No one knows why the venerable former president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, chose to accept the invitation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to visit its headquarters in Nagpur and deliver an address to its swayamsevaks at a grand function on June 7 to mark the completion of their third year of training.
Mukherjee, it is true, owed us no explanation and he did not offer any. He is no longer a member of the Congress, an organization he served and got a great deal from in a political career spanning five decades. He felt no obligation to tell the party leadership his motives. As a private citizen, he felt no need to reveal anything to the people of the country either.
But since Mukherjee has been a lifelong Congressman and is regarded as “a walking encyclopedia” on Indian politics, his decision to accept the invitation was, to put it mildly, surprising. Mukherjee, after all, had enough experience in public life to know that the RSS was not just a “cultural organization” devoted to “nation building.”
The RSS was and is the fountainhead of an ideology that seeks to transform the Indian republic into a “Hindu rashtra” where minorities have no place unless they adopt the “Hindu culture” of their “ancestors”. The RSS has built up a formidable organization with scores of overt and covert offshoots aimed at spreading this ideology. And with a dedicated pracharak heading the Indian government for the past four years, the RSS is now ruling by proxy – and fostering a climate of fear and hatred not just against minorities but also against anyone and everyone who refuses to accept their brand of bigotry in the guise of hypernationalism.
Mukherjee may no longer be in active politics but no one would imagine that he, of all people, was unaware of the clear and present dangers posed by the RSS. So why was he going to Nagpur? And why now – when the Congress, under Rahul Gandhi, has launched a sustained offensive against the RSS ideology; when there is growing Opposition unity in a bid to thwart further inroads by the RSS via a second term for Modi.
The only answer, offered by his admirers and well-wishers, was that Mukherjee was too seasoned a leader to do anything that would help the RSS in any way. He was going to Nagpur, they said, not to praise the RSS but to shame it. If that indeed was Mukherjee’s objective, he miserably failed to achieve it.
The RSS, craving for legitimacy and approbation from those outside its fold, had many reasons to rejoice the decision to invite Citizen Mukherjee. First, of course, was the optics. Never before had the RSS “passing out parade” got such wall to wall coverage on every television news channel in the country. The rest of us have to stand up for the national anthem and salute the tricolour every time we enter a movie hall. But here was the former president of India, standing to attention, as the RSS’s bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag) was unfurled, and the RSS anthem – promising a Hindu rashtra – was sung. There was no place for either the national flag or the national anthem at Nagpur, and Mukherjee seemed fine with it.
Before that, Mukherjee visited the memorial of RSS founder, K.B. Hedgewar, and wrote in the visitor’s book: “Today, I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India” – this for a man who refused to participate in the freedom struggle because it sought a united, inclusive India and not a Hindu state.
And finally came Mukherjee’s speech. Shell shocked by the images of Mukherjee at the Hedgewar memorial and then on the Nagpur stage, many a Congressman half expected him to pay glowing tributes to the RSS and quote its premier ideologue, M.S. Golwalkar, in his speech. That Mukherjee refrained from doing so was cause enough for celebration. And so a perfectly ordinary speech, replete with clichés about India’s “pluralist” heritage and “composite culture”, about “shared diversity” and “constitutional patriotism” was hailed as a master class on the idea of India and a trenchant riposte to the RSS vision.
A close reading of Mukherjee’s address will show that it was nothing of the sort. 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 civilizational 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. Given the RSS worldview, Mukherjee could have mentioned the gross inequities and injustice ingrained in the Hindu caste order and mentioned the many who rebelled against it – Buddha, Kabir, Nanak, Basavanna, Tukaram et al – and sought to reform or enrich or abandon the religion.
In the same vein, he could have given concrete examples to his audience – who were not Seva Dal volunteers or IAS recruits but young men indoctrinated in the Hindu supremacist school – of how exactly India’s national identity had “emerged through a long drawn out process of confluence, assimilation and co-existence.” But 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.
Again, echoing the RSS, Mukherjee quoted shopworn Sanskrit slokas such as “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” and ” sarve bhavantu sukhinah, sarve santu niramayah” that Narendra Modi loves to espouse as signs of India’s magnanimity. 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 Ambedkar.
In fact, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad found no mention in his address; just as his short history on the greatness of “our motherland” elided over the great blots on recent Indian history: the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Given these omissions and elisions, it would perhaps have been futile to expect Mukherjee to give concrete examples of the “manifestations of rage” that were tearing apart “our social fabric”; about the “darkness, fear and mistrust” at the heart of the violence around us. If he had mentioned Pehlu Khan or Junaid Khan or Mohammad Akhlaque by name, if he had spoken of the Una floggings and the Kathua rape without mincing words, it may have shaken the conscience of his young audience and not been dismissed – if it registered at all – as just the usual politically correct words.
Unwittingly or not, Mukherjee delivered a speech that the RSS was only too happy to hear, and criticized its worldview in formulations so bland and pedestrian that it was equally happy to ignore them.
With Cordelia like candour, Sharmistha Mukherjee had warned her father that the RSS would make great capital of his Nagpur visit, that “the speech will be forgotten” and the “visuals will remain.” She was both right and wrong. The visuals will remain for sure. But the speech will not be forgotten – both for what it said and what it did not.
(Meanwhile, we are still left wondering why he chose to go to Nagpur at all.)