What is it about hundred, hundred-and-twenty-five or hundred-and-fifty years that gets us so excited about individuals and events? There was much outpouring of highfalutin praise for Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore during the year marking the poet’s 150th birth anniversary. He had not figured in public (or private) discourse before that; nor has he found mention since then.
Similarly, there was much hoopla over the Mutiny of 1857 (the politely politically correct call it the “Uprising”; the robustly patriotic call it “India’s First War of Independence”) to mark its 150th anniversary, although it still remains a mystery to me whether the candlelight vigil at India Gate was a requiem for Mangal Pandey or Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Arjun Singh as Minister for Human Resource Development decided to reclaim ownership of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ode to the motherland by announcing a ‘massive programme’ (anything that is massive is also well funded) to observe the centenary of ‘Vande Mataram’ being sung for the first time at a Congress session.
Committees and sub-committees were set up (every two-penny academic and ha’penny hack became either a Bankim or a Congress expert, if not both), funds allotted (for seminars and travel) and newspaper advertisements (with a stern Sonia Gandhi taking precedence over the author of Anandamath) issued. Some time later, it was discovered that Congress had got the date all wrong and the ‘massive programme’ was quietly dropped.
Needless to say, we haven’t heard much about either Vande Mataram or the Congress’s ownership of the National Song since then. The only occasion it enters public discourse is when a Muslim politician or an Islamist fanatic denounces Vande Mataram because, or so they claim, bowing your head to madre watan is haram. The Congress, and its camp followers, the ‘useful idiots’, who wanted to celebrate a Vande Mataram centenary of sorts, now rush to the defence of those who denigrate the National Song.
The Gandhi centenary in 1969 was another occasion for national hoopla, observed no doubt by those who live neither by the percept nor the practices of the Mahatma. Newspaper records of the time bear witness to the hollowness of our claimed adherence to Gandhi-ism.
We will see a replay of that deceitful allegiance to Gandhi when we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the man who made poverty into a noble virtue and militated against modernism – he believed the railways were an evil though he made a fetish of travelling by train ever since he was thrown out of one at Pietermaritzburg.
All this comes to mind while witnessing the big fight (those not given to being polite would call it a cat fight) now raging in Delhi over who owns Jawaharlal Nehru, as the Congress and the BJP slug it out on the occasion of Panditji’s 125th birth anniversary. The Congress claims the legacy of Nehru is entirely theirs, not to be shared with anybody else; the BJP insists Nehru’s legacy belongs to the nation, not to a political party or the Dynasty which is the majority shareholder in that party.
It is immaterial to either the incumbent Modi Sarkar or the Congress, which has been reduced to a shameful and shaming minority of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, that for the vast majority of this country’s masses (as well as the classes), Nehru is no more than India’s first Prime Minister, to be remembered, if at all, for both good deeds and bad. They have neither the time nor the inclination to be distracted from their daily lives; such luxuries are meant for those who do not have to worry about putting food on the table.
No offence is meant to Nehru or his legacy, such as it is, but surely we do not need to convert ritual genuflection at the altar of the founder of the Dynasty that has ruled India for most of its post-independence era, barring four brief interludes, into a national celebration whose very foundation would rest on hagiographic praise and not critical assessment? Democracies whose democratic credentials are much stronger than ours would shun such idolatry, but then, we are steeped in a culture that abhors iconoclasm.
Nehru will neither become greater nor shall his stature diminish if manufactured anniversaries are avoided and his good deeds and thoughts, for instance his emphasis on promoting the scientific temperament, are made elements of Government’s policies and programmes. To tout him as the mascot of a discredited political organisation and a discarded Dynasty, or to heap fulsome praise on him while glossing over his foibles and follies, is both unfair and unwarranted.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta