In an address to the nation on August 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said abrogation of Article 370 had fulfilled wishes of great leaders such as Dr BR Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. But the fact remains that it was Shyama Prasad’s sacrifice that served as the most enduring source of inspiration for the Hindu-Right leaders and their cadres to campaign against Article 370.
Mookerjee’s famous slogan, “Ek Desh Mein do vidhan/Ek Desh Mein do Nishan/Ek Desh Mein do Pradhan/Nahin Chalenge, Nahin Chalenge,” has remained a war cry for various Hindu Right organisations in their campaign since the early 1950s.
Over past several decades, the liberal and progressive members of Bengali intelligentsia have hailed Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, and Amartya Sen as their icons, but have looked at Shyama Prasad as an outlier. Looking at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral domination and the sincerity with which Modi-Amit Shah leadership wants the BJP to dethrone Mamata Banerjee and decimate Trinamool Congress (TMC) in upcoming state elections, it is apparent that Shyama Prasad will become a dominant political and intellectual icon of Bengal, and rest of India in the coming years. This would also help the BJP conquer India’s Eastern frontier. This tectonic shift of India’s ideology under Modi could encourage political commentators to change the old saying from, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” to “What Gujarat thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” While the two Gujarati politicians -- Modi and Shah -- are going to shape Indian politics for better or worse; Shyama Prasad will find greater adulation in the unfolding political narrative of the Hindu Right of Indian politics.
How did this Bengali politician become such a firebrand Hindu Right leader, and that too committed to the issue of Kashmir? When Shyama Prasad was growing up in the early part of the 20th century, Kolkata (then Calcutta) was a far more prominent theatre of Indian politics than what it is today. Close reading of his early career would suggest he was more of a Hindu conservative. During the 1930s, Bengal politics was getting deeply polarised whose consequences Kolkata witnessed later in the form of riots during and after Partition. Interestingly, Shyama Prasad joined the cabinet of Sher-e-Bangla; Fazlul Haq as its Finance Minister in 1941. As a Vice- Chancellor of the Calcutta University; he was keen to produce Macaulay’s brown sahibs, not exactly the kind of Indians that the RSS or the BJP would like to see in Hindu Rashtra. The communal politics of the 1930s, some would argue, contributed to the transformation of this Hindu conservative and encouraged him to move further toward the Hindu Right.
Interestingly, Shyama Prasad began his political career as a Congressman, though his association with the Congress party was short lived. He was elected to the Bengal Legislative Council in 1929 as a Congress candidate from the Calcutta University constituency. From ideological perspectives, not much could be read from his association with the Congress party because the party was welcoming people of various ideologies. Journalist and writer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay says, “Shyama Prasad’s animosity towards Muslims was a reality and was overtly manifest even before he had joined Hindu Mahasabha in 1939.” VD Savarkar had played a key role in getting him closely associated with the Right-Wing Hindu organisations (Shyama Prasad became the Vice President during the annual convention of the All India Hindu Mahasabha in Calcutta in 1939, and later when he became President in 1944). Had Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi appealed to Shyama Prasad, the story of Kashmir politics, perhaps, would have been different today. It was Shyama Prasad’s ideological thinking that kept him away from Gandhi and Nehru.
Even though Shyama Prasad was a member of the Nehru cabinet, both of them had sharp differences over many issues, including how India should respond to the issues of Hindus in Pakistan, Hindu Code Bill and later Kashmir’s integration. His interest on Kashmir issue, however, developed gradually, after he left Nehru’s cabinet. Though known for his protest and sacrifice for Article 370, this was not the reason for his resignation from Nehru’s Cabinet. Instead, he resigned due to his differences with Nehru on the Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950.
In his intervention in Parliament on Kashmir in May 1952, as the President of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), he said, “Are Kashmiris Indians first and Kashmiris next. Or are they Kashmiris first and Indian next, or are they Kashmiris first, second, and third and not Indians at all.” The word Kashmiris here is applied to both Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits. The distinct politics of Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims arose much later – after militancy swept the Valley in late 1980s and early 1990s. For the Hindu-Right, the Pandit cause became a convenient fit into the larger Hindu nationalism narrative that the BJP sought to champion, but at the time of formulation of Article 370, all Kashmiris - Pandits and Muslims - were on the same page.
Since PM Modi invoked the names of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Sardar Patel and BR Ambedkar, it is worth asking whether they would have appreciated or approved Kashmir lockdown. No one knows how Shyama Prasad would have responded to it. By 1950s, he was a firebrand Hindu Right leader, and some would say he might have for larger cause. That cannot be said about Ambedkar, a constitutionalist, convinced democrat and a human rights thinker- who would have protested fiercely such a move, as the lockdown is a threat to democracy, particularly such prolonged ones. Because it converts honourable citizens into unwanted slaves.
(The author teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University and is the editor of Rise of Saffron Power: Reflections on Indian Politics. Views expressed are personal.)