Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Gita Press and the rightist political networks

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
By Akshay Mukul
HarperCollins Publishers India, 2015
Price Rs 500 
This is a much-reviewed book with endorsements from the likes of Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra and Ramchandra Guha. But that is not the reason I chose to read the book or to attempt this review which is more in the nature of appreciation rather than critical appraisal. I say that as I will leave the shortcomings of the book aside for the readers to find and focus on why the book is a landmark among the expanding lot of books on what may be called the ‘vernacular’ literature, culture and art forms in India.

I have a good idea of why the Gita Press stands as a pillar of the Hindu orthodoxy, unique in its steadfastness and bigotry of the first order for personal reasons. My paternal grandfather subscribed to the chief product from the Gita Press, the monthly magazine ‘Kalyan’ as well as the annual volumes and other publications in the 1950s as a life member. I remember the issues of Kalyan spilling out of the numerous cupboards of the village home in the 1960s with little space left for any other reading material. The eagerness with which each issue was awaited is still part of my early memories. I can now recall in retrospect how pervasive an impact ‘Kalyan’ had a on upper caste families like mine for the sort of consistent and unshaken orthodoxy it maintained throughout the decades. The radical right in India has had a chequered career with several ideological somersaults marking its progression over the last two centuries. Like it or not it has a rich past even if it seems rather monochrome in the shape of an RSS or a BJP of today. Students of the history of ideas often take a blinkered view of this past and miss out on the richness found within the radical right. They tend to forget that even bad or wrong ideas take a lot of forging and alchemy before being bottled for mass circulation.

The book has six chapters altogether which are as follows – ‘A twentieth century Hindu missionary and his Mentor’, which carries the biographies of Jaydayal Goyandka, the founder and financier as well as Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the founding editor responsible for shaping and steering the magazine right till 1971 when he died. These two Marwari gentlemen ironically assumed the roles of Brahmin preachers in twentieth century India, showing the path to millions of Brahmin and the upper caste readers. In a second and significant chapter titled ‘Contributors: Local, National, Transnational’ where we find a list of the frequent and occasional contributors to ‘Kalyan’ there are many surprises, some of them rather unpleasantly startling. The likes of Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Lohiya, the progressive stalwart Premchand and Sumitra Nandan Pant found the ‘Kalyan’ platform acceptable and even welcome. Indeed, it seems more important to make a note of prominent names NOT found in Kalyan – Nehru and Ambedkar stand out as the starkest absences. A third chapter ‘Foot Soldier of the Sangh Pariwar’ attempts a deep scrutiny of the coming and going between the ultra-right and ‘Kalyan’. The last two chapters ‘Religion as Politics, Politics of Religion’ and ‘The Moral Universe of the Gita Press’ expose the worldview forged by Kalyan over the decades and its shifting positions. In a sense Kalyan did not make any major ideological shift, it simply readjusted with every major change sweeping the country, the chief purpose of its founders being to keep running with the times in order to stay in the same place. The idea was to stick to one’s guns with full determination come what may, unlike political parties and groups willing to modify their basic dogmas to suit the political weather of the day.

There are too many major themes that come to mind as one goes leafing through the pages of the book. I however wish to emphasize only one of them at length to highlight its seminal importance. The various chapters and in particular the one on the contributors will give the reader a very good sense of the network of contact and communication, a sort of a matrix out of which the radical right formed itself over the decades. Ranging between Madanmohan Malviya, Lajpat Rai, Sardar Patel, KM Munshi, Golwalkar, Sampurnanand, PD Tandan, Rajendra Prasad, Acharya Narendra Dev, the Kalyan network is shown by the book to run like a continuum uninterruptedly and without a breach right from the Congress to the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, traversing the Socialist camp with great ease. I know of no other book or account that brings to light the rightist network with the same clarity and thoroughness even though the main purpose here is to profile the ‘Kalyan’ contributors’ community. That someone like Premchand wrote for ‘Kalyan’ may not have far reaching implications for our reading of his work. But it gained for ‘Kalyan’, an aura of wider respectability and acceptance among the liberal elements of the society. Mukul thus maps a loose but enormous network that embraces a wide variety of individuals and groups associated with ‘Kalyan’ for reasons that may at times seem quite innocuous. Vinoba Bhave for example often wrote on cow protection with none of the ferocity of a Karpatri Ji. 

The network depicted by Mukul may be seen as an open-ended circle that over time tightened into a compact noose and became more and more clearly defined. In gentler times, even the most poisonous debates seem to create a living room or a debating society like atmosphere but the same tensions and conflicts in our own times have of course become far more raucous and violent. Recently I came across a stray copy of ‘Kalyan’ and its content seem as unchanged as ever, even though the quiet battle it has been fighting since the mid-1920s has already come to fruition in the shape of a dogmatic cultural regime at least for the time being. It is strange how platforms like ‘Kalyan’ lose their relevance precisely by finding consummation.

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