June 29, 2016 happened to be the 152nd birth anniversary of
Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee (1864-1924), father of Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee
(1901-53), founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS). So it was a good day for
Amit Shah—president of its latest avatar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Dr.
Mahesh Sharma, minister of state for tourism & culture, and Tathagata
Roy—governor of Tripura, with additional charge of Arunachal Pradesh—to meet in
the unusual surroundings of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), to
commemorate Syama Prasad as a selfless patriot.
Whether he was either of those is something we need to examine, but he was indisputably a Bengali bhadralok. A landed group that was a beneficiary of the emergence of Calcutta as the capital of, first, John Company and then the British Raj and the concomitant evolution of English education and opportunities, the upper-caste and upper-class bhadralok were liberal, collaborator constitutionalists.
Shah and company came to NMML ostensibly to praise Syama Prasad, but stayed on to insult and deride Jawaharlal Nehru. If we go by the facts, it is difficult to establish Syama Prasad as a selfless patriot for the period 1901-47, but easy to brandish him against the patrician Nehru for the period 1950-53. In other words, he went missing in the Angrez-mukt Bharat movements but can be and was appropriated on June 29 as the first martyr to the Congress-mukt Bharat project of the current prime minister.
yama Prasad, like his father, was a high achiever, as both an educationist and a lawyer. Sir Ashutosh’s father, Gangaprasad, was one of the first Indian university graduates, taking his BA in 1861 and MA in 1866 . In his 1968 character sketch of the Mookerjees, Bruce Graham wrote how, a native of Jirat village in Hooghly district, Gangaprasad turned his back on it once he established his medical practice in the Calcutta suburb of Bhowanipur. He became a champion of Bengali culture and language, publishing medical works and translating the Ramayana into Bengali .
Until Curzon, the bhadralok’s compliant collaboration with the Raj was the model of a mutual benefit society, but the Viceroy’s disdain for the “Bengali Baboo” saw him shrinking the two bhadralok playgrounds.
Sir Ashutosh studied mathematics at Presidency College,
finishing a BA in 1883 and MA in 1885. He taught the subject before enrolling
as a vakil in the Calcutta High Court in 1888, reaching the bench in 1904. He
remained there till his death 20 years later. Along the way, he became a member
of the Bengal Legislative Council (1899-1904) and Imperial Legislative Council
(1903-04). His rise in Calcutta University was similarly swift. He became
vice-chancellor for two stints (1906-14, 1921-23). To his credit, he put
post-graduate teaching and vernacular language education on a firm footing.
As for Syama Prasad, he was born on July 6, 1901, took a BA from Presidency College in 1921, MA in 1923, and enrolled in London’s Lincoln’s Inn in 1926, from where he was called to the English Bar in 1927. These days it is forgotten that upon his return Syama Prasad cut his teeth in Indian politics as a Congress candidate from the university constituency of the Bengal Legislative Council in 1929. Next year, with the launch of Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement, Congress asked its councillors to resign. Syama Prasad did so, but got himself re-elected as an independent in 1931.
Until Curzon, the bhadralok’s compliant collaboration with the Raj was the model of a mutual benefit society, but the Viceroy’s disdain for the “Bengali Baboo” saw him first tighten control over Calcutta Corporation and Calcutta University, thereby shrinking the two bhadralok playgrounds, and then cut the province of Bengal into two halves in 1905. These challenges by the “manly Englishman” to the “effeminate Bengali” and his pride produced a crisis of masculinity, which was inclined forever thereafter towards an anti-liberal, anti-European, agitationist and militarist extremism, which was also “communalist” in character, as argued by Graham in his 1968 article that presented Syama Prasad Mookerjee as “the Communalist Alternative” to the Nehruvian Congress.
ir Ashutosh was a rare bhadralok who did not make a pilgrimage to the Mother Country, though awarded a knighthood for his services, as his orthodox mother refused to let him cross the sea. This maternal influence was a marked feature of bhadralok families and branded the men with a conflict of values personified in their Western fathers and Eastern mothers; what Partha Chatterjee termed the “world-home/ghar-bahir” divide in his “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question”. Syama Prasad’s mother—Jogmaya— daughter of a respectable Krishnanagar Pandit, exerted the most important influence in his life, especially after the death of his wife in 1933.
He emulated his father in that he had at least two careers, as lawyer and educationist, besides becoming a lawmaker. He climbed the rungs of the university rapidly, beating his father by nine years when named Vice-Chancellor in 1934 at the age of 33. His four-year stint coincided with the rise of the Muslim elite in reunited Bengal led by A. K. Fazlul Huq, H. S. Suhrawardy and Khwaja Nazimuddin on the one hand and of Jogendra Nath Mandal as the leader of low-caste Hindus on the other. These developments bred frustration and insecurity among the Bhadralok and form the backdrop of Mookerjee’s emergence as a champion of caste Hindu rights.
