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Gita Press and the imprint of Hindutva

The popular publishing house Gita Press was also a powerful voice for the Hindu right. A well-researched history chronicles its little-known role in the revivalist movement

Bhupesh Bhandari 

The imprint of hindutva

Author: Akshaya Mukul
Publisher: HarperCollins India

Pages: 540
Price: Rs 799

Hindu revivalism as a political movement in India is roughly 100 years old. The Hindu Mahasabha came into being in 1921, 15 years after the formation of the Muslim League and 13 years after the Imperial government provided a separate Muslim electorate under the Morley-Minto reforms. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, was formed in 1925, and Kalyan started in 1927.

Each played a well-defined role in the movement: while the Mahasabha worked in the political domain, the RSS provided the foot soldiers, and Kalyan carried the message to every corner of the country and beyond.

While the work of the Mahasabha and RSS is well documented, Kalyan's contribution to the Hindutva movement has seldom been talked about. Credit goes to Akshaya Mukul for bringing that to light. Most people have known Gita Press, which brought out Kalyan from Gorakhpur, as the publisher of low-cost Gita and Ramcharitmanas. Mukul's account shows it was more than that - it was a powerful voice for the Hindu right.

Kalyan was a collaborative effort between two Marwari gentlemen: Jaydayal Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar. While Goyandka set up Gita Press (in 1923), Poddar was its founding editor. The two had a lot in common. Both were religiously inclined and claimed to have had darshan of the divine being. The duo saw itself as the champion of sanatan dharma, which had come under threat from anarchists, secularists and communists. And their nationalism was built around the concept of Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan.

Mukul's research is breath-taking in its spread. He digs up old correspondence, rummages through innumerable editions of Kalyan and sifts through police records to come out with a story that is compelling as well as disturbing. The result of his work is this once-in-a-lifetime book, a must for those who want to understand the Hindu revival movement.

For personal and societal uplift, Kalyan advocated a return to the old tenets of sanatan dharma. Thus, it saw nothing in the varna system, which brought Poddar into lifelong conflict with Bhimrao Ambedkar. Poddar somehow tolerated Mahatma Gandhi's views on caste divisions because they were often ambivalent. But Gandhi's insistence on temple entry for the Harijans was unacceptable to Poddar. He resisted reform in Hindu personal law, and his views on widow remarriage were primitive.

Still, Kalyan's appeal was widespread. Gandhi was fond of Poddar in spite of their differences and wrote several articles for Kalyan, and so did several senior Congress leaders. The only man who never had anything to do with the publication was Jawaharlal Nehru.

Some who had a soft corner for Hindus were appalled when Kalyan failed to adequately condemn the murder of Gandhi by militant Hindus. Ghanshyam Das Birla went to the extent of calling Poddar and Goyandka advocates of shaitan dharma rather than sanatan dharma. But that did little to diminish Kalyan's popularity. There was also a proposal, in later years, to give the Bharat Ratna to Poddar, except that he didn't accept it.

Poddar and Goyandka were lifelong champions of free enterprise, which is only natural given their Marwari background, and viewed the spread of communism with alarm. More than the economic thought and practices, what really bothered them was the godlessness advocated by the communists.

They may have had commerce in their DNA, but Gita Press was never a shining example of business efficiency. It was always strapped for cash because it did not take advertisements (it also did not do book reviews) as that was likely to cause a conflict of interest. The principal source of income was subscription, but since its USP was low-priced books, money was always short.

This was made good by grants from businessmen. Gobind Bhawan, the trust set up by Goyandka that owned Gita Press, dabbled in various other businesses like newsprint and footwear, but that doesn't seem to have helped much: even in the present day, it faces a resource crunch and labour unrest over unpaid wages. The spectre of closure looms large over Gita Press.

Poddar may have been a powerful editor, but it is not clear if he managed the affairs of Gita Press well. For all its emphasis on high moral values, Gita Press had its share of scandals, strife and scams. According to one unverified account, the Rama idol that appeared mysteriously inside Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1949, which would cause bloodshed like nothing else in the years and decades that followed, was bathed in the Sarayu under the supervision of none other than Poddar.

To what extent was Kalyan able to mould Hindu opinion? The evidence is mixed. Had it brainwashed Hindus fully, the Hindutva parties would have always been in power. But that has not happened. At the same time, there is no denying that religious polarisation in the country is on the rise.

A bothersome factor in these days of religious nationalism is the way dissent as well as debate has been muzzled. Plurality of opinion, which made Indian society rich and humane, increasingly looks like a thing of the past. Hardliners have emanated from their dark recesses to contaminate what was good for use. Unfounded fears are recycled, stereotypes are reinforced and cultural differences are amplified.

In the final analysis, does the Hindu religion need protection? It has over the ages shown resilience and adaptability to change. It is this flexibility that will help it survive in the future. Sadly, the Hindutva brigade wants to rid it of this in-built defence.

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First Published: Sat, September 12 2015. 00:18 IST