Essay

Pranab’s mission with a purpose

Print edition :

Former President Pranab Mukherjee (centre) stands alongside Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (second left), and other RSS leaders as they take a pledge at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur on June 7. Photo: AP

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Hindu Mahasabha leaders on the occasion of a working committee meeting presided over by V.D. Savarkar in New Delhi. Savarkar, B.S. Moonje and Syama Prasad Mookerjee are seen in the front row. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

K.B. Hedgewar, founder of the RSS.

The former President of India consciously gave the RSS the respectability it has long coveted. The RSS, in return, removed his deceptive cloak and gave him a new opening.

WHY did Pranab Mukherjee at all decide to go to the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) headquarters at Nagpur on June 7, so soon after demitting the office of the President of a secular democratic India? Why, indeed, the decision could not have been a sudden one nor, of course, was the invitation from his host, the RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat, a sudden move. The Congress’ untouchable would not have dared to send the invite unless it was assured of its acceptance; and that assurance could not have been secured unless a foundation of trust and understanding had been established over a period of time stretching well into the term when Pranab Mukherjee was comfortably ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Evidently, communication was securely in place, then, testifying not only to a lack of sharp disagreement on the fundamentals but a desire on both sides to break bread together.

Kolkata’s intellectuals and artists showed character in refusing to meet Amit Shah on June 27 (The Hindu). Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a Member of Parliament, newly elected but on a racist platform, “a moral leper” in the House of Commons. On past form, Pranab Mukherjee cannot be expected to emulate such people.

Such a desire on the part of the RSS is perfectly understandable. Pranab Mukherjee’s reciprocal desire was revealed on June 7 when he decided to strip himself of his long well-worn fig leaves.

He knew that (a) the RSS is, and has ever been, an untouchable to all except the Sangh Parivar; (b) a political body, opposed to India’s democratic and secular credo; (c) was in the forefront of the campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid, which his principled predecessor Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma denounced; and that (d) N.V. Godse was, at least for good time, an ardent member of the RSS. He knew, too, that Vallabhbhai Patel, Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister, informed his Cabinet colleague Syama Prasad Mookerjee on 18 July 1948: “As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, the case relating to Gandhiji’s murder is sub judice and I should not like to say anything about the participation of the two organisations, but our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of government and the state. Our reports show that those activities, despite the ban, have not died down. Indeed, as time has marched on, the RSS circles are becoming more defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities in an increasing measure.” (Sardar Patel’s Correspondence; Vol. 6; page 323). Can 70 years erase that guilt? Patel described the RSS as “an organisation run in secret or military or semi-military lines (ibid., pages 65-66). Pranab Mukherjee knew, too, that to this day the RSS hates Gandhi and Nehru.

What, then, impelled him to shut his eyes to all these facts, glaring as they are, to travel to Nagpur and sup with this devil? He knew that his party, the Indian National Congress, loathed the RSS and kept it at arm’s length.

This brings us to the crucial question neglected studiously in the banalities of media comments. Why, why, why did this notoriously wily, calculating politician go where he did, behave there as he did, and say those astonishing pieces? That is the question which we must answer. Pranab Mukherjee received kid-glove treatment while he was President. The two volumes of his memoirs, published with questionable propriety, when he was President, escaped close scrutiny. Now, after he has ceased to be President, his speech and conduct deserve close scrutiny, for they belong to a practising politician, not a retired head of state supposedly above politics—which he is not. All the evidence suggests that the old fox was sending a signal from Nagpur—he had ceased to be President but he had not left the political stage. He is still able and willing to perform if offered a role which he can accept. He no longer belongs exclusively to the Congress. His services are available to all. He has no ideological compulsions, either; such as they are, they can easily be trimmed to suit his employers and the job in the role which he can perform. Passed over for the Prime Minister’s chair twice, in 1984 and 2004, at least in his reckoning, he has nursed the bitterness of the one who was always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Rashtrapati Bhavan gives prestige, 10 Race Course Road gives power.

Pranab Mukherjee’s speech was, as one might expect of him, too clever by half. I cannot hope to improve or excel the brilliant analysis by Manini Chatterjee in The Telegraph (June 11). I quote it in extenso: “The erstwhile Grand Old Man of the Grand Old Party could have used the occasion to deliver some home truths to the newly minted RSS cadres, make them look at the world anew, force them to question the lessons they had been taught in their shakhas, give them examples from the past and present to underline the myriad complexities and challenges facing India, and tell them that all their ‘training’ was a waste if it only made them prey on the weak and not stand up for what is just.

“Instead, much of Mukherjee’s elementary history lesson on ‘Nation, Nationalism and Patriotism’ seemed to echo exactly what the young recruits had heard from their RSS instructors. That India has a ‘5000-year-old civilisational continuity’; that India was ‘a state long before the concept of the European Nation State gained ground’ in 1648; that India’s ‘ancient university’ system ‘dominated the world for 1800 years’; and that after the end of the Gupta dynasty in 550 AD, ‘many dynasties ruled till 12th century when Muslim invaders captured Delhi’.

