It was 22 March 1939, the day of Hindu Nav Varsh, or New Year. The occasion was hardly observed in Bengal because Bengalis had their own, secular new year on Poila Boishakh that both Hindus and Muslims celebrate. In Kolkata that day, two Maharashtrians — Madav Sadashiv Golwalkar and Vithal Rao Patki — laid the foundation of the first shakha, or daily unit, of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in West Bengal. The venue was a field called Telkol Math in Maniktala area of north Kolkata. It marked the formal beginning of the RSS’ journey in Bengal.
Eighty-two years on, the Hindu nationalists in West Bengal are seeing their first realistic chance of coming to power in the state, which has a reputation of being a bastion of secular and liberal socio-cultural practices. Growing through many ebbs and flows, the RSS, in 2020, recorded the highest number of shakhas functioning in the state – 1,600. Right from the beginning, organisers (pracharaks) from Nagpur have arrived at regular intervals. But the likes of Joydeb Ghosh and Kalidas Basu made the backbone of the RSS, working mostly under unfavourable political conditions throughout their life, because Hindutva as a political force had little or no appeal in the state from the mid-1950s to 2008.
Ghosh, a 16-year-old member of the shakha when it started in 1939, became its ‘mukhya shikshak’, or head trainer. Ghosh died at the age of 90, in 2013. Till the end of his life, he remained associated with the RSS in various capacities. So was Kalidas Basu, another swayamsevak (volunteer) of the first shakha, who played many leading roles over the following decades and remained associated with the RSS till the end of his life in 2010 at the age of 86.
The three phases
The RSS’ work in Bengal can be divided into three phases. The first, between 1939 and 1953, offered them a mix of favourable and unfavourable conditions. The second, and the longest, from 1953 to 2008, was mostly about working in difficult conditions with little hope of the situation turning favourable. The third, beginning in 2009, has been one of steady rise, riding advantageous political situations at state and national level.
It is the ones who kept the organisation going during the second phase are the real men behind the expansion that the RSS recorded over the last decade. They rendered service to the organisation with little resources and banking mostly on their dedication to the cause they believed in.
Bijoy Chandra Roy was one such swayamsevak whom I met in 2018. He had been associated with the RSS since 1981 and worked in various capacities until taking charge of the Saraswati Shishu Mandir at Balibela area in Goghat of Hooghly district. It is a secondary school affiliated with Vidya Bharati, the formal education wing of the RSS. He had been looking after the school since its beginning in 1992 and after his children became self-dependent, he left his home to live on the school campus.
Schools such as this one played instrumental roles behind the growth of the RSS in their neighbouring areas, because the buildings also provided accommodation to visitors on organisational or social work.
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Laying the foundation
West Bengal was a focus state for the RSS, which was founded in Nagpur in 1925, right from the time the organisation thought of expanding to other parts of India in 1939. The times were turbulent in Bengal. As a response to the increasing influence of the Muslim League, activities of several Hindu organisations, including the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha and Bharat Sevashram Sangha, had been increasing. Golwalkar returned to Nagpur a month after opening the first Shakha and promptly sent Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, better known as ‘Balasaheb’, to Kolkata to supervise organisational activities of the RSS. In 1945, Dattopant Bapurao Thengadi was sent to replace Deoras in Kolkata. In 1949, the Sangh sent Eknath Ranade to oversee activities in West Bengal. All of them later became stalwarts of the RSS at the national level.
One of the first things that Deoras did after arriving in Kolkata was to connect with Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who had joined the Hindu Mahasabha in 1939. He invited Mookerjee to the RSS shakha and Mookerjee paid a visit in April 1940. That was the beginning of Mookerjee’s relation with the RSS, which continued over the next nine years during which he led the Mahasabha. In 1951, he would finally lead the launch of the RSS’ own political wing, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). Under his leadership, Bengal emerged as the strongest base of the BJS in the 1952 Lok Sabha and assembly elections, even though they lagged far behind the Left, which had emerged as the Congress’ principal rival in the state.
After Mookerjee’s untimely death in 1953, the BJS gradually slipped out of Bengal’s political scene. One of the reasons was the Left’s success in winning over the refugees from eastern Bengal, whom the RSS considered as its prime support base. This marked the beginning of the second phase.
