Pranab Mukherjee’s Not-So-Secular History Lesson

After giving definitions of nation, nationalism and patriotism that did not sound all that different from Bhagwat's idea of India, perhaps the time has come for the former president to introspect on whether he is still a Nehruvian.

After paying tribute to K.B. Hedgewar’s memorial, where he called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder, a “great son of mother India”, former president Pranab Mukherjee waited for his turn to speak at the RSS event he was invited to.

It was a political endorsement that made a clear shift in its ideological grounds, because Jawaharlal Nehru and Hedgewar, like God and Mammon, are irreconcilable.

As Mukherjee waited his turn, the audience was treated to a viewing of RSS drills and other physical skills. A training camp of men wielding sticks is a symbol of double-policing, of self and society. Bhagwat made his opening remarks, invoking national unity in pure Hindi, using Sanskrit shlokas to define the cultural boundary of that oneness. The terms ‘civilisation’ and ‘nation’ are collapsible for Bhagwat, along with a third, which was of primary concern: ‘Hindu Samaj’, or Hindu society. For religion, Bhagwat used a term, “prakrutik dharma”, a naturalist idea of religion or moral codes.

The equation cannot be missed: Nature=nation=dharma.

The nation is the crucial thread between nature and dharma. In other words, nation is a concept and a reality where both nature and dharma becomes political, or they need to be understood politically.

Bhagwat spoke of “Bharat putra” (sons of Bharat), to indicate a sacred lineage of Hindu men. The only time he made a gendered concession was when he mentioned, ‘Bharat Mata’. The greatness of the nation, for Bhagwat, came from the “Mahapurushs” (great men), who dedicated and sacrificed themselves for the nation. There was no mention of ordinary people, those who laboured and suffered the brunt of history and rulers to sculpt with their own hands the beautiful temples and ruined cities whose beauty we cherish.

Even though, without any view to support it, Bhagwat said we are in need of a “democratic mind”, there was no indication of the democratic idea of the “people” in his vocabulary. He described the motto of his political organisation as being “we are one”, where the question of the “we” was neither made explicit nor left purely to imagination.

It was Mukherjee’s turn next, to offer his audience a short history lesson. He began by reading out the dictionary definitions of nation, nationalism and patriotism. The definitions did not sound very different from Bhagwat’s idea of India, where sameness was glorified: people of a nation are those sharing the same culture, language and history.

The phrase “unity in diversity” is merely used to make a distinction between cultural diversity and political unity, where the latter is today being understood as ideological unity. In a Nehruvian vein, Mukherjee mentioned the three travellers, Megasthenes, Hiuen Tsang and Fa Hein, who praised India’s “administrative system… and good infrastructure”.

Pranab Mukherjee’ in Nagpur on June 7. Credit: PTI

Mukherjee mentions the contribution of Buddhist centres of learning, taking their names and highlighting how they “dominated the world for 1,800 years beginning the sixth century BCE.” He pays attention to the “full form and art, literature, and scholarship” of this period, and ended by mentioning Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Mukherjee underlines the national ethos of “unity in diversity” by quoting a Sanskrit shloka, to emphasise if anyone had any doubts where that great idea was coming from. There is no problem in citing Sanskrit shlokas as a cultural register of thought. But if Sanskrit alone is privileged in a narrative of the nation and its history, then one wonders what pride of place – or relative obscurity – that narrative intends to give other cultures and languages. It suggests majoritarianism.

Mukherjee next picks up an interesting topic: a genealogy of the modern Indian state. He returned to Indian history, and traced the idea back to the Mahājanapadas, a mix of tribal monarchies and republics, named after Kshatriya tribes. They existed around the 6th century BCE, and are mentioned in Buddhist texts and by Pāini. The tribes were semi-nomadic and the idea of territory was based on tribal identity, though its boundaries were never specified, often demarcated by a river. Mukherjee did not illuminate us regarding what the idea of a nation has gained or lost from people’s habitations of those times. He shifted focus to empires next, mentioning Chandragupta Maurya’s “powerful empire” after defeating the Greeks, Ashoka, the “most illustrious ruler”, and the “vast empire” of the Gupta dynasty. It sounded close to a Nehruvian recapitulation of Indian history.

