Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Madan Mohan Malaviya: how a four-time Congress president became a BJP icon

Many of the Right’s pet issues today, from “reconversion” to the cementing of an aggressive Hindu political identity were initially championed by Malaviya in British India

The Bharat Ratna has always been a political award and this year was no different. The Modi government has conferred India’s highest civilian award on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya. Vajpayee was, of course, the first prime minster from the BJP and easily the party’s tallest leader. Born more than 150 years ago, Malaviya’s link with the BJP and its ideology is somewhat less know.

Madan Mohan Malaviya was born in Allahabad in a Brahmin family highly respected for its learning and knowledge of Hindu scriptures. Financial circumstances forced him to take up a job as an English teacher in a local school after graduating from his BA. From these humble beginnings, Malaviya was able to branch out into a somewhat bewildering number of fields and leave his mark on them.

He started his political career in 1886 with a widely appreciated address to the Indian National Congress session in Calcutta. Malaviya would go on to become one of the most powerful political leaders of his time, managing to be chosen Congress President on four occasions. Impressed by Malaviya’s 1886 address, an Awadh taluqadar, Raja Rampal Singh, offered the editorship of his Hindi newspaper, Hindustani to Malaviya. Later on, Malaviya would go on to rescue the Hindustan Times from financial ruin and launch its Hindi edition. He would serve as the Hindustan Times’ chairman for more than 20 years, building it up to be the foremost nationalist newspaper of its time.

Linguistic Politics

In spite of his achievements in politics and journalism, maybe Malaviya’s greatest impact lies in the sphere of language. The late 1800s saw mobilisation around the issue of Hindi and Urdu—till then, the courts and bureaucracy of the Raj used Urdu written in the Persian script as the official language. Malaviya submitted his famous Memorandum (“Court Character and Primary Education in North-Western Provinces and Oudh”) to the Lt Governor of what is now Uttar Pradesh. The Memorandum was masterfully framed and was one of the principal arguments which convinced the British Raj to pass an order in 1900 which permitted the use of Nagari characters alongside Persian in the courts of the North-Western Provinces.

While his overall achievements are obviously a factor, the primary reason this BJP government feels the need to honour Malaviya is of course his contribution to the Hindu nationalist cause. Malaviya was a staunch conservative both socially and politically. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Independent India’s first woman cabinet minister) writes that Malaviya “would never take food or drink from the hands of anybody other than a Brahmin of his own caste”. He set up a Hindu university in Banaras which along with “Aligarh Moslem University” would produce men “true to their God, their King and their country”. As the reference to the King shows, politically, Malaviya believed in constitutionalism and was one of the few major Congress leaders to oppose Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Carrying on with this strand of thought, the party Malaviya founded, the Hindu Mahasabha did not participate in the Quit India movement of 1942.

Malaviya’s position on the integration of Dalits in order to prevent their conversion to other religions, formed the basis of how the Hindu Right saw this issue and is played out till today in instances like the Shivpuri conversions and the fact that the Indian state takes away “scheduled caste” status from any person who converts away from Hinduism. Malaviya also played an important role in introducing the concept of “reconversion” to Hinduism, an issue which seems to be on the top of the Sangh Parivar’s agenda today. A fear of reduced Hindu numbers—a pet peeve of today’s Hindu Right—drove his thinking on “reconversion”.  Presiding over a Hindu Mahasabha convention in 1932, Malaviya argued: “When now we are so badly treated with a numerical strength of 22 crores, what would be our condition in future with a much reduced Hindu population, if we allow this rate of conversion from Hinduism and do not allow reconversion into Hinduism?”

Muscular Hinduism

Malaviya also championed a muscular Hindu identity which often jostled violently for space with urban India’s Muslim minority. In Allahabad, the annual Ram Lila procession was organised by the Malaviya family. In the fractious politics of North India, this procession would often trigger off communal violence, the immediate catalyst being music being played outside mosques. When the British demanded that the procession stop playing music whenever it passed outside a mosque, Malaviya refused, arguing that this would make it a “mourning procession, not a Ram Dal”. As a result, the British banned the Ram Lila procession in Allahabad and it was only resurrected in 1937 when a Congress government came to power in UP under the 1935 Government of India Act.

