On March 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched 75-week long celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. A re-enactment of the Dandi March, launched 91 years ago and which shook the British Empire, was also flagged off by the premier. He spoke glowingly about the historical protest march too, and for a change, also mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru as one of the ‘guides’ of the freedom struggle.
But, as has been his wont in recent years, Modi flagged his concern regarding the Indian historiography. He said there were several agitations related to the freedom movement that have not been “presented before the people in the way they should have been.” Like on several occasions in the past, he suggested that such selective description of the valiant struggle, is part of a devious strategy of usurping its legacy.
In an event that will have the signature of Modi’s political choreography — the ‘Amrit Mahostsav’ will run till August 15, 2022, the actual anniversary — why did the prime minister strike a discordant note and spoke about poor representation of the national movement?
Is this symptomatic of the tendency to always present a contrarian view of the past to argue that the India’s past was not ‘correctly’ depicted prior to May 2014?
Is consistent appropriation of the independence struggle indicative of urgency to establish this regime’s political predecessors as worthy nationalists, whereas history states otherwise?
Although Modi and his ideological colleagues have consistently articulated the need for rewriting ‘correct’ history, some recent assertions need to be recalled in the context recent developments and because the celebrations that Modi launched will be followed by a high voltage campaign over 17 weeks. Undoubtedly, messages that are publicised in the course of the campaign will present the national movement from this regime’s perspective.
Modi said the discourse over the gala event next August shall be raised over five pillars: the narrative of the freedom struggle will of course be the first. But thereafter, the emphasis shall be on 75 ideas, achievements, actions, and resolves. The issues highlighted over the next 75 weeks, shall certainly project the government’s perspective on what facets of the multi-hued national movement are publicised and which issues in post-independent India are listed as crucial beliefs, accomplishments, measures, and resolution.
Days before the mega-event, Union Minister Prakash Javdekar claimed that the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh (RSS) was the largest school of patriotism in the country. His claim was in the backdrop of Rahul Gandhi’s interview with Kaushik Basu and his comment on emergency. Gandhi had said although the decision was a ‘mistake’ of Indira Gandhi, it didn’t result in the capture of India’s institutional framework as is happening under this regime when the RSS, on its own or through affiliates, have become entrenched in every wing of the state.
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Earlier in February, Modi launched the centenary celebrations of the Chauri-Chaura incident. On this occasion too, Modi took a contrarian position. He asserted that those executed on charges of causing the gruesome death of 22 (Indian) police personnel are yet to receive due recognition. He said that their ‘martyrdom’ provided new direction to the freedom struggle, adding that the incident was not arson as commonly understood.
The prime minister further promised that the government would elevate them as freedom fighters of equal importance. As everyone knows, Mahatma Gandhi’s decision to withdraw the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat Movements, besides being contentious, is a testimony to the Gandhian philosophy of abhorring violence during the independence movement.
Modi’s decision to lavish praises on those whose actions which caused immense anguish to Gandhi is indicative of this regime’s duality on the national movement: it has to be appropriated, as well as maligned. Presenting a contrarian perspective on watershed protests of the national movement, creates space for recasting the democratic, anti-imperialist and socially-inclusive thrust of a political process that inspired anti-colonial forces across continents in the twentieth century.
The challenge before Modi is to arrogate the national movement while simultaneously altering public perception about its character. But altering its character is a long process because every minute detail and highpoint of the agitation is embedded over decades in India’s social memory.
It has thus become necessary to repeatedly praise the national movement although the RSS-BJP, and other Hindu nationalist organisations had little involvement with the struggle. The effort of this regime’s leaders is to keep reiterating their admiration for the national movement while simultaneously asserting their deep commitment to nationalism and patriotic values, as Javdekar did.
There is some truth to these claims regarding adherence to nationalism and patriotism because like history, nationalism too is a contested, even contradictory, terrain. For more than a century we have seen two groups of adherents furthering their interpretation of nationalism. One the one hand, cultural nationalism has been furthered by the sangh parivar and other ideological affiliates. On the other side, there is the secular or inclusive form of nationalism that has been pursued with the spirit of social communitarianism.
Although the national movement was dominated by the latter school of thought, there were several leaders who drew their definition of nationalism on the basis of religious identity. Many of these remained active within the Congress too and even within the government of India after independence. This provides opportunity to this regime to stake claim to having inherited the legacy of the ‘real’ national movement.
While waxing eloquently about how Gandhi succeeded, with the Dandi March, presenting the nationalist point of view to a global audience, Modi glossed over the fact that neither leaders of the RSS, nor stalwarts like Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who later became the founding president of the Jana Sangh, the previous political avatar of the BJP, were part of either the Dandi March or the Civil Disobedience movement. No explanation was provided why KB Hedgewar, the founder of RSS, chose to keep the RSS institutionally away from civil disobedience and permitted swayamsevaks to participate, but on in their personal capacity.
The RSS also did not hoist the (then) ‘national’ flag on Purna Swaraj Day on January 26, 1931, as decided in the Lahore Congress in December 1930. Instead, Hedgewar directed the cadre to hoist the RSS flag, and the tradition of slighting the tricolour continued for several years, including after independence.
Mookerjee actually, was of the view that mass agitations and resignations gave space for ‘toadies, to play mischief.’ He was then a member of the Bengal Legislative Council from Calcutta University constituency, to which he was first elected as a Congress member and later as independent after the Congress asked its members to resign in protest.
There are several instances that can be cited when Hindu nationalists steered clear of mass agitations and protests, dating from the national movement’s inception to its culmination in 1947. But these go unmentioned and the focus is always on showcasing the ruling dispensation as selfless legatees of the freedom movement. It is further claimed the ‘real’ independence struggle has not been presented by past governments “in the way they should have been.”
(The author is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin)
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