Muslims are the 'others': Why Pranab Mukherjee's nationalism is hardly different from that of RSS

Remove the patronising quotes on tolerance. The former president might be confused for a sophisticated Hindutva ideologue.

 |  6-minute read |   08-06-2018
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The self-proclaimed liberals of the country rejoiced at how former president Pranab Mukherjee “trolled” the Sangh Parivar while addressing the Tritiya Varsh function of the RSS at its headquarters in Nagpur on Thursday. But did he actually do that? There’s more to this than meets the eye.

“We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism,” he said in his speech, adding, “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.”

“It was this very nationalism that Pandit Nehru so vividly expressed in the book Discovery of India.  He wrote, ‘I am convinced that nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other groups in India’.”

Mukherjee sprinkled a few more such quotable quotes mentioning Nehru’s vision, Sardar Patel’s contribution and the long-drawn struggle of India for “constitutional patriotism”, reminding the Sangh cadres that “India's nationhood is not one language, one religion, one enemy. It is the ‘perennial universalism’ of 1.3 billion people”.

But sadly, his vision of nationalism and patriotism, it appears, is not much different from that of the Sangh parivar’s vision.

pranab-ani_060818122144.jpgDid he actually criticise RSS ideology? There’s more to this than meets the eye.

Picture this: The former president detailed on “our roots”, mentioning how the ancient India was an “open society”, which was “globally connected along the silk and spice routes” that witnessed “free exchange of culture, faith and invention”. 

He also mentioned about the Mauryas, terming Ashoka the “most illustrious ruler” of his time, the Guptas, Chanakya’s Arthashastra, etc. He talked about the Buddhism and the “Hindu influences” and acknowledged the writings of travellers like Megasthenes and Hiuen Tsang. Mukherjee also talked about Indian universities like Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramashila, etc were “magnets for the finest minds and scholars in the world”.

He also spoke about how “India was a state long before the concept of the European Nation State” and mentioned in particular sixteen Mahajanapadas. He reminded that “Indian Nationalism emanated from ‘universalism’ the philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (and Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah, Sarve Santu Niramayah. We see the whole world as one family and pray for the happiness and good health of all.”

There is nothing wrong in sketching the glorious heritage of the ancient India. But his intention becomes clearer towards the middle of his speech, when he reaches the end of his sermon on ancient India.

Mukherjee says, “Many dynasties ruled till 12th century, when Muslim invaders captured Delhi and successive dynasties ruled for the next 300 years. Babur defeated the last Lodhi King in 1526 at the First Battle of Panipat and firmly established the Mughal rule which continued for 300 years.”

The first mention of the “M” word in his speech is in reference to the invaders who “captured Delhi”. The above passage is all that represents the six centuries of medieval period. He then goes on to explain how the East India Company gradually took control of the most parts of India gradually after the Battle of Plessey in 1757.

What is interesting to note here is that while words like “invaders” and “captured” defined the Muslim rule, Mukherjee used terms like “under its control”, “administer” and “administration” to describe the British colonial rule in India.

pranab-in-nagpur_060818122157.jpgThe line between purported liberalism, preaching tolerance and inclusiveness, and rabid communalism has gotten completely blurred

The octogenarian leader is certainly not the first one to describe the changing political fortunes of India in these terms. In Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath when the “Musalmaan rule came to an end”, Hindus were suggested to learn “objective knowledge” from the English who shall remain the sovereign for the transient period. The Sage suggested, “…till the Hindus are great again in knowledge, virtue and power, till then the English rule will remain undisturbed”.

For majority of the Hindu intellectuals of the Renaissance period under the British, Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism consequently became synonymous. Muslims remained the “other” that were either ignored or vilified in history, literature, films and other expressions of arts. The national song, Vande Mataram, after all, is from the same Anandamath.

India contributed to the 25 per cent of the world GDP during the Mughals and used most of their resources and economies within their empire like any other Indian rulers in past. But in popular narratives, they would remain “outsiders” even though their forefathers came from the same region from where Kushanas and Sakas came earlier, but are accepted as Indian rulers. Even the Ahoms of Assam are considered Indians, although they came before the Mughals.  

History books that most of us read in our schools either ignore Muslims’ contributions or gloss over them. While Khudiram Bose is (rightly) idolised for attempting to assassinate a district judge, the assassination of Viceroy Lord Mayo by Sher Ali Afridi is rarely mentioned in the school texts. Afridi is, in fact, presented as a criminal, influenced by extremist Jihadism in present context.

sherali_060818122050.jpgSher Ali Afridi is rarely mentioned in the school texts. 

Similarly, Jallianwala Bagh massacre is (rightly) mentioned, but rarely do we read about Qissa Khani Bazaar massacre of Peshawar in 1930 where at least 200 unarmed volunteers of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar were massacred by the British police.

When Indian intelectuals – even those proclaiming to be liberal and inclusive – consciously “otherise” Muslims, ignore their positive contributions and focus on the negativities, they give the right-wing Hindutva forces fodder for violent extremism.

The difference between the soft and sophisticated version of the Hindutva ideology and that of the Sangh version of Hindutva lies only in the fate of the minorities, particularly the Muslims. While the former talk of Nehruvian secularism and tolerance to appear more accommodative, the Sangh Parivar’s mutation of Hindtuva terms such actions as “appeasement politics”.

MS Golwalkar talked of giving them the status of “second class” citizens where “...the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture....”

That does not stop journalists from arguing that the “RSS has every right to promote its ideology, assert its view of nationalism, seek engagement…”, completely ignoring the role of the foot soldiers of the Hindutva forces in the assassination of the father of the nation, in a number of communal riots, in demolition of the Babri Masjid, and in the recent spate of cow vigilantism.

Also, competently missing from Mukherjee’s speech were BR Ambedkar and the Dalits. In fact, when he was talking about the glorious “open society”, he completely ignored the institutionalised untouchability that exists in India.

If the text of Mukherjee’s speech was shown to someone, removing the patronising quotes on tolerance, inclusiveness and secularism that he sprinkled here and there, he might be confused for a sophisticated Hindutva ideologue – a rare species. That clearly does not augur well on a lifelong Congressman and the former president of the country.

Mukherjee had, in fact, had made his position clear a little earlier in the day when he signed off the visitor’s book at the birthplace of RSS founder KB Hedgewar, noting, “Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India”.

But can we really blame the power-thirsty politicians at a time when the right-wing shift in the Indian society and polity is so worrying that the line between purported liberalism, preaching tolerance and inclusiveness, and rabid communalism has gotten completely blurred?

Also read: Pranab Mukherjee to attend RSS event has exposed our left liberals


M Reyaz M Reyaz @journalistreyaz

The writer is a journalist who also shares his knowledge with young minds as an assistant professor of media communication at Aliah University, Kolkata.

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