On October 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at the Red Fort to unfurl the national flag. It was rare for a prime minister to make an appearance at the historic relic of Moghul architecture other than August 15 when delivering the Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the imposing fort is a national duty.
It was not merely a tribute to the legendary freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose but also a grand showcasing of the resurrection of a national icon to Prime Minister Modi’s ideological fellow travelers who have long held that the “real” symbols of the freedom struggle were deliberately buried in the neglected pages of Indian history by Jawaharlal Nehru and his family who have been in power for the longest period after Independence.
Bose had proclaimed ‘Azad Hind Sarkar’ on October 21 in 1943 and Prime Minister Modi claimed his legacy 75 years later. Ten days later, he was on the banks of the Narmada in his home state of Gujarat to unveil a gigantic statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, another icon who Modi’s ideological ilk feel should have been the first Prime Minister of the country instead of the “wily” Jawaharlal Nehru.
If the Red Fort event drew parallels with the Independence Day celebrations, the grandeur around unveiling the statue matched the efforts that go into the annual Republic Day parade at New Delhi's Rajpath – the Indian Air Force jets roared in the sky and the country's cultural diversity was projected in a style befitting the tallest sculpture in the world.
Pitching Patel against Nehru and making it a Nehru versus Bose contest has been an intrinsic part of Sangh Parivar's narrative of Indian history based on the convenience of interpretations rather than diligence of hard facts. But, facts seldom come in the way of a carefully crafted narrative whose account starts in AD 2014 when Prime Minister Modi came to power. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister from the same ideological stable as Modi, did not tinker with facts and allowed the debate to be confined to interpretations.
Resurrecting national icons has been part of the Modi government's agenda and appropriating Congress leaders is the easiest means towards this end. The fodder was provided by the myopic view of the successive Congress governments whose vision ended with the Gandhi family, a glue to remain in power. The public sentiment went against the culture of naming institutional buildings, infrastructure hubs or even social welfare schemes after members of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
The Modi government has successfully exploited this resentment to extend the appropriation project by paying tribute to those Congress icons who were not given their due importance even it meant creating a fabricated narrative of pitching one against the other.
“Sardar Patel vs Nehru is not a genuine construct backed by any evidence. It is an artificial conflict imagined by Nehru’s critics and upheld by the current Govt. The truth is simple. Nehru and Patel worked together, shoulder to shoulder, to make India free,” tweeted Pritish Nandy, media and television personality.
The underlining theme behind the whole project is definitely political without any historical basis. “When the appropriation is being vigorously done, there is no historical fact ever presented by the BJP on the question – why they like the Sardar the most? It is more of a calculated project to harm the honour of Pandit Nehru by employing the towering figure of Patel than any real move for the Sardar. It is all a figment of the imagination,” said Saroj Rath, who teaches history in Delhi University. (See Q&A).
Speaking at temple town of Shirdi on October 19 at a function to observe the death anniversary of Sai Baba, Prime Minister Modi claimed that in earlier governments, schemes were introduced not to help the people but to publicise one family. Though not named, the obvious reference was to the Gandhi family, the BJP's principal political opponent. Using a temple function to take a dig at the political opponent is no more unusual in Modi's brand of combative politics. He does not spare an opportunity to attack the Gandhi family. The occasion to mark the 75th anniversary of Azad Hindi Sarkar was also used to remind the people how the Congress (read the Gandhi family) had forgotten the contribution of Bose's Indian National Army in attaining freedom.
Appropriating national icons is a charge the BJP has been brazening out rather happily. The party and its ideological fountainhead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are often questioned about their role in the freedom movement led by the Indian National Congress (INC). The Congress not only vilifies the sangh parivar (RSS and its affiliates) for remaining fence sitters in the freedom struggle but also says that those who follow its ideology are responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the tallest among those who fought for Independence.
Cong & BJP icons
Over the years, there has been a clear distinction between the Congress and BJP icons. While the Congress relished carrying forward the legacy of Gandhi-Nehru, the RSS and the BJP would stick to Hindutva ideologues Veer Savarkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyay. The rightwing extended their narrative by hailing Sardar Patel, Nehru’s No. 2, and Subhash Chandra Bose. Patel, the man who united India, according to this narrative, deserved to be the first Prime Minister of the country and Subhas Chandra Bose did not get his due place in history.
The RSS chronicle of history has been part of political discourse for years but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken it to new heights by taking “corrective” action on the ground to rewrite passages of history with his own pen. In contrast, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first prime minister from the sangh stable, preferred to keep the differences at the sublime level.
Appropriating is an extension of Modi’s 2014 poll battle cry of ‘Congress mukt’ Bharat even though he has qualified the statement by claiming that he actually meant freeing India of Congress culture not the party as a political entity. Unveiling the statue of Sardar Patel, Modi said that sometimes he is surprised by the politics behind the events like giving respect to India’s very own national icons. He might be right but each of these events are followed by a concerted campaign by the BJP’s own media managers to spread a particular description even at the cost of facts.
