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How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 1: Hedgewar sends emissary to Mangalore, an RSS shakha is born

Editor's note: This is the first reported piece in an 18-part series on the contemporary history of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The series features interviews, videos, archival material and oral histories gathered over a period of four months. Read other articles of the series here


Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar's final speech delivered in Nagpur made reference to Sanjeeva Kamath, a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin lawyer he had met that week at the National Officers' Training Camp for RSS workers. Gesturing to the man who had recently joined his organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangathan, Dr Hedgewar remarked, "He came here as a stranger but in matter of just four days, he is going back as our brother."

Dr Hedgewar spoke of Kamath's "going back" as a causal event in the development of the Sangh, which he founded in 1925 as an institutional response to what he saw as a fractured, directionless Hindu society. Viewed in isolation, that "return" of Kamath from Nagpur to his home in South Kanara holds little significance; he was a man of little consequence in the RSS, and coastal Karnataka was by no means a petri dish for Hindutva thought.

But his journey and its purpose holds enormous significance for two reasons: It describes a template for the proliferation of Hindutva thought that the RSS has used repeatedly and successfully, and more critically to the purpose of this series of reports, begins the story of the saffronisation of a region that had nothing to do with Hindu nationalism.

It is the locus of origin for Hindutva in South Kanara, and describes one end of a long and ragged timeline that has scribbled its way to present day coastal Karnataka, which has transformed into a bastion of the Sangh.

Kamath's life back home is recorded in Kadal Theerada Sangavate, an RSS book published in Kannada. Its author, Chandrashekhar Bhandari, was a part of the first group of young children enrolled in the RSS shakhas that began to take root in Mangalore in the 1940s.

 How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 1: Hedgewar sends emissary to Mangalore, an RSS shakha is born

Hedgewar meets Sanjeeva Kamath. Illustration by Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar

First, the author recounts how Kamath, from a small village Kallya located in Udupi district of present-day Karnataka, chanced upon the RSS:

The young man travels to Madras from Udupi in search of work as a lawyer. It is here that he meets Sanghapracharak Dadarao Paramarth, one of Hedgewar's protégés, deputed to Madras Presidency in 1938. Kamath is a volunteer with the Gaud Saraswat Parishad in Madras when he meets Paramarth and learns about the Sangh. He is intrigued and seeks to learn more.

Soon after, he accompanies Paramarth for the Sangha Shiksha Varga, an annual Officers' Training Camp for RSS workers held every year in May at Nagpur. Kamath is an enthusiastic participant at the OTC and catches Dr Hedgewar's attention, who views him as one of a group of propagandists tasked with the germination of RSS ideology across India.

Since its formation in Nagpur in 1925, the RSS had spread to significant parts of Bombay Presidency in five years. With the trial-run turning hugely successful in present-day Maharashtra, Hedgewar was invited by leaders in the North to help organise a similar movement there. Expanding to the North was relatively easy, owing to the presence of organisations such as Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha.

But Dr Hegdewar didn't want to stop with the North. He pushed his pracharaks to carry the message of the RSS to different parts of the country: Bengal, Madras Presidency and Nizam-ruled Hyderabad consisting of Kannada and Telugu speaking provinces. This could have stemmed from the fact that Hedgewar was himself a Telugu Brahmin and not a Maharashtrian Brahmin as most others in the RSS were at the time. His family had migrated from Hyderabad to Bombay presidency before he was born.

Unlike his Hindu-nationalist contemporaries or his successor Golwalkar, Hedgewar trained his pracharaks to be accommodating of linguistic and cultural differences while steering expansion. In an excerpt from his biography titled "Dr. Hedgewar, the Epoch-Maker", Chapter 13 explains Hedgewar's instructions to his pracharaks:

Doctorji started training a few Swayamsevaks to undertake study tours of different provinces and organise the movement there. Familiarity with the language of the new area and capacity to get used to the atmosphere of those places were essential for the Swayamsevaks. Doctorji, therefore, insisted on Swayamsevaks' learning Telugu, Hindi, Bengali and other languages. 

