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Gandhi, and the origins of the Hindu Mahasabha

Haridwar, 1915, Kumbh Mela. The usual Cholera outbreak at the Kumbh was consuming thousands of pilgrims. Meanwhile, on 13 Feb, a little away from the bathing masses, an umbrella organization of the various provincial Hindu Sabhas was being established.
The formation of this umbrella organization was not a sudden decision though. At the Indian National Congress session in 1910 (Allahabad), the delegates passed a formal resolution to establish the All India Hindu Mahasabha, and a draft constitution was supposed to be prepared. In parallel, another group of Congress delegates, vexed with the Minto Morley Reforms of 1909 that created separate electorates for Muslims, tried to form their own Hindu Mahasabha. They too couldn’t get much work done.World War I began soon after.
The Punjab Hindu Sabha took the lead in 1913, and proposed that by the 1915 Purna Kumbh at Haridwar, all the Hindu leaders should arrive at a consensus and establish an umbrella organization. Almost all the Punjab Hindu Sabha leaders, and those of United Provinces, were in Congress too.
In 1915, Mohandas Gandhi, who had just returned from South Africa, was testing the waters and doing the networking with Congress leaders. Gandhi had already met some of the Hindu Sabha/Congress leaders during his stay and visits to London. He did not get along very well with Vinayak Savarkar in 1906, but struck a few other friendships, like the one with Shyamji Krishna Varma.
By the time of his return, Gandhi had already achieved some level of international fame due to his activism in South Africa, and the Queen’s Medal for bravery in the Boer War, with his Natal Indian (stretcher) Ambulance Services. He was considered a passionate speaker with clear and strong ideas on how to unify the nation, and the adoption of Whiggish liberal ideas into a Hinduised polity for India.
Gandhi had earlier courted the Arya Samajis for his fund raising efforts in South Africa, and never lost an opportunity to praise Swami Dayanand Saraswati, and how his (Gandhi’s) understanding of Bhagavad Gita was influenced a lot by the Arya Samaj founder. From his South Africa days till almost the early 1940s, Gandhi had a complex engagement with Arya Samajis. He praised the founder in his vernacular writings and only had mild objections or what he called ‘defects’ in Arya Samaj. He continued to have long standing friendships with prominent Arya Samajis, but especially when he wrote in English, criticised the Samaji’s effort to convert Muslims into Hinduism through the Shuddhi movement. The Samaj was strong in Punjab, and NWFP, and to a limited extent in United Provinces. The DAV Schools, and the Gurukul Schools were the Arya Samaj’s foray into education. Gandhi preferred sending the girls from his extended family to the Kanya Gurukuls run by the Samaj.
Gandhi’s primary clients in South Africa were Muslim merchants from Gujarat, who employed a large number of Hindu indentured labour from Tamil Nadu, among other provinces. He had successfully handled the Arya Samaj leaders and liberal Hindu(tva) politicians like Gokhale for his fund raising activities, whilst managing the sensibilities of his Muslim clientele. Gokhale even visited Gandhi in 1912 in South Africa, and we know from Gandhi’s own words that Gokhale repeatedly asked Gandhi to come back to India, and lead the freedom struggle.
Gandhi arrived in India in July 1914, and after a brief stay at Tagore’s Shanti Niketan, started his tour of the country, meeting people, renewing old friendships and most importantly, creating new ones, with activists and leaders of various ideological hues.
Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, the noted Congress leader and organization builder, belonged to the Hindutva segment of the Congress. Their faction was in the ascendant within the still fledgling party, that needed British acts of repression and financial exploitation, to energize the masses into specific localized movements, whilst trying to work with the British India government towards more concessions for gradual self-rule. Malviya was the President of Congress in 1909, and along with the Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate, one of the most popular leaders in the North.
Gandhi traveled the United Provinces with Malviya, and they went to Haridwar. Malviya started an organization called Ganga Mahasabha in 1906 at Haridwar, to protect and conserve the Ganges river and its ecosystem. (Yes, we are still trying to save the river after 100 years !). Malviya was also one of the founding members of the Bharat Scouts and Guides, established the Benares Hindu University, and was the brains behind the establishment of Hindustan Times, the newspaper.
Malviya took Gandhi to meet a man in his late 50s, called ‘Mahatma’ Munshi Ram. An atheist turned Arya Samaji, he had come to Haridwar in 1902, to establish a Gurukul near Kangri, Haridwar. Today that school has grown into the Gurukul Kangri University.
Lala Munshi Ram Vij, also known as Mahatma Munshi Ram, was the son of a a Punjabi cop from Jalandhar. He rebelled against religious rituals and superstitions, became an atheist, and a practicing lawyer, when he came under the influence of Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati. There was strife between the DAV Schools and Gurukul Schools factions within the Arya Samaj. Munshi Ram sided with the Gurukuls, and he came to Haridwar to set up and run a Gurukul School himself. Over the years, people started calling him ‘Mahatma’ Munshi Ram.
