News came in on Sunday of a jury headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi deciding that Gita Press, a large publishing house of the Ramayana, Gita and Upanishads would be conferred the Gandhi Peace Prize, 2021. The reasons given were its “outstanding contribution towards social, economic and political transformation through non-violent and other Gandhian methods”.
There are many reasons to not be able to look away from this twisted citation. Here are just a few of them.
First, as the masterful biography of this 100-year old controversial publishing enterprise (headquartered in Gorakhpur, by another coincidence) points out, the Gita Press had a fraught relationship with Gandhi. Its flagship monthly, Kalyan, could not even bring itself to mention the assassination of the Mahatma in two issues after he was killed by a Hindutva-inspired assassin, in February and March of 1948. Akshaya Mukul, the author writes that it could only scramble something in April. Writing about its founder editor, Poddar, Mukul writes: “The CID Archives partly answer this question [of why the assassination was not mentioned]. Poddar was actively involved in defending the RSS that had been banned on 4 February 1948 for its alleged role in Gandhi’s assassination. On 15 July 1949 — four days after the Nehru government lifted the ban on the RSS — Poddar attended a public meeting at Gorakhpur with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then editor of RSS weekly Panchjanya. Vajpayee criticised the government and Congressmen for having allegedly blundered in banning the RSS, the only organisation which could really do something for Hindus’. He added that the government ‘did not deserve thanks for having lifted the ban as it had taken them one and half years to correct their mistake’. Poddar, the CID report said, also delivered a short speech on similar lines. Poddar’s association with the RSS was not limited to attending this public meeting with Vajpayee. After MS Golwalkar was released from jail in 1949 and toured important towns of the United Provinces, Poddar presided over a function to welcome him at Banaras.”
Secondly, the Gita Press was and is waging a battle in sharp contrast to what Gandhi was trying to do with respect to Hinduism in modern-day India. Gandhi was trying to radically interpret Hinduism as fundamentally non-violent, as ‘sarva dharma sambhav’. In the words of Dhirendra K Jha, the biographer of Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, Gandhi threatens the Hindu right precisely because he was seen not as a reformer, but for millions, the embodiment of the best form and version of Hinduism there could be. The present-day ruling BJP is openly committed to VD Savarkar’s ideas of militarising Hinduism and keen on seeing Indian society in a state of conflict and war at all times. Gandhi must somehow, after being assassinated, be conquered. Gita Press did its best to help the Sangh wage that war.
Thirdly, this is not about just awarding Gita Press, this award is more a bid to award the ideas it peddles with a cloak of respectability, and go one step further in diminishing the Mahatma’s ideals and values by saying that the Gita Press embodies them. Previous awardees include the Indian Space Research Organisation, Ramakrishna Mission, Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari, Nelson Mandela, Baba Amte, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the environmentalist Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To throw Gita Press into this mix immediately elevates a divisive and controversial enterprise (which was opposed to even temple entry being championed by Gandhi) and puts it in a different league. Of course, it also casts, by proxy, the Sangh’s dodgy ideology, which it championed, as respectable.
What the bizarre carrying of the ‘sengol’ and its installation in the House of the People does to the idea of Indian parliamentary democracy is what things like the Gita Press getting a Gandhi Peace prize are meant to do: impose symbols and the ideas of the Sangh, of an exclusionary, regressive and unreformed India, on everything that was once composite, inclusive and enlightened ― and hope to snuff it out.
Exactly like that evening on January 30, 75 years ago at Birla House.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.