But when Mukherjee reaches the 12th century, and enters the medieval period, there is a striking obliteration of political and cultural details. Mukherjee mentions nothing of the “Muslim invaders”, besides Babur defeating the Lodhi king in the First Battle of Panipat, and the Mughal rule lasting for three hundred years.

The student of Nehruvian history is suddenly, no longer interested in Nehru’s recollection of “Akbar, forgetful of his empire, seated holding converse and debate with the learned of all faiths”. Mukherjee not only does not mention Akbar, but also, given his interest in matters of culture and scholarship, he makes no mention of Dara Shikoh, the translation of the Upanishads, no word on medieval centres of learning, no Islamic art, literature or architecture, no Indo-Islamic civilisation.

He forgot, given his interest in chroniclers from distant lands, the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, whose description of the Hindu Kush is legendary.  If the omissions were conscious (rational) it was bad enough, and if unconscious (ideological), much worse. But not only were the Muslims left out of the story. There was no Ranjit Singh or Guru Gobind Singh either. Some Hindus would have missed Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Medieval India saw multiple and complex formations of power struggles, and Mukherjee kept himself out of that mess. The neater the picture and history of great dynasties, the less it glorified “invaders”, the better. Mukherjee clearly parts ways with Nehru’s secular vision of India’s history. It is one thing to claim allegiance to Nehru and use the rhetoric of secularism. It is another to prove one’s secular idea of history. The details were starkly missing. 

Mukherjee next enters the British period, and named his political heroes: Surendranath Banerjee, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel. He sang paeans of the constitution, but did not find it necessary to mention B.R. Ambedkar. He quoted Nehru, but it wasn’t from The Discovery of India, as Mukherjee claimed. The quote has Nehru describing the idea of nationalism as an “ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other groups” but “subordinated” to “a common national outlook”. The problem here is, if you play with the idea of what is common and what is national, use the politics of references and silences in your historical narrative to promote one, grand, neat idea of India, then it is no longer an idea worth subordinating oneself to.

Mukherjee’s idea of India is primarily civilisational. He quotes a Tagore poem about civilisational unity, but missed the whole point of Tagore’s idea of civilisation. In Civilization and Progress, Tagore wrote: “The word ‘civilisation’ being a European word, we have hardly yet taken the trouble to find out its real meaning. For over a century we have accepted it, as we may accept a gift horse, with perfect trust, never caring to count its teeth”. If one counted the teeth of that term, one is bound to encounter a freewheeling Orientalism in the Hindu ideas of the nation and civilisation, with a generous dose of Sanskritic wisdom as its cultural source. To acknowledge the debate with Buddhism would itself displace the centrality of Hindu philosophy.  The civilisational narrative won’t remain secular if it discounts the exchanges between Hindu and Islamic scholars, and India’s rich Indo-Persian cultural tradition.

Quoting a shloka from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, “inscribed near lift No. 6 in the Parliament”, a memory he cherishes, Mukherjee tried to draw our attention to India’s poor happiness index in the world.

He translates the meaning of the shloka in English: “In the happiness of the people lies the happiness of the king, their welfare is his welfare.” He read it as a directive for the state to pay attention to poverty, disease, deprivation, encourage development, harmony, and of course, happiness. But happiness is not a statistical concern. Happiness is not a gross national product whose index had to be raised. There is no happiness in a nation that debars you from speaking the truth, that debars you from contradicting power, that debars you from eating, drinking, praying, loving, to your heart’s content. It is not just the mind that demands freedom, but also that much abused organ, the heart. Unlike Britain, a country that currently suffers from loneliness and needs a ministry for it, India does not need a ministry of happiness.

Mukherjee needs to introspect on something else: whether he is still a Nehruvian.