Faiz Ullah’s reflections on Akshay Mukul’s award-winning book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshaya Mukul
In 1987, Doordarshan, the state-controlled television network, began to air Ramanand Sagar’s popular show based on the epic Ramayana. Its broadcast was a remarkable departure for a government institution like Doordarshan from the Nehruvian mandate to uphold a secular and modern character and eschew tradition, especially when invoked in the context of religion. The televisual retelling of the epic achieved unprecedented popularity.
Several scholars regard the telecast of Ramayana, and later Mahabharata, a crucial moment in the resurgence of the Sangh Parivar’s right-wing politics generally, and catalysis of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement specifically. The larger promise of such politics was retrieval and restoration of a golden past, Ram Rajya, an idealised state of governance premised on conservative values, as depicted in the aforementioned television shows. Importantly, these developments took place in the throes of rapid liberalisation of the economy, with the television shedding its development-oriented identity and assuming an aggressive consumption-oriented outlook to court the emerging middle-class.
Cut to 2014. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a constituent of the Sangh Parivar, mounted an intense mass media campaign in the run-up to the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections to prop up its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, widely thought to be an effective and pro-business administrator but seen by many as a divisive figure under whose watch Gujarat witnessed sharp communal polarization and violence against the minorities. Keen to play a larger role in the national politics, Mr. Modi carefully sidestepped, without completely disavowing, the staple issues of BJP’s loyal constituency, largely articulated within the rubric of Hindu Nationalism, and pitched himself as a leader who would ‘develop’ the country with “less government, more governance”, a euphemism, if there ever could be one, for brute neoliberalism. According to official declarations the party spent upwards of Rs 700 Crores – unofficial estimates peg the expenses several times higher – on the high-tech campaign spanning traditional media like broadcast, print, outdoor and skilful and strategic mobilisation of mobile and online media.
Flashback to 1923. Marwari businessmen and men of religion, Jaydayal Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar, establish Gita Press, a publishing venture which has sold almost 600 million books cumulatively over its 92 years of existence, almost 72 million of which have been copies of the Gita. Other than the Gita, the press has also been publishing Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Upanishads, books outlining the shape of model society and duties expected of its ideal citizens, especially women, biographies of saints, and collections of devotional songs. Its remarkable success can be attributed to its ability to bring out cheap and well-produced books as well as the popularity of its monthly journals Kalyan and Kalyana-Kalpatru, published in Hindi and English, respectively, which have a combined circulation of 3, 00,000 today.
The press, as writer Akshaya Mukul points out in his excellent new book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, interestingly came out of a debate within the Marwari community between Gandhians, led by prominent industrialists Ghanshyam Das Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj, and traditionalists, like Atmaram Khemka, Goyandka and Poddar. Whereas the former were extremely critical of regressive social practices prevalent among the community and its “lack of concern for the wider society” the latter “stressed the relevance of traditional Hindu values to the making of an eternal ‘Indian’ culture”. The Gandhians countered that “such views would be better articulated through a journal devoted to the subject rather at a meeting of community organisation”.
Though the Gita Press started as an enterprise devoted to the revival of Hinduism, over the years, it began to make influential interventions in the realm of politics well. The press, Mukul writes, “sought to influence the policies and politics of free India, supporting various movements, ideologies and organisations that promoted Hindu identity and culture, and opposing those seen as a threat to sanatan dharma” (the eternal dharma or order). The secular ideals of the country, for illustration, were often attacked in the pages of Kalyan. One Rajendra Prasad Jain writing in 1968 “gave a call for a dharmayuddh (religious war) against secularism”, which, he said, “was the cause of religious, social and moral bankruptcy in the country”. There was a “total unity of purpose between Gita Press and the Jana Sangh”, Mukul points out by thoroughly reviewing the documents of the party, when it came to issues facing Hinduism and the Hindu community. From time to time it issued calls to action, beseeching its readership to unite – “Today our religion is in danger. Cows are being slaughtered. The honour and chastity of our mothers and daughters are under threat. Hindus wake up! Hindus unite!” Gita Press has played an influential role in the creation of a unified Hindu identity, a modern political project in nature and intent, aiming to merge together its vibrant and variegated streams and practices into a rigidly codified form true to the tenets of Sanatan Dharma.
It must be pointed out here that Hinduism was not the only religion that aspired for such unity. These were the heady days of competitive nationalisms and religious revivalism often suited the particular requirements of having to define new communities of interest within the framework of modern politics. Thinkers and pamphleteers within Islam, perhaps even more anxious about the loss of power and breakdown of traditional community, a domain generally resistant to discipline and normativity, had similarly sought to mobilise the masses towards a less permissive and reactionary iteration of their faith.
