Political adventurer

Print edition : August 23, 2013

BJP leaders Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and L.K. Advani at a function on July 6 at the Central Hall of Parliamant in New Delhi to pay tribute to Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Photo: V. Sudershan

December 1949: At the opening session of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha conference in Calcutta. (From left) S.P. Mookerjee, S.N. Banerjee, V.D. Savarkar and N.C. Chatterjee. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Syama Prasad Mookerjee began as a Congressman and ended up as a Mahasabhaite after a stint in the Muslim League Ministry in Bengal. Attempts to portray him as a hero come a cropper.

A MAN is known by the company he keeps; a politician, by the man he chooses as his hero. L.K. Advani angrily complained, on July 6, that “when we gathered to pay floral tributes to Syama Prasad Mookerjee at the Central Hall [of Parliament], I did not see anybody from the Congress”. He was alluding to the absence of Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Speaker Meira Kumar and Congress leaders who, creditably, did not attend the function. He recalled that the Congress had also boycotted the function when a portrait of V.D. Savarkar was unveiled. The portrait faces that of one whom he has been judicially indicted for conspiring to murder, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Justice J.L. Kapur, a distinguished judge of the Supreme Court, examined in a commission of inquiry a mass of evidence that was not available to the trial court, which had acquitted Savarkar, only because the law required corroboration of the evidence of the approver Digambar Ramchandra Badge. It became available to Justice Kapur, who concluded: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel made the same assertion in his letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on February 27, 1948. “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through” (see “Savarkar and Gandhi’s murder”, Frontline, October 5, 2012).

Mookerjee’s political career received a boost from Savarkar, whom he succeeded as president of the Hindu Mahasabha. As a Union Cabinet Minister, he persistently pleaded Savarkar’s cause with an indulgent Vallabhbhai Patel. In December 1949, while still a Minister, he participated in the opening session of the Mahasabha’s conference in Calcutta (now Kolkata) along with Savarkar.

Introspection is not among Advani’s gifts. He ought to ask himself whether any self-respecting person would even greet a person who was acquitted by a court of murdering his kin on the grounds and in the circumstances in which Savarkar escaped the gallows. Gandhi was no ordinary man. However, as late as on October 12, 1989, The Times of India said in an editorial: “Mr Advani, while holding forth on ‘Bharat Mata’, now goes so far as to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was Father of the Nation.”

Incidentally, an able defence counsel at the trial, P.L. Inamdar, was astonished at Savarkar’s acquittal. Inamdar knew the truth, of course. If Advani pompously declares “the great men of the nation should not be discriminated on party lines”, it is because he wants to impose his own ideological and divisive heroes on the nation.

What R.K. Dasgupta, an eminent scholar and former Director of the National Library of India, wrote of him last year deserves to be quoted in extenso: “But in what sense is Savarkar a national figure? And why should it take 56 years after our attainment of national freedom to realise that Savarkar was a national figure? Which historian of India has called Savarkar a national figure? He has no presence in the serious political and historical literature of our country. There is no mention of Savarkar in the 945-page The Oxford History of India published in 1958. Nehru does not mention him in his An Autobiography, and Subhas Chandra Bose too does not mention him in his two autobiographies. There is not a word on him in R.C. Majumdar, Hemchandra Raychaudhuri and Kalikinkar Datta’s 1,122-page An Advanced History of India, published in 1946. There is not even a passing reference to Savarkar in the 940-page The Role of Honour: Anecdotes of Indian Martyrs, edited by K.C. Ghosh and published by the National Council of Education in 2002.

“Savarkar has, however, a strong presence in our books on communalism, an instance of which is David Ludden’s Making India Hindu (1996). In this work, Richard H. Davis calls him ‘the ideological progenitor of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh]’. In the same work another authority on our modern political history calls him a propagandist of the doctrine of Hindutva. How then is Savarkar a national figure? When the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] has a majority in our Parliament, God forbid it, we will see portraits of Keshab Baliram Hedgewar, who founded the RSS in 1925, and M.S. Golwalkar, who succeeded him as the head of the Hindu organisation in 1940. If the BJP becomes all-powerful we may have a marble statue of Nathuram Godse in the Central Hall of Parliament” (emphasis added, throughout).

