Salil Tripathi Wants no Heroes
Ordinary men rise to become heroes because of the ideals and values they espouse. And heroes are seldom remembered for their looks, skin tone or other facets of their physical personality. Heroes are remembered for their solid, positive and lasting contributions to make the lives of others better.
It’s quite obvious that every country has its own set of heroes. They inspire successive generations to take a step further in the paths they have walked. Perhaps there is no country in the world other than our own, where exists an example of a mortal man rising to immortality, to divine heights only because he lived his life by and pursued high ideals. Rama is worshiped as God incarnate not because he was a great emperor, but only because people see in him an Ideal Man. Every country takes great pains to preserve the memory of its heroes for the sake of future generations because it wants posterity to proudly remember its glorious ancestors.
Sadly, in our country attempts were and are being made to obliterate the memory of a few great souls because keeping their memory alive does not suit the political interests of exactly one family that has ruled India for about 60 years. Since Independence, almost every great leader in India was systematically sidelined by the family’s first dynast and the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This tradition was perpetuated with renewed vigour by both his successors and followers. Every national achievement was credited to the family while every disaster—most of which were the result of the family’s actions—was blamed on lesser mortals. Every attempt was made to glorify the family and its “sacrifices,” starting from writing politically convenient history books to having flattering lessons in school textbooks and naming most of the government programs after the family.
However, in recent times, one man is proving to be a big nemesis for the dynasty by not only posing a formidable challenge politically, but by resurrecting memories of long sidelined heroes, he is raising questions on the very legacy of the Nehru -Gandhi family. Narendra Modi’s project of constructing the world’s tallest statue for Sardar Patel has steered the public discourse to engage in a much larger and deeper examination of the values and ideals that Sardar Patel embodied. This is clearly showcasing the contrast between Patel’s value system and that of Nehru. Adding to the family’s worry is the fact that people of today, unlike in the past, are boldly asking uncomfortable questions to the dynasty and are using independent judgement to find the truth out for themselves. However, attempts are being made by intellectual charlatans enjoying the dynasty’s patronage to stifle this effort by adulterating public discourse with half-truths, open falsities and vacuities.
One such attempt is Salil Tripathi’s recent Mint article titled Narendra Modi’s obsession with heroes. The very first line of his piece holds a mirror to Salil’s ignorance of the country’s history, apart from blatantly displaying his hostility towards Hinduism.
A major problem Hindu nationalists have is the absence of national heroes that they can claim, the narratives around whose lives they can stir people. There are pre-independence social reformers, but they were reforming Hinduism, implying that their faith wasn’t perfect and its practices needed reforming.
It is quite amazing how Salil passes off his ignorance as universal truth. First, the older a civilization, the greater the number of heroes (and heroines) it has. Unless Salil’s history of Hindu civilization begins somewhere in the 18th century. Salil’s much-hated “Hindu nationalists” can lay claim to an entire galaxy of heroes beginning with ancient sages like Yagnavalkya, Nachiketa, Satyakama, Valmiki, Veda Vyasa, Buddha, Chanakya, the Guptas, Adi Shankara, Vidyaranya, Krishnadevaraya, Maharana Pratap, the Sikh Gurus, Shivaji…and this list is just the tip of the iceberg. Salil also wants us to believe that there is something called a “perfect” faith, a faith that needs no reform. Indeed, it is one of the greatest strengths of Hinduism that each time it stagnated, reform occurred from within the Hindu fold, usually led by a person Salil himself calls a “hero.” And so, when Salil mentions the pre-Independence reformers who tried to reform Hinduism, he cleverly conceals the real fact: that these reformers carried out their work out of a deep love and reverence for their faith and not because they felt that “their faith wasn’t perfect.”