Amar Bhadra, who became a swayamsevak in 1967 and a pracharak in 1981, had told me that working under difficult circumstances actually helped the RSS strengthen its core. “The Sangh taught us to give. We worked without any material expectation, accepting a hard life, and seeking only spiritual satisfaction. Working under pressure actually steeled the organisers,” Bhadra had said.
Building the base
There has not been many cases of killing of RSS activists in clashes with the Leftist, who came to power in 1977 to rule for 34 years at a stretch, as opposed to the case of Kerala. But several RSS organisers I met blamed a ‘societal pressure’ that the Left created on the friends and families of swayamsevaks and shakha attendees. Bijoy Chandra Roy had said that the Left often forced closures of shakha not by physical attacks but by coaxing attendees to drop out.
Despite the loss of the momentum of the political movement in Bengal since the mid-1950s, the core activities of the RSS – running the shakhas and carrying out social and religious work – had never ceased. The shakhas may not have increased in significant numbers during the Left rule, their social work did expand. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) started working in 1964, Vidya Bharati (the RSS’ formal education wing) in the 1970s, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in the early 1980s, Ekal Abhiyan (informal education) in 1989, Sewa Bharati (the social service wing) in the late 1980s, and so on.
In the first phase, the focus of the RSS was on opening shakhas in prominent towns – Murshidabad, Suri, Uttarpara, Bardhaman. However, during the second phase, for the growth of its social work projects, the RSS had identified four backward regions of the state – the poschimanchal, or the western region, dominated by a topography similar to that of Chota Nagpur plateau; the north Bengal; the Sunderbans region in the southeast; and areas along India’s border with Bangladesh. All these regions are economically backward and the Hindu population is dominated by people from the oppressed castes.
The events were usually kept low-key, because building the network was considered more important than throwing up a challenge prematurely.
Tapan Ghosh had quit the RSS in 2007 after serving as a pracharak for three decades. He formed his own outfit, Hindu Samhati, in 2008 and made the name known across the state within three-four years with his brand of aggressive Hindutva. While explaining the slow growth of RSS in Bengal, he cited the following reasons during an interview to me in 2013: a Leftist bent of mind among the mass since the 1950s-1960s where people raising religious or communal issues were looked down upon; Bengalis were proud of their own culture while the RSS had overt Marathi influences, including a predominance of vegetarianism; and the RSS in Bengal ‘lacked in courage’ to take on the Left’s ‘political terror.’
The third phase of the RSS journey in West Bengal started after the 2009 Lok Sabha election, when the Left Front suffered a massive setback, winning only 15 seats out of 42. All the existing organisations were asked to focus on expansion, expecting a favourable situation to arise once the Left Front government fell. By that time, they were on quite a strong foundation due to years of slow but steady growth. More than two dozen organisations affiliated with the RSS had built up their networks in different parts of the state, among different sections of the society, by the time Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) came to power in 2011.
Over the next nine years, the number of permanent social work project conducted by these organisations increased from less than 200 in 2011 to 450 in 2020, according to my interview with Bengal RSS spokesperson Biplab Roy.
As each RSS outfit grew, the cumulative strength of the Sangh Parivar – showcased in massive rallies on the occasion of Ram Navami in 2017 – announced the arrival of the RSS in Bengal even before the BJP marked its arrival.
It is these people – who kept the organisation alive during those difficult days – whom the RSS wants to credit for its current success. In a June 2019 article in Swastika, the Bengali mouthpiece of the RSS being published since 1947, the RSS south Bengal chapter’s secretary Jisnu Basu had cited the sacrifices of the likes of Prashanta Mandal of Dakshin Dinajpur, who was allegedly killed by Leftist supporters during an attack on a shakha on 15 March 1984, and four youths of Sonakhali area in the Sunderbans who were allegedly killed by local Left organisers on 10 February 2001. After Mandal’s death, his elder brother became an RSS whole-timer.
After 2014, when the BJP realised it had popular support but not the organisational strength to channelise it, the RSS provided the party dedicated organisers, from the state to the grassroots level. In the words of Abhijit Das, a swayamsevak who contested the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections and served as the BJP’s South 24-Parganas district unit president for several years until being sent to the state committee last year, “The Left cadres, having worked under favourable conditions for the most part of the past 40 years, failed to withstand the TMC’s political terror. Swayamsevaks survived battling the Left and fought it out on the ground with the TMC.”
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and author of Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)