Pranab Mukherjee’s Not-so-Secular History Lesson

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee in The Wire. in

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee ” teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.”

[Kabir’s Note: It is not my intention to troll or to start a fight. I simply think this is a very interesting perspective on Pranab Da’s visit to the RSS, which is the ideological enemy of the Indian National Congress.  What are the implications and why did Pranab Da do this?]

After paying tribute to K.B. Hedgewar’s memorial, where he called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder, a “great son of mother India”, former president Pranab Mukherjee waited for his turn to speak at the RSS event he was invited to.

It was a political endorsement that made a clear shift in its ideological grounds, because Jawaharlal Nehru and Hedgewar, like God and Mammon, are irreconcilable.

As Mukherjee waited his turn, the audience was treated to a viewing of RSS drills and other physical skills. A training camp of men wielding sticks is a symbol of double-policing, of self and society. Bhagwat made his opening remarks, invoking national unity in pure Hindi, using Sanskrit shlokas to define the cultural boundary of that oneness. The terms ‘civilisation’ and ‘nation’ are collapsible for Bhagwat, along with a third, which was of primary concern: ‘Hindu Samaj’, or Hindu society. For religion, Bhagwat used a term, “prakrutik dharma”, a naturalist idea of religion or moral codes.

The equation cannot be missed: Nature=nation=dharma.

The nation is the crucial thread between nature and dharma. In other words, nation is a concept and a reality where both nature and dharma becomes political, or they need to be understood politically.


But when Mukherjee reaches the 12th century, and enters the medieval period, there is a striking obliteration of political and cultural details. Mukherjee mentions nothing of the “Muslim invaders”, besides Babur defeating the Lodhi king in the First Battle of Panipat, and the Mughal rule lasting for three hundred years.

The student of Nehruvian history is suddenly, no longer interested in Nehru’s recollection of “Akbar, forgetful of his empire, seated holding converse and debate with the learned of all faiths”. Mukherjee not only does not mention Akbar, but also, given his interest in matters of culture and scholarship, he makes no mention of Dara Shikoh, the translation of the Upanishads, no word on medieval centres of learning, no Islamic art, literature or architecture, no Indo-Islamic civilisation.

He forgot, given his interest in chroniclers from distant lands, the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, whose description of the Hindu Kush is legendary.If the omissions were conscious (rational) it was bad enough, and if unconscious (ideological), much worse. But not only were the Muslims left out of the story. There was no Ranjit Singh or Guru Gobind Singh either. Some Hindus would have missed Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Medieval India saw multiple and complex formations of power struggles, and Mukherjee kept himself out of that mess. The neater the picture and history of great dynasties, the less it glorified “invaders”, the better. Mukherjee clearly parts ways with Nehru’s secular vision of India’s history. It is one thing to claim allegiance to Nehru and use the rhetoric of secularism. It is another to prove one’s secular idea of history. The details were starkly missing. 


Mukherjee’s idea of India is primarily civilisational. He quotes a Tagore poem about civilisational unity, but missed the whole point of Tagore’s idea of civilisation. In Civilization and Progress, Tagore wrote: “The word ‘civilisation’ being a European word, we have hardly yet taken the trouble to find out its real meaning. For over a century we have accepted it, as we may accept a gift horse, with perfect trust, never caring to count its teeth”. If one counted the teeth of that term, one is bound to encounter a freewheeling Orientalism in the Hindu ideas of the nation and civilisation, with a generous dose of Sanskritic wisdom as its cultural source. To acknowledge the debate with Buddhism would itself displace the centrality of Hindu philosophy.The civilisational narrative won’t remain secular if it discounts the exchanges between Hindu and Islamic scholars, and India’s rich Indo-Persian cultural tradition.

Quoting a shloka from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, “inscribed near lift No. 6 in the Parliament”, a memory he cherishes, Mukherjee tried to draw our attention to India’s poor happiness index in the world.

He translates the meaning of the shloka in English: “In the happiness of the people lies the happiness of the king, their welfare is his welfare.” He read it as a directive for the state to pay attention to poverty, disease, deprivation, encourage development, harmony, and of course, happiness. But happiness is not a statistical concern. Happiness is not a gross national product whose index had to be raised. There is no happiness in a nation that debars you from speaking the truth, that debars you from contradicting power, that debars you from eating, drinking, praying, loving, to your heart’s content. It is not just the mind that demands freedom, but also that much abused organ, the heart. Unlike Britain, a country that currently suffers from loneliness and needs a ministry for it, India does not need a ministry of happiness.

Mukherjee needs to introspect on something else: whether he is still a Nehruvian.