Pranab Mukherjee in Nagpur

Courting controversy

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Former President Pranab Mukherjee being greeted by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat in Nagpur on June 7. Photo: PTI

Sharmistha Mukherjee, Congress spokesperson and daughter of Pranab Mukherjee. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to address an RSS meeting in Nagpur continued to be a talking point long after the event.

The iftar organised by Congress president Rahul Gandhi on June 13, ostensibly with the idea of showcasing opposition unity and strength, had almost everyone who mattered on the guest list. The list included former President Pranab Mukherjee, who courted controversy recently by accepting an invitation to address a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) meeting. Pranab Mukherjee, who was a veteran Congress leader before he became the President, was to give the concluding speech at the end of a 25-day camp organised for swayamsewaks of the Sangh Shiksha Varg, Tritiya Varsha (third year).

Pranab Mukherjee at an iftar hosted by Congress president Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi on June 13.   -  PTI

Apart from becoming a major talking point in the media and in political circles, his acceptance of the invitation saw a section of the Congress leadership react strongly but later dilute its criticism. Pranab Mukherjee’s inclusion in the iftar was a matter of justifiable yet temporary speculation, which ended with his participation.

Yet, the impact and implications of his decision to speak at the RSS function continued to be a major debating point for many days after the event.

On June 7, everyone was eagerly awaiting the speech to be made by the former President at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. In his speech, Pranab Mukherjee shared his understanding of the concepts of nation, nationalism and patriotism and how they were intertwined in the context of India. On the question of national identity, he said that the Indian identity was one that “had emerged through a long-drawn process of confluence, assimilation, and co-existence”. The multiplicity in culture, faith and language was what made India special, he added.

“We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. These have been a part of our collective consciousness for centuries. Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity. Any differences that may appear are only on the surface, but we remain a distinct cultural unit with a common history, a common literature and a common civilisation.”

He traced the emergence of the Indian state from the 6th century B.C., mentioned Chandragupta Maurya’s victory over the Greeks, the illustriousness of Emperor Ashoka, the defeat of Delhi at the hands of “Muslim invaders”, and the advent of the East India company to underscore the point that civilisational continuity remained unbroken and that each “conqueror and foreign element had been absorbed to form a synthesis and unity”. He did not mention the contributions, cultural and otherwise, of all those whose paths had crossed India but defined Indian nationalism from the words and perspectives of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. He referred to the Constitution as the one from which flowed the construct of Indian nationalism, stating that “constitutional patriotism” was what defined Indian nationalism.

The former President underscored the importance of dialogue and multiplicity of opinion, stating that the “soul of India” resided “in pluralism and tolerance”, and talked about the centrality of people in all activities and how nothing should be done to divide and create animosity among them.

Congress criticism

A few days after Pranab Mukherjee accepted the invitation, several senior Congress leaders and former United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Ministers exhorted him not to attend the event. Among them were Sushilkumar Shinde, C.K. Jaffar Sharief, Jairam Ramesh, Anand Sharma, Ramesh Chennithala, Ahmed Patel, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Hanumantha Rao and Ripun Bora, who expressed their concern and disappointment.

However, the Congress president, who has been attacking the RSS in public speeches, remained silent on the matter. A “party line” seemed to be missing on such matters, although of late the Congress has been taking a more combative view of the RSS than ever before. Congress leaders were making public messages through the media on their own, either suggesting that the former President not attend the event or hinting what he should say if he were to accept the invitation.

It was also unusual to see Congress leaders, one after the other, issue public statements about how “millions of Congress workers and those who believed in pluralism had been hurt”.

Some Congress leaders argued after the speech was delivered that though Pranab Mukherjee had spoken in his personal capacity, he need not have given “legitimacy” and “respectability” to the RSS. Some argued that he was no longer with the party, having resigned from it before assuming the office of the President, and that the RSS was not a banned organisation. The RSS, on its part, issued a statement saying that luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, former President Zakir Hussain, Jayaprakash Narayan and Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa had attended its events.

Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), tweeted that Pranab Mukherjee could have reminded the RSS of its own history: it was banned thrice by Congress governments and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to the RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar on how RSS members had distributed sweets after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

He tweeted that “in the ‘history capsule’ delivered by Pranab Mukherjee at the RSS headquarters, the absence of Mahatma Gandhi and his assassination speaks volumes”.

A section of Congress leaders hailed Pranab Mukherjee’s speech after initially criticising him for having described RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar as a “great son of Mother India”. Anand Sharma, who initially expressed anguish, tweeted that Pranab Mukherjee had “told RSS about the richness and diversity of India’s pluralism. Hope they will reflect and absorb your message.”

But it was also a fact that barring a brief interregnum when he was expelled from the party, Pranab Mukherjee’s association with the Congress had a long history. Above all, he was the UPA’s nominee for President and, with the full support of all UPA constituents, he defeated P.A. Sangma, who was the nominee of the National Democratic Alliance.

The biggest question was: could the former President of India, a veteran Congress leader, have feigned ignorance of what the RSS stood for and what its views on minorities, women and caste were? Could he have feigned ignorance about the RSS’s definition of India as a Hindu Rashtra with a homogeneous culture?

Pranab Mukherjee may have retired from active politics after deciding not to re-contest the presidential election citing health reasons, but it was clear that he had not severed political ties with the Congress, having served as party troubleshooter for several years.

Closer home, in his family, the discomfiture was even more palpable, as both his daughter and son are active members of the Congress. His son, Abhijit Mukherjee, is a sitting MP from Jangipur, a seat vacated by him, and his daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee, is among the leading spokespersons of the Delhi Congress. She tweeted with ostensible concern that the visuals of the meeting would remain while everyone would forget his speech.

She also stated that his presence had given a handle to the RSS to plant false stories about his visit. Soon enough, morphed images appeared on the Internet showing him with folded hands, in prayer mode while the prayer of the RSS was being recited. Manmohan Vaidya, the RSS sah sarkaryavah or joint general secretary, issued a clarification stating that the images were the handiwork of some “divisive political forces” out to defame the RSS. These political forces were those that had “tried to create an opposition to make Dr Mukherjee refrain from attending this function”, he added.

Interestingly, after he delivered his speech, the Congress held a press conference to say that his speech was “a lesson in true Indian philosophy” and asked if the RSS was interested in his “sagacious advice that pluralism was central to Indian nationalism”. The Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, who was addressing the conference, asked if the RSS would now “agree to follow constitutional patriotism, tolerance and secularism”. Pranab Mukherjee had held a mirror to the RSS, he added, while Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Ram Madhav told a news agency that there was not much of a difference between the views of RSS sarsangchalak (chief) Mohan Bhagwat and Pranab Mukherjee.

Prior to Pranab Mukherjee’s speech, the entire speech of Mohan Bhagwat was broadcast live. Pranab Mukherjee’s presence had ensured prime broadcast slotting for the RSS event, which it would not have received otherwise. Television studios were packed with commentators and spokespersons of political parties who sparred with one another on what the entire visit meant.

Prafulla Ketkar, editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, wrote in an editorial dated June 17 that the real message of the Nagpur visit by the former President was more national than political. The general reaction was that while the language and style of the speeches by Pranab Mukherjee and Mohan Bhagwat were dissimilar, the essence was the same, according to him.

He also wrote that even though the RSS knew about Pranab Mukherjee’s “lifelong political association”, it chose to invite him and he, “despite pressure from all political circles, graciously accepted the invitation”. Another commonality between the speeches was that the speakers gave a common call to nurture the feeling to work for the Motherland among the masses, he wrote. “His visit to Nagpur has certainly paved the way for regenerating the ‘eternal springs of our national life’ as mentioned by Sri Guruji Golwalkar,” he wrote in the editorial.

Writing in Panchajanya, the Hindi weekly published by the RSS, Ratan Sharda, one of the magazine’s columnists, wrote that what Pranab Mukherjee said was taught by Hindu sanskriti (culture). The article began with a critique of the Left and then discussed the importance of Pranab Mukherjee’s visit. It talked about 2014 being a major historical milestone that shook the roots of the Left and the so-called secular forces and challenged the values imposed by them.

