In Search of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the "True Patriot"

An ongoing exhibition on Syama Prasad Mookerjee attempts to credit the Jan Sangh founder for India’s industrialisation and blame Jawaharlal Nehru for neglecting events that led to his 'mysterious death'.

(L to R sitting) B.R. Ambedkar, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sardar Baldev Singh, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, John Mathai, Jagjivan Ram, Amrit Kaur and Syama Prasad Mukherjee. (L to R standing) Khurshed Lal, R.R. Diwakar, Mohanlal Saksena, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, N.V. Gadgil, K. C. Neogy, Jairamdas Daulatram, K. Santhanam, Satya Narayan Sinha and B. V. Keskar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

(L-R sitting) B.R. Ambedkar, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sardar Baldev Singh, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, John Mathai, Jagjivan Ram, Amrit Kaur and Syama Prasad Mukherjee. (L-R standing) Khurshed Lal, R.R. Diwakar, Mohanlal Saksena, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, N.V. Gadgil, K. C. Neogy, Jairamdas Daulatram, K. Santhanam, Satya Narayan Sinha and B. V. Keskar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Throughout the year, the foyer of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) hosts many photo exhibitions. Considering it was the residence of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the idea of such displays is to showcase personalities and events related to India’s freedom struggle, of which Nehru was an important element, or on the first two decades of independence – what is popularly known as the Nehruvian era.

But the photo exhibition currently showing at NMML – ‘Syama Prasad Mookerjee: A Selfless Patriot’ – is so starkly different that any visitor can easily deduce what its purpose is: to resurrect the memory of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder from the forgotten folds of history and give him his “rightful” place in the making of modern India, while throwing dark hints about enemies who supposedly did him in. The exhibition appears to imply that it was Nehru who not only denied Mookerjee  his due but might have also chosen to ignore the gross negligence of the then Sheikh Abdullah government in Jammu and Kashmir that led to his “mysterious death”.

What Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said at the inauguration of the exhibition corroborates the aim of the week-long showcase:  “If anyone writes the history of India impartially and neutrally, then he [Mookerjee] will find an important place. But he didn’t find the place in history which he deserved”. Shah also repeatedly reminded the audience of Mookerjee’s “mysterious death” in Kashmir in June 1953, saying that he “was deliberately allowed [by the Nehru government] to enter Kashmir,” and then confined in a house under jail-like conditions that made his survival difficult.

BJP President Amit Shah at the inauguration of the Credit: Syama Prasad Mookerjee Foundation

BJP President Amit Shah at the inauguration of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee: A Selfless Patriot exhibition Credit: Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

The BJP grew out of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Shah’s desire to establish Mookerjee as someone who went far beyond being just a popular right-wing leader is driven by the desire to counter criticism that its precursor organisation played no role in India’s freedom struggle. In its political messaging since 2014,  the party has sought to play up Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya as makers of modern India.  

The lone star

The exhibition, jointly organised by NMML and the New Delhi-based Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, seeks to go beyond the usual projection of Mookerjee as “a selfless patriot” and “the first martyr for the unity and integration of India after Independence.” It focuses on him as a “great parliamentarian,” one who fought against the British during the 1943 Bengal famine, and as “the architect of [the] Bengal Partition scheme”. Above all, it tries to paint a portrait of him as someone who erected the first steps on which today’s “shining” India is perched.

Thus, the spotlight is on Mookerjee’s role as India’s first industry minister. According to the exhibit, it was Mookerjee who “laid the foundation of India’s industrial policy and prepare[d] the ground for the nation’s industrial development in the years to come”.

The exhibition tells us that although Nehru may have been the prime minister, it was Mookerjee who sowed the first seeds of industrialisation. It implies that we think of the first industrial edifices of India as Nehruvian ideas because “history was distorted by Leftist historians”. No wonder then that it bestows on Mookerjee the credit for establishing the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works Factory, the Sindri Fertiliser Factory, Hindustan Aircraft Factory and the Damodar Valley Corporation.

