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Ram Navami Clashes & RSS: The Century-Old History of Violent Processions

Decades ago, Hedgewar had led a procession that violated orders and played loud music while crossing mosques.

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Opinion
6 min read
Ram Navami Clashes & RSS: The Century-Old History of Violent Processions
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Aap chronology samjhiye” (understand the chronology), Union Home Minister Amit Shah famously said in 2019 to explain the Central government’s plans to implement a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). That timeline got jumbled up for a variety of reasons.

Every development is preceded by a sequential arrangement of events. Consequently, in the backdrop of the communal clashes seen in several states during boisterous Ram Navami processions, it is necessary to trace a century-old chain of developments. This will establish a ‘chronology’ that is different from Shah’s – maybe even a tad disconcerting for him and his ilk. As a motley crew committed to a sectarian ideology, this is one detail of their past for which reminders are unwelcome.

We must first examine the primary reason behind these undeniably preventable clashes between Hindus and Muslims, which have left at least one person dead, besides grievously injuring many and gutting innumerable public and private properties.

From all accounts, violence ensued when processions were taken out on Ram Navami and pseudo-devotees shouted provocative slogans while waving saffron flags in front of mosques and areas identified as Muslim ‘ilaaqe’, or localities.

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The 'Chronology' Since 1925

Hindu right-wing commentators, at least according to one pro-Hindutva website, accept that the “common ‘trigger’ for heavy stone-pelting on the processions was that the processions were passing by mosques but did not turn off the music”. The majoritarian argument is that there has been a century-old tradition of violent Muslim response to “Hindu processions playing music outside mosques”.

This argument is half-baked and overlooks that for more than 100 years, organisers of Hindu processions have deliberately provoked Muslim residents and worshippers by cocking a snook while crossing mosques or colonies in the name of celebrating their festival.

The start of this sequence, or ‘chronology’, is important to recall for it is intrinsically linked to the birth of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925, the ideological fountainhead of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The RSS is also the ‘training’ ground for most BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah.

'Hindus are not Well-Organised': Hedgewar

Social relations between Hindus and Muslims were not always idyllic in the late nineteenth century despite the two communities’ strategically coming together during the 1857 uprising. Nagpur, the birthplace of the RSS, witnessed serious clashes between the two communities in 1903-04, as well as in 1914.

By the early 1920s, KB Hedgewar, the eventual founder of the RSS, and his political mentor, BS Moonje, distanced themselves from Mahatma Gandhi after he pitched for Hindu-Muslim unity and incorporated the Khilafat Movement into the Non-cooperation Movement.

The two mobilised Hindu sentiments against Muslims in Nagpur and Moonje led a fact-finding team to the Malabar region in Kerala to probe the violent events of 1921. Hedgewar heard of this while he was jailed for his participation in the Non-cooperation Movement; by the time of his release in 1922, Gandhi had withdrawn the agitation after the violent episode in Chauri Chaura.

Moonje also released his report on the Moplah rebellion and termed it a case of “forced conversion” and “the biggest Muslim attack on Hindus after the Muslim rule”.

The release of the report with an unambiguous majoritarian slant and escalating anti-Muslim sentiment in central India provided a justification to Swami Shraddhananda for initiating the ‘Shuddhi’ purification (read ‘reconversion’) movement.

As a direct consequence, Hedgewar firmed up his opinion that “Hindus are not as well-organised as the Muslims … the only solution ... is for Hindu leaders to organise their own society”. The future RSS founder decided to take the lead in this direction.

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The Dindi Satyagraha Led by Moonje & Hedgewar

Hedgewar began his campaign by reconverting orphans sheltered in Christian missionary homes. But his real success in enlisting Hindus and widening the schism with Muslims was in 1923.

This happened when he launched a campaign against British administrators. The demand was simple: Hindus will no longer adhere to the ‘peace pact’ arrived at after the 1914 riots and will henceforth take out religious processions with blaring music, even when they crossed mosques.

Hedgewar said the right to play music was not a trivial matter but a manifestation of ‘Hindu strength’. He did not take note of the fact that the aforementioned agreement had followed recognition on the part of Hindus of the dominant Muslim belief in the ‘impropriety’ of music.

