How Nagpur became the home of RSS's hindutva and Ambedkar's Navayana Buddhism

78-nagpur Pilgrim’s take: Jogendra Kawade, president of the Peoples Republican Party, at Deekshabhoomi | Amey Mansabdar

Nagpur is at the heart of India, geographically. The city, famous for its oranges, is also the heart of two prominent political ideologies that have widely influenced the nation’s political discourse. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, mother organisation of the BJP and the larger sangh parivar, was founded in Nagpur by Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and his associates in 1925. Similarly, the Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur is where B.R. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution, renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism with six lakh followers on October 14, 1956. It paved the way for a strong dalit voice in national politics. Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism and the RSS’s hindutva ideology are thus products of Nagpur.

In 1956, the entire dalit population of Nagpur was charged up on the day of Ambedkar’s dhamma deeksha (dharma initiation), and many others had come from other places. Among them was a young Jogendra Kawade, who would later become a member of Parliament. The senior dalit leader told THE WEEK that he was 13 when he embraced Buddhism. “I was in class eight and was part of the volunteer brigade that had been set up to ensure all the arrangements were taken care of on dhamma parivartan din (day of change),” he said. “My father had converted to Buddhism a year before, so he was invited to perform bhumi poojan (ground-breaking ceremony) of the Deekshabhoomi. There was shortage of white cloth in the entire city and nearby towns of Vidarbha as Ambedkar had urged his followers to wear freshly washed white clothes at the time of embracing Buddhism.” Kawade, 79, later became the founder president of People’s Republican Party, one of the many factions of Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India.

Bhimrao Kalamkar, another Ambedkarite from Nagpur, calls Deekshabhoomi the most important pilgrim centre for dalits from all over India, not just from Maharashtra. “Dr Ambedkar was staying at Shyam Hotel near Anand Talkies in Sitabuldi area. In those days, this was the only hotel with a lift in Nagpur and since Dr Ambedkar had trouble climbing stairs due to his old age, he chose Shyam Hotel,” said Kalamkar. “My family accepted Buddhism on that day after Dr Ambedkar. I was not even born then but I have grown up with all those stories.”

Ambedkar chose Nagpur as the venue of his dhamma deeksha as Nagpur had been the land the Nag community, who were Buddhists. “Also, Nagpur and Vidarbha had a larger number of Mahar and other dalit communities, who were active in his movement,” said Kawade.

Ambedkar had declared in 1935 that he was born a Hindu, but would not die as one. But his becoming Buddhist happened only in 1956. “He gave it more than two decades, hoping there would be a change in the mindsets of thekedars (contractors) of Hinduism, so that our people would be accepted in society as equals. But that did not happen,” said Kawade. “He hoped people like V.D. Savarkar, the RSS and Shanakarcharyas would bring about change and abolish the caste system, but his hopes proved futile.”

Kawade said that senior dalit leaders were concerned that the RSS and other hindutva forces could disrupt the dhamma deeksha ceremony. “While volunteers like me were ensuring safe arrival of people to Nagpur, the Samata Sainik Dal had been instructed to offer protection to Ambedkar, other senior leaders and Buddhist monks,” he said.

However, senior RSS observer Dilip Deodhar says that the RSS had no plans to disrupt the ceremony. “The RSS has always looked at Ambedkar and Mahatma (Jyotirao) Phule as reformist leaders within the Hindu fold. That is why you find that there is a Sanskrit shloka devoted to them in the RSS’s Ekatmata Stotra,” said Deodhar. “Also, the RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar had asked senior ideologue Dattopant Thengadi to work as Dr Ambedkar’s election agent when he contested from Bhandara in 1952. So, the RSS had already been in touch with Dr Ambedkar and knew what was on his mind. They had conveyed to him that if he wished to convert, he should avoid Islam and Christianity as these religions did not have Indian roots.”

The Navayana Buddhism of Ambedkar and the RSS’s hindutva may appear to be conflicting ideologies for outsiders, said Deodhar, but for the RSS, it has always held the view that it is not anti-dalit. “From early days of the sangh, the RSS has made efforts to bring dalits into its ranks,” he said.

RSS founder Hedgewar was a Congress activist. Disillusioned with the Congress, he founded the RSS to organise and unite the Hindu society. “Dr Hedgewar was a visionary,” said Rambhau Tupkary, 85, a Nagpur-based RSS veteran. “Within two years of starting the RSS in Nagpur, he sent a pracharak to Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and started a shakha there. He had envisioned the spread of the organisation all over India, and that is why pracharaks like Dadarao Parmarth (Madras) and Dattopant Thengadi (Calcutta) were sent to different parts of India within the first few years of the RSS’s foundation.”

According to Tupkary, who was founder chairman of VNIT Nagpur, the RSS is a dynamic organisation. “The mechanism of assessment and reassessment is constantly at work in the RSS and it wishes to keep alive the sense of rashtriyatva (nationhood) among Indians,” said Tupkary. The RSS will complete 100 years of its formation in 2025.

The goal of the RSS, said Tupkary, is to keep alive the unity in the Hindu society. “So, in a way, it is a never-ending project,” he said. “It will, however, have to change with the times. Anyone who is living in this land and is proud of its traditions and culture is a Hindu according to RSS. That is why Dr Hedgewar named it Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and not Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh.”