“The running thread in Mukherjee’s speech was the uniqueness and greatness of India’s ancient past, and though he did not explicitly attribute it to ‘Hindu glory’, the inference was obvious to his audience.”

Courting the RSS

He was there to please or court the RSS and the speech was tailored to fit the ideology of his hosts. Hence, “the Muslim invaders”. Mill’s historiography is still alive in a cruder form. She added: “Mukherjee failed to even mention the reign of Emperor Akbar or how Muslim rule enriched India’s cuisine and culture, art and architecture, how the idea of equality and compassion—so alien to the dominant Brahminical order—was the gift of Islam and Christianity, of Sikh gurus and Bhakti minstrels to India. ... even when speaking about the Constitution and extolling the quest for ‘happiness’, Mukherjee chose to quote Kautilya (who happens, also, to be Amit Shah’s role model) rather than, say, Bhimrao Amedkar. In fact, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad found no mention in his address.”

Mukherjee revealed himself in the true colours of his well-known opportunism at the samadhi of the founder of the RSS, Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, where he wrote in the visitors’ book: “Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of mother India.” This, for a man, who spread communal poison through a rabid body, which he set up in 1925, the RSS.

The RSS was set up by five men. They were all Mahasabhaites. Hedgewar was in close consultation with V.D. Savarkar before that. There existed already the All India Hindu Mahasabha led by stalwarts like Lala Lajpat Rai and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. Hedgewar is unworthy of being mentioned along with them; nobody does that, either.

Why, then, was the RSS set up in 1925? It was in an enraged reaction to Gandhi’s policies and was meant to provide an armed wing to the Hindutva ideology which the RSS shared with the Mahasabha. The RSS did not shun violence. Its men were trained in the use of the lathi, and it was virulently anti-Muslim. Note what Pranab Mukherjee’s host Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS supremo, says about the RSS’s lathi.

On December 20, 2017, at a “get-together with the intellectuals of Delhi”, he boasted: “If you see the training manual of the police you will find that the weapon training is only 25 per cent. The remaining 75 per cent of training is the same, which is imparted to the swayamsewak in the third year training camp. So when the Police and Army personnel meet us, they say that it would take 4-5 months for ordinary people to learn use of weapons, if required. But if we get the swayamsevaks, they can be prepared for sending them to the border within 3-4 days. Therefore, the importance of lathis is very much there. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee has said ‘O stick, your days are over, but if the trained hands come forward to wield you, there would be no action beyond you to accomplish.’ So training to wield the stick would continue to stay in the RSS and it will produce brave and self-confident citizens who would prove an asset for the nation.”

As for Pranab Mukherjee’s new-found hero, to whom he offered his “respect and homage”, we have an authoritative exposition by one from the RSS, C.P. Bhisikar, written in Marathi and translated into Hindi. I owe the English translation to a friend (Sangh Vriksh Ke Beej; Keshavrao Hedgewar; Suruchi Prakashan, New Delhi; 1994). He recalls that as “Gandhi’s political horizon was emerging, there was dissatisfaction in the Nation”.

These extracts give the flavour of the whole: “‘[E]stablishment of Sangh’—In these three words the essence of contemplation was there. Sangh means organised power of Hindus. The reason for this is Hindus are only the fate makers of this Nation. They are its natural masters. This country is theirs and Uplift and fall of the Nation is dependent on them. History is the conclusion that this is Hindu nation. The present situation also indicates the same. ...Doctor sahib has founded the Sangh with the intention to bring independence to Hindu Nation and Hindu Society, and by protecting the Hindu culture and religion to reach the ultimate glory.”

Relationship with fascism

In 1929 the Fuhrer principle was adopted at Hedgewar’s insistence. “In November 1929 the volunteers of Sangh has decided that Doctor Sahib shall be considered as Head of the Sangh and all the branches in the nation shall run on his guidelines.” Like Pranab Mukherjee, Bhisikar also denounced “Muslim invaders”.

Hedgewar complained: “Where there was authority of Hindus not only in Hindustan but in nearby nations for thousand-five hundred years, there today the situation is that even in Hindustan the Hindus cannot call this nation as Hindustan. Today Hindu society is surrounded by many difficulties. The defect is ours, we are weak and sleeping. On one side is the foreign administrators’ political dominance and on other hand the social torture of Muslims on us. We are stuck in between the blades of scissor. If I tell on the attacks made on Hindus to make them Muslims and raping our daughters and daughter-in-laws I cannot control my emotions. Hence, I will not tell more on that, and also Christians were injuring us.