Advani’s other hero, Mookerjee, was as viciously communal as Savarkar, his mentor. Joya Chatterji is a respected historian, and Bengal’s history is her particular field of expertise. She writes: “For many Chandralok Hindus ( including Syama Prasad Mookerjee), their sense of superiority in relation to Muslims was fed by the belief that Bengali Muslims were, by and large, ‘a set of converts’ from the dregs of Hindu society.” The footnote in support of this statement reveals Mookerjee in his true colours: “Undated note by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in the Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Papers, II-IV Instalment, File No. 75/1945-46” ( Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947, Cambridge University Press, page 189). Let alone Muslims, do you expect any secular Indian to acclaim such a person as a “national” hero?

A nation defines its identity by its choice of heroes. Nehru has a perfectly legitimate claim to that honoured status because he was free from communal hate, caste bias or regional loyalty. He was a committed democrat and secularist. Rejecting secularism, the BJP leader wants to pit against him the likes of Savarkar and Mookerjee, Hindu Mahasabhaites both.

Mookerjee was, in truth, a political adventurer. Initially a Congressman, he became a member of the Muslim League Ministry in Bengal, offered his cooperation to the British during the Quit India Movement launched by the Congress, and ended up as a Mahasabhaite. On August 21, 1936, he presided over a meeting in Calcutta at which Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the key speaker. Mookerjee lauded him as “an Indian nationalist… one of those fighters who know how to fight stubbornly for the attainment of the ideal which they have made their own”.

Leaves from a Diary (S.P. Mookerjee, Oxford University Press, 1993) professes to be a “collection of diaries” and Mookerjee’s writings. It records his career. “In 1939, he was elected to the Bengal Legislative Council as the Congress candidate representing Calcutta University, but the following year he resigned when the Congress decided to boycott the Legislature. Syama Prasad did not agree with the policy of the Congress and he stood for election as an independent candidate and was re-elected.” If he was such an ardent Hindutvaite, why did he at all join a Congress led by Gandhi and Nehru? He left it because he could not bring himself to vacate his comfortable seat in the Council.

On December 12, 1941, he joined the coalition headed by A.K. Fazlul Haq, who had moved the famous Pakistan Resolution at the Muslim League’s session in Lahore in March 1940. Mookerjee became Finance Minister and resigned on November 20, 1942.

Savarkar’s tour of Bengal in 1939 marked a turning point in Mookerjee’s career. A diary entry of February 17, 1939, reads: “The Vice-Chancellorship came when I was just thirty-three and many other honours and positions came unsolicited. But now that age is advancing and responsibilities are increasing, I feel ever and evermore the need for a regular substantial income. I have no greed of wealth. Is there nobody who can utilise my services and pay for them? I have no chance with the Govt. of Bengal, for I am too strong a Hindu for the present powers that be, and suffer as I might, may God give me strength and wisdom to maintain my integrity and independence and not sacrifice them for money’s sake.” A mere two years later he joined the Ministry.

Some of the entries have a post facto ring about them. “The party which evoked my sympathy and support was the Congress. The Congress, however, lamentably betrayed the interests of the Hindus. In regard to the Communal Award, its policy of [being] non-committal was a grave blunder. In Bengal it did not allow a coalition ministry and thereby greatly strengthened the Muslim League and in fact consolidated it. It hesitated to oppose Acts and Bills avowedly anti-Hindu and anti-national lest it should be dubbed a communal body. It represented Hindu electorates and yet it faltered in its sacred duty of defending Hindu rights. The ratio of communal representation in respect of the services; the defilement of Hindu images; the suppression and supersession of better qualifications in respect of Hindus, and preferential treatment of Muslims in educational and other technical spheres; the passing of laws specially jeopardising Hindus; the encouragement of riots; attacks on Hindu women; were some of the glaring instances of our suffering”—all cooked-up excuses. He asked Sarat Bose and Subhas Bose “to take up the Hindu cause”. They refused. Savarkar threw a lifeline in 1939.

Letter to Bengal Governor

The letter that Mookerjee wrote as a Minister to the imperialist Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, was disgraceful. By then, the Congress had resigned from the ministries in the provinces and was all set to unfurl the banner of revolt on August 8, 1942, with the “Quit India” resolution. This is what Mookerjee wrote to Herbert on July 26, 1942:

“It is of utmost importance that there should be complete understanding between you, as Governor, and your colleagues during the present critical period. I am addressing this letter to you today entirely on my own behalf, but I propose to send copies of my letter to my other colleagues and specially show it to the Chief Minister after his arrival in Delhi.