After this, Salil makes a gigantic leap of faith and asserts that
Adding to the conundrum is the fact that the founding fathers and mothers of India’s freedom struggle were largely cut from the Gandhian cloth and believed in Gandhi’s inclusive ethos…
This statement might have been true if the country’s freedom struggle had begun with Gandhi. However, the history of the country’s freedom struggle began much before even Gandhi was born. Even if one takes the modern period of Indian history, we find that great leaders led the Congress Party and fought spiritedly against the British much before Gandhi’s arrival on the national stage. Leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and hundreds of others were the first to arouse national consciousness, upon whose edifice Gandhi later built the larger mass movement. It is clear that while these leaders were in no way “cut from the Gandhian cloth,” there were several other leaders who were Gandhi’s contemporaries but who differed with him on many issues. Thus, even they cannot be said to be “cut from the Gandhian cloth.” If Salil Tripathi does not consider freedom fighters other than Mahatma Gandhi worthy of mention and admiration, it is more an accurate reflection of his own mindset. All freedom fighters, including the Mahatma—who called himself a Hindu Nationalist—do not fit into the ‘secular’ mould that Salil prescribes, as we shall see. Therefore, while millions of Indians have a multitude of heroes to admire, Salil is left with none. Yet he says the Hindu Nationalists have no heroes!
From this presumptuous and misleading assumption, Salil says:
When you ask Hindu nationalists who their heroes are, eventually they are forced to name men with a rather narrow sectarian appeal: Jana Sangh stalwarts like Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Hindu Maha Sabha’s Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, and Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse.
It’s interesting that Salil uses the term Hindu Nationalist without defining it. What is more interesting is the accusation that Salil hurls at these people: that they were narrowly sectarian. This again is evidence of Salil’s ignorance because if he would have objectively read the lives and contributions of Savarkar, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee or Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay, he wouldn’t find anything “narrowly sectarian” there. If he has indeed made such a study but still writes in this vein, it only casts doubts about his intellectual honesty.
He then, almost teasingly, says how generous independent India has been in honouring these people:
And Godse apart, independent India has been magnanimous enough to honour these men —there is a square in Mumbai named after Mukherjee, a hospital named after Upadhyay in Delhi, and Parliament has a portrait of Savarkar.
While more than 50 per cent of all government schemes are named after the Nehru-Gandhi family, Mukherjee, Upadhyaya and Savarkar are “honoured” by naming one square, one hospital and one portrait respectively. However, Salil doesn’t tell us of the other “honours” the Congress Party has bestowed upon these heroes. While demands to conduct investigations into the suspicious deaths of both Mukherjee and Upadhyaya were flatly refused by Nehru and Indira Gandhi respectively, an attempt was made by Congress leaders to erase Savarkar’s sacrifices from national memory. Here again, while the Congress party is left with only one family’s members to worship as heroes—and wants to impose their dynasty-worship on the entire nation—‘Hindu Nationalists’ have many.
From Mukherjee, Savarkar, et al, Salil jumps straight to Vivekananda and calls him a curious choice of hero of the ‘Hindu Nationalists.’ He tries to buttress his claim by quoting a random incident from Swami Vivekanada’s life:
Over the past two decades Hindutva gained many foot soldiers when its leaders reminded them that they must reclaim the sites where their temples once stood, but which conquering Muslim invaders destroyed, building mosques at those spots. Ayodhya was the first; Kashi, Mathura and others would follow.
What would Vivekananda make of such zeal?
In 1898 he returned to Belur after a pilgrimage to Kashmir, and told a disciple a story. One day, while worshipping, the thought arose in his mind: “The Mohammedans came and destroyed (Mother Bhavani’s) temple, yet the people…did nothing to protect her. Alas, if I were then living I could never have borne it silently.” As he wallowed in sorrow, he heard a divine voice. The goddess spoke to him, saying: “It was… my desire that the Mohammedans destroyed this temple. It is my desire that I should live in a dilapidated temple… What can you do? Shall I protect you or shall you protect me!”
It’s curious why Salil has chosen to quote just one incident from the voluminous tomes available on Swami Vivekananda, his life, his work and his own writings. The answer is quite evident because if Salil shows the complete picture of Swami Vivekananda, he will be left with no choice but to conclude that Vivekananda was a fierce proponent of what Salil disparagingly calls ‘Hindu Nationalism.’ Instead, after quoting a stray passage from Vivekananda’s life, he jumps straight to Sardar Patel and tries to paint him as a ‘secularist’ who adhered to Salil’s brand of secularism.
Now Modi is trying to turn Vallabhbhai Patel into an icon of a kind of nationalism antithetical to the one Patel believed in. Patel banned Hindutva’s ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and despite his political differences with Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel accepted with grace when Gandhi chose Nehru to lead India.
