Cover Story

Masters of manipulation

Print edition : December 13, 2013

This image from a video shows of an artist's rendering of a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to be put up on the Sadhu Bet island in the Narmada river in Gujarat. Photo: REUTERS/HANDOUT

The makeshift temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood in Ayodhya. Photo: Subir Roy

The subtext of Narendra Modi’s counterfactual about a putative Vallabhbhai Patel prime ministerial stint is the Sangh Parivar’s assumption that the destiny of the Indian “nation” has always been, and continues to be, in the direction of a Hindu “rashtra”.

IT IS not that often that you are assailed by a political controversy in which both sides to the dispute not only are ranged so diametrically against each other but are both equally and hideously wrong. But if you have been following the jejune disputation between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about Vallabhbhai Patel’s role in “building” the nation or the nation-state or what have you, his political legacy and his relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, you would appear to have hit pay dirt.

To recapitulate: the Congress was incensed by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s comment that he regretted that Patel could not become India’s first Prime Minister and that had he had that distinction, India’s subsequent history would have been different. As we shall have occasion to note, he was both vacuously right and wrong. Sharing the rostrum with him when he made this somewhat obvious point, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had no option but to respond. He took a dig at the man an editor had described as a Neanderthal in the wake of the post-Godhra riots and who has now been endearingly christened NaMo in no more or less veiled a fashion, describing the Sardar as a staunch secularist and deploring the absence of this quality in many present-day leaders.

While other Congress leaders rushed into the debate, it was left to the latter-day “Iron Man”, L.K. Advani, to fish in the mildly turbulent waters. The former Deputy Prime Minister waded into a defence of his unquestionably more distinguished forebear, accusing Nehru of having called Patel a communalist and later claiming that it was the latter’s intervention that had prompted a reluctant Prime Minister to send the troops into Kashmir when tribal people backed by Pakistan had penetrated deep into the territory in 1947.

If the foregoing is not enough to show how cynical and/or ignorant the people who lead this country are, some gloss may not be out of court. To begin with, there can be very little doubt that like many of the oligarchs who ran the Congress before and after Independence—collectively referred to as the “high command”—Patel leaned distinctly in the direction of being communal and majoritarian. In the first President of the republic, in fact, he found an extremely sympathetic ally. So when Manmohan Singh called him a secularist, he was either doing so despite knowing he was paltering with the truth or he had no option or he was generally ignorant about the historical record or he was indulging in a bit of rhetorical excess or, finally, he may have a strange definition of secularism and secularists. We shall return to this point.

As for Modi, an obvious point perhaps does need to be somewhat belaboured. And it is not just the one about him being an ignorant Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh functionary type. Let us get the charitable bit out of the way: the prime ministerial pretender/hopeful/aspirant has not had the time to bone up on his history, so he may be forgiven his counterfactual about a putative Patel prime ministerial stint. Had it been so simple, we need not have bothered wasting space, time and newsprint on this piece. What Modi is trying to do, however, is nowhere so innocent. The subtext is an old Sangh Parivar chestnut, the virulent assumption that the manifest destiny of the Indian “nation” has always been, and continues, therefore, to be, in the direction of a Hindu “rashtra”, which was pre-empted because a Westernised leader with wholly unfortunate “modernist” leanings and his cohorts cheated Patel and the natural leaders of India, that is, Bharat, the opportunity of guiding Hindu India to its natural place in what is optimistically called the comity of nations.

Nehru-Patel partnership

The Nehru-Patel partnership needs a bit of exploration to get to the truth of the historical record. Nehru became Prime Minister of independent India, and not Patel, primarily because Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi anointed him to the top job despite the fact that his natural ideological affinity would have chimed more resonantly with Patel’s. There is a simple explanation for this. For all his purported otherworldliness, in matters political Gandhi was a pretty ruthless realist and he figured one thing out without any fuss: it was Nehru who had the breadth of vision, the generosity of spirit and the depth of understanding born of true (rather than merely bookish) scholarship that could help pull a party riven much before the transfer of power by personal ambitions and factional intrigue in one direction; and it was Nehru who could chart that direction and navigate the ship of state towards it without destroying a nation already rent grievously by Partition. Patel was not equipped intellectually or temperamentally to a task of such magnitude and delicacy. Patel, on the other hand, had the complementary skills that Nehru so woefully lacked: that of handling the nitty-gritty of administrative detail, no less important in the early years of Independence. Gandhi had figured out that only this partnership would work and no other. And by and large it did.

The major glitch came just before Patel’s death in 1950 over the issue of Congress presidentship. Purushottamdas Tandon, a rabidly communal leader from Uttar Pradesh and the founder of the Hindu Raksha Dal, was in the fray against Acharya J.B. Kripalani, a veteran, if disaffected, Gandhian. Nehru, despite serious differences with Kripalani on a raft of issues, favoured his candidature, while Patel, ideologically attuned to Tandon, favoured his candidature. Nehru let his views be known more or less privately but did not canvass votes. Patel did and Tandon won. There was bitterness and a rift, soon removed by Patel’s demise, following which Tandon had to depart unceremoniously. Otherwise, Gandhi had got it right.

So, Modi was right. Patel as Prime Minister would have altered the course of India’s post-colonial history, but the overwhelming likelihood is, since we are dealing in counterfactuals for the while, that India would not have been around in its current territorial and political shape. So, Modi’s inane innuendo was way off target. Manmohan Singh was plain wrong, other than in the convoluted sense that as Deputy Prime Minister hitched to Nehru and tasked by Gandhi, Patel had no option but to be “secular” in his public pronouncements.