Organisationally, Malaviya also had a seminal role to play in the Hindu nationalist movement. He set up the Hindu Samaj in 1880 in reaction to what he thought were Christian missionary attempts to stop the annual Magh Mela. But of course, his biggest contribution was the setting up of the Hindu Mahasabha along with Lala Lajpat Rai in 1915. The Mahasabha was the largest Hindu nationalist party in British India. Mahasabha leaders such as Savarkar played a key role in crystallising Hindu nationalist thought and one of the party’s tallest leaders, Syama Prasad Mookerjee would go on to found the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the ruling BJP today.

Given how Malaviya contributed, both ideologically and organisationally, to the Hindu nationalist cause, it is not surprising that the BJP now seeks to honour him with a Bharat Ratna.

Four facts about Patel that Modi would find disappointing

First published in

Modi idolises Patel and pushes him as a counter to Nehru’s legacy. However Patel’s wariness of the RSS’ capacity for violence or his opposition against using force to settle the Babri Masjid dispute might leave the Prime Minster in an awkward spot

Already preparing for a long reign, Modi has started to press history into service, building up the political capital needed for an extended stint in the PM’s chair. Grabbing at past icons rather indiscriminately, the Prime Minister has referenced the staunchly secular Nehru, his dynasty-loving daughter, Indira and socialist, Jai Prakash Narayan. Gandhi’s vision of cleanliness was bought on for the Swachch Bharat campaign, quietly setting aside the Sangh Parivar’s disagreements with the Mahatma’s legacy. Less oxymoronically, Modi has also called upon more right-wing icons such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madanmohan Malaviya.

Even in this crowded firmament, the brightest star from Modi’s point of view is obvious: Vallabhbhai Patel. Modi has fashioned himself closely after the Sardar, right from his days as Chief Minister. He promised to build a statue of Patel which would be the tallest statue in the world and is estimated to cost a whopping Rs 2,500 crore. Not surprisingly, Modi seems to have chalked out big plans for Patel’s birthday (which is today) declaring it to be "Rashtriya Ekta Diwas" or “National Unity Day”.
Of course, historical figures are complex three dimensional characters and often, the Patel that Modi or the larger Sangh Parivar might imagine, would differ quite a bit from the historical Sardar. Here are four such instances when the real Patel might leave Modi cold:

Patel loved/hated the RSS

The Sangh Parivar has claimed ideological kindredship with Patel for some time now. In 1966, M.S. Golwalkar, supremo of the RSS wrote in his book, Bunch of Thoughts, “We were fortunate that we had in Sardar Patel a person with an iron will to face the reality in those days”.

Modi, who considers Gowalkar a “guru worthy of worship” naturally has a similarly positive view about the Sardar. Liberals, on the other hand have tended to discredit the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to invoke Patel. Ramchandra Guha, for example, thinks it is ironic that Patel is being claimed by the BJP when he “was himself a lifelong Congressman”.

No matter his being a Congressman, as a conservative, Patel certainly had common ground, ideologically, with the RSS. Three weeks before Gandhi’s assassination, Patel warmly invited swayamsevaks to join the Congress: “In the Congress, those who are in power feel that by the virtue of authority they will be able to crush the RSS. You cannot crush an organisation by using the danda. The danda is meant for thieves and dacoits. They are patriots who love their country. Only their trend of thought is diverted. They are to be won over by Congressmen, by love.”

Things changed sharply after Gandhi’s assassination, however. While the direct involvement of the RSS was never pursued in a court of law, the fact that the RSS’ ideology was responsible for motivating Godse was quite clear. In his letter of July 18, 1948 to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee after Gandhi’s murder, the Sardar wrote:

“… as [a] result of the activities of these two bodies[the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha], particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasbha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State.”

Patel banned the RSS just after Gandhi’s assassination but also unbanned them after a year and a half. However, wary of their proclivity towards of violence, Patel ensured that this unbanning would come with a rider:  the RSS would not take part in politics. Within a year, however, the RSS had broken their promise, pushing the Jan Sangh as its political arm. Later on the Jan Sangh would morph into the modern-day BJP.

Patel deserved to be Prime Minster but Nehru stole his crown

It is often imagined by the Indian Right that Patel was the “rightful” Prime Minster but was somehow cheated out of it by Nehru. Modi himself skirted with this thought when, back in October last year, he attacked Nehru, bemoaning that Patel would have made a better Prime Minster. More recently, Subramanian Swamy had a more detailed take on the matter:

Gandhiji took a vote of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) presidents in 1946, and only one of the 16 PCC Presidents voted for Nehru. The other 15 voted for Sardar Patel. But Gandhiji asked Patel to withdraw in favour of Nehru for practical politics — to hasten British departure.