According to the exhibition, Mookerjee “had also conceived the plan of establishing the steel plant of Bhilai. Besides heavy industries, Dr. Mookerjee also understood the importance of developing India’s small-scale and handloom industries. During his tenure, the All-India Handicrafts Board, the All-India Handloom Board, and the Khadi and Village Industries Board were set up. The Textile Research Institute and the Industrial Finance Corporation were also set up at this time. For the improvement of the age-old Indian silk industry, he established the Central Silk Board in 1949 and also promoted the idea of the Central Cottage Emporium in Delhi ‘to market and advertise the goods made in the provinces’.”

For a government that is championing “Make in India,” the projection of Mookerjee as the one who “first” pushed the development button certainly makes for a compelling political narrative. But how accurate is it?

Where’s the proof?

This is for the first time I have heard of Mookerjee’s association with India’s industrialisation drive. A quick Google search shows that he passed away in 1953. The Bhilai steel plant was set up in 1955. He could have been associated with the discussions leading up to it but I rather doubt it. Also, I had always thought of ‘Cottage’ being the baby of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay,” says well-known economist and educationist Pulapre Balakrishnan.

The Syama Prasad Mookerjee: A Selfless Patriot exhibition Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharothy

The Syama Prasad Mookerjee: A Selfless Patriot exhibition Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharothy“

“Indian industrialisation was launched as part of the ‘Nehru-Mahalanobis Strategy’, originally conceived in 1938. My reading of the records of the time show next to no mention of the involvement of Mookeerjee,” says Balakrishnan, author of  Economic Growth in India: History and Prospect, which is widely regarded as an exhaustive account of India’s industrialisation drive of the 1950s.

He says India’s industrialisation drive was more of a political position that abjured violence while building a socialist society. “Industrialisation came from the practical reasoning that it was the only means of lifting such a large population of poverty and in my view, it was the right thought. Of course, the remarkable rise of the Soviet Union – via industrialisation – was a factor in its adoption. But Nehru was clear that India would avoid the violent coercion even if it meant growing more slowly.”

However, Devesh Khandelwal of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, counters Balakrishnan’s view. “Why don’t you look at it this way, as India’s first industry minister, he must have played some role in India’s industrialisation, no? How can he be brushed aside just like that? Did he do nothing by being at that post for nearly three years?” However, the exhibition offers little or no evidence towards this claim  – no literature, or official records are on display which could substantiate this counter-narrative.

A walk through the exhibition brings to mind yet another question – from where did the curators gather the information that Nehru “had to” accommodate Mookerjee in the first union cabinet at Gandhi’s suggestion?

“Honestly, I have not come across that piece of information yet but it has been included in the exhibition because it is mentioned in Ramachandra Guha’s book, India After Gandhi. Anyway, in the 100 volumes of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, it is mentioned that Gandhi wanted people from different ideologies to be the part of the first cabinet as he said independence was won by not just the Congress,” Khandelwal said.

Bhagwan Singh Josh, a well-known expert of modern India’s political history, brushes aside this contention. “Nehru had no compulsion to include Mookerjee in the cabinet. He did it because by ideological orientation he was closer to Nehru than Veer Savarkar, who didn’t believe in the leadership of Gandhi. So while Savarkar was put on trial, Mookerjee was inducted into the cabinet.”

The ‘mystery’ of Mookerjee’s death

Another major claim the exhibition makes about Nehru was his apparent nonchalance towards Mookerjee’s “mysterious” death in Srinagar, and his refusal to order an inquiry – implying that he acted to protect the Abdullah government.

As per the narrative displayed, “…the physically cramped and unhealthy atmosphere of the detention quarters, the issue of medical neglect and of his being administered medicines to which he was acutely allergic also surfaced. It led to a national outcry for an official inquiry. However, despite appeals from his aged mother, from members of his family who were well known personalities, his political supporters and from leaders across the political spectrum, the Nehru government refused sanction to conduct an inquiry….”