Having expended many words on this controversy, it is time to point out that in itself it is just one of those blink-and-miss episodes that litter election campaigns, especially when a logorrhoeic, serial and aggressive controversy-seeker like Modi has set his cap for the stewardship of the nation-state. It is only in the larger context of the Sangh Parivar’s long history of the falsification and distortion of history that it assumes the sinister overtones that it does. It would be useful to go straight from the specific to the broad canvas before returning to other specific instances of the Sangh Parivar’s penchant for distortion and falsehood, which have often been, as we shall see, risible and juvenile (but still sinister) in their outlandishness.

The crux of the Sangh Parivar’s ill-informed interpretation of “Indian” history is that Bharat has been around since time immemorial both as a territorial entity and, more important, as an essence. It is not as if other ideological interpretations have not advanced this claim—most forms of nationalist and even liberal, though not necessarily nationalist, historiography have either treated this claim as axiomatic or actively sought to validate it. The first proposition, that of some kind of immutable territorial unity, is a form of revanchism that is so easily repudiated that it can be left in cold storage. It is the second argument that assumes greater significance in the ideological arsenal of the sanghis for it adds the twist that this ahistorical essence is fundamentally “Hindu”, whatever that may mean. In other words, the argument boils down to the assertion that through centuries and, indeed, millennia of migration and conquest, miscegenation and mutual absorption, an elusive “Bharat” constituted by Vedic culture and religion has survived as the essence that binds the territory that is now the receptacle of the Indian nation-state and the populations that people it. It follows that all “Indians”—Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, tribal people, pastoral animists, everyone—must recognise that they are inescapably, ineluctably and irreducibly “Hindu”.

This inspired distortion of history ignores the bloody history of the spread of what we may loosely call the Vedic, that is Hindu, way of life —its society, culture and polities—across, in the main, the Indo-Gangetic valley, which included pushing back its autochthons increasingly into ever more inhospitable terrains, reducing them to the margins of what was sought to be forcibly made the mainstream. It is tragically ironic that some champions of the Sangh Parivar should first object to their “conversion” to other religions, principally Christianity, and to “reconvert” them to Hinduism at the point of a gun, if one recalls the misguided project of the BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo. The pernicious falsification of history in this case arises from an incontestable fact of history—that the populations in question were never Hindu in the first place, if one discounts, as one must, the puerile argument that all those who inhabit the territory now known as India are essentially Hindu. And, in fact, for most of recorded time they were on the run from “Hindus” and “Hindusim”.

This draws attention to an important point—that both the fundamental and sundry misreadings of the history of the subcontinent would not have merited public outcry if they had remained trapped within the arcane disputations of academia. Unfortunately, as we have seen in one context, they are not. In the case mentioned above, the Sangh Parivar’s misreading of history is dangerous because the saffronites seek to marshal it to further their divisive, majoritarian and obscurantist agenda through the political process. There are many examples of such manipulation.

When the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power (1998-2004), its Minister for Human Resource Development, Murli Manohar Joshi, was accused across the board by other political parties and public intellectuals of various hues of saffronising education—a crucial element of this was rewriting textbooks, especially those pertaining to Indian history, from a spurious Sangh Parivar perspective. Substantively, this meant, again, the privileging of the Vedic and the demonisation of the rule of Muslim dynasties, stretching, in various parts of the subcontinental landmass, to over half a millennium. The Sangh Parivar’s spurious defence was always found not to wash.

Two more examples may be mentioned though they are too well known to recount in detail. The first, of course, is Ram Janambhoomi. The Sangh Parivar’s intensely orchestrated campaign to “reclaim” a mosque situated on a site on which a temple had supposedly stood only to be destroyed by the Mughal ruler Babar encapsulates the classic techniques of distortion employed by it. To argue, with an appeal to history, that the site was the birthplace of a mythological/fictional character would have been in purely academic terms a matter of amusement had the Babari Masjid not been razed and widespread disaffection and violence not been provoked or the Muslim community alienated and terrorised. Similarly, the BJP/Sangh Parivar’s opposition to the building of the Sethu Samudram canal project on the grounds that it would destroy the now-submerged bridge built by Rama as a link to what is now known as Sri Lanka was a classic case of misrepresenting mythology as history. (There are, however, other excellent reasons for junking the project.)

Ultimately, of course, these puerile arguments are sought to be underwritten by a much simpler assertion: that these are matters of faith and, thus, involve the sensibilities of millions of devotees, which cannot be violated. Out, in the final analysis, goes the pursuit of historical verities, because the available evidence cannot sustain the outlandish claims of those who seek merely one end in whatever way possible: the imposition of the will of a vocal and organised minority within the majority with access to resources and muscle power over a vast population, which all the available evidence repeatedly urges is not overly supportive of, or perhaps even interested in, the shenanigans of Hindutva peddlers.

Myth-making is usually intrinsic to the process of nation-making. But in the preponderant majority of contexts such myth-making tends to gradually gravitate in the direction of inclusion whatever be the original, mediaeval impulses. Wherever this unavoidable project is directed forcefully and hyper-consciously towards exclusionary projects, disasters, if nothing else then from an uncomplicated humanistic sense, follow in its wake: one only has to think of Little England, the United States in the era of slavery, Nazi Germany, the list is pretty long. The Sangh Parivar’s myth-making, based on the distortion of history, is no less fraught with humanitarian catastrophe. But only the foolishly optimistic will expect the Narendra Modis of this planet to embrace sanity and reason.

Suhit K. Sen is a fellow at the Indian Council of Historical Research and a senior researcher at the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group.

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