BEFORE I delve into analysing Akshaya Mukul’s brilliant and well-researched book, a disclosure would be proper.
Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
BEFORE I delve into analysing Akshaya Mukul’s brilliant and well-researched book, a disclosure would be proper. I have known the author closely for around 30 years now, both of us having been classmates from high school to university. We even worked together twice in the initial period of our careers. Therefore, if one goes by the principle ‘read the author before reading the work’, I think I am eminently suitable for the task of reviewing this book.
I am not at all surprised by the rigorous research undertaken in bringing out this work, as Mukul was always academically inclined. I remember while we were students in Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College in the late Eighties, he would visit libraries far and wide for reference reading. Since our university days were spent arguing on topics relating to imperialism, colonialism, socialism and, in our final year, liberalisation, I intend to carry forward the argument with Mukul, this time over the central thesis of his book.
To be clear, I have no disagreement with him over the quality of the book and the meticulous research that has gone into it, though despite being a student of history like Mukul, I never delved into source material spread far and wide, often stored in dingy rooms infested with mosquitoes. Another confession would be in order: I got to know about Gita Press and what it does only when Mukul embarked on this work. Despite having been reared in a Hindu family, I had never come across any publication of Gita Press either at my home or of any of my extended relatives, even though we were never followers of the communist ideology.
The book traces the entire history of Gita Press—set up in 1921 in Gorakhpur, UP—which brings out Hindu religious publications and was founded by two Marwari businessmen—Jaydayal Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar. Its most influential publication is Kalyan, which basically preaches a return to the tenets of sanatan dharma. The publication took political positions on matters relating to Hindu religion, and opposed the Hindu Code Bill. It was also never in the forefront of social reforms like widow remarriage and empowerment of women, which are anathemas for it. Various Congress leaders were associated with it and even Mahatma Gandhi wrote for it. The only leader who never had anything to do with Gita Press and Kalyan was Jawaharlal Nehru, which is understandable, considering Nehru’s discomfort with anything ‘religious’, and ‘Hindu’ in particular.
The success of Gita Press can be gauged by the following statistics: as of early 2014, it had sold 72 million copies of the Gita, 70 million copies of Tulsidas’ works and 19 million copies of scriptures like the Puranas and Upanishads. Kalyan now has a circulation of over two lakh copies and its English counterpart, Kalyana-Kalpataru, of over one lakh copies. The book very brilliantly brings out the conservative, parochial and even militant aspects of Hinduism that Gita Press espouses, central to which are Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan. Since the freedom struggle had its share of revivalist movements, along with several others, any study of Hindu or Muslim communalism traces its history to that period. Any religious strife before the advent of the British is not termed communal because the term is of a modern origin.
Since a BJP-led government is currently in power, the ideas of Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan have gained currency once again. In fact, the rise of the BJP on the back of the Hindutva movement in the late Eighties is linked to organisations like Gita Press and this has been brought out impeccably in the book. While I do not dispute the facts relating to Gita Press that Mukul has brought to the fore through his brilliant research, where I differ with him is in the linkages he has drawn between Gita Press and the rise of Hindu communalism.
Forces that admire the centrality of a church-like institution in religions like Christianity and Islam have existed for long in Hinduism as well. The difference is that because of the evolutionary nature of birth and growth of the religion, Hindus, in general, have never accorded any sanctity to such forces. So I would see Gita Press as some elderly gentleman in a family who is conservative and does not encourage women to work, but it’s not necessary that the family follows in his footsteps. Such elderly gentlemen are accorded respect, but largely ignored in most family matters. A lone figure here and there, though, may subscribe to their views.
In Hinduism, the role of Gita Press is similar. There have been publications in the past and there will be some in the future as well that would try to create a Hindu church, but their followers would be limited. Marwaris, in general, have been seen as conservative elements in Hindu society and have mostly advocated vegetarianism, even going to the extent of stating that a true Hindu is a vegetarian. However, their efforts in establishing this as a cardinal principle have gone in vain. For example, if you visit Ahmedabad, Hindus are identified as people who are vegetarians, while Muslims are seen as meat eaters. Go to West Bengal and such differentiation ceases.
What then led to the rise of Hindu communalism, if not Gita Press? Well, the answer to this question can be searched at two levels. During the freedom movement, there was a contest of ideas because every forceful group wanted its vision to be the vision of free India. Go back to 1857 and the idea was to return to the Mughal era. Coming to the post-independence period, Hindu extremism was always on the fringes. Delve deeper and you find the rise of extreme minoritarianism, with certain political parties appeasing the interests of Muslim conservatives for votes, which often came en bloc, and led to Hindu unrest, which was exploited by the BJP. With most centrist parties cooling down on minoritarianism in recent times, Hindu communalism has once again ebbed, though fringe elements continue to create havoc.
The rise of Narendra Modi in Gujarat was in the backdrop of the Godhra train burning, which led to riots. Modi’s rise to power in the BJP and at the Centre has the backing of the Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan and ‘no meat-eating’ variety, but a larger support base came from the aspirational middle class that was fed up with the weak and corrupt Congress government. If some disenchantment with Modi has come of late, it’s because this section feels that he has failed to do enough on the economic front, rather than not furthering the cause of Hinduism.
So while Gita Press and its history comes out brilliantly in the book, linking it to something like the ‘making of Hindu India’ is not appropriate.