Between PM Modi sporting a Netaji cap and unveiling Patel's statue, the BJP social media army resurrected an excerpts from Prem Shankar Jha’s Kashmir 1947: Rival Versions of History which had a passage where Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw explained how Patel prevailed over all others to send the army into Jammu and Kashmir while Nehru dilly dallied. It perfectly suited the BJP narrative that Patel should have been the first Prime Minister of India and not Nehru. The same interview was highlighted years ago by veteran BJP leader LK Advani as a clinching evidence of differences between Nehru and Patel. No doubt it was the appropriate time to re-visit the controversy.
On the Bose front, a fake letter by Nehru describing Subhas Chandra Bose as a war criminal to British prime minister Clement Attlee surfaced yet again. The letter has been part of a collage that routinely appears on social media to highlight Nehru’s alleged disdain for fellow freedom fighters. The other items on this collage include photographs of Nehru smoking in the company of women, all of which giving a deliberate spin to discredit the leader.
The differences among the leaders from the freedom struggle is a historical fact but projecting them as disrespect for each other will be a calculated creation of historical blunders. The critics not only object to the projection of fake narrative but also government spending crores of rupees on such endeavours. “Sardar Patel would have been appalled by the crude boastfulness of the ads in his name in today’s newspapers. That his statue is taller than any in China, America, Japan etc. That is certainly not how the Sardar would have measured national dignity and self respect,” tweeted historian Ramchandra Guha in response to media carpet bombing by the government to highlight unveiling of the statue of unity.
The ideological battle is not restricted to Patel or Bose, even Gandhi, the tallest leader in the freedom movement is now the poster boy of Modi’s transformation drive. On October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary marked as Swachhta Divas (cleanliness day) by the current government, Modi released a medley of Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnav Jana To sung by artists from all over the world. The prime minister has been tweeting individual performances of these songs with complimentary messages for the artists almost every day since then. There are celebrations planned for the entire year leading up to the centenary of the Mahatma’s birth.
The appropriation project is in sync with the Sangh Parivar's larger agenda of correcting the history of India which is aimed at bringing the focus back on highlighting the Hindu heritage of the land that was undermined by the Mughal influence. This begins with symbolic but popular corrections like changing the names of cities and roads. As a result of which, Allahabad has now become Prayagraj. Mughal Sarai railway station in Bihar is now named after Deen Dayal Upadhyay. New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road is now Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Marg. There are many more demands to set the course of history right. One among them is renaming Akbar Road in Delhi after Maharana Pratap. There is a massive campaign against the legacy of Tipu Sultan in Mysore. The list is just endless. What the government has touched till now is just the tip of iceberg
By associating with historical figures from the freedom movement, Prime Minister Modi has packaged himself to find a place in the galaxy of tall leaders of the country. As he moves ahead, there is confusion in the mind of his critics if history of only after 2014. What has been taught in the school books is no longer same. There are clearly two versions, one before 2014 and another after.
It’s not only about the icons. The appropriation project is part of the larger mission of rewriting history. Under the rightwing view, the current history is the distorted version presented by the left leaning historians who have dominated the scene. With the Modi government in power they see an opportunity to make course correction and giving Hindu icons what they believe is their legitimate due. Changing the names of cities and roads has been part of this corrective politics. As a result, Prayagraj gets a new avatar after the renaming of Allahabad. There are similar demands to make such changes and wipe out evidence of Mughal influence. Akbar Road in Delhi is proposed to be named Maharana Pratap Marg.
It is aimed at correcting what is being spread as reviving lost glory. This helps in consolidating the Hindu vote bank. The name of Mughal Sarai railway station has been after Deen Dayal Upadhayay with the idea of establishing the Sangh Parivar icons in the minds of people. The project is to ensure that the party’s ideology stays beyond the current dispensation.
Dr BR Ambedkar
In early September, the Bharatiya Janata Party held its national executive at the Dr Ambedkar International Centre in New Delhi. Here was a Congress stalwart, who was recognised as the father of the Indian constitution, but was considered not to have got his due. However, in trying to make common cause with Ambedkarites – the Republican Party of India is an NDA ally at the centre – the BJP was trying to do more than appropriate a Congress icon. Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP has consciously tried to push back on the perception that it is an upper caste party opposed to Dalits. The modern Dr Ambedkar International Centre, with its entrance in the likeness of the Sanchi Stupa, was meant to send a message to the Dalit constituency. Another building in Delhi has also been given a huge facelift. This is 26 Alipore Road where Dr BR Ambedkar stayed till his death. The old building was pulled down and a new one, in the shape of the Indian constitution has been built in its place. For the record, this house had been bought by the Jindal family. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had asked the family to give up the bungalow in the national interest.
