Warriors of the faith

A. J. Philip visits the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and finds no signs of firepower that spurs the so-called keepers of the flock

Photo: Pradeep TewariNAGPUR is a city of paradoxes. What strikes you most when you come out of the airport is a huge arch across the road proclaiming "Welcome to the City of Oranges". However hard you try in the sweltering heat, orange is one thing you will not find even in the big fruit market near the railway station.

Ask for oranges in any shop, you will get various explanations why it has disappeared from the city, through which 5 lakh tonnes of the fruit passes every year. "Nagpur is no longer the orange capital of the country. The citrus fruit is exported and not consumed here. This year the production was pretty low"… thus went the explanations.

Once in Bhusawal, also in Maharashtra, I could not find banana anywhere at the railway station, though the town is famous as the banana capital of the country. It was more out of curiosity than necessity that I searched for oranges in Nagpur.

It is a city I have passed through countless times but never had an opportunity to visit. It may be a mere coincidence that when I reached the house where I was to stay, NDTV was repeating, as is its wont, a lead item in its news bulletin.

Photo: Pradeep TewariIt was a portion of a speech Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief K.S. Sudarshan had delivered the previous day. He compared politicians to a prostitute who changed her clothes and make-up to suit the tastes of her clients. "What a shameless comparison! Could he not find a better idiom?", my wife asked in righteous indignation.

But it roused hopes in me of an interview with the sarsangchalak (the supreme leader). A few telephone calls later, I had to give up hope as Mr Sudarshan was not in town. My host was more than glad to take me to the RSS headquarters in the old city area. On the way, I realised he was more interested in offering me a glass of lassi from a shop famous for the concoction.

The shop, situated close to an old mosque, specialised in the drink. It attracted "lassi" lovers from all over the city. They came in cars, parked their vehicles in front of the shop, downed the window panes and ordered lassi which was served in the vehicle. But we decided to go inside the shop to savour the delicacy. "The secret of the popularity of this shop is the ingredients put in the lassi , my host explained.

The thick drink was supremely delicious. There were many floating items in the drink and I could identify some of them as cashewnuts, badam, pumpkin seeds and cream. "What is it that gives it the special touch? For a reply, I got a smile from the shopkeeper. The walls in the shop were adorned with photographs of politicians and film stars enjoying his lassi .

Deekshabhoomi, where Dr B. R. Ambedkar became a Buddhist.
Deekshabhoomi, where Dr B. R. Ambedkar became a Buddhist. — Photo by the writer

With temperature hovering around 48 degree C, there were fewer private vehicles on the road. We spent more time drinking water than exchanging notes. "Can I first take you to Deekshabhoomi?" asked the driver and we readily agreed to it.

Soon we were in the sprawling Deekshabhoomi, near Ramdaspeth, in the western part of the city, where the architect of the Indian Constitution embraced Buddhism along with lakhs of his followers on October 14, 1956. It was the first time in history that so many people converted at one place in one go. Why did he choose Nagpur, instead of Bombay? The availability of four acres of prime land in the city and the persuasiveness of the militant organiser of the Samta Sainik Dal, Waman Godbole, changed his mind.

A large two-storied domed structure consisting of the replicas of the gate of Sanchi stupa commemorates Dr B.R. Ambedkar receiving "diksha" from the oldest Buddhist monk in India at the time, a Burmese living at Kusinagara.

Barricades are erected to control visitors to the monument.

But at the time of our visit, there was nobody to join us. The lady manning the gate was enjoying an afternoon siesta when we woke her up from her slumber. However, she seemed to be pleased to see us. Not only did she guide us to the monument, she even volunteered to keep our belongings.

Hedgewar Memorial — The statue faces this building
Above: Hedgewar Memorial — The statue faces this building
Below: Dr Hedgewar’s Samadhi. — Photos by the writer
Dr Hedgewar’s Samadhi

Inside the 4,000-sq ft circular hall, we felt a great sense of relief from the oppressive heat outside. A couple of Telugu-speaking Dalits were admiring the architectural beauty of the monument. "There is no air-conditioner. But don’t you feel that you are in an air-conditioned room?" one of them asked with a lot of pride. I nodded in agreement. It was not their first visit. They plan to come next year to take part in the massive golden jubilee celebration of diksha when a larger number of people would take "refuge" in the Buddha, the dhamma and the sangha.

We did not feel like leaving the place for fear of the heat wave but did not have much time to spare, either. The lady at the gate wanted us to visit again when there were more people.

From there we went straight to Reshimbag where the driver thought the RSS headquarters was located. On the way, we stopped to have Nagpuri buttermilk. When we reached the "headquarters", the dark green-uniformed gateman sprang up to open the gate to let us in.