This is, of course, as many of you might know, an extremely popular tale on the Internet across a number of blogs. As you also might know, PCCs voting to elect the Prime Minister is an absurd proposition—a bit like Modi getting elected by BJP state units.

A variant of this conspiracy theory is that the PCCs were electing the Congress president (and not the Prime Minster). The Congress president at the time of independence would somehow become Prime Minster (the exact process is never explained). Problems here too: PCCs don’t elect Presidents, AICC delegates do. Moreover, Nehru was not the Congress President when India gained independence, JB Kripalani was. Tragically, no one informed Kripalani of this mechanism and he remained bereft of prime ministership right until his dying day.

The simple reason as to why Nehru became PM was that he was, by far, the Congress’ most popular politician (after Gandhi, of course). Right from the 1937 provincial elections, Nehru was the party’s star campaigner, enthralling crowds with his Hindustani oratory. Patel had an iron grip on the Congress party itself but he was many a mile behind Nehru as a popular leader. The Sardar himself conceded this: at a massively attended Congress rally in Mumbai, he told American journalist Vincent Sheean, “They come for Jawahar, not for me”.

Thus, in 1946, when the Viceroy formed his interim government, Nehru was, unsurprisingly, given the highest post. Later, on 15 August 1947, he naturally took office as Prime Minster, without the least opposition from anyone in the Congress.

Nehru is often blamed for Partition by the Sangh Parivar but Patel never is

The most recent espousal of this theory came via the RSS’ Kerala mouthpiece which put forth the argument that Nathuram Godse should have targeted Jawaharlal Nehru instead of Mahatma Gandhi since he was responsible for Partition.

Whatever be the rights and wrongs of Partition, this was a decision taken jointly both Nehru and Patel. In fact, if anything, Patel was far more receptive to the idea and Nehru only came around much later and far more reluctantly. VP Menon, the architect of the Partition Plan, informs us that as far back as December 1946, Patel had accepted the division of India while Nehru would only acquiesce 6 months later. Abul Kalam Azad, a staunch critic of Partition right till the very end, was disappointed with Patel’s support and writes in his memoir, India wins Freedom, that he was “surprised and pained when Patel in reply [to why Partition was needed] said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India.”

Patel did not want the Babri Masjid demolished

The birth of the BJP is inextricably linked with the movement it led to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and have a temple constructed in its place. Modi himself was a part of the movement, albeit as a low-level functionary. In December 6, 1992, frenzied mobs even demolished the mosque, as top BJP leaders hugged each other and distributed sweets. Till today, the BJP has the construction of the Ram Temple on its manifesto.

The BJP would, therefore, be surprised to know that Patel did now share their enthusiasm in this matter. In 1949, a mob descended upon the Babri Masjid and, after chasing away the muezzin, installed the idol of Ram Lalla in order to claim it as a temple. Within a month of the incident, Patel shot of a letter to the then CM of Uttar Pradesh, GB Pant warning that “there can be no question of resolving such disputes by force”.  Differing even more starkly from the final outcome of 1992, Patel opined that “such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us”.

Monday, December 8, 2014

How a dispute identical to the Babri Masjid played out in colonial Lahore

The Shaheedganj Mosque dispute from the Lahore of the 1930s shows us that claims drive by faith are best handled by enforcing rule of law
First published on

22 years ago to this day, frenzied mobs set upon the Babri Masjid and tore it down. The incident set off massive riots, the largest the subcontinent has seen since Partition.  In Mumbai alone, around 1,000 people are said to be have been massacred.

Today, matters have cooled down. The BJP, which used the agitation to rise exponentially, now holds an absolute majority in Parliament. The legal dispute itself is over. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court passed a judgment splitting the land 3 ways. And while the BJP is yet to deliver on its promise of building a “grand” ram temple, the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood does function as a Hindu place of worship.

Interestingly, Lahore in the 1930s saw a remarkably similar dispute. While in the 1990s, Hindu politicians claimed that a mosque stood over what was once a temple, in Lahore of the 1930s, Muslim politicians claimed that a gurdwara stood over what was once a mosque. It was, to use AG Noorani’s words, “Ayodhya in reverse”. However, as we shall see, the final outcomes of the two cases were rather different.