Ambedkarites have not forgotten that Dr Ambedkar lost the first election in 1952. He contested from North Bombay but was defeated by Jawaharlal Nehru’s candidate. It is also meant to neutralise pressure from incidents like at Una.
Serving the sangh’s agenda
BJP-led governments at the centre and in the states have feted a select group of Congress stalwarts from the freedom movement, suggesting they were doing what had been denied to them by the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhis. Here are a few of the leaders and why the BJP picked them
Madan Mohan Malviya
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi by garlanding the statue of Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of Benaras Hindu University in 1916. Despite being one of the earliest members of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, Malviya had remained close to Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Addressed as Mahamana, Malviya was one of the prominent Congress leaders of his time who was also the president of the party for four terms. When Modi government came to power, Malviya was awarded the Bharat Ratna on December 24, 2014 in what was seen as a long pending due for an icon. But to say that the leader was ignored by the Congress would not be entirely right. On his birth anniversary in 2008, a national memorial, Malviya Smriti Bhawan, was inaugurated by then president APJ Kalam in New Delhi. In 2011, then prime minister Manmohan Singh established the Centre for Malviya Studies at the Benaras Hindu University.
Why Malviya for the BJP?
Despite being a Congress leader, Malviya was deep rooted in the Hindu way of life. He was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha as one of its earlier founders. He popularised the slogan of Satyameva Jayate for the Congress. Even the tradition of performing aarti at Haridwar's famour Har ki Pauri is attributed to him. He was a prominent Hindu educationist.
Tolerant of RSS
Lal Bahadur Shastri
Apart from paying tributes to Mahatma Gandhi on his birth anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives equal respect to Lal Bahadur Shastri, who became the second Prime Minister of India after Jawaharlal Nehru. He describes Shastri as a gentle personality, skillful leader and man of courage. In one of his speeches, BJP president Amit Shah compared Prime Minister Modi with Shastri. “During the 1965 Pakistan war, Lal Bahadur Shastri had asked the country to fast for one day and the country listened. For the first time since then, the nation has listened to a prime minister. When Prime Minister Modi asked them, 1.3 crore people gave up gas subsidies and the government used it to bring out the Ujjwala Yojana,” said Amit Shah equating Modi with the Congress leader. Shastri gave the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan during the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
Why BJP loves Shastri?
Shastri was a Congress whom the BJP loves. In a public speech, L.K Advani claimed that Shastri was not as hostile towards the RSS as the other Congress leaders and also held consultations with Guru Gowalkar. Advani said that Shastri's personal qualities earned him goodwill of the people. RSS founder Deen Dayal Upadhyay had described Shastri as ‘Jan Nayak’. The former prime minister's son Sunil Shastri, also a politician, said in a interview earlier this year that he saw similarities between Modi and his father.
Prime Minister Modi has been particular about promoting the Mahatma ever since he came to power. Be it traveling by train to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa where Mahatma Gandhi was evicted from a first class compartment – on June 7, 1893 while travelling from Durban to Pretoria he was thrown off Pietermaritzburg railway station because he was travelling first class, which was reserved for the whites – or being photographed spinning the charkha, Modi's tenure has been full of Gandhi moments. He has hosted foreign dignities at Sabarmati Ashram and the government has planned big celebrations to mark the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. The sale of Gandhi's favourite khadi clothes have gone up and his favourite bhajan ‘Vaishnav Jana To’ has been popularised as an international song. The Prime Minister has left no stone unturned to preserve and promote the legacy of the Mahatma and managed to bury the past uncomfortable association of Sangh Parivar ideologues with Gandhi. Even now, many of the hardliners, mostly the supporters of the BJP have been glorifying Nathuram Godse, the man who pumped bullets into the Father of the Nation. They hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of the country.
Why the Mahatma?
Mahatma Gandhi is not only a national figure but also most recognised Indian personality in the world. He is a global personality with people of all nationalities drawing inspiration from him. Even at the cost of its own hardcore voter segment, the BJP prefers to go with the international sentiment.
One if the most towering figures of the freedom movement, the BJP feels that he suffered grave injustice at the hands of the Congress. Under the Sangh’s private narrative, Sardar Patel should have been the first prime minister of the country and not the No. 2 of Nehru. It believes that the course of history would have been different had the iron man been on the saddle instead of Nehru when India became independent. The differences between the two are often cited to prove that Nehru overshadowed him deliberately. He performed the most important task of the time to unite India during one of the most fragile phases of its history. Sardar Patel's tough action of banning the RSS after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination are also ignored
His contribution to uniting the country goes with BJP's brand of nationalism. His tough no nonsense approach and reported differences with Nehru give fodder to the BJP to appropriate him.
Claiming Netaji’s legacy