“You will recall that the present Cabinet consists of representatives of different groups in the Legislature which did not exactly see eye to eye with each other on many vital political questions. The parties however joined together under the leadership of the present Chief Minister and decided to give him their support in the formation of the new Cabinet on a general understanding that the new ministry would work for the maintenance of communal harmony based on a policy of [a] just administration affecting all communities, and also lend its whole-hearted support for the purpose of winning the war.”

To leave no room for doubt, he explicitly referred to the Congress’ plans. “Let me now refer to the situation that may be created in the province as a result of any widespread movement launched by the Congress. Anybody who, during the war, plans to stir up mass feelings, resulting in internal disturbances or insecurity, must be resisted by any government that may function for the time being. But mere repression is no remedy when the promoters of the movement assert and make people believe that they too want to resist the impending attacks of the enemy, not as a slave country but as a free one; but the Ruling Authority is determined not to transfer real power to the children of the soil….

“As regards India’s attitude towards England, the struggle between them, if any, should not take place at this juncture. The present war is being fought not for perpetuation of British domination over India. Old ideas of Imperialism must be buried underground, and they are not going to revive, whatever the result of the present war may be….

The question is how to combat this movement in Bengal? The administration of the province should be carried on in such a manner that in spite of the best efforts of the Congress, this movement will fail to take root in the province. It should be possible for us, specially responsible Ministers, to be able to tell the public that the freedom for which the Congress has started the movement already belongs to the representatives of the people. In some spheres it might be limited during the emergency. Indians have to trust the British, not for the sake of Britain, not for any advantage that the British might gain, but for the maintenance of the defence and freedom of the province itself. You as Governor will function as the constitutional head of the province and will be guided entirely on the advice of your Ministers.

As one of your Ministers, I am willing to offer you my whole-hearted cooperation and serve my province and country at this hour of crisis. The conditions which I have mentioned above are of a general character. They are mentioned not for creating any obstacle. They indicate to you, who are after all a foreigner, how an Indian would like to cooperate with you in the service of his country that is threatened with imminent danger.” In short, give this Ministry the powers which the Congress sought.

The offer was made in the wake of his leader Savarkar’s offer to Viceroy Lord Linlithgow when they met in Bombay (now Mumbai) on October 9, 1939. Linlithgow reported to Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India: “The situation, he [Savarkar] said, was that His Majesty’s government must now turn to the Hindus and work with their support. After all, though we and the Hindus have had a good deal of difficulty with one another in the past, that was equally true of the relations between Great Britain and the French and, as recent events had shown, of relations between Russia and Germany. Our interests were now the same and we must therefore work together. Even though now the most moderate of men, he had himself been in the past an adherent of the revolutionary party, as possibly, I might be aware. (I confirmed that I was.) But now that our interests were so closely bound together, the essential thing was for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends, and the old antagonism was no longer necessary.” A great fighter for India’s freedom, indeed. This was revealed only in 2000 when Economic & Political Weekly published the Italian scholar Marzia Casolari’s article based on archival research ( Economic & Political Weekly, January 22, 2000). Mookerjee dutifully followed this line by writing to the Governor.

He wanted the Congress to act according to his own communal majoritarian outlook. “The Congress was the Hindus’ major political organisation. I was fully aware of the fact that the Congress was responsible for creating an awareness for the freedom of India among the people, but at the same time it had failed to infuse the Hindus with any zeal to thwart the political aspirations of the Muslims to form a new Pakistan. Here, the Hindu Mahasabha played a major role. We all wanted a free India, but we were not prepared to exchange servitude to the British for servitude to Pakistan. We did not want that the flag of Islam should be unfurled in India, or any part of it. Anyway, as seventy-five per cent of the population were Hindus, and if India was to adopt a democratic form of government, the Hindus would automatically play a major role in it.”

This majoritarian outlook was a travesty of democracy and secularism. Read this: “Until the Hindus of India realised that they were one, they would not be able to establish a Hindu state, gain sway, or build a nation. The great spirit of Hinduism could not flourish unless we effected a social and economic revolution. This was the stupendous task facing the Hindu Mahasabha, and it needed great resources to accomplish it.”