Local administrators banned music during processions, but Hedgewar convinced Hindu organisers to indefinitely postpone the immersion of Ganesha idols in protest, thereby creating anger among Hindus who blamed Muslims for the impasse.

Eventually, the orders against music were violated and processions were taken out with “utmost noise” while crossing mosques.

This protest was called the ‘Dindi Satyagraha’, referring to a group, or dindi, singing devotional songs. Academic John Zavos, in his book Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India, states that Moonje was the one who choreographed the satyagraha, while Hedgewar “acted as a stormtrooper”.

How 'Macho Men' Were Drawn Into Such Processions

In time, propelled by the success of playing music in front of mosques, a branch of Hindu Mahasabha was established in Nagpur with Moonje as vice-president and Hedgewar as secretary, while the ornamental position of president was allotted to the former ruler of Nagpur state, Raja Lakshmanrao Bhonsle.

Music played by those in the processions certainly had no role in enhancing spiritual sentiments but, in fact, was a symbol of a ‘disturbing’ presence, and was thereby offensive to Muslims.

The Dindi Satyagraha was Hedgewar’s greatest success before establishing the RSS. In this campaign, on some occasions, he played drums himself outside mosques when professional drumbeaters demurred because of security risks.

The future RSS founder also had a penchant for bodybuilding, and he used that physical prowess during the 1924 communal riots.

During the Dindi Satyagraha, many people who ran akharas, gyms or bodybuilding clubs were drawn into the campaign despite no prior experience or interest in politics.

Physical rigour was made integral to the RSS’s functioning once it was established in September 1925 after Hedgewar was inspired by VD Savarkar’s text Hindutva: Who Is A Hindu?, which codified Hindu nationalistic thought.

Hedgewar also ensured that RSS swayamsevaks were trained to use the sword, javelin and dagger – weapons used mainly in close-quarter conflicts and not against state forces.

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The Long-Known Phenomenon of 'Music-Before-Mosque' Riots

Moonje had not backed Hedgewar’s enthusiasm for the RSS. But in December 1927, Moonje acknowledged that his one-time protégé had ensured a fightback by Hindus. “This miracle of eradicating the lowly and submissive nature of our [Hindu] society has been achieved” by RSS and Hedgewar, he said.

Undeniably, processions and music during Hindu religious festivals, which turn more boisterous when crossing mosques or Muslim ilaaqe, occupied a central place in the establishment and growth of the RSS and organisations affiliated with it.

Julian Lynch, a doctorate in anthropology/ethnomusicology, wrote that readers of newspapers were familiar with the term “music-before-mosque riots” even in the nineteenth century. In his view, such clashes “arose following the deliberate display of a musical procession, usually accompanying a Hindu festival, in front of a Muslim place of worship, causing offence, and, very often, violence”.

The music in such religious processions effectively had nothing to do with the music but was an offensive expression used against a community that is stationary by one that’s on the move, capable of using hit-and-run tactics. Although the phenomenon of ‘music-before-mosque riots’ predated the formation of the RSS, its use was essential to the organisation’s formation and growth. Today, its leaders have perfected the use of such tactics, as the latest spate of communal violence again demonstrates.

Even after independence, the RSS and its affiliates, including the BJP cadre, were steadfast in using religious processions – especially on the occasion of Ram Navami and after the Ayodhya Ram temple issue gained momentum from the late 1980s – to spark riots, and, in turn, consolidate its support base among Hindus.

When Processions Announce 'Arrival', Not Devotion

The riots that were triggered by processions mirrored Hedgewar’s initiatives almost a hundred years ago, and are part of the same chronological sequence.

Importantly, Lynch pointed to a The Times of India report from Calcutta in 1924 that spoke of several disturbances outside a mosque during Durga Puja celebrations. The report, he highlighted, stated that “Hindus retaliated by playing band and music”, indicating that it was not a devotional act but a form of offence.

Multiple reports and videos about the recent clashes demonstrate that it was difficult to separate the music from the provocative acts during the Ram Navmi processions, quite like in the past, when the RSS was established. The music, then, is but just a spectacle, a strategy to mark space and announce presence, or ‘arrival’.

Is it not stated time and again that the more things change, the more they stay the same?

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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