About why Mookerjee went to Kashmir, it says, “…Dr. Mookerjee gave his rallying cry of ‘Ek Desh mein Do Vidhan, Do Pradhan Aur Do Nishaan Nahi challenge.’ The Jammu and Kashmir Government unleashed unprecedented oppression on the satyagraha, jailing most of the leaders. In a true democratic spirit, Dr. Mookerjee called for talks and met Sheikh Abdullah in August 1952 and Yuvraj Karan Singh to find an amicable solution to the problem. He also wrote several letters to Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru in this regard. In a statement in Parliament on 16 March 1953, Dr. Mookerjee appealed in vain to Nehru to take initiative to settle the question. Dr. Mookerjee then decided to visit Jammu and Kashmir in May 1953 to personally survey the situation. It was to prove his last journey: he left Delhi for Jammu on May 8 1953. He was allowed to enter Kashmir without permit but was arrested by Kashmir police and taken to Srinagar. Dr. Mookerjee was kept in detention in a small cottage in Srinagar. It was here that he seriously fell ill and received indifferent medical attention till his condition rapidly deteriorated.”

At the inauguration, Shah was quoted as saying, Mookerjee was shifted to the hospital in a small jeep instead of an ambulance, kept in a gynaecology ward and denied proper treatment. And Mookerjee, “in many people’s opinions”, was killed.

The Syama Prasad Mookerjee: A Selfless Patriot exhibition Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharothy

The Syama Prasad Mookerjee: A Selfless Patriot exhibition Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharothy

However, all that the exhibition provides as proof of this serious allegation is a typed reply by M.S. Gowalkar from the RSS’s Nagpur headquarters, obtained from the NMML archives, to a letter written by Mookerjee’s brother Uma Prasad Mookerjee. Dated August 27, 1953, Gowalkar’s letter discussed the “passing away” of Mookerjee under “unusual circumstances.”

Gowalkar mentioned a “booklet” sent by Mookerjee’s brother, which seemingly had all the information gathered on the case. “The booklet tears the curtain which shrouds the mystery of his sudden and unexpected demise and expose many an incriminating fact which may go against persons most concerned in the tragedy,” Gowalkar wrote.

Although he felt the “the booklet brings out in compact and a cogent manner” who must have been behind Mookerjee’s death, he advised against an inquiry. In Gowalkar’s words, “Yet I think that in keeping with the nature of the government’s and especially in keeping with the none too amicable reputation our government has earned, even if the government accedes to the demand and make a show of institution an inquiry, it is likely to be nothing better than an eyewash and an attempt to prove that everything was clear and above reproach and absolve the government of Jammu and Kashmir state as well as that of Bharat from all blame”.

Where is that tell-all “booklet” that was sent to the RSS headquarters? “A copy of it is at the NMML archives,” says Khandelwal.

What does it contain? Khandelwal says, “The press reports of that time, Mookerjee’s mother’s letter to Nehru seeking a probe and his reply saying it was a natural death and therefore needed no probe, the statements of the prime minister and the home minister and Mookerjee’s correspondence with his family from Kashmir between May 11 and June 23, 1953.”

Why is it hard to believe that his was not a natural death? “It was because Mookerjee had a severe heart condition and had a cardiac arrest in 1945-46. He was neglected,” Khandelwal adds.

According to Josh, “As a historian it is very difficult to confirm or deny such allegations unless the government releases documents on it. Why Nehru didn’t want a probe then was perhaps because the country was recovering from the horrors of partition. He wanted minimum opposition at that time. While the right wingers were blaming him for the partition, the Communists were after him on Telangana [over its merger with Andhra Pradesh]”.

The exhibition could have included this pertinent point on partition and how it might have dictated the government’s thought process at that time. But it doesn’t, restricting itself to its mandate – a man wronged by history and a man wronged by Nehru, a leader who belongs to the Congress party.

The exhibition ends up as yet another BJP effort at Nehru baiting. First it was Nehru versus Subash Chandra Bose. Now it is Nehru versus Mookerjee.