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Why Premchand Thought That Elimination of Opposition Is a Threat to Democracy

“We have the right to consider holy any animal we like but to hope that followers of another religion will consider it equally sacred is nothing but to incite violence.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

“After the landslide victory of the Nazi Party in Germany, the question that arises is will Germany really turn into a fascist regime and will the Nazis be able to hold and consolidate power for at least five years? If it happens and the Nazis get an opportunity to establish themselves, they will suck the democratic life and vision out of Germany through its political and military strength in such a way that not a single opponent of the Nazi Party would be left in Germany for 25 years.”

Premchand recorded this apprehension in a brief commentary titled ‘Germany Ka Bhavishya’ (The Future of Germany) right after the victory of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933. What is noteworthy in this excerpt is the part where he forebodes the “democratic vision” of Germany being sucked out. He says that the rise to power of one specific political force is a threat to democracy, endangering its existence. But this victory was nothing usual. “The growing repression of the illegitimate army of the Nazi Party in Germany and the crushing of all opposing powers prior to the election is the sole reason for Nazi victory,” he writes. “If not so, was it fair to conduct elections after incarcerating communists, beating up opponents and banning rival newspapers like Mussolini did and then declare it to be a victory of popular vote?”

It is not necessary to view Premchand’s observation in the context of the present times but the focus of his comment is the forced elimination of opposition before the victory of the Nazi Party. He does not censure the German opposition parties for their inability to protect themselves. He clearly states that the crime was Hitler’s who was phasing out the opposition through undemocratic means. The Nazis had a private army which none of the other political parties in Germany possessed.

Premchand unequivocally states that the elimination of opposition should be a cause for worry and one who carries it out must be held responsible for it and must be questioned.

Premchand’s sharp critical vision allowed him to see right through the what was happening in the world around him. His makes his stand clear. He holds European civilisation responsible for the events that unfolded in Germany. The suppression of Jews was one reason for the monopoly of the Nazi Party, the basis for which pre-existed. “We are tired of hearing the laurels of European civilisation. They are proud of their culture. We, the people of Asia, are foolish, barbaric, uncivilised. But when we look at the savagery of all these nations, we feel that these titles be returned to them along with interest.”

Premchand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Premchand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of antisemitism in Europe, Premchand writes, “The Jews are affluent people and nowadays policies of nations are money-driven. Agreed, that Jews had a hand in spreading communism in Russia. We may also admit that the Jews have taken it upon themselves to seek revenge for long-standing rivalries against the Christians and to crush their civilisation. But does it mean that the majority of a nation should become hell-bent on wiping the Jews out? Right after its victory, the Nazis have launched an onslaught against the Jewish community in Germany. While physical assaults and spilling of blood continues, the Jews are not allowed to leave the country. They cannot even save their lives. They have lived there for generations and claim an equal share in the advancement of the country. Yet they no longer have a place for themselves in Germany.”

Though it is not necessary to view Premchand’s remarks in light of the present context, in his own time Premchand also compared the events unfolding in his country with what was happening in Germany: “Here, the past few days have witnessed ugliness between a group of Hindus and Muslims. Responsible for it are those who have been enlightened in the West. The same Western civilisation is making a direct impact here.”

Nationalism is one invention of this Western civilisation. We are already aware of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Critique of Nationalism’. Bhagat Singh’s criticism of narrow-minded nationalism is less publicised as he has always been projected as a fanatical nationalist. In his essay, ‘Rashtriyata Aur Antar-Rashtriyata’ (Nationalism and Internationalism), Premchand writes, “Nationalism is the leprosy of the present era just as communalism was the leprosy of the medieval period. Both result in the same. Within its narrow perimeter, communalism aimed at establishing a peaceful and happy state, mutilating and detroying everything that fell beyond it without the slightest qualm. Nationalism, too, dreams of a Ram Rajya within its finite limits.”

Premchand projects a preference for internationalism over nationalism – a notion somewhat similar to the ideas of Gandhi, Nehru and Bhagat Singh. At the time when Premchand was writing, the question of nationalism rode on a cleft between Hindus and Muslims. Regretting the failure of the Hindus to view Khilafat movement from the comprehensive perspective of Mahatma Gandhi, he says, “The truth is that the Hindus have never understood the importance of Khilafat but always looked at it sceptically.” He adds more sternly, “The Hindus have never been known for their political generosity, but the kind of narrow-mindedness they have displayed at this occasion, one is forced to conclude that this community is at the peak of political bankruptcy. For no other reason could the entire Hindu community collectively go in a frenzy motivated by a few so-called nationalists driven by hysteria.”

Criticising the formation of Hindu organisations and shuddhi or cleansing movements, Premchand says, “Sadly, even the liberal leaders are not speaking a word against it.”

“Are there any Hindus today,” aska Premchand, “who are dedicatedly working towards Hindu-Muslim unity, and believe that it is a significant issue India is faced with? The pain and the agony for people can no where be seen among Hindus. They are ecstatic over the cleansing of a few thousand malkans as if that was their goal; as if independence has been achieved.”

“In the matter of cow-killing, the Hindus have adopted unjust ways since the beginning,” he writes. “We have the right to consider holy any animal we like but to hope that followers of another religion will consider it equally sacred is nothing but to incite violence. Cows are eaten all across the world. Would you pronounce a death warrant against the whole world for it?”

Though Premchand was writing it nearly a century ago, is it time now to put his words into action?

Apoorvanand teaches in Delhi University.

This article was originally published in The Wire Hindi and has been translated by Naushin Rehman.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Thanks for bringing forth Munshi Premchand’s views on nationalism and unity, which were unknown to me. It makes me happy to know that he had similar views on narrow parochial nationalism as Tagore and Bhagat Singh. Premchand’s words “Nationalism, too, dreams of a Ram Rajya within its finite limits.”, express a kindred sentiment to Tagore’s when he wrote “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”.

    Premchand’s opinions about the Nazi purge of the Jews contrasts sharply with M.S.Golwalkar’s, who chillingly writes:

    “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a GOOD LESSON FOR US IN HINDUSTHAN TO LEARN AND PROFIT BY.” (We or Our Nationhood defined – M. S. Golwalkar) (Uppercase added by me)

    Hindusthan it seems has indeed learnt the Nazi lesson, instead of Tagore and Premchand’s.

  • alok asthana

    Well brought out.