He opposed electoral guarantees to the minorities and the low-castes in the period 1932-35 and joined the Hindu Mahasabha in 1939, under the influence of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Keshav Baliram Hedgewar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He was its acting president for four years from 1940-44, during which time he clashed with Subhas Chandra Bose’s Forward Bloc in the Calcutta Corporation election of 1940, before entering the Constituent Assembly (1946-49) and the first Lok Sabha (1952-3). Along the way he served as minister of finance in Bengal (1941-2) and Union minister of industries and supply (1947-50). He formed the BJS in October 1951, having resigned from the Mahasabha Working Committee in November 1948, given the “public reaction against the party for its involvement in Gandhi’s assassination”.
Unlike Sir Ashutosh, who died in his bed at 60, Syama Prasad’s passing came in a Srinagar hospital. He was in Jammu and Kashmir to protest against the permit system that regulated the entry of Indian nationals. Imprisoned and under house arrest he was shifted to hospital when his health deteriorated. He died on June 23, 1953. This, then, was the man Amit Shah and his followers came to commemorate.
reparations were visible a day before as a manuscript room staffer told me smilingly, “Kal Amitbhai aa rahe hain na”. Next day, I arrived at 10.30 a.m. to find the place buzzing: lights, cameras, school children practising their patriotic song, flowerpots, banners, women in colourful saris and more and more tika-dharis. The foyer was full of Syama Prasad photos, letters and pamphlets from the archives. A red ribbon enclosed the area, to be cut. A tall, metallic diya waited to be lit.
I entered the auditorium. It seemed like a conference of and for males—of all ages. Men appeared to outnumber women 3:1. I took the aisle seat in the last row and was immediately asked to move up so that latecomers could be accommodated. I refused. It was a prize seat, right in the way of Shah and co. As the clock neared 11 a.m. the new elite started to drift in.
Photos of Syama Prasad stood to left and right—chairs and table in the middle for the eminence grise and two screens being tested for video. I started reading the names—from the right: Sanjiv Mittal (joint secretary, ministry of culture, director, NMML), Lokesh Chandra (RSS, heads ICCR), Tathagata Roy (RSS), Amit Shah (four words come to mind: encounters, Sohrabuddin, Ishrat Jahan), Mahesh Sharma (BJP since 2014, a symbol of the new, opportunist, “capital with cow” India) and Anirban Ganguly—who is he?
All the marks of Hinduness flaunted loudly—from announcements in chaste Hindi to the tikas to the bhagwa rang (saffron colour). This is not about party politics, it is about majoritarian culture: the rise of the native, indigenous, insider.
M. J. Akbar (vice-chairman, NMML executive council) walks in wearing crisp dark trousers and matching waistcoat on a white or cream full-sleeved shirt. The journalist-turned-politician looks smooth. He is a handshake away—what a turncoat! From biographer of Nehru to joining his detractors; from official spokesman to Nehru’s grandson to national spokesperson for the people who are trying to destroy Jawaharlal’s legacy; from contesting Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket in Bihar—and losing—to being nominated to the Rajya Sabha on a BJP ticket from Jharkhand successfully. Is that the key word: success? Anyway, his entry signals that bigwigs are arriving.
eading the pack is Giriraj Singh—in bright orange kurta, matching big tika, clothed in naked, muscular aggression. As he walks down the aisle, there is the tell-tale jostling of the photo brigade. Amit Shah must be here. The photographers are followed by security—there he is in a starched pink kurta, walking slowly, head bowed in thought, ears cocked to an aide saying something; shoulder to shoulder with him are Mahesh Sharma and Tathagata Roy and then a crowd behind. Shah is neither as fat nor as tall as he seems on screen but what stands out is his head—shiny, outsized. Grave, unsmiling, not greeting anyone, he makes his way down the aisle and up the stage.
Ninety per cent of the audience stand; thankfully, I am not the only one sitting, perhaps the only one furiously writing. Roy, the Bengali, has a Sikh army officer as his ADC—an almost colonial touch. Sharma looks like an anxious, impatient, alert clerk—seeing everything is in place for the sahib. And who is this? A bhagwa robe sashays down, standing out in the muted colours of the civilians and the uniforms. This is—what is his name, one of two BJP MPs (Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti being the other) who out-do Giriraj in targeting Indian Muslims? How could I forget?
The bigwigs have taken their seats on stage. The middle is
occupied by Shah and Roy. We are reminded of the purpose of this gathering: for
Syama Prasad, “Jo desh ke liye janam liye, joojhe aur zindagi desh ki ekta
ko samarpit ki”. (He who was born to fight for the nation and dedicated his
life to fighting for the unity of this nation.)
Born and fought for the nation? Let’s see: Where was Syama Prasad in 1921, during the non-cooperation movement, unlike Narendra Deva, for instance, who gave up his law practice and joined the nationalist Kashi Vidyapeeth without a salary? Where was he in 1931, the civil disobedience movement, when Jayaprakash Narayan gave up his job with the Birlas and was jailed at Nashik with others of his and Syama Prasad’s generation—Ram Manohar Lohia, Minoo Masani, to name two? What about 1942, during Quit India? One can go on.
