Manufacturing an icon

The Deendayal Upadhyaya blitzkrieg

  • Published 25.09.17

The people of Assam deserve our congratulations for calling out a truth that many others are too meek to utter. A number of groups in the northeastern state vociferously protested against the move by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to name several new district-level colleges after the ruling party's current favourite icon - Deendayal Upadhyaya. With even ally Asom Gana Parishad backing the protests, the state government was forced to rescind the decision.

As a result, Assam stood out as an oasis of resistance to an epidemic sweeping across BJP-ruled states in the country at the express command of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.

The deification of Deendayal Upadhyaya began soon after the Modi regime came to power in 2014. But it began to develop into a monstrous State-sponsored creed exactly a year ago, on September 25, 2016 that marked the birth centenary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader who was also the co-founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the earlier of avatar of the BJP.

To mark the occasion, the government embarked on a year-long commemoration of Upadhyaya. Since then, BJP-run states as well as Central ministries have been in a mad rush to transform a relatively obscure politician into a towering ideological deity of modern India. Social welfare schemes in state after state are being launched in his name; ports, towns, and educational institutions are being named after him; statues are being erected, and commemorative coins of Rs 10 and Rs 5 are being issued.

There is more. State government schools in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are holding quiz competitions on the man and his message, state libraries in Maharashtra and Rajasthan have been ordered to stock his books, and all government offices in Uttarakhand must carry his photo and logo.

There has also been a spate of articles by RSS and BJP members extolling the "simple life" and "profound vision" of the man who the RSS chief, M.S. Golwalkar, apparently described as "a 100 per cent swayamsevak".

And, of course, India's new president, Ram Nath Kovind - also from the RSS stable - chose to salute Deendayal Upadhyaya in his first speech and pointedly avoided taking the name of Jawaharlal Nehru.

In doing so, the president of India revealed the real intent behind the Modi regime's zeal in manufacturing an icon out of a modest party leader. Beneath the crassness and vulgarity of the exercise lies a canny and well thought-out project to wipe out the legacy of the builders of modern India and replace it with a mythology that suits the sangh parivar.

The two arguments offered to justify the new Deendayal Upadhyaya cult make this intention clear. The first involves "correcting" the wrongs of history. BJP and RSS leaders insist that the Congress, which was at the forefront of the freedom struggle and then ruled the country for several decades after Independence, chose to focus only on its leaders - the Nehru-Gandhi family in particular - and neglected scores of other stalwarts who contributed to the making of India.

This argument has some validity since a great number of institutions and government schemes in the country were named after one or other member of the Congress's ruling dynasty. This trend became particularly distasteful during the two terms of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance when far too many state projects were named after Rajiv Gandhi.

But Jawaharlal Nehru is a different matter. He was not just a leading freedom fighter but as the first and longest serving prime minister of independent India, he ensured that the foundational ideals of the Indian Constitution and robust democratic practices struck deep roots.

Indira Gandhi, much more controversial than her father, also left a deep mark on the nation. That both she and Rajiv were assassinated also gives them a special place in the country's history.

The excessive use of their names to perpetuate the family's hegemony may be problematic but their contribution - and particularly Nehru's - cannot be denied. For the RSS, though, Nehru is a much bigger hate figure than anyone else because he was not just a person but an embodiment of ideals - secular, socialist, democratic - that it abhors.

But to pit Deendayal Upadhyaya against Jawaharlal Nehru is a travesty of both history and common sense. Upadhyaya may have been a committed RSS pracharak and he may have been central to setting up and expanding the Jana Sangh, but his contribution to nation building was, to put it politely, limited.

Those who call him a "visionary" cite his advocacy of antyodaya and his doctrine of 'integral humanism' as proof. It is a testament to the RSS's skills at fabricating myths that antyodaya - a concept championed by Mahatma Gandhi who acknowledged the influence of John Ruskin's Unto This Last behind it - is now being attributed to Upadhyaya.

As for "integral humanism", a close reading of the four lectures that Upadhyaya gave in 1965 to explain the concept shows that it is essentially drawn from the writings Golwalkar and other Hindutva ideologues. But while Golwalkar and V.D. Savarkar were explicit in extolling the supremacy of a Hindu rashtra, Upadhyaya - writing at a time when the RSS was viewed with great suspicion - chose to be more elliptical.

"The ideals of the Nation," he wrote, "constitute Chiti, which is analogous to the soul of an individual... The laws that help manifest and maintain Chiti of a Nation are termed Dharma of that nation. Hence, it is this 'Dharma' that is supreme... If Dharma is destroyed, the Nation perishes. Anyone who abandons Dharma betrays the nation."

The rest of the doctrine is a hotchpotch of pedestrian platitudes, diatribes against "western" ideas, and a defence of the four-fold caste system as the epitome of social harmony.

Upadhyaya became president of the Jana Sangh in December 1967 but could not play a bigger role in the turbulent politics of the late 1960s and 1970s since he died under mysterious circumstances soon after his elevation. He was found dead on February 11, 1968 on a railway track near Mughalsarai station - a rather odd reason for now renaming the famous railway junction after him.

His death has never been explained. The Jana Sangh leader, Balraj Madhok, who preceded Upadhyaya as president, accused his colleagues in the RSS-Jana Sangh of conspiring to kill Upadhyaya and even put this down in writing in the third part of his autobiography.

We will never know the truth. But what we do know is that Upadhyaya led no progressive movement for social change, fought no battles for social justice. The list of non-Congress leaders who enhanced the idea and reality of India is long. It includes Babasaheb Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia, E.V.R. Periyar and E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Jayaprakash Narayan and Charan Singh, V.P. Singh and Karpoori Thakur, and many others. Deendayal Upadhyaya, by any objective criterion, does not make the cut.

That brings us to the second argument advanced by those who support the obsessive efforts to make Upadhyaya a supreme national hero. It is summed up in a much used quote: history is written by the victors. This is certainly true when it comes to medieval conquests or 20th century revolutions. The conquering invader or the victors in a bloody revolution obliterate all signs of the past, erect new statues, rewrite old texts - entirely unmindful of facts or the achievements of the vanquished.

But India is a functioning electoral democracy where parties win and lose power every five years. Every government tries to push its agenda but within the ambit of certain collective assumptions. The Modi regime has sought to break that tradition. And the RSS to which it belongs has viewed the 2014 result more as a conquest than an election victory. The assault on the values of the republic, the rewriting of history, the fabrication of new icons and the decimation of the old stem from this conqueror mindset.

Upadhyaya displacing Nehru is only a curtain-raiser. Golwalkar, the Manusmriti and the Bhagwa Dhwaj wait in the wings - to replace Mahatma Gandhi, the Constitution and the tricolour, unless the new conquerors are forced to beat a retreat...