Central to such processes were varying configurations of media, capital, and ideology, which sought to create a shared sense of belonging among their respective constituencies. In most of the cases this meant creating contexts in which particular kinds of politics could be enacted and these imaginations varied across different regions of the country. So, for example, if Tableeghi Jamaat, founded in 1927, adopted a more personal approach by organising tours and gatherings, Gita Press decided to make the most of the technology at hand during the time – the printing press.
What television was to Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the Internet to the BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, printing press was to, what in Mukul’s analysis, promotion of “the supremacy of Hindu identity” and its attempt to redefine India as a Hindu nation.
One of the reasons why Mukul’s book is important lies in the way he places his archival material in the larger context of its time. He helpfully draws connections between the various constituents of the conservative, communal, and nationalist politics in India and makes visible continuities in its institutionalisation over time. Drawing on the personal archive of Poddar, Mukul describes the inner world of the Gita Press and the impulses that animated it by introducing the reader to the galaxy of ideologues, politicians, writers, and businessmen, spread across the world, spanning seemingly irreconcilable political divides, who contributed to the success of the press.
Poddar, a well-connected man, it seems, could get anyone to write for the Kalyan given his access, genial personality and mannerisms and, of course, the legendary persuasion skills that have sustained Marwari community the pride position in South Asia’s mercantilism. Sitting Prime Ministers, Presidents, Chief Ministers wrote for the magazine. So did several heroes of the Indian freedom movement, makers of the modern republic, many of them from the Congress Party, and avowed revolutionaries, progressives, and socialists. Rising and established artists and literary stars too appeared in it pages. The books makes is abundantly clear that the history of all these movements in India needs to come to terms with these rather unflattering realities, for after all a conservative publication like Kalyan, given its unambiguously problematic position on several issues, especially women’s rights and social justice in the context of caste, and unabashed advocacy for religious supremacy is an archive that simply cannot be written off.
It is quite evident what brought these ideologues, writers, and sympathisers together was not merely Kalyan’s Hindu Nationalist agenda, but more specifically a view of the world rooted deep in the immutability and centrality of the caste system, even if they came from different shades of the political spectrum. This aspect becomes much more apparent when Mukul points out that the membership to the trust that manages the press was open to “’any Sanatan Dharmi Hindu by caste brahmin, kshatriya and vaishya’ and not not to the fourth class – Shudras – or to the ‘untouchables’ (Harijans) and tribals (Adivasis) who were not among the ‘twice borns’”. It is worth mentioning in this context that two notable figures who were regularly attacked in the pages of the journal and never wrote for it were Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. BR Ambedkar. The book is a testament that there was a fundamental divide between these two leaders and the rest of the pack; the Pandit and the Doctor may have disagreed on many things but in the eyes of their detractors their shared commitment to secularism and social justice was a singular evil that needed urgent remedying if India were to become an image of their professed ideals.
Another reason that makes this book particularly worth reading, all 600 pages of it, is that Mukul makes it clear, unlike historians and journalists, where his politics lie. It is always refreshing to read a work which does away with the pretence of being written or presenting an objective, non-partisan point of view. What sets the book apart is that it puts to scrutiny a hegemonic force, and not its hapless subjects, as has become the norm, and puts wind in the sails of a waning tradition of examination of power. It also makes use of a sophisticated framework, which highlights the importance of doing history with its intent to go beyond the ‘event’ – riots, agitations, elections, etc – and examine the ‘phenomenon’, a build-up to the ‘event’, so to speak, in all its complexity. It is also a welcome addition to the corpus of critical media studies, and one hopes Mukul’s book will inspire scholars of the media to go beyond issues of representation and effect and look more closely at the political-economy of media and communications and focus at the ways it works at the sites of reception.
Mukul writes in an easy yet forceful manner, building arguments, connections, and layering material effortlessly. If journalists can bring one more thing to history writing, other than their inquisitiveness, persistence and instinct to dig out the ‘larger story’, it is the ability to write for the readers.
Gita Press continues to thrive, in spite of the persistent labour relations challenges at its headquarters in Gorakhpur and changing nature of media consumption. One of the latest updates on its Twitter account happens to be this:
Jaise shareer badalta hai, hum wahi hain, waise hi sansaar badalta hai, parmaatma wahi hain. Jo badalta hai uski satta vidhyamaan nahin hai.
(Like the body changes, we remain, similarly, the world changes, but the eternal soul remains. One who changes, their rule ceases to exist.)
As mentioned earlier, though the modes of communication as tools of mobilisation have changed over the years – from print to television to Internet – the core concerns of the ideology that Gita Press espouses and the nexus of politics it is embedded in retain their political and social significance. Only that the civility, especially in disagreement, that their forebearers brought in their communication with friends and adversaries alike has now given way to more puerile and outright offensive trolling.