Opinion: RSS, Emergency, And The Importance Of Civil Society

The events of 1975-77 are a stark reminder of the fragility of democratic institutions and why civil society is crucial for defending them.

Opinion: RSS, Emergency, And The Importance Of Civil Society
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In the annals of Indian democracy, few events cast as long a shadow as the 21 months of Emergency from 1975 to 1977. It was the darkest hour in the history of Indian politics, effected by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in response to political opposition and unrest. Fundamental rights were suspended, press freedom was curtailed, and thousands of dissidents were imprisoned without trial. Yet, one organisation stood out for its ability to resist the government's policies - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Despite being banned, it played an important role in opposing the Emergency. 

Deoras's Letter

First, a primer on the period. By 1975, Indira Gandhi's government was facing hurdles on multiple fronts. Staring at the prospect of being forced out of office, Gandhi on June 25 made the fateful decision to have President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declare a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution. Civil liberties were suspended, press censorship was imposed, and opposition leaders were swiftly arrested in midnight raids. Many from the Sangh leadership, including sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras, were arrested. This is what Deoras said before his arrest, "In this extraordinary situation, the volunteers are not obligated to lose their balance. Continue the Sangh work as per the orders of Sarkaryavah Madhavrao Mule and build the ability of the public to perform their national duty while doing public relations, public awareness, and public education as necessary".

Prisons were flooded with RSS cadres nationwide. P.G. Sahasrabuddhe and Manik Chandra Vajpayee in The People Versus Emergency: A Saga of Struggle, claim that the number of RSS sevaks detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) was 23,015, which included 77 female activists. "The number of Sangh activists arrested for offering satyagraha during the Emergency was 44,965, while only 9,655 people of other parties offered satyagraha," the authors state.

In a letter to Gandhi, Deoras said, "I listened attentively in jail to the radio broadcast of your address to the nation from the Red Fort on 15th August 1975. On 4th July 1975, the Central government issued a special ordinance to ban the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). From press reports about the ban, it appears that it has been imposed on the ground that the activities of its swayamsevaks and senior workers are prejudicial to the country's security and public law and order". In the same letter, Deoras said about the RSS, "The ban order does not give a specific reason for the ban. The RSS has never done anything that would endanger the country's internal security and public law and order. The objective of the Sangh is to organise the whole Hindu Society and make it homogeneous and self-respecting. ...it is necessary to make it clear that the Sangh had never indulged in violence. Neither has it ever taught violence. The Sangh does not believe in such things".

The Underground Efforts

A few jailed Sangh leaders such as Nanaji Deshmukh and K.S. Sudarshan also communicated with the outside world through letters. Deshmukh wrote to film artists, urging them to join the movement for restoring democracy.  "You have a special position in society. You are a model for the youth...The question is, will you confine yourself to mere entertainment in these difficult times?... The call of the hour is that you replace the despair of today with hope born of thought. I request you to participate in people's struggle."

Given its long experience in operating as a decentralised network of local shakhas, the Sangh could quickly adapt to the Emergency days. Its organisational structure proved to be remarkably resilient to top-down suppression. A key factor that bolstered the Sang was its vast network of pracharaks (full-time workers) spread across the country. These individuals became the backbone of underground resistance efforts. On December 12, 1976, The Economist wrote, "The underground campaign against Mrs Gandhi claims to be the world's only non-left wing revolutionary force, disavowing both bloodshed and class struggle. Indeed, it might even be called right-wing since it is dominated by the Hindu communalist party, Jan Sangh, and its 'cultural' (some say paramilitary) affiliate, the RSS. But its current platform has only one non-ideological plank: to bring democracy back to India...the other underground parties, which started as partners in the underground, have effectively abandoned the field to Jan Sangh and RSS."  


One of the Sangh's most significant contributions during this period was its efforts towards running the underground press. With mainstream media outlets heavily censored or co-opted by the government, clandestine newsletters and pamphlets became a crucial source of uncensored information. Sangh volunteers were vital in writing, printing, and distributing this material, often at significant personal risk. Various monthly or fortnightly magazines were published nationwide to portray the plight of the people. Printed on cyclostyle machines and distributed hand-to-hand, they provided a steady stream of news and commentary critical of the Emergency. The RSS cadres naturally took elaborate precautions to avoid detection, frequently changing printing locations and using a network of trusted couriers for distribution.

The Sangh also supported other media. When veteran journalist Ramnath Goenka's Indian Express newspaper faced intense censorship, Sangh volunteers helped distribute unauthorised editions printed in secret. This collaboration between professional journalists and grassroots activists effectively circumvented government control. 

Playing The Role Of Facilitators

But the organisation's resistance was not limited to narrative building. As the Emergency dragged on, the organisation shifted its focus to direct action to challenge government authority. It acted as a link between various opposition groups by facilitating communication between them. When Jayaprakash Narayan called for a 'Total Revolution' against the Emergency, Sangh volunteers proved instrumental in mobilising support for the movement. Using coded language and pre-arranged signals, the pracharaks maintained lines of communication and coordination. The Sangh also benefited from its deep roots in local communities across India. Many other citizens, even those not formally affiliated with the organisation, were willing to support it. All in all, the grassroots support network proved invaluable in evading surveillance.

Undoubtedly, the Sangh's resilience during the Emergency is a testament to the power of civil society organisations in the face of authoritarian regimes. As India grapples with the security-vs-liberty debate and questions about democratic governance, lessons from the Emergency stand relevant. Whether one agrees with the Sangh's ideology or not, its role during this period deserves recognition. The events of 1975-77 are a stark reminder of the fragility of democratic institutions and why civil society is crucial for defending them.
(Rajiv Tuli is an independent author and commentator, and Dr Barthwal is an Assistant Professor at Delhi University)