Dialogue is the core part of democratic process. The question comes; can there be dialogue between two opposite ideologies on Indian horizon, the one of Indian nationalism and the other of Hindu nationalism? We witnessed a strange spectacle when the Pranab Mukherjee, the lifelong congressman and believer in plural, inclusive Indian nationalism accepted to speak on the platform of RSS, the apex organization promoting narrow, divisive, exclusive Hindu nationalism. The visit of the former President to address RSS event was strongly opposed by large section of Congress leaders and many others, on the ground that RSS is adept at gaining legitimacy from such visits while at the same time working at cross purpose to the message of the invited guests.
Mahatma Gandhi was one such visitor to RSS, who was killed due to the ideology of hate propagated by RSS “All their (RSS) leaders’ speeches were full of communal poison. As a final result the poisonous atmosphere was created in which such a ghastly tragedy (Gandhi’s murder) became possible. RSS men expressed their joy and distributed sweets after Gandhi’s death” (Sardar Patel’s letter). Whether there can be a dialogue with RSS has been a question on the minds of many.
What happened in the June 7 event when Pranab Mukherjee paid visit to Nagpur? To begin with Mukherjee visited RSS founder K B Hedgewar’s birth place and wrote, “ Today I came here to pay my respects & homage to a great son of Mother India KB Hedgewar ji.” Whether out of courtesy for the host one should write in such a manner is a matter of debate again as Hedgewar guided by his Hindu nationalism called Muslims a Yavan snakes. Hedgewar-RSS also kept aloof from the freedom movement, which gave us Independence and later Indian Constitution.
Mukherjee to his credit did talk of pluralism and inclusive nature of Indian Constitution, India being a meeting ground of different people, “It is our composite culture which makes us into a nation. India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one entity.” He advised the RSS swayamsevaks, “You are young, disciplined, well trained and athletic. Please wish for peace, harmony and happiness. Our motherland is asking for that, our motherland deserves that”, and also that “ any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity.” The highlight of his speech was his recalling Surendranath Banerjee for his phrase “Nation in the making” as this phrase aptly defines the emergence of Indian nationalism during freedom movement, in contrast to RSS assertion that we are a Hindu nation from times immemorial.
He also remembered the values of Gandhi and Nehru in trying to understand India’s past and Sardar Patel’s contribution in merging the princely states into India. Mukherjee toed the line of Indian culture as a synthesis of different streams, “It is our composite culture which makes us into a nation. India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one entity.” And more significantly he pointed out that secularism and pluralism are the soul of India, "It is Perennial Universalism of 1.3 billion people who use more than 122 languages and 1600 dialects, practice seven major religions and belong to three major ethnic groups, who live under one system, one flag and one identity of being Bharatiya.” He proceeded to reflect on the vast pluralism enshrined in the Indian society. “India's nationhood is not one language, one enemy and one religion.”
In a way, despite slipping on the point of praising Hedgewar, he did speak about the values enshrined in Indian constitution. Mostly what one does not speak on such occasions also matters a lot. The present scenario created due to RSS Hindu nationalism, where hate has been created around emotive issues like Ram Temple, Cow-beef, love jihad needed to be underlined. The direct connection of the present atmosphere of narrowness and intolerance needed to be drawn out. He did not mention the important fact that the current intimidating, sectarian atmosphere which is building up in the country is due to Hindu nationalist agenda. While he correctly articulated the pluralism and diversity of the country, he failed to mention the political fallout of RSS agenda and left an open space where vague homilies, ‘we respect different opinions’ are put forward by the RSS ideologues without at all registering the differences which are too deep for such ‘respecting others opinions’. The contrast between the agendas of the two nationalisms, Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism, needed to be drawn out.
True, RSS has grown into a huge organization, and the discourse emanating from its stable is dominating the social scene. Today undoubtedly the values of pluralism, which Mukherjee talked about, need to be underlined more than before. In the aftermath of his speech what is more likely to happen is the attempt to show that what RSS says and what Mukherjee said are complimentary. It will be an exercise in creating further legitimacy for RSS. For RSS, building Ram Temple (demolishing Babri mosque) is part of nation building, for RSS taking up the issue of cow-beef is nation building. While for the stream of Gandhi-Nehru-Patel-Indian nationalism such issues have no place on political horizon. What matters for this stream is what Mukherjee pointed out aptly, “People are at the centre of all activities of the State and nothing should be done to divide them. The aim of the State should be to galvanize them to fight a concerted war against poverty, disease and deprivation. Only then can we create a nation where Nationalism flows automatically.”
Surely despite good articulation of Indian nationalism by the ex-President, the likely outcome of the visit has been well described by his daughter Sharmishtha Mukherjee, who said, ‘the speech will be forgotten and pictures will remain’. The pictures will be circulated with different content, enhancing legitimacy to the divisive agenda of RSS.(Published on 18th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 25)