The Dispute

A year after the British occupied the Punjab in 1849, a Lahori citizen named Nur Ahmad filed a case against Bhai Jiwan Singh and Ganda Singh, who held possession of the Shaheedganj Mosque. This mosque had been in control of a group of Sikhs for at least two and a half centuries now and in the same compound there also existed a gurdwara. The suit was dismissed since Ahmad did not have possession of the structure—the expected legal outcome. Ahmad was not deterred and filed at least 3 more cases but all of them fell through. At around the same time, in the 19th century, a very similar legal process was actually followed in the case of the chabutra, or platform, outside the Babri Masjid. Hindu groups sued for ownership of the chabutra but lost on grounds of not having possession (claims to the Babri Masjid structure itself, would be made later)

Back to Lahore: in 1927, the Shaheedganj Mosque was formally passed into the care of the newly formed Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Immediately, there were objections from Muslim groups and after a protracted series of legal cases, the Lahore High Court ruled in favour of the SGPC on the grounds that the mosque had long since ceased being used for Muslim worship and had passed into Sikh hands since at least 1852. To compare, the Babri Masjid site had been in Muslim hands since at least 1528, a time period more than 300 years longer than Shaheedganj.

Soon after winning the case, the SGPC decided to the clear the compound of all “un-Sikh like deviations and non-Sikh usages”. On the night of July 8, 1935, the Sikhs in control of the compound demolished the mosque, placing Lahore on communal tenterhooks. Just like in 1992, the majority community, fired by religious fervour, wanted control over a place of worship that they had no legal claim to.

By October, 1935 we were seeing a familiar pattern: Muslims had started a programme of civil disobedience, trying to take the property by force. By October 1935, Lahore had seen Sikh-Muslim riots over the issue. 

How it was resolved

Here, however, things start to diverge from Babri. Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, Lahore’s colonial administration was extremely strict with protestors.  It opened fire on agitating Muslim crowds when they tried to take the compound by force and wantonly arrested leaders of the agitation, at one time even barging into the city’s biggest mosque, the Badhshahi Masjid to apprehend Maula Bakhsh and Yasub-ul-Hasan, the main leaders of the civil disobedience at the time.

One more difference was that the movement was confined to minor politicians—unlike the BJP in independent India, the big wigs of the time never took up the case of Shaheedganj. At the time, the premier of the Punjab was Fazl-i-Husain, who led a pro-British, cross-communal party of landlords, called the Unionists. This sort of grassroots communal agitation was harmful for the Unionists, who had within them Muslim, Hindu as well as Sikh zamindars. Fazl-i-Husain, therefore, quite explicitly advised Muslims to give up claims to Shaheedganj. He writes in his diary:
Various people came to me about the Shahidganj Mosque. I advised them to drop the matter, and then something may transpire to improve matters, but that there was no advance possible at this stage. They protested that this meant defeat. I told them that they have been defeated in this matter at all stages and my advice is to court no more defeats.
Herbert Emerson, then Governor of the Punjab, invited Jinnah over to Lahore to further calm matters. Jinnah was largely a non-entity in Punjab at the time but the Muslim League did have some influence over the urban population of Lahore who were the main party in this case.

Khalid Guaba, a local Punjabi politician who chaperoned Jinnah around, has left us a humorous portrait of the visit. On being asked to go to the Friday prayers at the Badshahi Mosque, Jinnah initially refused. As it turned out, Jinnah did not know how to read the namaaz. Gauba claims he gave Jinnah “a few lesson as to the posture he had to make” while praying, however at the mosque, unable to physically go down on his knees, Jinnah simply squatted down on the floor of the mosque with “his knees and hands folded”.

This aside, Jinnah’s visit proved successful. He set up a peace board with representatives of all communities.  During a speech, Jinnah lamented that nowadays there were no cross-community leaders and recalled his mentor from Bombay, saying, “Give me more Gokhales”. BR Nanda writes that Jinnah was successful in “securing the revocation of civil disobedience by Muslim firebrands, and lowering the communal temperature.”

Shorn of political oxygen, the movement for the Shaheedganj Mosque collapsed. Soon enough, the SGPC constructed a gurdwara at the site of the now demolished Shaheedganj Mosque.

The legal side of the issue dragged on till 1940 when the case was discussed in the Privy Council—the court of ultimate appeal in British India. Unlike the Allahabad High Court in 2010, however, the Privy Council did not get bogged down with medieval history or religious belief in order to decide what was essentially a property dispute. In line with lower court judgements, it simply dismissed the Muslim side’s claim, citing the statute of limitations, noting that the property has been under Sikh control for a sufficient length of time.

This ended the matter. The Shaheedganj Gurdwara, constructed at the site, still exists in Lahore today.