COMMENTARY

Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India

(A review of Akshay Mukul’s book)

Pranay Krishna

The RSS and its affiliates are desperate even today to lay claim over the heritage of Indian freedom struggle in which they were never historically involved and have no worthwhile icons to showcase. But their ideology nevertheless got sustenance from the cultural-social upheavals of the same tumultuous era and weaknesses of the same freedom struggle, and got crystallized through numerous channels of organizations, movements and institutions, one of which was Gita Press of Gorakhpur. 

Akshaya Mukul tells a fascinating story of the making of Gita Press (born 1926) which has shaped the middle class Hindu consciousness, especially of northern India through its periodicals ‘Kalyan’ (Hindi) and ‘Kalyan Kalpataru’ (English) which now have a monthly circulation of 2 lakhs and 1 lakh copies respectively. Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India is a remarkable piece of work which gives us many insights into the historical and cultural roots of the ‘Hindutva’ project, its formative constituencies, core agenda and its dissemination in public consciousness.
The Hindus did not always exist as a community ‘for itself’ in India. There was a specific political process that constituted ‘Hindus’ as a social and political community and constituency in India. The political project of Hindutva sought to imagine and create a specifically Hindu rather than Indian nation – and the Gita Press was integral to that project.

Gita Press was instrumental in resolving conflicts between the reformist organizations and the traditionalist ones which upheld ‘sanatana dharma’ for the larger project of ‘Hindu nationalism.’ The author has convincingly and authentically brought into bold relief how Gita Press graduated from a platform of ‘homogenous, popular, bhakti-oriented brahminical hinduism’ to a platform of communal hatred and Muslim vilification during the 1940s, and a vehicle for the campaign against the Hindu Code Bill and many other fanatical campaigns of the Ram Rajya Parishad, Hindu Mahasabha, RSS and VHP in the post-independence era. 

 Mukul’s work is addressed to academics, activists and the lay reader alike, who may benefit from a significant academic work drawing upon huge hitherto untouched archives of Gita Press and personal papers of Hanuman Prasad Poddar, as also from the lucid narrative style of the book, full of hundreds of interesting characters and anecdotes woven around the story of Gita Press.  

In the beginning itself, the author underlines the emergence and growth of a Hindi public sphere in the end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. This public sphere - marked by the consolidation of Hindi as a language of Hindus, Marwari religious philanthropy and most importantly the communal conflagration of 1920s in U.P. and Bihar which saw right-wing Congress leaders tilting towards cow protection and ‘shuddhi’ (what is today called ‘Ghar-wapsi’) movements - contributed to the birth and eventual success of Gita Press.

At a time when innocents are being lynched to death in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh), Udhampur (Kashmir) and Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) in the name of protecting the cow, Mukul’s book gives us a glimpse of the discourses and events of history which went into the making of Dadri-like episodes we are witnessing today. Mukul’s book provides an exhaustive account of the role of Gita Press in sustaining the politics of ‘cow protection’ in post-independence India: starting with an ‘anti-cow slaughter day’ just five days before Independence; and moving on to a violent protest at the Congress office and Parliament that claimed 8 lives in the heart of Delhi in November 1966; and the continuity of that movement till today. Mukul’s description of the 663-page ‘gau ank’ (cow edition) of ‘Kalyan’ (1945) with contributors drawn from varied ideological affiliations, from ultra conservatives to Hindu nationalists and Congress conservatives, enlightens the readers about how the modern ‘Hindutva’ project gained ‘hegemony’.

