Battle for history

Three facts about BJP founder SP Mookerjee that a recent exhibition in Delhi did not show

Not only was Mookerjee communal, he had troublesome views on caste and gender, and had no compunction supporting the British against the Congress.

On the Bharatiya Janata Party’s website, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee is the first of the personalities the party calls its “guiding lights”.

Mookerjee, with the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951 after he left the Hindu Mahasabha.

Formed in 1980, the modern-day Bharatiya Janata Party is the direct successor of the Jana Sangh. Given that the BJP, for the first time in its history, now enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha, it is perhaps natural for the party to want to push its founder and his legacy into the limelight.

A recent exhibition of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee’s life at Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum attempted to not only popularise the Jana Sangh founder but, given the venue, was a direct attempt by the BJP to replace the Congress’ icons with its own.

The Nehru Memorial is housed in Jawaharlal Nehru’s former home and is primarily concerned with documenting his work.

To make the contest between the two legacies even more explicit, BJP president Amit Shah compared the roles of Nehru and Mookerjee in Kashmir as he inaugurated the exhibition.

Calling Nehru’s decision to press for a ceasefire in the 1948 Indo-Pakistan war a “historical blunder”, Shah claimed that it was Mookerjee’s efforts that had led to Kashmir’s integration into India.

While it is the BJP president’s role to speak well of his party’s founding father, a robust historical evaluation of Mookerjee’s role is far less flattering than what Shah would have us believe.

Given his communalism, caste bigotry and largely pro-British attitude, Mookerjee is actually a rather poor example for modern India to follow.

Here are three uncomfortable facts about the man that sit oddly in modern India.

1. Mookerjee believed in the two-nation theory and advocated the Partition of Bengal
That SP Mookerjee was a Hindu communal leader is a fact not in any doubt. Pre-1947, Mookerjee was a part of the Hindu Mahasabha and even rose to become its president.

Bengali politics changed dramatically in 1932 when the Raj released a new plan of legislative seat allocation known as the Communal Award. Till then, Bengal, had more Hindu seats in the council than Muslim seats despite being a Muslim-majority province. The Communal Award reversed this anomaly, giving more seats to Muslims. It also recognised the depressed classes (Dalits) as minorities and created separate electorates for them.

To make matters worse for the upper caste bhadralok, in faraway Pune, Mohandas Gandhi came to an understanding with BR Ambedkar to award a large portion of Hindu seats to Dalits, in return for joint Hindu-Dalit electorates. This made the bhadralok’s position even weaker.

The bhadralok’s sudden loss of power made the situation ripe for Hindu communalism – a situation exploited by Mookerjee who, in 1939, joined Vinayak Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha. He launched a communal campaign, attacking the Congress for appeasing Muslims.

While the Mahasabha could never attract mass support, it did get a fair bit of backing from zamindars and Kolkata’s Marwari industrialists, playing a crucial role in yanking the Bengal Congress to the Right.

Mookerjee was also one of the first backers of a plan to partition Bengal and played a key role in preparing bhadralok opinion in favour of it. This was an emotive issue and as recently as 1905, Bengal’s leading figures had fought tooth and nail against a colonial plot to partition Bengal. But by 1946-’47 the increased communal situation and Hindu insecurity at being a minority in Bengal meant that many bhadraloks were coming around to considering the idea.

This, of course, is an uncomfortable fact in modern India where any mention of support for Partition is taboo. The Nehru Memorial exhibition tries to rationalise this by claiming that Mookerjee saved a “portion of Bengal especially the historical and strategically important city of Calcutta from becoming a part of Pakistan” – a strawman given that there was no British proposal of that sort.

In reality, Mookerjee supported Partition right from 1944, and was once even shouted down at a Calcutta rally for advocating splitting Bengal. On May 2, 1947, Mookerjee even wrote secretly to Viceroy Louis Mountbatten asking for Bengal to be partitioned even if India remained united.

