Obituaries: Balasaheb Deoras

For more than 20 years, from 1973 to 1994, Balasaheb Deoras headed the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh or RSS, a neo-Fascist Hindu revivalist organisation, one of whose members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, and was responsible for turning it into a major political force in India.

Deoras was instrumental in the negotiations with the federal government which led to the ban on the RSS's being lifted a year after its imposition in 1948, following the Mahatma's murder by Nathu Ram Godse, a Hindu fanatic and RSS member.

Over the years, Deoras worked with deadly efficiency, first as a RSS pracharak or motivator and later for 20 years as its Sarsanghachalak or head, always towards bringing about a Hindu renaissance, principally by targeting Muslims. His efforts paid dividends in May this year when the Hindu fundamentalist BJP, one of the Sangh's principal political units, emerged as the largest single party after India's general elections to form the federal government. Although the minority BJP government resigned after just 13 days in office, unable to cobble together a parliamentary majority, it used its short spell in power to ensure that it would be voted back decisively before the end of the decade.

Under Deoras, other RSS units, known as the Sangh Parvivar or family, gained notoriety when some of them combined with military precision to demolish the 16th-century mosque at Ayodhya in north India in 1992. The demolition led to countrywide sectarian riots in which over 1,500 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in pogroms in the western Indian city of Bombay.

Founded in 1925, the RSS has emerged as India's largest, most influential and utterly ruthless organisation committed to Hindu revivalism. It is organised along para-military lines with a well-defined rank structure, physical training sessions and the ability to mobilise volunteers to strike, thus effectively closing down entire cities through their networks.

Operating from the RSS headquarters in the western city of Nagpur, Deoras worked single-mindedly to create a nationwide Hindu underground. Gaoled by the prime minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-Seventies after she imposed a national emergency, suspending civil liberties, Deoras used the opportunity to interact with workers and leaders of different political parties arrested alongside him to widen the scope of the RSS.

Deoras was born in Nagpur in 1915 into a middle-class Brahmin family. He was a brilliant student who graduated locally before taking a law degree in 1937. Joining the RSS within a year of its founding, at the age of 11, he became a full-time motivator within a short spell, and was sent to organise RSS activities in Calcutta in 1939.

After a series of organisational posts, he became the head of the RSS in 1973, a post he relinquished in 1994, although he continued to exercise great influence over Sangah affairs. Like many senior RSS members, Balasaheb Deoras was a bachelor who lived an austere existence, believing self-abnegation to be Hinduism's true path.

Balasaheb Deoras, political activist: born Nagpur, western India 5 November 1915; died Pune, western India 17 June 1996.