Salil’s sleight of hand is evident yet again. He suppresses the fact that Sardar Patel banned the RSS only at the behest of Nehru and later, the Sardar himself revoked the ban. We wonder whether Salil has read the letters Sardar and Nehru exchanged on this episode. However, the more important question is not whether Sardar liked or disliked the RSS. The question is what kind of nationalism did Sardar Patel believe in? Unfortunately for Salil, it turns out that the Sardar’s nationalism was in fact, antithetical to Nehru’s brand of nationalism and not Modi’s.
K M Munshi, a highly respected scholar, eminent freedom fighter and a member of the Constituent Assembly in his book Pilgrimage to India narrates a highly illuminating incident:
When Junagadh fell, Sardar Patel, as Deputy Prime Minister, pledged the Government of India to the reconstruction of the historical Temple of Somnath. The Cabinet, Jawaharlal presiding, decided to reconstruct the temple at Government cost. But Gandhiji advised Sardar not to have the Temple reconstructed at Government cost and suggested that sufficient money should be collected from the people for this purpose. Sardar accepted this advice.
Thus when a debate ensued over why a new temple should be built when the ruins of the existing one could be preserved, Sardar was categorical on the necessity of recreating a new place of worship. On 9 August 1948, he said it was a question of “Hindu sentiment:”
The Hindu sentiment in regard to this temple is both strong and widespread. In the present conditions, it is unlikely that that sentiment will be satisfied by mere restoration of the temple or by prolonging its life. The restoration of the idol would be a point of honour and sentiment with the Hindu public.
Munshi then records Nehru’s position on the matter:
Jawaharlal, more than once, criticized me for working for the reconstruction of the Temple… When it was announced that Rajendra Prasad was attending the inauguration of the Somnath Temple, Jawaharlal vehemently protested against his going to Somnath. But Rajendra Prasad kept his promise.
And it doesn’t end here. The Sardar’s speech at an event in Delhi to commemorate the nirvana of Swami Dayananda Saraswati gives us a clearer idea as to the “kind of nationalism he believed in.” His homage to the great reformer and revolutionary sage was reflective of his essential understanding of Hinduism.
Swamiji’s efforts led to the stoppage of the conversion of lakhs of people to other faiths. Swamiji also worked hard to bring back to the Hindu fold those who had been forcibly converted to other faiths. Forcible conversions are against the tenets of the Hindu religion. [Swamiji’s efforts] has been a boon to India. Swamiji removed the clouds of doubt in which the Hindu religion was enveloped and made it shine like the sun.
It is crystal clear that these ideas of the Sardar are hugely different from the ones Nehru had, but they have striking similarity to Modi’s idea of Nationalism. Yet, Salil wants us to believe otherwise. But Salil is right when he says that Sardar gracefully accepted Gandhi’s decision of choosing Nehru to lead the country. However, Salil does not tell us how well Nehru reciprocated this magnanimity of Sardar Patel. Let’s hear it in the Sardar’s own words.
In a painful letter written on 13 October 1950, about two months before his death, a terminally ill Sardar wrote to C Rajagopalachari, referring to the pain he was being made to undergo by Jawaharlal:
It is painful to prolong this process of mental torture and we must end it now as I see no hope… I have gone to the farthest extent… but I see that it is all no good and we can only leave it to God.
The Sardar was prophetic when in a conversation with his personal secretary Shankar, he disclosed how the Nehru-led Congress would treat him after his death:
You do not know them [Congressmen] as well as I do. I have seen them and studied them over the last thirty years. They will follow you and applaud you as long as it suits them. When you are no longer there or when you cease to occupy the chair they will turn their face on you. They have more capacity to talk than to think.
This was precisely what Nehru did: he turned his face on the Sardar, when he passed away. Nehru stooped so low as to ask his Ministers and other officials to not attend Patel’s funeral. We can turn to K M Munshi again:
As Shankar also recalled, “We were particularly distressed to learn that efforts were being made not to allow people from coming to Bombay in order to be present at the Sardar’s funeral. We were told that Ministers were being discouraged from coming and that Governors who made enquiries had been told to stick to their posts… Among the Ministers, I was at Matheran (near Bombay) at the time. Sri N.V. Gadgil, Sri Satyanarayan Sinha and Sri V.P.Menon disregarded the direction and attended the funeral. Jawaharlal also requested Dr Rajendra Prasad not to go to Bombay; it was a strange request, to which Dr Rajendra Prasad did not accede.