What does Amit Shah read barring transcripts of taped conversations? Suddenly, I realise a policeman and a paramilitary shooter have taken position behind me.
Alternatively, where was Syama Prasad in 1928, when the Simon
Commission visited, when Lajpat Rai died in public protests and the Motilal
Nehru Report was prepared in response, or 1930-32, during the Round table
conferences, and 1942 and 1946, during the Cripps and Cabinet Missions? Well
ensconced in his many offices at Calcutta High Court, Calcutta University and
in the Writers Building as a minister. Lest anyone say these are
characteristically Congress milestones on the highway to independence, more
uncompromising critics of the Congress than JP, Lohia and Masani (Swatantra
Party) are hard to find. The constitutional moments all saw non-Congress
participation from men like Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, M. R. Jayakar, B. R.
Ambedkar, M. M. Malaviya, among others.
Five girls from N. P. Bengali Girls School (Gol Market) established by the Syama Prasad Vidyalaya, sing the welcome song. Shah is getting some water, Roy is next to him and Lokesh Chandra next to him looks like J. Krishnamurti—small, frail, wiry and snow-white. Shah is hunkered down in his chair. I notice he has a hunch, a bit like Richard “Tricky Dic” Nixon. Well, how appropriate, considering their divisive politics, paranoia and insecurities.
Shah is looking balefully at the girls. Tathagata, pen in hand, fine-tunes his speech—the special lecture is from him, not Shah. And who is Anirban Ganguly? The song is over, Ganguly is invited for his welcome address and half my queries are answered. He is the director of the Syama Prasad Memorial Research Foundation (SPMRF)—a quick look at the website will show how it is dominated by the RSS.
Ganguly begins with “most respected Amitbhai Shah” and extols his “vast reading, deep and active interest in documentation and libraries” that inspired SPMRF to put on this show.
I gulp—what does Amit Shah read barring transcripts of taped conversations? Suddenly, I realise a policeman and a paramilitary shooter have taken position behind me. Not out of interest in me but because the spot offers an almost 360 degree view of the auditorium.
Mahesh Sharma takes the microphone next and we have a torrent of “ekta, akhandta, samprabhuta, rashtra bhakt, sankalp, icchashakti, prernadayak”. And he effortlessly moves from Syama Prasad and 1951-52 to Amit Shah and 2014-16; from “2 to 282” amid loud applause—the reference being to 282 Lok Sabha seats (one of the beneficiaries being Sharma himself, a first-time parliamentarian). I hear applause over my shoulder and look back to see the policeman grinning and clapping. Two rows in front of me, a middle-aged man is an especially eager and loud clapper. And then, as if on cue, the name of that Bhagwa MP bursts up in my mind: Saakshi Maharaj.
Sharma is now in his stride—the theme is January 7, 1939 and May 20, 2014. For the puzzled and uninformed he helpfully spells the connection: the day Syama Prasad entered politics by joining Hindu Mahasabha and the day Narendra Modi entered Parliament for the first time.
Sharma is narrating an exchange between Nehru and Syama Prasad in Parliament. Nehru: “I will crush you”; Syama Prasad: “I will crush that crushing mentality of yours”. The hall erupts with applause and, perhaps carried away, Sharma drops his next line: “Aaj Narendra Modi hamare beech mein hain!” (Today Narendra Modi is amidst us) He recovers: “Aaj Amit Shah hamare beech mein hain” (Today Amit Shah is amidst us), in Shah’s presence and words—the Prime Minister, the Prime Servant, the Prime Pracharak, disembodied but well represented. I think, a sycophant gone beyond the call of duty?
ime for the main course. Tathagata Roy, the special speaker of the day and a biographer of Mookerjee, takes centre-stage. I am impressed as he begins in thick-Bengali accented Hindi but my surprise gives way to glee as I hear him apologise because he is going to speak in English: “Hindi bol leta hoon magar yeh gambhir vishay hai”. (I can speak Hindi, but this is a serious subject.) I am delighted at the irony, given the slogan of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan”, which Mookerjee then and Modi now favours.
In his breathless style Roy begins: two men died mysteriously at the age of 52—Deen Dayal Upadhyaya (Jan Sangh president, 1967-68) and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He does not bother us with much of Mookerjee’s life—it’s uncomfortable reading for this political project—he is only focusing on three of Mookerjee’s 52 years, 1941-43 and 1952-53. The first two he christens the “Syama-Huq” ministry (note how Premier Huq is pushed behind Mookerjee—can there be a Jaitley-Modi ministry?) and gives a potted history of the Krishak Praja Party-Hindu Mahasabha coalition that ruled Bengal then. Roy ticks the usual boxes: “communal Jinnah”, “non-communal Huq”—in keeping with BJP’s “bad Muslim, good Muslim” theme— 1937 elections, Congress’ short-sighted refusal to ally with Huq who is “driven into the arms” of Jinnah and the 1937-41 government, “most communal” in the history of Bengal.