Mookerjee would also vehemently oppose plans for a united, independent Bengal being pushed by the Prime Minister of Bengal, Hussain Suhrawardy, and the two major Congress leaders in Bengal, Sarat Chandra Bose (older brother of Subhash Chandra Bose) and Kiran Sankar Roy. Mookerjee preferred a communal Partition as per the two-nation theory instead.

Mookerjee soon realised what a disaster Bengal’s partition was and, by 1951, was asking for it to be annulled – easier said than done given that by then East Bengal was a part of Pakistan.

This cynical U-turn, though, didn’t help him and in the 1952 elections, the Jana Sangh won less than 4% of the seats in the West Bengal state Assembly. Later, the main sufferers of Partition, Hindu immigrants from East Bengal, would form the backbone of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) even as Hindutva politics nearly went extinct in the state.

A 1947 newspaper cutting from the exhibit.
A 1947 newspaper cutting from the exhibit.

2. SP Mookerjee was a religious fundamentalist
Despite being academically accomplished and the son of the famous educationist Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee, SP Mookerjee was a far-right religious conservative. During the debilitating Bengal Famine of 1943-’44, one of the major concerns of the Mookerjee-led Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal was that government canteens, employing Muslim and lower caste cooks, made it impossible for many Hindus to eat without breaking caste – an amazingly petty consideration to have during a disaster in which around three million Bengalis died of hunger.

Additionally, allegations of communal bias and corruption in its famine relief efforts were made against the Mahasabha by the Bengal government, reputed journalist TG Narayan of the Hindu, who covered the disaster, as well as famous artist Chittoprasad.

At times, SP Mookerjee’s caste and communal biases would come together in a medley of bigotry. For instance, in her book, Bengal Divided: Hindu communalism and Partition 1932-1947, historian Joya Chatterji cited a note written by Mookerjee to show that he felt a sense of superiority as an upper caste Hindu “fed by the belief that Bengali Muslims were, by and large, ‘a set of converts’ from the dregs of Hindu society”.

After Independence, SP Mookerjee would do his best to stymie the efforts of Nehru and Ambedkar to modernise Hindu law. He attacked pro-women measures such as the introduction of monogamy and divorce into Hindu law, which, he claimed, would “do away with the fundamental and sacred nature of Hindu marriage” and end up “killing the very fountain source of your [the Hindu] religion”.

A person who was a bigot on caste, religion and gender is an unlikely model for India in 2016.

3. He had no qualms supporting the British even at the height of the freedom struggle
At the time of the Quit India movement in 1942, Mookerjee was the Finance Minister of Bengal and the second most senior minister in the government after Bengal’s Prime Minister, Fazlul Haq.

Mookerjee’s party, the Hindu Mahasabha, had decided to cooperate with the colonial government given that, in their view, the real battle was against India’s Muslims. The party even helped the British recruit for World War II, with Vinayak Savarkar appealing for Hindus to enlist in large numbers in the colonial army.

In Bengal, Mookerjee stuck to his party line, preparing to cooperate with the British and, as a corollary, oppose the Congress as it prepared to launch its final mass struggle, the 1942 Quit India movement.

On July 26, 1942, Mookerjee wrote to the British governor of Bengal, John Herbert, laying out a plan to combat the Congress. “Anybody who, during the war, plans to stir up mass feelings, resulting in internal disturbances or insecurity, must be resisted by any government that may function for the time being,” promised Mookerjee. “As one of your Ministers, I am willing to offer you my whole-hearted cooperation and serve my province and country at this hour of crisis”.

This is a deeply embarrassing letter and even more so in Bengal where anti-British sentiment was running at fever pitch at the time.

In 1939, Mahomed Ali Jinnah announced a Day of Deliverance to celebrate the resignation of eight provincial Congress ministries to protest the inclusion of India into World War II. So deep were the anti-colonial feelings in Bengal at the time that Abdur Rahman Siddique, a Bengali on the Muslim League’s working committee, resigned to protest Jinnah’s announcement calling it “an insult to national prestige” and a “flattery of British colonialism”.

In circumstances like these, to have Mookerjee try and ingratiate himself in front of the British makes him an embarrassment rather than a leader to follow for modern India.

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