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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The ties that bind the elite

I’m reading Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshya Mukul. It is an important contribution to the understanding of the rise of the Hindutva forces that have come to power in India, and will seemingly remain at the helm for the foreseeable future.

At present, the Hindutva forces have taken complete control of India. While Narendra Modi continues to pull wool over everyone’s eyes (especially in the West) with his talk about development, and his supposed focus on improving India’s business environment, the forces of Hindutva have taken control of all aspects of India.

There are examples of this occurring every day.  For instance, a man was lynched by a mob near Delhi yesterday because the mob suspected that he was eating beef (and everyone conveniently ignores that India is one of the world leaders in beef exports).

The Indian government has issued a postage stamp to honour Mahant Avaidyanath, a radical proponent of Hindutva, who was a key figure in the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, and who found LK Advani weak-kneed on the issue of building a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

Mukul’s book traces the rise of Gita Press, the publisher and popularizer of Hindu religious texts, in particular the Bhagwad Gita and the Ramcharitmanaas. The book traces the origins, the rise and the supremacy of Gita Press since its inception in early 20th century, as it engagingly narrates the life stories of pioneers its – Jaydayal  Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar.

The book makes a fundamental point that by the late 19th and early 20th century, the business castes (especially the Marwaris) had effectively penetrated into the exclusive bracket of the top two castes – the Brahmins and the Kshtriyas in north India. The Marwaris had, through the dextrous use of their wealth and India-wide network, developed a system of dominance that redefined Hinduism.  

Poddar (1892-1971) played a significant role in this transformation. He was a diehard Hindu who justified the caste system, was opposed to the Dalits entry into temples, was opposed to widow remarriage, was inimical to Muslims, openly propagating that Hindu women needed protection from lustful Muslim men, was a strong proponent of cow protection and poured vitriol on the Indian establishment for now banning cow slaughter.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) he shared a close relationship with Mahatma Gandhi for several years before falling out with him prior to the Partition. He vociferously defended the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when the Government banned it in the wake of the Gandhi assassination. And yet, he was close to all the leading Congress party leaders, wielding tremendous clout over many political decisions.

Teji Bachchan (Amitabh Bachchan’s mother) was his ‘rakhi’ sister; with Raihana Tyabji (granddaughter of Badruddin Tyabji, and the aunt of historian Irfan Habib) he shared what can best be described as a platonic relationship; his friendship with the Hindustani classical maestro Vishnu Digambar Paluskar was also legendary. There are innumerable examples of many such relations that may seem incongruous.

I have yet to complete the book, but what strikes me after reading large parts of it is the cozy relationship that the elite of India had in the early to mid-20th century; relationship that crossed party and ideological affiliations.

It was a closed circle of higher castes that helped each other grow and protected each other’s interests. Political ideology mattered, no doubt; but common interests outweighed everything else. The rise of the Dalits and the Mandal castes in the last 25 years may have seriously challenged this supremacy, but I wonder whether this situation has changed in any substantial manner.

I’ll return to the book again. In the meantime, here’s an interesting passage.

It was Raihana – full of tantrums, unusually dramatic and exceptionally forthright – who dominated Poddar’s heart. For the world, Poddar was simply their elder brother and they his sisters, but there was an undercurrent of mystique, an unknown factor that ran through their relationship.

Praising an article Raihana had written for Kalyan, Poddar expressed admiration for her love for Krishna. ‘I know you are a true Muslim. I do not want you to become less of a Muslim. My Krishna is not of Hindus alone. He belongs to a gopi’s heart. Wherever there is a reflection of gopi’s heart. Krishna exsts and he is willing to give everything.’

….Raihana’s mind (is) totally immersed in Krishna; she saw Poddar as his personification and was in no mood to distinguish between the two… Literally and metaphorically, Raihana saw Poddar as her Krishna whose words were those of God….


Poddar admitted he had also never been so free with any of his associates, friends and those who revered him: ‘What I write to you is a fact, not my imagination or mere writing skill. I do not know how these things have been revealed to you. Only Krishna knows. I cannot tell you how my love for you is growing. My Krishna is your friend. What kind of pleasure and what kind of relationship is this? The question of Hindu-Muslim is outside the realm of our relationship. What has that got to do with us? I like your unfettered behaviour.

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