According to Roy, an unhappy Huq breaks away from Jinnah in 1941 and Syama Prasad comes to his rescue by offering his party’s support, thus forming an “equitable and just government” especially during the Bengal famine. Roy pointedly contrasts “equitable” with “secular”—a much-misused term in his reckoning. A testimonial of how “equitable” but not “secular” Syama-Huq was, is produced from the pen of Kazi Nazrul Islam—one of the trilogy of untouchable Bengali icons, Tagore-Islam-Bose. Islam, in penury by the early 1940s, was saved by Syama Prasad and thanked him profusely.
Let us pause here. A little reading of the historian Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman would have shown Roy that praise for this “progressive coalition government”, if any, is due to Fazlul Huq, who revolted against Jinnah and the All-India Muslim League and cobbled together an unlikely multitude of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Forward Bloc, Krishak Praja party, Hindu Mahasabha, Indian Christians and Anglo-Indians and Scheduled Caste members of the Assembly (Jalal, 1994).
As for the Bengal famine, even as the winter 1942 harvest failed due to a cyclone, Mookerjee resigned from the ministry on November 20, 1942. His overt reason was that “British interference and the influence of a coterie of reactionary ICS officers” upon the governor had made a mockery of self-government”, but his action put Huq and the “equitable and just government” at the mercy of the Muslim League. Huq survived this treachery for only four more months. Mookerjee, after helping organise famine relief (1943), founded an English daily Nationalist (1944), took part in celebrating National Army Day (1945) and formed a Hindustan National Guard (1946).
Ignoring all this, Roy jumps to Mookerjee’s death—the Pandora’s Box of conspiracies at the bottom of which was Mookerjee’s illness, deep vein thrombosis. The only doctor on stage, Sharma, is impassive. It soon appears Roy is short on details—medical at least—and is more intent on establishing responsibility of another sort. He informs us that Nehru and union home minister Kailash Nath Katju visited Srinagar on May 24, 1953 but not Syama Prasad. When Roy asks what kind of prime minister does this to a former cabinet colleague, one can sense heads nod and many eyes moisten at Nehru’s heartlessness.
Roy continues, “I am tempted to use strong words [about Nehru] but will refrain” and settles instead for the meek, “Mookerjee was not given VIP treatment” as his health deteriorated. He relates that UP Congress leader Sucheta Kripalani had warned Syama Prasad against going to Jammu and Kashmir: “Nehru will not let you return alive”. At this assertion, everybody is suddenly alive. They’re waiting for Roy to continue. There was a nurse called Rajeshwari (or was it Rajdulari?) Tikoo, who tended to Mookerjee and alleged that an injection hastened his demise.
Roy then milks the moment by referring to a letter from Jogmaya, Syama Prasad’s mother, urging Nehru to institute an enquiry into the death. Roy reads out Nehru’s demurring reply disapprovingly—the only words he reads from a paper in the entire speech—and then declaims thus: “I cannot vouch that he was killed but there was gross neglect”. By now, I have the feeling I am hearing the words Jawaharlal Nehru more than Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
Let us look more closely at this litany of charges. After Mookerjee’s death, Nehru spoke in Parliament thus: “In any event, his passing away would have been sad and a great blow to this House and the country, but in the peculiar circumstances in which this took place, naturally this added to our sorrow”. Before this, he had told a south Indian audience, incredulous at Mookerjee’s Pakistan obsession, “I respect him for his ability and I have no doubt that he loves this country and wants to serve it”. Both these have been cited by Graham.
On April 9, 1964, upon his release after almost 11 years in Indian prisons, Sheikh Abdullah said there should have been an enquiry into Mookerjee’s death as, in 1953, he was not aware of his illness and had, in fact, urged, Dr. B.C. Roy, chief minister of West Bengal (1948-63), to conduct one. Roy had refused. Nor did Karan Singh, the Dogra Sadar-i-riyasat of Kashmir, evince any awareness of Mookerjee keeping bad health.
It has been asked by Ramachandra Guha in his India after Gandhi and is worth repeating. What was Mookerjee, a “lifelong constitutionalist”, who did not spend a single night in jail in British India, doing leading an agitation in Kashmir? Reading Hindu philosophy, writing to friends and relatives through his time in house arrest and developing pleurisy, Mookerjee succumbed to a heart attack in unfamiliar settings, doing unfamiliar things.
Was it a subconscious response to the lure of “militant action” that epitomised the historical dilemma for bhadralok men? In his sympathetic treatment, Graham presented Mookerjee as a “communalist” and a “traditionalist”, but certainly not as a born—“agitator”. And Kashmir was not Bengal. He had no mass base, was hopelessly out of touch with popular sentiment in the Valley and met little public enthusiasm. Was it this, then, that aggravated his sense of denial and defiance?
am brought back to reality with the words of the master of ceremonies: “param saubhagya, prakhar vaani, marg-darshan, sambodhan”. She is inviting Shah, he of the strong voice, to come and address us and show us the way to our future. The man rises, as does the applause. He begins superbly: It is an “Anand ka vishay” (a matter of joy) that Nehru Memorial “sansthan” is hosting a “pradarshani” (exhibition) on Syama Prasad. So, Shah possesses a sense of humour while his master merely claims to have one.
