It’s never a good sign when the Minister for Culture starts talking about purity and cultural pollution, particularly when the minister in question, Mahesh Sharma, describes himself as a lifelong and dedicated follower of that well-known cultural organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
At an RSS meet earlier this week, Sharma, according to a report in the Telegraph, assured his fellow swayamsevaks that his ministry would “will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored – be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years.”
So what is the RSS’s idea of “Indian culture” and when did Hinduism and its diverse and fluid iterations fructify into “Hindutva”, a caricature of its most regressive impulses?
The answers may be found in Gita Press and The Making of Hindu India, an extraordinary new book by journalist Akshaya Mukul, on a printing press in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, that has sold almost 200 million copies of the Bhagvat Gita, Tulsidas’s works, and scriptures like the Puranas and the Upanishads till date, and has played a pivotal role in defining the Hindu Right’s ideas of a national culture over its 92-year history.
Kalyan, the press’s monthly journal, is still active, and claims a circulation of over 200,000, while the English counterpart, Kalyana-Kalpatru, has a circulation of about 100,000 copies.
“Through the power of print,” Mukul writes, “Gita Press sought to influence the policies and politics of free India, supporting various movements, ideologies and organisations that promoted Hindu identity and culture, and opposing those seen as a threat to sanatan dharma.”
The press was set up in 1923 by Jaydayal Goyandka, a wealthy Marwari businessman, with the intention of producing high quality religious literature at lower prices, but soon became a forum for the stalwarts of Hindu nationalism to strategise, build networks, and disseminate their ideas across North India’s Hindi heartland.
The values espoused by the magazine are easily summarised and immediately recognisable to those who have followed the utterances of the Hindu Right over the years: Muslims in India must live like guests in another’s home, widows who haven’t committed sati should render themselves invisible, women in general need to shut up and look after their husbands, and dalits should know their place and serve the upper castes rather than pushing for political agency and entry into temples.
In 1926, Kalyan published a 46 page Q&A on Stri Dharma: “At a young age, the girl should be in the command of her father, in her youth under the control of her husband and after the death of her husband under the care of her sons.” Stri Dharma Prashnottari, Mukul writes, has sold over a million copies to date, and is currently priced at Rs 5.
By focusing on the history and money behind the press, Mukul eschews a boring narration of prejudice in favour of a gripping history of Hindu nationalism and the coming of age of India’s Marwari, Aggarwal, and Baniya communities complete with politics, holy visitations, and sex scandals. Hindutva is as much a product of the RSS and the made-to-order saffron-robed Swamis and Shankaracharyas as it is of whims, fancies, and prejudices of pre-independence traders who have since entrenched themselves as “India Inc”. G.D. Birla, Jamnalal Bajaj, and R.K. Dalmia, all find mention in Mukul’s magisterial work. It is also the story of Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the founding editor of Kalyan, and a man unerringly present at seminal moments in the nation history.
Here is Poddar, aged 24, on July 21, 1916, arrested in Calcutta for his role in the Rodda Arms Robbery Case. The local Marwaris hastily distance themselves from the conspirators, assuring the British that the “Marwari community is deeply attached to the government.” Ten years later, Poddar seeks MK Gandhi’s blessings before starting Kalyan. The Mahatma – who writes to Poddar with deep affection – offers pithy advice that is taken to heart: Don’t take advertisements, don’t publish book reviews.
The 1930s finds Poddar writing to Gandhi, arguing against allowing dalits into ‘savarna’ temples; post independence, he is accused of participating in the conspiracy to kill Gandhi.
In July 1949, Poddar attends a public meeting with Atal Bihari Vajpayee (at the time the editor of the RSS’s Panchjanya) and castigates the government for banning the RSS; while in December that month he is allegedly at the heart of the plan to place a idol of the Hindu god Ram in the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya – the repercussions of which are still felt today.
In the midst of all this, Poddar finds the time to correspond with a galaxy of allies: conservative Congressmen like Madan Mohan Malaviya; one-time revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh, “socially conscious” writers like Munshi Premchand, and Chhaayavad poets like Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’.
Much of Mukul’s book is based on his discovery of the “Poddar papers”, which I can best describe as the mid 20th century equivalent of the Niira Radia tapes. Almost everyone with even a smidgeon of power and influence shows up in Poddar’s letters – always cordial and intimate, occasionally in disagreement, but unerring in their support for Gita Press’s mission of spreading the good word of the Sanatan Dharma. And as with much of the Radia tapes, there is nothing illegal about the likes of Annie Besant, C. Rajagopalachari, S. Radhakrishnan, Jamnalal Bajaj, Jugal Kishore Birla (G.D. Birla’s elder brother), Tata Sons director Purshottamdas Thakurdas, Gandhian Vinobha Bhave, writing platitudes for an openly casteist, misogynist, and communal magazine.
But there is something revealing about a sitting President in Rajendra Prasad, Prime Minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri, Chief Minister in Sampurnanand, and Home Minister in G.B. Pant, writing for the magazine, at a time when women were struggling to be heard, caste oppression was clear and present, and the wounds of partition were still festering.
Three big names who didn’t and wouldn’t write for Kalyan: Nehru the secularist, Mahadevi Verma the feminist, and Ambedkar, the towering jurist and scourge of Brahmanical mumbo-jumbo.
One way of reading Mukul’s book is to see how our current political moment – and its corresponding Hindutva fantasies – is a product of the steady drip-drip of upper-caste and Marwari conservatism that has seeped into every aspect of social life. The writings in Kalyan – over decades – echo a version of the same paranoia; in this case that modern education has steadily corroded ancient values.
Social life on the sub-continent appears to be a centuries long game of making do. Every so often, social mobilisations change the rules of the game, prompting a violent reordering of alliances. Dalit political mobilisation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for instance, has fundamentally transformed public discourse on caste. Electoral politics is often a lagging indicator of these transformations; by the time these societal changes are visible enough to organise a successful political campaign, the moment has passed, the rules have changed, and a new game is afoot.
I was briefly in Gorakhpur last month when I heard that the workers at Gita Press were on strike. Ravinder Singh, a worker representative with 20 years of experience on the press, later told me that permanent workers were being paid less than minimum wage, and over 300 “temporary” workers were being paid 150 rupees a day despite working for the press for over 20 years. “They are all thieves,” Singh told me, referring to the management, “and what’s worse, they are making money thieving on God’s work.”
The management has threatened the workers, claiming their connections go all the way to Home Ministry in New Delhi, but for now, the strike continues. This September, for the first time in decades, Kalyan’s September issue may be delayed, and the October issue may not come out at all. For a brief interregnum, pious subscribers may just have to look elsewhere for religious guidance; who knows what they might find.