Mukul’s account of the life and personality of the chief architect of Gita Press, Hanuman Prasad Poddar, as a man adept at making friends and influencing people of multiple vocations and even contradictory commitments; wholly or partially appropriating their fame, authority, achievements and even their inner conflicts and ambivalences for the cause of a Sanatana Dharma-led Hindu nationalism is simply astounding. Poddar had kept company and had fruitful relationships with a diverse spectrum of people such as stalwarts of the  Marwari business houses of Birlas, Dalmiyas, Goenkas , leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and his followers such as Vinoba Bhave, Viyogi Hari, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Kaka Kalelkar, rightwing congress leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, P.D. Tandon, Sampurnanand, K.M. Munshi, Rajendra Prasad, G.B. Pant and those from Hindu right such as M.S. Golwalkar, Mahant Digvijaynath, Prabhudutt Brahmachari, Swami Karpatri, Baba Raghav Das, Shyama Prasad Mukherji,  A.B. Vajpayee  etc.  All these men wrote for ‘Kalyan’ at various points of time commensurate with their varied degrees of relations with Gita Press. The list of contributors of ‘Kalyan’ and ‘Kalyan-Kalpataru’ reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the intellectual and political history of the first half of the 20th century India. Apart from those noted above, the list included  historians like Bhupendranath Sanyal and Radha Kumud Mukherjee, sociologist Radha Kamal Mukherjee, scholars such as Satyendranath Sen, Kshitimohan Sen, S. Radhakrishnan, G.N. Jha,  linguists Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and Raghuvir, Indologists and spiritualists Otto Schrader, E.P. Hortwitz, Annie Besant, Gopinath Kaviraj, Sadhu Vaswani, Nicholas Roreich, George Arundale, C.F. Andrews, scholar politicians such as  C.Y. Chintamani, Pattabhi Sitaramaiyah and C. Rajagopalachari, jurists K N Katju and K M Jhaver, Parsi writer Firoze C Dawar, Muslim scholar Mohammad Sayyid Hafiz, far right wing writers such as Nardev Shastri Vedtirth, Chandkaran Sharda, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, N C Kelkar, and Narayan Bhaskar Khare among several others.

Although, as the writer notes, Gita Press or Poddar were never given any importance in the history of Hindi literature, Poddar was successful in getting leading lights of Hindi literature from the pre-independence era to write for Kalyan. Some of them wrote only once or twice and some wrote reluctantly, yet many of them contributed regularly too. Banarasi Das Chaturvedi, Harioudh, Ambuikadutt Vajpayee, Ramnaresh Tripathi, Padam Singh Sharma, Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, Pitambhar Dutt Badathwal, Badrinath Bhatt, Gulabrai, Gaya Prasad Shukla ‘Sanehi’, Baburao Vishnu Paradkar, Kishoridas Vajpayee, Seth Govind Das, Dinesh Nandini Dalmiya, Ilachandra Joshi, Ramchandra Shukla, Nand Dulare Vajpayee, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Shivprasad Gupta, Premchand, Nirala, Pant, Prasad and Harivansh Rai Bachchan were among those who wrote for Kalyan. Not all the contributors subscribed to the ideological framework of Gita Press as it evolved eventually, but Poddar “would reach out to anyone who might fit some aspect of the well designed template.” Artists trained at leading Art Schools and by great painters did illustrations and worked for Kalyan. These included Satyendranath Banerjee, Sharadacharan Ukil, D D Deolalikar, Kanu Desai, Binay Kumar Mitra, Jagannath Chitakar, and Bhagwan Das. 

The decade of 1940 was the turning point in the history of Gita Press. “In the 1940s, as the prospect of Independence and subsequently Partition became real, the focus of Gita Press and Kalyan turned entirely political, reporting and interpreting events through the communal prism. ....This was also the period when the Gita Press took its cordial relationship with the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha to another level, that of open collaboration.....it was time to throw caution to the winds and exchange Gita Press’s stated mission of spreading bhakti (devotion), gyan (knowledge) and vairagya (renunciation) for the language of violence, intimidation, reprisal and everything else that contributed to the uncertainty of 1940s.” (Pgs 234-235) Articles in Kalyan carried graphic tales of rape and torture of Hindu women and portrayed the entire violence as the unilateral work of the Muslims. Poddar in his articles exhorted Hindus to form self-defence squads, justified Hindu violence as having been in retaliation to violence committed by Muslims, criticized Mahatma Gandhi for his visit to Noakhali as well as his campaign for temple entry for ‘harijans’, removal of untouchability and inter-caste marriages, praised RSS and wrote a twelve-point template for the Hindu majority independent India. The June 1947 issue of Kalyan carried Golwalkar’s article mocking Hindu-Muslim unity endeavours. Such was the closeness of Poddar with the RSS chief that “Poddar incidentally, presided over the reception held for Golwalkar in the Town Hall of Banaras in 1949, on his release after being arrested for his alleged involvement in Gandhi assassination.” (pg.183)

Reacting to a November 1946 article written by Poddar about the Calcutta violence on and after the Direct Action day called by Muslim league (16 August, 1946), “some of Poddar’s friends from Calcutta pointed out that many of the incidents of violence mentioned in the article had not taken place.” (pg.236) The December 1946 issue carrying an inflammatory article titled “Hindu Kya Karen” (What Should the Hindus Do?) and the “Malviya Ank” (Malviya issue, also published in December) got banned by the governments of UP and Bihar. But lakhs of copies of ‘Hindu Kya Karen’ had already been circulated as a separate pamphlet published by Gita Press by then.