Shah dissimulates equally superbly as he wonders why he has been invited. He is quick to say that he has not come as president of the BJP. Then what has he come as: a leading historian, thinker, and biographer? No, Shah says, it is to correct a “historical injustice”, “itihaas ka annyaya”, for Mookerjee can speak no more to restore his legacy. Shah lets slip a quiet and quick mitron—very unlike his master—and intones on being here to provide a “nirapeksha, thatastha” (impartial, as-it-happened) elaboration of history.
He hits the ground running: “Durbhagya poorn hai ki Angrezon aur Vaam-panthiyon ki vichaar-dhara ne hamare itihaas ko toda-maroda hai” (It is a great misfortune that the ideology of the British and the Leftists has distorted our history). The loudest applause of the evening follows this remark: “Apni vichaar-dhara ko chor diya; yeh akshamya aparadh hai”—for Shah, the English (presumably he means the Cambridge School) and the Leftist historians have committed nothing less than an unpardonable offence in omitting Indic thought in their chronicling. “Azadi ke baad paida hone waalon ko kuch nahin pata” (Those who were born after Independence know nothing), and here I thought that under this prime minister—proud to be born in independent India—the ruling dispensation and its 20-30-40 something electoral constituency did not care for the nuances of pre-47 history.
When Ayesha Jalal in 1985 and Joya Chatterji in 1994 wrote pioneering books establishing Congress culpability for partition there was outrage in nationalist circles—secular and otherwise, historians and otherwise.
Shah makes his intentions clear. He is going to talk about “teen
bindu” (three points) from Syama Prasad’s life: (1) “Bangal ka Vibhajan”,
(Partition of Bengal) (2) “BJS ki sthapana”, (Formation of BJS) (3)
“Kashmir”. He begins with a bloomer, installing Clement Attlee as prime
minister in 1946. But he goes straight for the jugular: thanks to Congress’ “jaldbaazi”
and the majoritarian logic of partition, we would have lost Punjab and Bengal,
especially Calcutta, but for Mookerjee’s insistence on partition along communal
lines—loud applause ; “Kalkatta aaj Pakistan mein hota agar Syama
Prasad na hote”(Kolkata would have been in Pakistan if not for Syama
Prasad)—louder clapping; “Saara shreya unhe jata hai”(All the credit is
due to him)—the clapping gets still louder.
Shah forgets that Mookerjee in his presidential address on October 21, 1951 at the launch of the Jan Sangh in Delhi admitted that in the past he and other Hindu leaders had “committed the mistake of supporting the Partition ”.
One can see what Shah is doing here. Congress’ claim to fame remains its leadership of the freedom movement. The BJP, whose ideological and political forefathers made no contribution, is prying open the “responsibility for partition” question. Shah is taking credit on behalf of Mookerjee for having made off with the better deal, at least in Bengal. He does not mention Lahore, Punjab. I think about the furore that broke out when Ayesha Jalal in 1985 and Joya Chatterji in 1994 wrote pioneering books establishing Congress culpability for partition. There was outrage in nationalist circles—secular and otherwise, historians and otherwise. Thirty years on, the president of the ruling party is happy to take credit for that act on behalf of one of his political forerunners. And he does it with a chutzpah that borders on insouciance. He guffaws and his audience imitates him when he says, “Congress leaders ki umar hone lagi thi, to satta le li; satta ka lobh-laalach aa gaya; Aisi kya jaldi thi, thoda aur ruk jaate; poora desh mil jaata”. (Congress leaders were getting old, they were greedy for power, and in a hurry. If they had waited for some time, they would have inherited an undivided country). So, Akhand Bharat makes an appearance albeit indirectly, as a wish that got away.
Anyway, Jinnah gets a moth-eaten Pakistan; Nehru, a truncated India and Mookerjee finds himself in the latter’s Cabinet. But, Shah has a problem: that Cabinet ran on the “paashchatya vichaar ke aadhar par jab ki vichaar apni mitti se nikale hone chahiye” (On the basis of Western thought when the thought should come from the motherland). Jawaharlal had an “England se import ki hui neeti” (Policy that was imported from England). Nevertheless, our Bhadralok bravely ploughed along until disaster befell Hindus in East Pakistan in “laakhon ki sankhya”. Shah berates Nehru for a “bilateral samjhauta” (agreement) with Pakistan—the Nehru-Liaquat Delhi Pact of April 9, 1950. An indignant Mookerjee resigns—by the way, so did another Bengali, K. C. Neogy, but he merits no mention. Shah forgets that it was only after the death of Sarat Chandra Bose in February 1950 that Mookerjee “emerged as the main protagonist of the cause of East Bengali refugees”, as eminent historian Sekhar Bandyopadhyay wrote in his Meanings of Freedom in Post-Independence West Bengal, 1947-52.
