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.

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I am Pakistani-American. I hold a B.A. degree from George Washington University, where I majored in Dramatic Literature and minored in Western Classical Music. During my undergraduate education, I spent two years at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where I studied Social Sciences, including Anthropology, Sociology and Political Philosophy. I have studied Hindustani Classical Vocal from a young age. Currently I am teaching an undergraduate course on the history of music in South Asia at LUMS. At BP, I intend to write on art, music and literature.

20 thoughts on “Pranab Mukherjee’s Not-so-Secular History Lesson”

  1. Well, this is embarrassing. My headline misspelled Pranab Da’s last name. It is Mukherjee obviously not “Mukherkee”. Sorry about that.

    1. A gentle note to say that the heading is glaring with its typo. Hope when the blog administrator(s) get to the keyboard after the weekend it can be corrected.

      1. Yes, the typo is really embarrassing. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to fix it.

  2. The author of the piece in the scratching the bottom of the barrel in trying to find fault with Pranab’s speech ; it is criticism for criticism’s sake . Nothing Pranab said can be construed as anti-secular or anything like that. The author is hanging onto what he did not say and making all kinds speculations. Pranab has been a politician all his life hanging onto the coattails of Gandhi family and he can talk his way out of any situation. He can be called ‘slick da’

    It can be called criticism by innuendo.

    1. He did not refer to Islam once except to say “Muslim invaders”. That’s a bit troubling and I think Manish Bhattacharjee has a fair point. A true Nehruvian would have talked about Akbar and Dara Shikoh.

      Pranab Da clearly wants to be Prime Minister in the event of a hung Parliament in 2019, so he doesn’t want to upset the Hindu Right too much.

      Here’s a perspective from The Indian Express:

      “Pranab da’s host had anticipated him by upholding the idea of “unity in diversity”. That was an excellent launching pad for Mukherjee. True, he was reading from a written speech. Nevertheless, a digression or two could have given the message that he meant what he said rather than that he was reading out loud merely for fear of being misquoted. More than that, a shrewd public figure like him should have known the formal pitch the RSS chief would make. In fact, the ex-President shrewdly began by telling his audience that he would speak of nation, nationalism and patriotism. Using that framework, and without necessarily being discourteous to his hosts, the speech could have touched upon the contemporary — the post-Independence challenge of being nationalist and, simultaneously, democratic.

      So, here was a speech that ensured the speaker did not endorse the hosts and yet stopped short of speaking out his mind, an opportunity lost. Having risked his reputation, having taken the trouble to go to Nagpur, Pranab da did not make much of himself except that, for the record, he said all the politically correct things.”

  3. I don’t see why you are deflecting to Pakistan. If India wants to turn itself into a Hindu mirror image of Pakistan, that is the right of the Indian Parliament. It would be kind of sad though.

    The RSS existed before 1947 and so did Hindu nationalism.

    If it was up to me, Pakistan would just be called “The Republic of Pakistan”. There was a point where it was called this, but once the term “Islamic Republic” was introduced, it cannot now be taken back. Pakistanis like my family looked at Indian secularism as an example of what was possible in our region. If India is becoming more like Pakistan, rather than Pakistan becoming more like India, that would be very ironic.

    What is more interesting to me right now is why Pranab Da is doing this and what impact it is going to have on INC and the Nehru-Gandhi family. Any insights on that?

  4. Pranab Mukherjee is a great man and great scholar of the past. The entire corpus of history as currently understood is wrong.

    Milan is correct to look at everything fresh and try to recreate what might have happened in the past. [A lot of the blame for this goes to manipulation by Christian historians who believed the universe was created 4 thousand BC. BTW I am very pro Christian!]

    1. “The entire corpus of History as currently understood is wrong”

      That’s a very strong claim and since you are not trained as a historian you are not really in the best position to make it. But you can keep believing what you like.

  5. @AnAn, The statement, “Christian historians who believed the universe was created 4 thousand BC.” does not stand scrutiny. I can stir the pot by saying the creation story is a Jewish document and a Christian is required to ignore the old testament in a respectful way.

    You are free to criticize the Abrahamic religions. But I request internet Hindus to find the weak spots in those three religions and attack them if they wish. Every day you hear totally outlandish statements coming from Indian elite about existence of internet, nuclear weapons, head transplants before the beginning of history not metaphorically but in literal sense.

    Christian main stream is behind scientific method. They are not represented by fringe elements in their presence. Every day I come across discussion about whether Americans really landed on the moon, earth is flat, etc. on the internet. But you have to understand it for what it is. Not that Americans are totally ignorant.

    1. hoipolloi, much of modern historical dating was done by the 1600s before enlightenment scholarship fully blossomed. It is a bit of a distraction to rehash these arguments here:

      I love Christianity and quote from the Bible all the time, especially when speaking to Christians. I also believe that ancient Greek philosophers and ancient Greek events took place much earlier than modern historical scholarship suggests.

      1. I was talking something else than what you are saying here. I checked the link above and it is not much help. I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel either. Cheers.

  6. AnAn tricks are becoming wearisome. He begins his arguments by claiming he loves X, then proceeds to attack X. He did it with the discussion on Palestinians, now he drags Christianity and Christian historians into debate on Mukherjee’s speech.

    1. Anan has some very strange and a-historical views such as the statement above that “the entire corpus of history is wrong”. He also seems to believe that The Ramayana and Mahabharata actually happened as opposed to being literary and religious epics. He thinks half of Asia and the Middle East was part of India (a very expanded definition of “Akhand Bharat”)

      Anything that he doesn’t like is a symptom of “postmodernism” (a word which he still hasn’t been able to prove he actually understands). Or it has to do with “Islamists” (another word which he wrongly applies to people who lived before the 20th century)

      Anyway what are your thoughts on Mukherjee’s speech? Can he still be said to be a Nehruvian? Let’s get back to the subject of the post.

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