It started with a digital poster – the first released by the Indian Council of Historical Research, or ICHR, as part of the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.
Aside from the hideous aesthetics of the cluttered and badly-designed poster, which featured two logos – one of the Mahotsav and the other marking 50 years of the ICHR – and a discoloured map of India, as well as two spellings of the word Azadi (the other being “Azaadi”, as if the designer wasn’t sure), eight portraits of architects of India’s independence were shown. Why eight, the ICHR alone knows. Starting with Mahatma Gandhi on the top, the circle went clockwise: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, V.D. Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sardar Patel and Dr Rajendra Prasad. The omission of Jawaharlal Nehru, the pre-eminent voice of India’s freedom and the country’s first prime minister, was so glaring that it was impossible to miss.
Every political point of view among the nationalist leaders – from Gandhiji through advocates of violence to Hindutva opinion – was depicted, but not Jawaharlal Nehru. Adding Nehru and the principal Muslim nationalist leader, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, would have completed a respectable list of heroes of the freedom struggle, even if many might have disagreed with the inclusion of Savarkar in the pantheon. But the ICHR, genuflecting to the pettiness that has consumed Indian government institutions over the last seven years, omitted them both.
Inevitably, opposition parties erupted. I denounced the poster immediately on 27 August, as not just petty but ahistorical, in a tweet that quickly amassed 1,700 retweets and over 6,500 “likes”.
“We are not trying to undermine anyone’s role in the movement,” the ICHR scrambled to explain, claiming that other posters being released in the coming days would feature the first prime minister. My senior Congress colleagues P. Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh weighed in, with the former asking pointedly, “If he was celebrating the birth of the motor car, will he omit Henry Ford? If he was celebrating the birth of aviation, will he omit the Wright brothers?”
The outgoing ICHR Chairman, Arvind Jamkhedkar, whose tenure ended in March, said excluding Jawaharlal Nehru’s image from the poster was “inadvertent”. But this defence has rightly been dismissed as “ludicrous”. The terrain of history is the chosen battlefield for Hindutva warriors, and public revisionism their preferred weapon. Slighting Nehru, the man Hindutva forces most love to hate, was clearly anything but inadvertent.
Whereas conservatives, in the famous phrase, normally “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”, Hindutva nationalists prefer to yell “turn back! Reverse!” Their reinvention of history is not anchored in a reverence for the past, but in their desire to shape the present by reinventing the past. Nehru, who did so much to give voice to India’s aspirations for freedom, whose “tryst with destiny” speech was the defining oration of that midnight moment of triumph, and who spent 17 years as India’s first prime minister placing our independence on a firm democratic footing, embodies everything the Hindutva brigade resents. Excising him from the freedom struggle is rationally impossible; omitting him from a poster is the best they can do.
Appropriating India’s freedom struggle
Narendra Modi earlier chose the 70th anniversary of the 1942 Quit India movement to launch a campaign called “70 Saal Azadi: Zara Yaad Karo Qurbani” (Seventy years of freedom: Remember the sacrifices.) As I wrote in my 2017 article in Open, the Hindutva movement had nothing to do with “Quit India” and made no sacrifices for India’s azadi. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Modi, which has sought to drape itself in the mantle of nationalism, is now seeking to appropriate the freedom struggle for its cause.
The Modi government wants to appropriate the heroes who fought for freedom, by implication placing them on its own side in a contemporary retelling of history. The ironic complication is that the political cause to which the BJP is heir—embodied in the Jana Sangh, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Hindutva movement—had no prominent freedom fighter of its own during the nationalist struggle for azadi. The BJP traces its origin to leaders who were not particularly active during the nationalist movement and those who collaborated actively with the British when nationalists went to jail during the Quit India agitation.
The lack of inspiring nationalist heroes among the people in the parent body of the BJP means people like Modi have to look for role models elsewhere. They have made a contested bid to claim Patel’s legacy, but he was too Gandhian to fit comfortably into the Hindutva iconography. Savarkar, who (unlike Nehru and others) petitioned for, and won, freedom from British imprisonment, was elevated as “Veer” and his portrait put in Parliament, opposite the man he hated, Mahatma Gandhi. Malaviya, who though a Congressman, also led the Hindu Mahasabha, was awarded the Bharat Ratna. Both represented a point of view the current government idolises, but that was not enough for this administration’s ICHR. They had to exclude Nehru.
It is one of the astounding features of contemporary Indian politics that the forces who fought and made sacrifices for Indian freedom—today loosely called the liberals—have surrendered the ‘nationalist’ tag to Hindutvavadis. Nehru spent nine years of his life in British jails, whereas the ICHR speaks for a government descended from elements who either stayed away from the independence struggle or actively collaborated with the British Raj, while the real nationalist heroes like Nehru, Patel and Azad were in jail. (The Hindu Mahasabha, for instance, joined the Muslim League in the provincial governments opportunistically formed by the British when the Congress Party, which had won the elections to constitute those governments, resigned in 1939 and launched the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942, leading to their imprisonment.)
Today, the Hindutva movement has redefined nationalism on its own terms, marginalised the standard-bearers of constitutional nationalism and mobilised State institutions like ICHR on behalf of its interpretation of Indian interests. Liberalism, diversity, pacifism, and pluralism are portrayed as flabby weaknesses, preventing the full development of India’s into a strong and ‘modern’ society that can present a robust face to the world and hold its own among the rest. Only the 56-inch chest can claim to be truly nationalist.
A hijacking of history
As I have written earlier, history has often been contested terrain in India, but its revival in the context of 21st-century politics is a sobering sign that the past continues to have a hold over the Hindutva movement in the present. While the Mughals will be demonised as a way of delegitimising Indian Muslims (who are stigmatised as ‘Babur ke aulad’, the sons of the foreign invader Babur rather than of the Indian soil), Nehru must be stigmatised as being on “their” side rather than Hindutva’s. The celebrations of this “Amrit Mahotsav” confirm that the heroes of the freedom struggle will be hijacked to the present the ruling party’s attempts to appropriate a halo of nationalism that none of its forebearers has done anything to earn.
Nehru represents the most effective repudiation of everything the Modi government and its ideologues stand for, and so he must be stamped into the dirt. After all, that was what he tried to do to their forebearers. As he had said of Hindutva fanaticism and its adherents, after Gandhiji’s assassination: “We must face this poison, we must root out this poison, and we must face all the perils that encompass us, and face them not madly or badly, but rather in the way that our beloved teacher taught us to face them.”
The ICHR poster is one more reminder for Indian liberals that our long-cherished idea of India as a benign, inclusive State is collapsing. In its place is emerging an India that is less pluralistic, less accepting of difference, less inclusive, and less tolerant than the one we had long celebrated. National ideals have been redefined and repurposed: Unity has given way to uniformity; patriotism has been reborn as chauvinism; independent institutions are yielding to a dominant government; democracy is being reshaped into one-man rule.
The favourite bugbear of the Hindu nationalists is the Nehruvian liberal, a member of the tribe that used to think of itself as authentically nationalist in terms of its association with, or descent from, the freedom struggle led by the Indian National Congress. We are now accustomed, alas, in our irremediably tedious political controversies, to seeing history used as cannon fodder by the BJP; given that they are determined to drag us back into the sixteenth century, I suppose we should be grateful that currently, they are restricting themselves to the twentieth.
It is bad enough that PM Modi forgets our history. It would be far worse if he leads the country down a path that repeats it.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 19 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
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