Gandhi of course had many connections with Arya Samajis, and may have even met Munshi Ram, during the latter’s visit to South Africa to carry the funds raised in support of the agitating Indian labour, and to explore the possibility of launching the Shuddhi Movement in Natal.
Malviya and Gandhi ended up staying at the Kangri Gurukul for some time, and a healthy exchange of views convinced the Mahatma (Munshi Ram) and Malviya that in Gandhi, they may have found a leader who could connect with the Indian masses. Naturally, Gandhi was invited to the founding ceremony of the All India Hindu Mahasabha, during the Kumbh. Gandhi himself was very impressed with Munshi Ram. We need some corroboration for this biographic detail of Munshi Ram, but the story goes like this: Gandhi, like every one else, used to address Munshi Ram as Mahatmaji. Malviya was, of course, a ‘Mahamana’ already. And when Munshi Ram addressed Gandhi in return as ‘Mahatma’, Gandhi felt so honoured that he shared his happiness with others. People liked the word, and Gandhi did not mind the appellation. But official history states that Rabindranath Tagor gave this title to Gandhi, though the ICHR confirmed in response to an RTI enquiry that there is no documented proof that Tagore ever used that word for Gandhi. Quora has some good answers to this question, including the one I have described here.
The cholera epidemic was particularly severe during the 1915 Kumbh. However, the preparations for the formation of the All India Hindu Mahasabha went on undeterred. On 13th February 1915, they did have the meeting with several provincial Hindu Sabha leaders welcoming the move and expressing hope that they will achieve the unification of Hindus (cutting across caste, language and geographical barriers), and achieve Swaraj (Indians ruling India).
Gandhi was in attendance at this meeting, and in his speech, lauded the move to setup the umbrella organization, and expressed his full support and services to realize the aims of the organization. There are no written records of this speech on public domain though.
It was a rich haul of supporters/followers for Gandhi in that trip to Haridwar, apart from the honorific of ‘Mahatma’. Munshi Ram left his Gurukul, and plunged headlong into the Congress politics, taking quite a bit of the organizational heft of the Hindu Mahasabha with him. In 1917, he took sanyas and became Swami Shradhananda. People started calling him the Swami. He was no longer the ‘Mahatma’ of Haridwar, but an organizer of resistance against the Rowlatt Act. Shradhananda moved his base of operations to Delhi, and along with several of his followers, continued to be an Arya Samaji, a Hindu Mahasabha member, and a Gandhi follower in Congress - all at the same time.
Gandhi’s perfect positioning as a Mahatma steeped in the Hindu Vaishanavaite tradition, and as the de-facto head of the Congress for the mass movements, and a representative of Hindu India with the British - was simply a continuation of his approach in South Africa, made more sophisticated by practice. He galvanised the Congress cadre, and got the rural masses connected with the Congress movement. The ultra Hindutva section in the Congress (who were also running the Hindu Mahasabha) slowly started getting marginalised, and people like Malviya even left the Congress. A young Deshastha Brahmin physician from Nagpur felt frustrated with this ineffective involvement of the Hindu Mahasabha with the politics of the freedom movement, and the Congress approach focusing on constitutional means for freedom. He was a rising star in the Hindu Mahasabha, and protege of the President of the Sabha. And yet, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar walked out of both Congress and the Sabha in 1925, and started the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
The Hindu Mahasabha grew weaker as Gandhi and the Congress grew from strength to strength, and the leadership passed from the Hindu leaders of Punjab and UP to the Central Provinces and Maharashtra. Pre-Savarkar Mahasabha was basically a sister concern of the Congress, tethered with the influence and linkages established by Gandhi and his early supporters like Malviya and Shradhanand. Savarkar on one hand, and the RSS on the other hand, worked on the fringes with the revolutionaries and social activists. Under Savarkar, the Mahasabha started moving more and more towards the purely religion-based mass mobilisation or armed revolutionary tactics for the freedom struggle. We will look into those aspects in a future article.
I would like to end this glimpse into modern Indian history with an observation. Gandhi was at the founding ceremony of the Hindu Mahasabha and drew his initial cadre support from those activists with dual membership in Congress and the Sabha/Arya Samaj. Eventually, his power grew so much that he pretty much represented the entire nation to the world in general, and to the British in particular. The Mahasabha failed to take off beyond the urban areas of North and Central India, and a good portion of the ‘blame’ in their minds for their failure lay with Gandhi. The partition of the country in 1947, and the loss of Punjab and NWFP pushed them to a point where they decided to take the life of the person they anointed as ‘Mahatma’. When Swami Shradhanand was brutally murdered near Chandni Chowk in 1926 by a Muslim fanatic Abdul Rashid. Gandhi was in mourning, but declared that Abdul Rashid should be forgiven for the emotional act. I am sure the great soul of Mahatma Gandhi would have forgiven Godse, Apte and others from the Hindu Mahasabha too.