Sharmistha Mukherjee, Congress spokesperson and daughter of Pranab Mukherjee.   -  Shanker Chakravarty

The former President’s speech, he wrote, reiterated most of the RSS’s beliefs and convictions, adding that Pranab Mukherjee and the RSS had made a new attempt to end political untouchability. Ratan Sharda hailed Pranab Mukherjee for lauding India’s achievements over thousands of years, its uninterrupted status of nationhood and its ability to assimilate everyone who came.

He wrote that Pranab Mukherjee also mentioned “Muslim invaders” in his speech, a term that Nehruvians were uncomfortable using. The speech of Mohan Bhagwat very clearly outlined that the RSS was very much what it was, what it had always been and what it would continue to be, regardless of the valedictory address by the former President.

Bhagwat’s speech

Pranab Mukherjee’s eulogy to K.B. Hedgewar drew predictable reactions from a section of historians, for the RSS founder had described Muslims in not very flattering terms. It is Mohan Bhagwat’s speech that should be looked at carefully. He made it clear to his audience in his 32-minute speech that the RSS would remain what it was, that no one was a political untouchable, and that people in Nagpur knew that it was a routine event.

While paying encomiums to the former President, he said it was pointless to question why the RSS had invited him or why he had accepted the invitation. The RSS organised the event each year and its tradition was to invite people who not only saw what it was all about but articulated its views as well.

The RSS wanted to organise the entire society, not just Hindus, he said, and referred to the self-sufficiency of Bharat. He never once referred to Hindutva but said that “governments could do a lot but not everything”, possibly indicating the role of the RSS.

He also said that society could only run on the basis of an environment and people were needed to create it. That environment had to be based on a special character and attributes, without which the “destruction of the country’s bad people would not happen”.

Mohan Bhagwat perhaps had to sanitise his speech given the wide attention that the event had attracted following the controversy generated over Pranab Mukherjee’s presence. As recently as February 26, while addressing the Rashtrodaya Sammelan, he exhorted all Hindus to unite. His September 30, 2017, speech on the occasion of Vijayadashami was combative as he spoke about illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingya refugees. He said any decision about Rohingyas should be taken keeping in mind that they would definitely be a threat to national security and integrity.

His views on inquiries relating to acts of violence involving cow protection were more worrying. He overruled the involvement of cow protection activists in the acts of violence and instead stated that many activists who were peacefully involved in cow protection were attacked or killed. According to him, it was unfair to link the cow protectors or the entire activity of cow protection with violent incidents or communal feelings without knowing the facts. He said that those who were involved in the pious project of cow protection “should not worry about or get distracted by the well-intentioned statements by highly placed persons in the government or remarks made by the Supreme Court”.

He added: “People who are criminals and are involved in violent activities should be bothered about that. Vested interests are misinterpreting these statements to influence the larger public opinion. The government and administration should stay away from such misinterpretation and should ensure that the criminals get penalised and the innocents are not troubled. The legal and virtuous work of cow protection and cow promotion will go on in the interest of the people and will increase in coming days. It will also be the apt answer to the situation.”

The RSS’s commitment to making India or Bharat a sole Hindu nation continues to be on the agenda irrespective of Pranab Mukherjee’s exhortations of pluralism. Its mission is the same and unchanged. Its website quotes Hedgewar as saying: “The Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindusthan. It is therefore clear that if Hindusthan is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture. If the Hindu culture perishes in Hindusthan itself and if the Hindu society ceases to exist, it will hardly be appropriate to refer to the mere geographical entity that remains as Hindusthan….strength, it should be remembered, comes through organisation, it is the duty of every Hindu to consolidate the Hindu society. The Sangh is just carrying out this supreme task.”

Mohan Bhagwat also referred to “shakti” or strength, which he said was required to do anything, adding that there was shakti in “sangathan” or organisation.

The RSS and the organisations that draw ideological sustenance from it do not lack clarity in their objectives. The mission of the RSS as stated on its website is “to carry the nation to the pinnacle of glory, through organising the entire society and ensuring protection of Hindu Dharma”.

The question is whether a party like the Congress, which plans to forge and perhaps lead an anti-BJP political phalanx, is sufficiently clear in its mission or vision.