing the transition from liberalism to fascism as the only plausible way to eliminate internal tensions and struggles felt across the country. The journal continues to propagate the notion that a single-man government is more impactful for the state rather than a democratic one. Additionally, Kesari gave significant space in their publication to spread the word of Mussolini’s political word, another attempt to propagate the idea that fascism was the superior governmental ideology. Constant conversations on fascism and the media’s painting of it in a positive light encouraged Hindu nationalists to believe in fascist ideology and integrate fascism into their political beliefs. With British rule still looming over Indian lives, the idea of an anti-democratic political system was quite appealing given that democracy was seen as a British value.
The foundation of Italian fascism rested in the want for a unified Italy, and Mussolini’s vision to achieve this was through strong authoritarian nationalism through the centralization of political power demonstrating an anti-democratic feeling. The fundamentals of Italian fascism can be seen echoed in the R.S.S attempt to restore to a Hindu state. Several key values and ideologies are shared between the two: a strong, lone leader that will change the course of the nation’s history, the normalization of identifying a superior race, enlisting young boys and training them physically and militarily, and a forceful attempt to move away from democracy are just a few of the commonalities between Mussolini’s fascism and the R.S.S.
It is important to emphasize that the years of ideological development of the R.S.S took place during the British occupation of India. Indians suffered on multiple levels during the British occupation: the Hindu caste system was reinforced and perpetuated, and religion was manipulated in a way that increased division amongst communities. This led to the eventual two-nation Partition and the death of over one million people, constant famines and more injustices that were faced by Indians and caused by Britain. Therefore, by marketing themselves as an anti-British group, it attracts the attention of the majority of the population. Due to the state of vulnerability in India, the R.S.S had a relatively easy task of circulating their ideas, because they juxtaposed British values entirely.
Thus, Italian unification and Hindu nationalism share several key values. From emphasizing the want for an authoritarian regime, to declaring a superior race and religion, Italian fascism has had a significant influence on the growth and development of the R.S.S. Without the connections to Mussolini or their visit to Italy, the R.S.S might not have taken off the way that it did. Had it not grown to its current size – with a membership of roughly 5 million people – or had the impact it has had, India’s history may have been quite different, affecting the state of the nation today.
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