As RSS Event Hogs TV Limelight, Pranab Mukherjee's Soft Jibes Get Lost in the Din

By choosing to softly address the issue of religious polarisation at a Hindu nationalist platform, the former president has secured himself a position outside the Sangh-constructed binaries.

New Delhi: It was supposed to be a convocation speech at the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak’s ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’, an annual event that the Hindu nationalist organisation holds to mark the end of a training camp of three years for swayamsevaks in Nagpur. But the controversy began to brew when the 13th president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, accepted the Sangh’s invitation to attend the event. His own party, the Congress, even launched a full-scale attack on him.  

The speech

In his televised address on June 7, 2018, Mukherjee used the occasion to engage directly with thousands of Sangh parivar supporters across the world.

Staying true to his Nehruvian antecedents, he rooted his speech on the multicultural aspects of Indian nationalism. In his own gentle way, Mukherjee used instances from early and modern India, indigenous scholars like Kautilya and Rabindranath Tagore, and the Gandhian principle of non-violence to eventually reach the conclusion that Indian nationalism is nothing but constitutional nationalism.

“Our constitution is the Magna Carta of socio-economic transformation of the country. From our constitution flows the concept of Indian nationalism,” he said, in his speech that dealt with the concepts of nation, nationalism and patriotism. This assumes significance as BJP leaders like Anant Kumar Hegde and many others have been denouncing the Indian constitution of late.

He systematically negated many of the controversial, mostly bigoted, theories that the RSS has historically propagated. He referenced Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru many times to delve into the aspect of Indian nationalism.

“Nationalism can only come through the fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikhs and other groups,” he quoted Nehru. He also spoke about Mahatma Gandhi’s belief that nationalism should not be bound by religion, race, creed and caste.

Pranab Mukherjee speaks during the closing ceremony of ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’ in Nagpur on June 7, 2018. Credit: PTI

He was clearly reflecting on the current political environment. Each of his statements sought to defuse the polarised political debate that has come to be bound by binaries like ‘secular versus pseudo-secular’, ‘western versus Indian’, or say, ‘nationalist versus anti-national’.

Clearly aware of who he was trying to have a dialogue with, he used the tropes that are familiar to the Sangh’s supporters and attempted to hit at the core of the political campaign that the RSS’s ideological child, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the government it leads under prime minister Narendra Modi, has carried out over the last few years.

For instance, Mukherjee said, while giving multiple scholarly examples: “Our national identity has emerged through the principle of coexistence and multiplicity of cultures. This is what makes India special. We derive our strength from pluralism and diversity. Any attempt of defining our national identity through dogma, religion and intolerance will only lead to the dilution of our national identity.”

He further said, “(There are) some truths I have internalised in my 50 years of public life. The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us a nation.”

Taking a mellow potshot at RSS’s core ideology, he said India has “122 languages, more than 1,600 dialects, multiple faiths”, he denounced the idea of “one nation, one religion, one entity” and the RSS’s favourite quote of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”.

He differed from the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar, also the most dominant influence on the organisation, by saying that “we (Indians) do not identify any enemy”. In two of his most important books – We, Or Our Nationhood Defined  and Bunch of Thoughts – Golwalkar had devoted separate chapters to identify Muslims, Christians and Communists as the three enemies of India. In fact, he went on to say that if Muslims and Christians failed to abandon their religion in India, they can only be treated as “foreigners”, “enemies” or at best, as “idiots”.

The former president, however, used the occasion to clearly state the multiple influences of different cultures – using examples from the time of the Maurya dynasty to British rule – on the land that became the Indian nation. Altogether, this is what ensured unbroken “5,000-year civilisational continuity”.

While making this larger point, he gave minor concessions to the RSS as he did not challenge the controversial theories of a “Muslim invasion” – or what the Sangh parivar calls “Muslim rule” – by discounting the aspects of statecraft during pre-British times. However, he asserted that “each foreigner was absorbed and synthesised” into what came to be known as the Indian civilisation.

The crux of his speech contained a message which touched upon the concept of universalism in India, which he put forward by stressing on the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.  

Mukherjee also criticised the “unhealthy political strife which comes from deep distrust” in the current political climate. “Compassion and harmony” are essential, he said. “Everyday we see violence around us. We have to free discourse from all forms of violence – both physical and verbal… Our motherland deserves peace,” he said, while addressing the swayamsevaks.

Nagpur: Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat speaks as former president Pranab Mukherjee looks on during the closing ceremony of ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’ on June 7, 2018. Credit: PTI

His focus on scientific historical analysis in his speech, derived from nationalist historiography of the 1950s, could be seen as his way of emphasising on a need for facts and truth at a time of when fake news and misinformation is being commonly peddled.

By ignoring the Congress’s multiple pleas to reject the invitation to the event, Mukherjee chose to attend and hit out at the ideological foundations of the Sangh parivar, although one can only say that it was an indirect attack. Given Mukherjee’s earlier failed prime ministerial ambitions, political observers have stated that it could a way for him to play a greater role in active politics again.

He ended his speech with both “Jai Hind”, the Congress slogan, and “Vande Mataram”, which the Sangh parivar uses to sign off.

The take away

The former president spoke like a statesman – remaining largely non-sectarian and yet asserting his Nehruvian beliefs, even though all things Jawaharlal Nehru are currently being demonised by the right-wing.

The whole episode very likely does opens up a window for him to figure in public discussions again, but only time will tell what role, if any, he may play in the future political scenario in India. But by choosing to softly address the issue of religious polarisation at a Hindu nationalist platform, he has secured himself a position outside the Sangh-constructed binaries.

However, while he may have made his point, this also became a moment for the RSS to hog all the attention. In fact, RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat did his best to set the ground for anything the former president would say – by the time Mukherjee started his speech, Bhagwat had pointedly said that RSS swayamsevaks have the heart to accommodate divergent opinions.

“We know what we are. And we are moving towards our goal with all conviction. We invite everyone to come and form their own opinion about RSS,” he said in Hindi, hinting at the organisation’s large-heartedness to invite a leader of a party which it has historically been opposing as chief guest.

While Mukherjee went as an individual bereft of any party leanings, Bhagwat spoke on behalf of his organisation. Given the fact that the RSS boss set the preface to Mukherjee’s critical speech, the contest between the two appeared uneven.

Despite the former president’s intention to engage swayamsevaks and BJP supporters critically, all he  may have really done is help give a minor RSS event filled with amateurish drills and anthems that celebrate the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ far greater media exposure than usual.