It is true that in April 1950 he questioned the “territorial integrity of East Bengal” and suggested waging war on Pakistan to pursue an Akhand Bharat as well as protect Hindus in East Pakistan. But irrational as he could be on Pakistan, by August 1950, even Mookerjee had modified his demand to one-third of the territory of East Pakistan for refugee rehabilitation. And, in March 1951, he declared in Parliament: “We have made up our mind about this. We have embodied it in our Constitution. We believe in democracy... in rule of law.”
It is no exaggeration to say that spring 1950 gave a new lease of life to Mookerjee’s political career that had neither a party nor a cause since resigning from the Mahasabha: partition was an established fact and B.C. Roy an established figure in Bengal politics. Mookerjee’s denouncement of the Delhi Pact and his new avatar, as what Graham called the “spokesman for Hindu Calcutta, Hindu Bengal”, saw him demand an exchange of population and property. Lest we think Mookerjee had a pan-India mind on this matter—after all refugees could be and were rehabilitated in many parts of the country—here is a kernel: “We shudder to anticipate a complete disintegration of the Bengali race and not merely the sufferings of millions of East Bengal Hindus. We do not deserve this fate...”
Nor was he the solitary reaper. At the conference of refugee organisations in New Delhi in July 1950, Mookerjee was flanked by the Congressman P. D. Tandon and ex-Congressman N. B. Khare—Hindu communalists from Bengal, UP and Maharashtra, respectively. The contrast in their position and the “secular” Nehru’s was simply this. He believed “protection in Pakistan can only be given obviously by Pakistan. We cannot give protection in Pakistan…so long as there is a government dealing with a situation; you have to deal through that government”.
For Mookerjee, such a position left a substantial and vulnerable “Hindu nation in an alien state and Hindu India must take strong action against its national enemy, Islamic Pakistan” The numbers tell their story: between April 9 (the day after the Nehru-Liaquat Pact) and July 25, 1950, of the more than 12 lakh Hindus who had come to Indian Bengal over 5 lakh went back to East Pakistan. And, the outflow of Muslims (4.5 lakh) had not been much larger than the inflow (over 3 lakh). The pact had aimed at “stopping a certain rift towards catastrophe” and it had done so.
But these are mere details. Shah quotes, to loud applause, Mookerjee’s response to what distinguishes BJS from Congress. “Nehru wants nav-nirman, and we want punar-nirman” (Nehru wants a new beginning, we want restoration). Shah was enjoying himself by now: “Mitron, BJS ki sthapana satta-prapti ke liye nahin ki gayi, balki ek nayi soch, ek nayi neeti ke liye ki gayi – jiska naam tha ‘aatma-maanav-vaad’–jiska mool vichaar Bharatiya, Hindustani tha” (BJS was not formed for acquiring political power but was inspired by the idea of Integral Humanism, which was based on Indic thought.) Note the inter-change of “Bharat” and “Hindustani”, something Mookerjee himself baulked at when naming BJS, for he realised “there were people who were not prepared to accept Hindu as a synonym for [Bharatiya]”, to quote Graham.
And then he drops a most problematic statement: ‘Hum aur colonial [colonised?] countries ki tarah nahin ji sakte [the]…Africa ki tarah nahin [ji sakte]’. I wondered what Shah could mean and in what terms–civilisational or, perhaps, racial. He closes on a high, rhetorical note, But, in a moment he was closer home as he declaimed, to the loudest applause of the evening; the BJS journey with 10 persons in 1951 had morphed into the BJP of 11 crore.
Mookerjee and the RSS were attracted by the idea of a place in a reformed Congress dominated by Patel and Tandon. Nehru’s success over Tandon paved the way for Mookerjee’s founding of BJS.
Where does one even begin punctuating this polemic? It has
been repeatedly shown that after Gandhi’s assassination—as Mookerjee’s Calcutta
home became a target of crowd trouble and stone-throwing—the Bengal Mahasabha
decided in February 1948 to withdraw from politics. But this was a
controversial and contested “verdict of Dr Mukharji [sic] and Mr NC Chatterjee
only”, not the entire Provincial Council. Mookerjee was the main “protagonist
of the moderate [and] retreating position vigorously opposed by the younger and
more radical leaders like Ashutosh Lahiry”. Their pressure forced Mookerjee to
resign from the Mahasabha and he became a target of vilification for Lahiry and
Shah wouldn’t know and wouldn’t like to know that for Lahiry, Mookerjee was a “Modernist who believed in a western-type of democracy” albeit one that established the “dominance of the Hindus”. Lahiry himself favoured slow democratisation, while the “spiritual and cultural heritage of India” remained the “sheet-anchor of the future state”. Mookerjee, in fact, wanted to convert the Mahasabha into an organisation for all and not only Hindus—as he would make the BJS—but the Lahiry group preferred Hindus only.