Whenever a Swayamsevak expressed a preference to go to a Marathi area, Doctorji used to tell him, "How can you sit in your own area merely because you don't know other languages? Go to a new area and start the work. You will get to know the language automatically. Is it possible to learn swimming without stepping into the water?"

MS Golwakar visits Mangalore: In photo along with Golwalkar are CG Kamath, Panchmahal Vasudev Kamath, Yadavrao Joshi, Dadarao Paramarth, Abbaji Datte, Anand Rao Baliga, Bhayyaji Dhane, Umananth Bhandarkar and Gopal Bakre. Image source: 'Kadal Theerada Sangavate' written by Chandrashekhar Bhandari

MS Golwakar visits Mangalore: In photo along with Golwalkar are CG Kamath, Panchmahal Vasudev Kamath, Yadavrao Joshi, Dadarao Paramarth, Abbaji Datte, Anand Rao Baliga, Bhayyaji Dhane, Umananth Bhandarkar and Gopal Bakre. Image source: 'Kadal Theerada Sangavate' written by Chandrashekhar Bhandari

"In his tour of Karnataka, Doctorji added to his vocabulary the Kannada word 'hudugaru' (boys) and continued to use it jocularly in the Nagpur headquarters. By nature, Doctorji responded warmly to the customs and usages of the places he visited."

Although it didn't appear so at the time, social conditions in South Kanara were perhaps ideal for an organisation, like the RSS, to take root in the region. It was home to many religious centres: the eight orthodox Hindu monasteries of Udupi dedicated to the Dvaitha school of Vedic thought, important pilgrimage centres like Kukke Subramanya, Kateel Durgaparameshwari and Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara, and, most important: a network of communities naturally sympathetic to the Sangh's foundational ideology.

Among these were the Konkani-speaking Goud Saraswat Brahmins and Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins, the Tulu-speaking Shivalli Brahmins and the Kannada-speaking Havyak Brahmins— they had already set up a base for Hindu organisations like the All India Hindu Mahasabha, Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj. This was crucial as Hedgewar's method of expansion in new regions had been to find common ground by establishing contacts with those who shared the Hindu nationalist vision of the RSS. What's more, these Brahmin communities in South Kanara were landed, mercantile and politically-influential because of their wrench-like grip on all matters of Hindu faith.

Yet, perhaps because of its proximity to Maharashtra, the Sangh's first landing in Karnataka did not take place in Coastal Karnataka but farther east, in Belgaum (now Belagavi).

"In October 1935, Doctorji [Hedgewar] visited Chikkodi, Nipani and Sadalga in Belgaum district. This was his second visit to Karnataka. A patha-sanchalana - route march - was held in Sadalga. Doctorji delivered an inspiring speech elaborating the Sangh philosophy at a gathering of Swayamsevaks and the public. He also addressed a meeting at Chikkodi. A Shakha of the Sangh was established there on 23rd October 1935. Dadarao Paramarth stayed there for a few days to brief the local workers about the technique of running the Shakha. That marked the beginning of Sangh activities in Karnataka (sic)."

This landing, though, was in the Kannada-Konkani speaking North Canara belt of Bombay Presidency. The Sangh hadn't been able to venture into South Kanara yet, which was part of Madras Presidency. While Paramarth was already working to expand the Sangh in Madras, South Canara was still hundreds of miles away from Madras.

Karnataka as a region formed much later in 1956. The imagination of Karnataka for many, including RSS karyakartas, was restricted to the extent of Belgaum and Dharwad. But Kamath's intervention opened a new chapter for the RSS altogether. He proved to be crucial in establishing linkages in South Kanara, which Dr Hedgewar seemed to have readily sensed.

In 1940, a few weeks after meeting Kamath, Dr Hedgewar passed away. But the expansion plan he had laid out for this new region thundered on. Hedgewar's successor, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, deputed Devidas Balakrishna Shesh, also known as Anna Sesha to take charge of Mangalore.

Sanjeev Kamath introduced Anna Sesha to Karkala Sadashiva Rao, who was also a lawyer with a successful legal practice in Mangalore. Rao was the first Swayamsevak to join the RSS in Mangalore.