After Patel’s death, the least that the Congress Party and Nehru dynasty could have done was to raise a memorial in his memory at 1, Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi where he lived for four years and toiled to weave together the physical fabric of the nation. Instead they were busy carrying forward Nehru’s legacy of humiliating leaders even after their death. One of India’s most illustrious Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao was not granted a place in New Delhi for constructing his Samadhi, whereas large areas of land were given to construct memorials for every member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It appears as if only the Nehru family has a Divine Right to erect memorials in the national capital for one of their own.
However, the Sardar was fondly remembered and sorely missed by many others, for whom he had ceaselessly worked. K M Munshi tells us how the Rulers of the Princely States and the Civil Servants mourned Sardar’s death:
Sardar’s treatment of, and dealings with, the Civil Service were throughout informed by a desire to carry them along with him in the service of the nation. The trust he inspired was fully repaid. If there is one sector of the country’s public life which steadfastly remained grateful to him, and still remembers him with love and respect, it is the I.C.S. Their regard for him was exemplified by the unique fact – it had not happened in any other case in the 100 odd years of the history of the I.C.S. – that when Sardar passed away, every member of the I.C.S and the I.A.S in Delhi gathered in a solemn assembly and passed a genuinely felt resolution of condolence. On no other occasion and in the case of no other person have Civil Service paid such an affectionate tribute.
Likewise, oddly enough, nowhere else in history have dethroned Rulers mourned the demise of their silent, peaceful conqueror.
It is clear that there exists a mountain of evidence to show that starting with Nehru, the Congress Party had absolutely no regard for the legacy of Sardar or any leader outside the family. However, Salil chooses to question Modi’s right to admire and resurrect such deliberately sidelined leaders. If that was not enough, Salil tries to cleverly couch this skullduggery:
When Modi suggests that Patel, not Nehru, should have been India’s first prime minister, he is questioning Gandhi’s choice. Modi’s desire to elevate Patel is more about belittling Nehru (and, by implication Gandhi) than honouring a hero the nation is forgetting.
In addition to not asking the natural question of who is trying to erase the memories of national heroes, Salil tries to give an impression that Nehru was the blue-eyed boy of the Mahatma. In reality however, Patel was Gandhi’s greatest strength. In testing times, the one man Gandhi consulted was the Sardar and not Nehru. Patel’s generalship of the freedom movement and the party was so indispensable that while he was in detention, the Mahatma touchingly wrote to him from another prison sorely missing his iron-like approach:
My difficulty is that you are not by my side. Therefore I imitate Ekalavya, who, on being rejected by Dronacharya, learned to be an archer by keeping Dronacharya’s clay idol before him. I fashion your image every day and put my questions to it.
Strange are the ways of secularists like Salil Tripathi. After lamenting that the nation is forgetting the Sardar in one paragraph, Salil queerly turns around and questions the need for constructing the Sardar’s statue in the very next paragraph!
Whether constructing a 182m statue at a cost of Rs.2,500 crore—even if it is under a public-private partnership model—is the wisest use of resources is obviously something that only fine economists serenading the Gujarat model can explain and rationalize.
Building a statue by collecting iron from farmers across the country is perhaps the best way of honouring the great Sardar and symbolically celebrating the national unity that he single-handedly forged. What Patel perhaps symbolises the most today are the nearly-lost virtues of a firm political will and a solid sense of national unity. The Sardar’s statue will only reinvigorate these values.
However, Salil and his tribe perhaps do not understand that 2500 crore Rupees is a minuscule sum compared to the magnitude of Sardar’s contribution to the country, which is priceless.
Finally, in a spectacular feat of Modi-mind reading, Salil offers an answer as to why Modi is obsessed with heroes:
But why is Modi obsessed with heroes? Bertolt Brecht comes to mind: in his play, Life of Galileo, Andrea laments: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.”
But recall Galileo’s reply: “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.
The irony of quoting Galileo is perhaps lost on Salil because Galileo himself was and remains a hero in Italy. And Italy, instead of forgetting him, has continued to celebrate his heroic memory in various forms. It thus stands to reason that Narendra Modi is obsessed with heroes because he believes that unhappy is the land that forgets its heroes.