Indeed, from 1949-50, RSS men like Vasanta Rao Oak, Balraj Madhok and later M.S. Golwalkar himself had been in touch with Mookerjee about a political party. In October 1949, the Congress Working Committee—in Nehru’s absence—decided RSS members should be allowed to join the party. This decision was reversed the following month but in 1950 both Mookerjee and the RSS were much more attracted by the idea of a place in a reformed Congress dominated by Patel and Tandon. It was Nehru’s success over Tandon in this intra-Congress crisis (August-September 1951) that paved the way for Mookerjee’s founding of BJS.
Otherwise, “his close touch with Patel and contacts with Tandon would have made his entry into the Congress almost a certainty had that party changed its direction” (Graham, 1968). Finally, for all Mookerjee’s belief in India’s Hindu identity expressed in speeches like this on the Hindu Code Bill: “we should never tolerate any criticism from any quarter, especially from a foreign quarter [on] Hindu civilisation and Hindu culture” and for all Jan Sangh’s “Sanskrit terminology”, its constitutional structure “was very much like that of the INC” (Graham, 1968). Above all, there was little more to the early BJS than RSS cadre and Mookerjee’s personal following in Bengal and Assam.
In fact in November 1954, after Mookerjee’s death, Mauli Chandra Sharma, the BJS president and Guru Dutt, state president (Delhi), resigned charging the RSS with exercising “undue influence”. Sharma claimed “the late Dr Mookerjee was often seriously perturbed by the demands of RSS leaders for a decisive role in appointment of office-bearers, nominations of candidates and matters of policy”. In that year, while Jan Sangh had an estimated 143,000 members, the RSS had 631,500. The tail wagged the dog.
Anyway, who has time for these pesky truths? Shah has moved on and the next few minutes show how Indians love Kashmir, the land not the people, as he turns to the third patriotic bindu. The point of departure is that other enduring myth: why did New Delhi cease fire on January 1, 1949? Shah smiles and gives it a mysterious air: “Aaj tak koi nahin jaanta ki [Nehru ne] kyon kiya aisa”. (Till date, no one knows why Nehru did such a thing). And, then like a conjurer resolves the mystery to his and the crowd’s satisfaction: “Apni vyaktigat pratibha nikharane ke liye, apni vaishvik netagiri dikhaane ke liye”—to embellish his personal attributes, to establish his global leadership [as a man of peace].
Sixty-five years from that war has seen many more than 65 books from all quarters dissecting the why, when and how of that war. Even a cursory glance through the acclaimed War and Peace in Modern India (2010) by Srinath Raghavan, who spent six years as an infantry officer in the Indian army, would have shown the military reality—shared by Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee alike—to Shah, namely that, “it is easier to begin military operations than to end them”.
He would find much food for thought regarding his reading of Nehru: “We cannot be strong everywhere but we must be firmly established in such places in Kashmir from where we could attack and take initiative”. And he would be forced to appreciate the see-saw, start-stop military situation, diplomatic pressures, and political risks of “all-out war” at that transitional, foundational, fragile and nascent moment in Indian history and, above all, the presence of influential Britons—not only Mountbatten—in key positions in both India and Pakistan.
But all this requires reading and reckoning, and who has the time for that? Shah has fast-forwarded to Mookerjee’s “hatya” (murder) in a “jhopri” (hut)—the house in which he was kept—“jiski jaanch nahin hui” (which was not investigated) and now he has come to avenge his death. From here the path to assertion is but a step away: “Bharat ka dhwaj agar wahan par hai to Mookerjee ki badaulat, Kashmir agar juda hai Bharat se to unhi ki wajah se” (If India’s flag is in Kashmir today, if Kashmir is part of India, it is because of Mookerjee).
This flies in the face of all the research that has shown the creation of the contested Article 370 over 1948 to 1952 promising autonomy to Kashmir and the ambivalent positions of all from Nehru to Patel to, indeed, Mookerjee. As veteran Kashmir expert Balraj Puri noted, Mookerjee wrote to Nehru and Abdullah both on January 9, 1953, “We would readily agree to treat the valley with Sheikh Abdullah as the head in any special manner and for such time as he would like but Jammu and Ladakh must be fully integrated with India”. That Mookerjee went on to suggest a conference during the Jammu agitation of spring 1953, which Shah is above alluding to, suggests a tension “between his desire for integration and his concern to have the bargaining transferred from Jammu to Delhi”. On February 12, 1953, he recommended parleys again, upon which the agitation would be called off. His decision to visit Jammu can be, and has been, read as an initiative to “explore possibilities of peaceful settlement” by Graham.
