Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (1 April 1889 – 21 June 1940) was the founding Sarsanghachalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Hedgewar founded the RSS in Nagpur in 1925, with the intention of promoting the concept of a united India rooted in indigenous ideology. He drew upon influences from the Congress Party to start the RSS as a reaction to the Malabar riots
Hedgewar was born on 1 April 1889 in a Marathi Deshastha Brahmin, family in Nagpur. His parents were Baliram Pant Hedgewar and Revati. His father was an orthodox priest and they were a family of modest means. When Keshav was thirteen, both his parents succumbed to the epidemic of plague. His elder brothers Mahadev Pant, and Sitaram Pant ensured that he received a good education.
When he was studying in Neel City High School in Nagpur, he was rusticated for singing “Vande Mataram” in violation of the circular issued by the then British government.40 As a result, he had to pursue his high school studies at the Rashtriya Vidyalaya in Yavatmal and later in Pune. After matriculating, he was sent to Kolkata by B. S. Moonje (National President of the Hindu Mahasabha) in 1910 to pursue his medical studies. After passing the L.M.&S. Examination from the National Medical College in June 1914, he completed a yearlong apprenticeship and returned to Nagpur in 1915 as a doctor.
Hedgewar actively participated in Indian National Congress in the 1920s. But he got disillusioned with their policies and politics. The outbreak of the Hindu-Muslim riot in 1923 made him ponder over an alternate model of nation-building in India. He was deeply influenced by the writings of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He considered that the cultural and religious heritage of Hindus should be the basis of Indian nationhood.
Hedgewar and his initial followers during an RSS meeting in 1939
Hedgewar founded RSS in 1925 on the day of Vijayadashami with an aim to organise Hindu community for its cultural and spiritual regeneration and make it a tool in getting the country free from foreign domination.Hedgewar insisted on the term ‘rashtriya’ (national) for his exclusively ‘Hindu’ organization, for he wanted to re-assert the identity of Hindu with ‘rashtriya’. This can be confirmed by the ‘prarthana'(prayer) sung at the end of every shakha meeting, along with the slogans of Samarth Ramdas Ki Jai and Bharat Mata Ki Jai. Hedgewar created a female wing of the organization in 1936.
His initial followers included Bhaiyaji Dani, Babasaheb Apte, Balasaheb Deoras, and Madhukar Rao Bhagwat, among others. The Sangh was growing in Nagpur and the surrounding districts. And it soon began to spread to other provinces too. Hedgewar went to a number of places and inspired the youths for taking up the Sangh work. Gradually all his associates had begun to endearingly call him as ‘Doctorji.’Upon his urging, Swayamsevaks went to far-off cities like Kashi, Lucknow etc., for their further education and started ‘Shakhas’ there.
After founding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925, Hedgewar started the tradition of keeping the RSS away from the anti-British Indian Independence movement.The RSS carefully avoided any political activity that could be construed as being anti-British. The RSS biographer C. P. Bhishikar states,
After establishing Sangh, Doctor Saheb in his speeches used to talk only of Hindu organization. Direct comment on Government used to be almost nil.
When the Congress passed the Purna Swaraj resolution in its Lahore session in December 1929, and called upon all Indians to celebrate 26 January 1930 as Independence Day, Hedgewar issued a circular asking all the RSS shakhas(branches) to observe the occasion through hoisting and worship of its own Bhagwa Jhanda(saffron flag), rather than the Tricolor (which was, by consensus, considered the flag of the Indian national movement at that time). 1930 was the only year when the RSS celebrated 26 January and it stopped the practice from the next year onwards. However, such celebration became a standard feature of the freedom movement and often came to mean violent confrontation with the official police.Dr.Hedgewar’s biographer C.P. Bhishikar states,
, Mahatma Gandhi gave a call for ‘Satyagraha’ against the British Government. Gandhi himself launched the Salt Satyagraha undertaking his Dandi Yatra. Dr. Hedgewar decided to participate only individually and not let the RSS join the freedom movement officially. He sent information everywhere that the Sangh will not participate in the Satyagraha. However those wishing to participate individually in it were not prohibited. This meant that any responsible worker of the Sangh could not participate in the Satyagraha.
Hedgewar emphasized that he participated in the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930 in individual capacity, and not as a RSS member. His concern was to keep the RSS out of the political arena of the Indian independence movement.
Hedgewar had endorsed the idea of militarizing society in accordance with fascist organizational arrangement. In January 1934, Hedgewar chaired a conference on fascism and Mussolini. In March, 1934 Hedgewar held a conference with Moonje and Gokhale in which the subject of discussion was how to organize Hindus militarily in accordance with the contemporary fascist states of Germany and Italy. A 1933 secret report of British Intelligence titled ‘Note on the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh’ states that:
It is perhaps no exaggeration to assert that the Sangh hopes to be in future India what the ‘Fascisti’ are to Italy and the ‘Nazis’ to Germany.
His health deteriorated in later years of his life. Often he suffered from chronic back pain. He started delegating his responsibilities to M.S.Golwalkar, who later succeeded him as Sarsanghachalak of RSS.50 In January 1940, he was taken to Rajgir in Bihar for the hot-spring treatment. 189
He attended the annual Sangh Shiksha Varg in 1940, where he gave his last message to Swayamsevaks, saying: ‘I see before my eyes today a miniature Hindu Rashtra.” :25 He died on the morning of 21 June 1940 in Nagpur. His last rites were performed in the locality of Resham Bagh in Nagpur