"You are mistaken. This is not the Sangh office, which is a kilometre away from here", he said. Standing there, I remembered the controversial "Walk the Talk" programme telecast a fortnight earlier. It was the same spot from where K.S Sudarshan began his walk.

When we expressed our desire to visit the campus there, the gateman would not let us in without the express permission of his bosses. He took us inside the building and introduced me to a dhoti-clad official, who was in charge of reception. There was an expression of disbelief on his face when I told him that we wanted to visit the place. To remove his confusion, I gave him my visiting card.

He took quite some time to study the details on the card before giving me a smile. He called a young boy and asked him to accompany us to the Smriti Mandir, the Samadhi of the RSS founder, Dr Keshava Baliram Hedgewar. The boy, a tribal from Maharashtra, has been an inmate there for as long as he could remember.

As we walked down to the "Mandir", I noticed what I thought was a hideous exhibit. But when I moved a little away from it and looked again, I realised it was the statue of Lord Ganesha, the most playful of Hindu gods.

No, the confusion was not the result of any optical illusion. The idol was made of motor car parts, perhaps to symbolise the RSS’ desire to make Hinduism muscular. The boy led us to the Smriti Mandir. The gatekeeper, a retired government employee, who joined the RSS when he was young boy, was expectedly taking a nap when we disturbed him.

He immediately warmed up to us. But the moment I took out the camera, his warmth disappeared. "Photography is a strict non-no". All my pleadings fell on deaf ears. "If you insist, I will have to seek permission". Saying this, he asked the boy to go and check with the higher authorities. The moment he was gone, he allowed me to take photos, of course, "secretly and quietly".

In the basement of the Smriti Mandir, or the sanctum sanctorum, is the symbol "Om" inscribed on lotus. The monument has a bronze statue of Dr Hedgewar in a sitting posture overlooking the huge building complex that has three bhavans – Pandurang Bhavan, Yadava Bhavan and Madhava Bhavan, named after three of his colleagues. The conclave also houses a small memorial — the sculpture of flame — to Guruji Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who succeeded Hedgewar.

By the time I took photographs, the boy returned to tell the gatekeeper that photography was not allowed. "Did I not tell you that photography is not allowed?" He satisfied his guilty conscience.

The gatekeeper gave us a detailed description of the route we should take to reach the Sangh office. Yet, we had to stop a couple of times on the way to ask for direction. The road was narrow and full of vehicles of all sorts. We moved at snail’s pace and reached a dead-end. Yes, we were at the RSS headquarters. As I had seen pictures of the building, I could easily recognise it.

What struck me most was the large presence of policemen there. They were everywhere, in the parking area, at the gate, on the lawns and inside the building. "Whom do you want to meet?" asked a burly police officer. "Do you know that we do not allow photography?" he asked me without waiting for my answer to his first query. Obviously, he had noticed my camera.

"We wanted to meet the sarsanghchalak. Since he is not in town, we would like to visit the RSS museum", I answered. He deputed a moustachioed policeman to accompany us to the reception. It was paradoxical that a voluntary organisation needed policemen not only for security but even for chores like conducting a visitor.

All offices in the RSS headquarters have Sanskrit names. The tiny reception was swarming with retired swayamsevaks. Every one had a piece of newspaper to read. It seemed newspapers were split and read there! The person handling the desk was well past his prime. Another was trying in vain to make a long-distance phone call.

Surrounded by so many old people, I suddenly remembered V.D. Savarkar’s pithy comment, "The epitaph for the RSS volunteer will be that he was born, he joined the RSS and he died without accomplishing anything".

The "receptionist" was happy to find that I was a journalist. He called a senior functionary to guide me to the museum on the second floor. My arthritic guide found climbing the stairs difficult. He told me about his visits to Chandigarh.

He opened the museum for us. Almost in the centre of the hall was a cushioned cane chair. "It was sitting on this chair that Guruji Golwalkar did most of his writing. He also breathed his last while seated on this chair". Despite all my entreaties, he did not allow me to take a photograph of the chair or the exhibits.

The museum contains the memorabilia associated with the sarsanghchalaks from Dr Hedgewar to Sudarshan. My guide was too tired to take us around. He sat on a chair and asked us to take the round ourselves. Just then, power disappeared and there was total darkness in the room. "Should I open the windows?" he inquired.

It would have been cruel to ask him to do so. We waited for a minutes but power did not return. "The power situation here is very bad", he said as he somehow locked the room and haltingly led us down.

From the main building, he took us to an annexe which houses a bookshop. It was pitch dark inside and there was nobody to show us any books, let alone talk to us. "Would you like to wait for electricity to return" the guide asked me. It would have only strained him. We decided to leave the dark, lonely place where everything was there except life. It was difficult to believe that it was the headquarters of the self-proclaimed warriors of the faith.