Moonje & Mussolini

Print edition : January 23, 2015

Italian Premier-Dictator Benito Mussolini. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Hindu nationalist Dr B.S. Moonje. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Mussolini, seen with the axe, started the demolition of old houses on the new Imperial way in Rome to build a giant palace of fascism. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Excerpts from the article “Hindutva’s foreign tie-up in the 1930s: Archival evidence” written by Marzia Casolari in Economic & Political Weekly, January 22, 2000:

The first Hindu nationalist who came in contact with the fascist regime and its dictator was B.S. Moonje, a politician strictly related to the RSS. In fact, Moonje had been Hedgewar’s mentor, the two men were related by an intimate friendship.

Moonje’s declared intention to strengthen the RSS and to extend it as a nationwide organisation is well known. Between February and March 1931, on his return from the round table conference, Moonje made a tour of Europe, which included a long stop-over in Italy. There he visited some important military schools and educational institutions. The highlight of the visit was the meeting with Mussolini. An interesting account of the trip and the meeting is given in Moonje’s diary, and takes 13 pages (Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), Moonje papers, microfilm, rn 1).

The Indian leader was in Rome during March 15 to 24, 1931. On March 19, in Rome, he visited, among others, the Military College, the Central Military School of Physical Education, the Fascist Academy of Physical Education, and, most important, the Balilla and Avanguardisti organisations. These two organisations, which he describes in more than two pages of his diary, were the keystone of the fascist system of indoctrination—rather than education—of the youths. Their structure is strikingly similar to that of the RSS. They recruited boys from the age of six, up to 18: the youths had to attend weekly meetings, where they practised physical exercises, received paramilitary training and performed drills and parades.

According to the literature promoted by the RSS and other Hindu fundamentalist organisations and parties, the structure of the RSS was the result of Hedgewar’s vision and work. However Moonje played a crucial role in moulding the RSS along Italian (fascist) lines. The deep impression left on Moonje by the vision of the fascist organisation is confirmed by his diary:

“The Balilla institutions and the conception of the whole organisation have appealed to me most, though there is still not discipline and organisation of high order. The whole idea is conceived by Mussolini for the military regeneration of Italy. Italians, by nature, appear ease-loving and non-martial like the Indians generally. They have cultivated, like Indians, the work of peace and neglected the cultivation of the art of war. Mussolini saw the essential weakness of his country and conceived the idea of the Balilla organisation.... Nothing better could have been conceived for the military organisation of Italy.... The idea of fascism vividly brings out the conception of unity amongst people.... India and particularly Hindu India need some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus: so that the artificial distinction so much emphasised by the British of martial and non-martial classes amongst the Hindus may disappear. Our institution of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh of Nagpur under Dr Hedgewar is of this kind, though quite independently conceived. I will spend the rest of my life in developing and extending this Institution of Dr Hedgewar all throughout the Maharashtra and other provinces.”

He continues describing drills and uniforms:

“I was charmed to see boys and girls well dressed in their naval and military uniforms undergoing simple exercises of physical training and forms of drill.”

Definitely more meaningful is the report of the meeting with Mussolini. On the same day, March 19, 1931, at 3 p.m., in Palazzo Venezia, the headquarters of the fascist government, he met the Italian dictator. The meeting is recorded in the diary on March 20, and it is worth reproducing the complete report.

“...As soon as I was announced at the door, he got up and walked up to receive me.

I shook hands with him saying that I am Dr Moonje. He knew everything about me and appeared to be closely following the events of the Indian struggle for freedom.

He seemed to have great respect for Gandhi. He sat down in front of me on another chair in front of his table and was conversing with me for quite half an hour. He asked me about Gandhi and his movement and pointedly asked me a question ‘If the Round Table Conference will bring about peace between India and England’. I said that if the British would honestly desire to give us equal status with other dominions of the Empire, we shall have no objection to remain peacefully and loyally within the Empire; otherwise the struggle will be renewed and continued. Britain will gain and be able to maintain her premier position amongst the European Nation (sic) if India is friendly and peaceful towards her and India cannot be so unless she is given Dominion Status on equal terms with other Dominions. Signor Mussolini appeared impressed by this remark of mine. Then he asked me if I have visited the University. I said I am interested in the military training of boys and have been visiting the Military Schools of England, France and Germany. I have now come to Italy for the same purpose and I am very grateful to say that the Foreign Office and the War Office have made good arrangements for my visiting these schools. I just saw this morning and afternoon the Balilla and the Fascist Organisations and I was much impressed. Italy needs them for her development and prosperity. I do not see anything objectionable, though I have been frequently reading in the newspapers not very friendly criticisms about them and about your Excellency also.

Signor Mussolini: What is your opinion about them?

Dr Moonje: Your Excellency, I am much impressed. Every aspiring and growing nation needs such organisations. India needs them most for her military regeneration.

During the British domination of the last 150 years Indians have been waved away from the military profession but India now desires to prepare herself for undertaking the responsibility for her own defence and I am working for it. I have already started an organisation of my own, conceived independently with similar objectives. I shall have no hesitation to raise my voice from the public platform both in India and England when occasion may arise in praise of your Balilla and Fascist organisations. I wish them good luck and every success.

Signor Mussolini—who appeared very pleased—said: Thanks but yours is an uphill task. However I wish you every success in return.

Saying this he got up and I also got up to take his leave. ”

The description of the Italian journey includes information regarding fascism, its history, the fascist “revolution”, etc., and continues for two more pages. One can wonder at the association between B.S. Moonje and the RSS, but if we think that Moonje had been Hedgewar’s mentor, the association will be much clearer. The intimate friendship between Moonje and Hedgewar and the former’s declared intention to strengthen the RSS and to extend it as a nationwide organisation prove a strict connection between Moonje and the RSS. Moreover, it makes sense to think that the entire circle of militant Hinduism must have been influenced by Moonje’s Italian experience.

A.G. Noorani