By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
09 June 2018
The Congress party must be much relieved now. A seasoned congressman like Pranab Mukherjee giving a valedictory address at an RSS function must have made the party extremely nervous and understandably so. However, the content of the speech laid to rest any anxiety over Pranab Mukherjee’s new found love for the RSS. He spoke, although not as eloquently as the Sarsanghachalak, Mohan Bhagwat, and stressed the need for tolerance and pluralism. He argued that these two traits have defined Indian nationalism. In no uncertain terms, he told us that various ideas and identities have made what constitutes the Indian nation today. The kind of ideologues that he quoted like Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore, all belong to a very different spectrum of ideological thought as compared to the RSS’ views on Indian nationalism. Throughout his speech, Pranab Mukherjee underlined the importance of diversity and pluralism and identified them as the unique feature of Indian nationalism.
Should the RSS be worried that the person whom they invited trounced them ideologically and that the very purpose for which they called him got defeated? While many commentators have certainly thought so, the hard truth is that in terms of actual points of divergence, there was very little to choose between what the RSS chief said and what Pranab Mukherjee said. Of course, they belong to different political ideologies but when it comes to nationalism, there seems to be a broad consensus on what they were stating. Let us go through it point by point.
There was a sense in which both the speakers highlighted only the achievements of ancient India. It is a no brainer that ancient India is synonymous with Hindu India and therefore it is understood as the epitome of Indian culture. Pranab Mukherjee talked about the achievements of ancient Indian culture through the trope of different empires and existence of different universities like Takshila at that time. When it came to medieval period which is synonymous with Muslim rule, all that he had to say was that this was a period of ‘Muslim invaders’. For the RSS’ this must be music to their ears. After all, a senior congressman was echoing just their viewpoint of Indian history. In both their speeches, the Muslim was made invisible by not talking about them at all.
To be fair, Bhagwat laid stress on the essential cultural continuity of Indian civilization but was quick to point out that this continuity was only possible through the uninterrupted flow of Hinduism. Mukherjee very much said all this but then also argued that because of centuries of intermingling, Indian culture had become composite. However, much like Bhagwat, he also stressed that underlying the diversity in the country there was a certain unity and this unity came through Hinduism. Thus even though Pranab Mukherjee used the word composite, he completely erased the history behind it. There was no mention of Maulana Madni, Maulana Azad, who were the force behind the concept of composite nationalism. In the speeches of both these gentlemen, Hinduism remained the core around which Indian civilization flourished and still continues. This a-historical understanding of Hinduism and singing paeans to the achievements of ancient India glosses over much which was wrong in that period. From the eyes of the Dalits, there is no glory in ancient Indian culture for the simple reason that they were treated lesser than animals. For the Buddhists who faced persecution at hands of the Brahmins, what is glorious about that period of Indian history? Buddhism got reduced in the land of origins to the extent that it almost got extinguished, thanks to a virulent form of Brahmanism.
The point of all this is that there is a needless debate in this country that there is a fundamental difference between the nationalism of the Congress and the RSS. The speeches of Bhagwat and Mukherjee go a long way to show that there is a consensus on the question of nationalism between these two political formations. The difference is just about shades rather than of type. Thus the TV debates and the newspaper columns which seek to point out their essential difference is definitely out of proportion and a lazy reading of their viewpoints. More fundamentally, this laziness is also because of the assumptions of the liberal Hindu historiography itself. Is it simply a matter of coincidence that the RSS can switch between an Indira Gandhi and Modi with such ease? After all, Indira was hailed as the Durga by none other than the RSS and the congress had no objection at that time. The point that one is making is that some of us always make a faulty assumption about different worldviews of the Congress and the RSS. By not launching a fundamental critique of the RSS, Pranab Mukherjee has proved that he is a true Congressman. Those who are disappointed in him simply do not understand the history of the Congress party.
If at all Pranab Mukherjee wanted to make a difference, he should have talked specifically about Muslim and Dalit lynching. In not making clear what is clearly wrong in today’s times and how it is related to right wing Hindu ideology, he has only bestowed a certain legitimacy on it. In such troubling times as ours, not naming the evil is tantamount to condoning it. In the end, the speech will not be known for its content for there was nothing original or refreshing in it. It will be best known for the optics which it provided for all to see. The unfurling of the saffron flag, the salute in presence of a senior congressman who many claim to be a statesman. The whole spectacle has helped in normalizing these visuals and making them into a banal imagery. Those who think otherwise are only fooling themselves.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com