“If we want to protect our society from these attacks, we have to organise ourselves. With this oneness intention in the year 1925 the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh was established, during that time we were told treason, but now the situation has changed. Our faith is that, we have mercy of Almighty God on us. We need not attack anybody. The foreigners also should not forget that, they are staying in the Hindustan of Hindus.”

Read this: “‘Secularism’ always adopts the ways of Anti-Hindu. Sangh has kept the holy Sanatan Hindu religion, and our ancient Hindu culture, and our Hindu Nation and the Saffron flag coming from long period in its form.” Hedgewar asserted that “Hindutva is Rashtriyata”.

The Italian scholar Marzia Casolari has established, on the basis of tireless research in Italian and Indian archives, the RSS’s relationship with Italian and Nazi fascism (In the Shadow of the Swastika; 2011).

B.S. Moonje was Hedgewar’s mentor. “Fascism soon became a subject of public debate and Hedgewar himself was among the promoters of a campaign in favour of the militarisation of the Indian society. On 31 January 1934, Hedgewar chaired a conference dealing with fascism and Mussolini, organised by Kavde Shastri. Moonje’s speech closed the event.

“A few months later, on 31st March 1934, a meeting was arranged between Moonje, Hedgewar, and Laloo Gokhale. The subject was, again, how to militarily organise the Hindus along Italian and German lines: Laloo—‘Well you are the President of the Hindu Sabha and you are preaching Sanghathan of Hindus. It is ever possible for Hindus to be organised?

“I (Moonje) said—You have asked me a question of which exactly I was thinking of late. I have thought out a scheme based on Hindu Dharm Shastra which provides for standardisation of Hinduism throughout India.... But the point is that this ideal cannot be brought to effect unless we have our own swaraj with a Hindu as a Dictator like Shivaji of old or Mussolini or Hitler of the present day in Italy and Germany. But this does not mean that we have to sit with folded hands until [sic] some such dictator arises in India. We should formulate a scientific scheme and carry on propaganda for it.’ ”

What the scholar Donald Eugene Smith wrote in his acclaimed classic India As A Secular State in 1963 has been vindicated fully. “Nehru once remarked that Hindu communalism was the Indian version of fascism, and, in the case of the RSS, it is not difficult to perceive certain similarities. The leader principle, the stress on militarism, the doctrine of racial-cultural superiority, ultra-nationalism infused with religious idealism, the use of symbols of past greatness, the emphasis on national solidarity, the exclusion of religious or ethnic minorities from the nation-concept—all of these features of the RSS are highly reminiscent of fascist movements in Europe.

“Fascism, however, is associated with a concept of state worship; the state as the all-absorbing reality in which the individual loses himself and in so doing finds ultimate meaning. This conception has no counterpart in RSS ideology; in fact, the Sangh explicitly rejects the notion that its objectives could be attained through the power of the state. Its aim is the regeneration of Hindu society, which must come from within. However, it is impossible to say how the RSS would respond if political power ever came within reach, either directly or through the Jana Sangh. The implementation of certain aspects of its ideology (the policy toward Muslims and other minorities, for example) presupposes extensive use of the machinery of the state.” That has come to pass. Since 2014, when an RSS pracharak, Narendra Modi, became Prime Minister, the lynchings and much else tell the tale.

Pranab Mukherjee must ask himself whether an American President would go to the headquarters of the Ku Klux Khan and praise its founder. Would he have gone to the headquarters of a political party—say, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? Is he then accepting the RSS’s lie that it is a “cultural” body? The RSS despatched three presidents, two for the Jana Sangh and one for its heir, the BJP—its acolyte Lal Krishna Advani.

Read two detailed pieces of reportage in Hindustan Times of June 24, 2018, by Smriti Kak Ramachandran on the current parleys between the RSS and the BJP, successor to the Jana Sangh, which the RSS founded in 1950 under a pact with Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Such meetings are “routine”. The report is specific: “In the BJP, the post of general secretary in-charge is held by a pracharak deputed by the RSS, and acts as a bridge between the two, influencing decisions and conveying messages.” Over the years the RSS has tightened its hold over its political front, the BJP. As Myron Weiner wrote: “RSS members played a key role in organising the new party and without their participation it is not unlikely that Jan Sangh could have achieved such prominence. It is also true that, among the top leadership of the party, RSS leaders were in major positions” (Party Politics in India; page 194).

It would be interesting to watch the course which Pranab Mukherjee now adopts in this phase of his career—a politician at large strutting about with the fading plumage of the office he recently quit. His choice of the RSS as the first halt in the journey is meaningful. He consciously gave it the respectability it has long coveted. The RSS, in return, removed his deceptive cloak and gave him a new opening.

Nehru described the Jana Sangh as the “illegitimate child of the RSS” (The Hindu, January 6, 1952). Pranab Mukherjee and the RSS deserve each other.

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