July 01, 2013

Narendra Modi is bringing back Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s liberal nationalism

By Shashi Shekhar on June 23, 2013
Narendra Modi is bringing back Syama Prasad Mookerjee's liberal nationalism
Today, on June 23, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi treks up north for a public event near Pathankot in Punjab. The site of his event is Madhopur that on May 11, 1953 played host to an important speech by Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founding president of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the predecessor to the present day BJP. Mookerjee was on his way to Jammu & Kashmir to protest the Nehru led Congress Government’s policies as well as to ascertain the reality of the conditions of Dogras in Jammu.
In his biography on Dr SP Mookerjee titled “Portrait of a Martyr”, former President of the BJS Dr Balraj Madhok describes in great detail that fateful train journey from Delhi through Punjab before Mookerjee was tricked into entering J&K leading to a series of events that saw his death on the June 23. A pithy quote from his farewell address ahead of that Train Journey sums up both what he stood for and what he stood against:
“I do not think the Government of India is entitled to prevent entry into any part of the Indian Union”
Syama Prasad Mookerjee was both a liberal and a nationalist. While much of his politics and time in Government reflected deep nationalism and a realism free of dogma, at his heart were core liberal principles. Reading through the biography written by Madhok one can trace the roots of his liberal nationalism all the way to his days as the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University in the 1930s at a very young age of 33.
Recounting a convocation address by Mookerjee on February 12, 1936, Madhok cites the following excerpt from that speech which highlights the Liberal Nationalist that Mookerjee was:
“Our ideal is to provide extensive facilities for education from the lowest grade to the highest to mould our educational purpose and to draw out the best qualities that be hidden in our youth and to train them intellectually physically for service in all spheres of national activitty in towns villages cities. Our ideal is to make the widest provision for sound liberal education… Our ideal is to make our universities and educational institutions the home of liberty, sane progressive thought.”
One sees the same spirit of Liberal Nationalism emerge through his tenure as Vice Chancellor as he sought to expand access to the University even to who were not enrolled in a regular college. A focus on youth and grooming of the next generation is a recurrent theme in his liberal nationalism.
“I have abundant faith in the glory of youth … they be given a chance to live, an opportunity to enjoy life and the amplest facilities for the development of their health and character.”
One also sees during his tenure as the Vice Chancellor an ethic of minimum government. He did not depend on Government or wait for Government to create opportunities for youth. He proactively introduced many measures like abolishing reserved hostels and messes and expanding the curriculum to include sciences and engineering. He was also opposed to the idea of putting limits on higher education to control the number of graduates on the lookout for employment.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s liberal nationalism is evident through his years with the Hindu Mahasabha during the independence struggle as well. In a speech in December 1943, making the case for the Hindu Mahasabha, Mookerjee explains that he stood for no special favours for Hindus but for welfare and advancement of India as a whole. The cynical politics of wordplay on “secularism/communalism” of the Congress predates India’s independence. Even an intellectual of Mookerjee’s stature was not spared the game of labeling that we continue to see even today.
Balraj Madhok in his book recounts a comment by Mahatma Gandhi to SP Mookerjee which perhaps holds as much true today of Narendra Modi, as it was said then of Mookerjee:
“Like Shiva who drank the poison after the churning of the sea, somebody must be there to drink the poison of the Indian Politics. It can be you.”
Many examples of Mookerjee’s liberal nationalism can be found through Balraj Madhok’s book. In a speech in 1943 in Amritsar to the Hindu Mahasabha, Mookerjee spoke of how an Idea of India that transcended both caste and religion and that called for political citizenship to everyone without discrimination. In the years after Independence when he was invited to join Nehru’s Cabinet as the Minister for Industries, one sees his economic liberalism grounded in the realities of India come through very clearly. Madhok writes:
“He had very clear ideas on the role of private capital in the industrial development of the country as also on the relationship between capital and labour … He was for giving full scope to private enterprise under suitable Government regulation … He wanted government to concentrate its meagre resources on the defence of the realm … he stood for a rational coordination between private and public capital in light of the actual conditions in the country…”
In Balraj Madhok’s eyes, Mookerjee a was realist who was not guided by dogma. Citing two examples of how he believed in private enterprise while being pragmatic about economic realities of India, Madhok explains how Mookerjee was opposed to full nationalisation and that he did not believe India had the skills resources to nationalise and run all kinds of industries. At the same time, he also believed that given the realities of labour in India, that there had to be some kind of profit sharing between capital and labour. While investing in public sector enterprises, he also believed that needed professional management independent of Government to make them viable and keep them efficient.
Over the years, after he resigned from Nehru’s Cabinet and quit the Hindu Mahasabha before eventually founding the Jan Sangh the liberal national ethic travelled with him. His inaugural presidential address to the Jan Sangh once again sees the same ethic of economic liberalism:
“we stand for well planned decentralized national economy….. against concentration of economic power in cartels ….sanctity of private property will be observed….private enterprise will be given a fair and adequate play….state ownership and state control only where it is needed in public interest….progressive decontrol…”
The issue that saw him most rile up Nehru in Parliament was the Kashmir issue. On this too his position was a liberal national position.
“Kashmir is an integral part of India and should be treated as any other State”
It is a reflection of the perversity that has afflicted much of the intellectual discourse in India that an issue like the demand for abrogation of Article 370, far from being labelled as the liberal national issue that it ought to be, is dismissed as a ‘communal’ issue or even worse described as a ‘Hindutva’ issue.
While Mookerjee’s political legacy will be coloured by the leftist historians with all kinds of labels, it would be instructive to point out that he commanded even the respect of the Communists through his defence of civil liberties and his opposition to the Preventive Detention Act.
This comment by Mookerjee in response to Nehru’s repeated labelling of him as ‘communal’ brings out the best in him:
“If we try to recover our lost position in a manner 100 per cent consistent with the dynamic principles of Hinduism for which Swami Vivekanand stood, I am proud to be a communalist.”
As Narendra Modi makes his way up north to Pathankot sixty years on, one sees streaks of the same economic liberalism and strong nationalism come together as they did in SP Mookerjee. By marking the soft start to what will be deemed to be the campaign for the next Lok Sabha in Madhopur, Narendra Modi will be laying claim to that political legacy of liberal nationalism that Mookerjee stood for many decades back when he founded the Jan Sangh to challenge the Nehru-led Congress’s political monopoly in India

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