A cabinet minister

Mookerjee played a key role in the movement for the partition of Bengal. He was inducted as Minister in the first Cabinet of independent India. As such he was very much privy to these decisions by the government: (a) reference of the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations Security Council on December 31, 1947; (b) acceptance of the plebiscite resolutions of the U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan dated August 13, 1948, and January 5, 1949; (c) adoption of Article 370 of the Constitution by the Constituent Assembly on October 17, 1949, an embarrassing fact which Sheikh Abdullah sharply reminded him of on February 4, 1953; and (d) the Constituent Assembly’s unanimous resolution of April 3, 1948, which read thus: “Whereas it is essential for the proper functioning of democracy and the growth of national unity and solidarity that communalism should be eliminated from Indian life, this Assembly is of opinion that no communal organisation which by its constitution or by the exercise of discretionary power vested in any of its officers or organs admits to or excludes from its membership persons on grounds of religion, race and caste, or any of them, should be permitted to engage in any activities other than those essential for the bona fide religious, cultural, social and educational needs of the community, and that all steps, legislative and administrative, necessary to prevent such activities should be taken.”

Mookerjee was bound by this resolution when he resigned from the Union Cabinet on April 15, 1950, on the Nehru-Liaquat Pact on the minorities in the two Bengals. The health of his main supporter, Vallabhbhai Patel, was in poor shape and his political clout was also far weaker. There was not a word on Kashmir in Mookerjee’s speech in Parliament on his resignation nor in his speech at the annual gathering of the RSS on December 3, 1950. He said: “After nearly 1,000 years Hindus have got a chance to build the edifice of their own free choice. In the land of their birth let us not be short-sighted or make any mistake for which posterity may curse us. Bharat’s destiny lies in modelling her affairs on the truest concerns of Hinduism, extending equal opportunities to all citizens alike irrespective of caste or community, harmoniously unifying all into one consolidated nation, strong and self-reliant, developing her vast resources through science and technology and making available such developed wealth to all alike. Thus alone we may rekindle the glory of our people, enhance our national strength and prestige, and pave the way for making our due contribution to the maintenance of peace and progress of the world. Let the RSS play its part worthily in this great task of our national reconstruction.” Only nine months earlier, this man was a member of Nehru’s Cabinet which had banned the RSS.

But, then, he had realised that there was no future there and he needed a platform of his own. He asked the Mahasabha to open its doors, at least nominally, to non-Hindus. It refused. A Faustian pact with the RSS led to the birth of the Jana Sangh on October 21, 1951. Prashanto Kumar Chatterji’s book contains a lot of material on Mookerjee’s life, but his hagiography would shame even a run-of-the-mill hagiographer with its frequent and unsupported assertions like “it is reported”.

He writes: “Dr Mookerjee could have little sympathy for such a myopic approach to national problems. The Hindu Mahasabha, which contained a mixture of Hindu traditionalists and Hindu nationalists and was the organisation whose destiny Dr Mookerjee had guided for many years as its Working President and then as President since the end of 1944, was of course in the field, with the same outlook and pursuing its policies as it had before independence and partition of the country. But he had outgrown it during the three years since independence. So he resigned from the Hindu Mahasabha’s Working Committee on 23 November 1948 in protest against its decision on 6-7 November in favour of the resumption of political activities, with membership being confined to Hindus. However, as a Hindu he continued to be an ordinary member of the Mahasabha which had been founded primarily for the purpose of uplifting Hindu society and bringing about cultural and social unity within it….

“Meanwhile, it must have been shortly after his resignation from the Cabinet in April 1950 that Dr Mookerjee raised the idea of a new party with Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, leader of the RSS (or National Volunteer Organisation), an outfit of militant Hindu nationalists founded at Nagpur in 1925 by Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. Under its first leader Hedgewar, the RSS spread beyond its points of origin in Maharashtra to northern India. When Hedgewar died in 1940, his successor Golwalkar, a Maharashtra Brahmin who had been a teacher at Banaras Hindu University, concentrated on developing the organisation’s philosophy and doctrine.” The RSS would provide the cadres; Mookerjee, the leadership.

Nehru denounced the Jana Sangh as the “illegitimate child of the RSS” ( The Hindu, January 6, 1952). The BJP was formed on April 5, 1980. In Chennai, on September 18, 2005, A.B. Vajpayee said that both the Jana Sangh and the BJP were “established jointly with the RSS”. The parental authority which the RSS increasingly and illicitly wields over the BJP proves the truth of Nehru’s words.

It was on December 31, 1952, as he began looking around for issues on which to whip up communal feeling, that Mookerjee took up Kashmir at the Jana Sangh’s first annual session in Kanpur. He had, until then, skilfully concealed his passions on that issue.

The record is there for all to read. Advani’s expectation that Mookerjee, along with Savarkar, would be accepted as a “national” hero is as wildly unrealistic as his long-harboured, quarter-century-old, ambition to become Prime Minister of India.