Shah begins to wind down. If Mookerjee was a “qaum-vaadi neta” (communal leader) how can a speech about him be complete without a reference from a Hindu epic? Shah compares him to Jatayu from Ramayana. Like Jatayu with Ravana, Mookerjee took on the Lion of Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah in his den and paid with his life. Perhaps the audience is not pleased with the comparison to a bird—no matter how giant and kind—for there is no clapping. Shah now brings Buddha to the story. The audience approves. Shah concludes on a high: Had Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Syama Prasad Mookerjee lived a little longer, the change that is happening in India since 2014 would have happened earlier. In any case, the “beej” (seed) they had planted and tended had now become a “vatu-vriksha”(banyan tree)—BJP and the house threatened to come down.
By way of some conclusion, let us revisit Shah’s “teen
bindu”. (1) British India’s partition plan gave the legislative
assemblies—not the populations—of Punjab and Bengal the power to vote on
division. In Bengal, the Congressman S. C. Bose and the Leaguer H. S.
Suhrawardy joined hands for an independent united Bengal. Neither the British
nor Jinnah demurred but the Hindu Mahasabha launched a virulent attack on the
idea thus bringing the colonial-national wheel to full circle there in 40
years. In 1905, Hindu nationalists opposed Curzon’s communal partition of the province;
in 1945, they desired that Bengal be partitioned on religious lines.
Shah would not accept it but Nehru too “was not in favour of an independent Bengal unless closely linked to Hindustan”. For Nehru, Bengal could remain Akhand only if it belonged to Bharat—a position akin to Mookerjee’s. As that appeared impossible, Congress decided that “the independence of Bengal really means in present circumstances the dominance of the Moslem League in Bengal” and it rallied behind Mookerjee and Mahasabha. In the Bengal assembly, the vote on partition was 126:90 for unity. But when West and East voted separately, the West–including the Congress–voted for partition, the East against.
The last British Governor of undivided Bengal Frederick Burrows had accurately predicted, “Bengal will be sacrificed on the altar of Nehru’s all-India outlook”—not Mookerjee’s. Shah would not like it, nor would the present Congress, but it shared Mookerjee’s “religious sensibilities”. Mookerjee was hardly single-handedly responsible for Calcutta remaining in India.
Shah’s history of Kashmir ends with Mookerjee’s death on June 23, 1953. It should move on to Abdullah’s midnight arrest on August 9 and his subsequent imprisonment for 11 years under his friend Nehru’s regime. Shah need not avenge Mookerjee’s death by trampling on Kashmiri soil. Nehru did it himself by occupying it and seeking to legitimise that occupation. In the years since, successive regimes in New Delhi have held Kashmir courtesy a forged paper of accession, a false promise of plebiscite and a patron-client relationship with a collaborator class in Kashmir but, above all, by sheer presence of Indian soldiers whose ratio to civilians outdoes the US military presence in Iraq at the height of the latter’s recent invasion and occupation. Myth, memory and history have been tangled so terribly since October 1947 to justify India’s occupation that Mookerjee or no Mookerjee, New Delhi would have held that territory.
It is difficult to establish Syama Prasad’s patriotic credentials vis-à-vis the colonial “outsider” but it is easy to employ him against the “internal other”: Nehru’s legacy and Indian Muslims.
Mookerjee would be better remembered for what he was: a legal-academic in early life, a Hindu leader in the middle and an anti-Congress politician in the end. This government, given its anti-intellectual disposition, has nothing to say about the first avatar. It falsifies the second to magnify Mookerjee’s role in the partition of Bengal. For instance, on December 16, 1947, an industries conference chaired by industries minister Mookerjee and attended by prime minister Nehru, was held in New Delhi that called upon labour and management to “agree to maintain industrial peace and avert lock-outs, strikes or the slowing down of production during the next 3 years”. Mookerjee and Nehru were comrades in this nationalist position against the class interest of the labour.
But it is really the third Shah and his band are interested in, for from the time of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact to his death in June 1953, Mookerjee was what BJP is today: paranoid, partisan, polemical, punitive, and against what Bandyopadhyay terms “secularities”. Then and now, Mookerjee’s character appeals to the “darker strain” in Indian politics. And yet Mookerjee—while an effective and intelligent critic of Nehru, a parliamentarian and constitutionalist—had a poor sense of politics. He delayed the formation of the Jana Sangh before the 1952 election, failed in his bid to establish a National Democratic Group, a united opposition, after the 1952 election, given his overriding concern with Pakistan, which drove the communists and the south Indians away and weakened the opposition to Nehru from the Hindu right.
It is difficult to establish Syama Prasad’s patriotic credentials vis-à-vis the colonial “outsider” but it is easy to employ him against the “internal other”: Nehru’s legacy and Indian Muslims. Syama Prasad’s absence from the Angrez-mukt Bharat movements is of little consequence for Shah and co., as long as he can be held up as the first martyr to the Congress-mukt Bharat project. As for the rest for us, we would do well to listen to the historian Timothy Garton Ash, “It may seem a grave limitation to leave the facts as facts but self-limitation is key…On this frontier we should stand”.