Rao also happened to be the superintendent of the Canara Boys Hostel. Canara High School was started in 1893 by one of the founders of the Goud Saraswath Brahman Parishad, Ammembal Subba Rao Pai. Rao made arrangements for Anna Sesha to stay at the hostel. Anna Sesha's room became the temporary office of the Sangh. Locating himself here also gave Anna Sesha access to the boys staying in the hostel. Anna Sesha also visited other youth hostels in Mangalore such as Subramanya Sadhana, a hostel managed by the Sthanik Brahmins Association and the South Kanara Dravida Brahmins Association Hostel to recruit potential karyakartas.

Kadal Theerada Sangavate quotes Venkatesh Kamath, who had attended the first RSS shaka of Mangalore which started in September 1940 at the Canara High School grounds.

Our hostel superintendent, Karkala Sadashiva Rao informed us that a guest had arrived from Nagpur to teach us how to use lathis. He urged those interested to assemble at the ground of Krishna Temple. Around 30 high school and college students had attended the shaka that day. Some of them are Sarvashri M Rama Bhat, G Narayana Bhat, Prafulla Rao, Jagadeesh Nayak, B Srinivas Nayak, Adige Premananda Rao, Shibarur Padmanabha Kamath and G Vittala Prabhu.

In a few months, the second shakha was opened in Pentlendpet. It is here that Chandrashekhar Bhandari attended his first RSS shakha as a 10-year-old boy. Bhandari's brothers were already in the RSS and as a child, he accompanied them for RSS meetings.

Anna Sesha continued to build networks to expand the work of the Sangha, often meeting with religious heads such as Sukrathindra Thirta, head of the Kashi Math (the religious institution of Gaud Saraswat Brahmins) to discuss methods to "unite Hindu society which was divided".

Efforts to streamline the organisation in the region started with the entry of Yadav Rao Joshi into Karnataka. Golwalkar had assigned the task of overseeing expansion in Karnataka to Joshi. A lawyer from Nagpur, he had worked under the guidance of Hedgewar since he joined the RSS in the 1930s. After reaching Mangalore in June 1942, Joshi appointed Karkala Sadashiva Rao as the Zila Sanghachalak (District Head) and another lawyer, Janardhan Mallya, as the District Secretary.

Joshi split Karnataka into four branches for better operations with the branch headquarters located at - Bangalore, Mangalore, Bellary and Dharwad. The Mangalore branch comprised of Mangalore, Mysore, Kodagu, Shivamogga and Hassan. HV Sheshadri was appointed to head Mangalore Kendra. Together Anna Sesha, Sheshadri, Joshi and Rao created a small pool of ideologues who were responsible for creating a shakha network across South Canara which proved critical for the years to come.

Walter Anderson and Shridhar Damle observe in their book The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism that though the RSS began to expand outside of Maharashtra in the 1930s, "the leadership remained overwhelmingly Maharashtrian, Brahmin, and from Nagpur".

This is true in the case of South Kanara as well, where the leadership and membership were, for many years, completely Brahmin. A Konkani-speaking Gaud Saraswat Brahmin facilitated the entry of RSS into Coastal Karnataka. Golwalkar's messengers to the region were Marathi-speaking Chitpavin and Deshashtha Brahmins from Nagpur. The first shaka was opened in a school founded by another Gaud Saraswat Brahmins. All the participants who find mention in the various archives of the founding of RSS history in Coastal Karnataka are Brahmins. They had hardly anything, either culturally or religiously, similar to the Tulu-speaking masses of Coastal Karnataka.

All of this, including adherents to Sangh ideology, would change over the next few decades, the movement ingesting new constituents of varied cultural, political and religious persuasion with the hungry efficiency of a super-organism until it took near-complete hold of every significant institution in the region. Replacing indigenous practices with rituals foreign to coastal Karnataka, substituting local folklore with mythology transported from elsewhere, and planting new, differently-hued gods in place of the deivas that had presided over South Kanara for centuries.

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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 14:27:19 IST