A stout defence of the four varnas, four ashramas and concepts of purity and pollution, complete ‘othering’ of Muslims painting them as barbarians, hostile opposition to Ambedkar and the Hindu Code Bill, comparing it with Muslim Law and citing the legislation as an instance of Muslim assault on their domestic domain, opposing inter-caste and same-gotra marriages, defining Hindi as language of Hindus and opposing the concept of Hindustani, leading the politics of cow protection from the front, colluding with VHP against the  Christian missionaries, vilification of communism and secularism, active involvement in the Ram Janmabhoomi and Krishna Janmabhoomi campaigns and indirect electoral support to the Hindutva forces mark the political-ideological journey of Kalyan and Gita press establishment.

Mukul’s work also details the fashioning of the moral universe of Gita Press, which sought to ‘preserve the purity of women’ through strict regulation of their sexual life, prescribed dress codes and duties of women towards husband, family and the male child, opposed women’s emancipation as a cause of moral decay, opposed widow remarriage, exhorted women to confine themselves to the roles of wives and mothers, resisted birth control and abortion as part of an Islamophobic paranoia about rising Muslim population, and prepared elaborate literature to guide the religious and moral education of women on the lines of sanatana dharma. Despite Poddar’s dexterity in bringing together people of divergent view-points to write in ‘Kalyan’ – as long as their voice ‘might fit some aspect of the well designed template’ - the ‘Kalyan’ did not welcome any dissenting voice on the woman question. “…The two leading women writers in Hindi of that period - Subhadra Kumari Chauhan and Mahadevi Varma - do not find place in the journal, either as role models or as contributors.” (Pg. 390) All that we see in today’s India - the moral policing, the honour killings, the call to Hindu women to produce 10 children each and a lot more reflects the world of the Gita Press’s imagination.

Mukul has surveyed and analysed the copious literature published by the Gita Press which reached millions of homes through many generations for the last eight decades. Earlier, a general perception about Gita Press was that it popularised the Gita, Ramcharitmanas, Mahabharata, Ramayan, Puranas, Upanishads  and Dharmashastras among the masses, but Mukul’s thorough research and sharp analysis of the content of Kalyan and ‘Kalyan-Kalptaru’, especially their special issues such as Manas Ank (on thought), Gau Ank (cow), Nari Ank (women), Hindu Sanskriti Ank (Hindu culture), Balak Ank (children), Shiksha Ank (education), Bhakti Ank (devotion), Upasana Ank (worship), Dharma Ank (religion), Parlok Aur Punarjanma Ank (heaven and rebirth), Sadachar Ank (good conduct) etc brings out in bold relief the politics of religion and Hindutva ideology shaped by the Gita Press establishment through generations. The two chapters ‘Foot Soldier of Sangh Parivar’ and ‘Religion as Politics, Politics of Religion’ concentrate mainly on this aspect of the Gita Press phenomenon. Mukul has convincingly demonstrated that the re-invented ‘Sanatana Dharma’ is the core philosophical foundation on which the entire architecture of ‘Hindutva’ politics rests. This may explain why rationalists like Dabholkar, Pansaare and Kalburgi were considered threats by these forces and killed.  

The author has dwelt in considerable detail on each and every aspect of the Gita Press enterprise - its finances, activities in social services, allied activities such as production of handlooms and footwear, labor unrest, editorial policy, special issues of the twin magazines, inter-personal relationships among the major actors, occasional scandals, property disputes and so on.

The book is a must-read for all who wish to understand the historical-discursive background of the rampant hate crimes witnessed in contemporary India, especially under the present Modi-led NDA regime. 

Women And The Moral Universe of The Gita Press

The Gita Press shows us how  political Hindutva’s project of creating ‘Hindus’ as an imagined community, relied – and even today relies – heavily on enforcing patriarchal control on the sexuality and autonomy of Hindu women.
What’s most important is to note how this project is not a thing of the past. The themes found in the Gita Press’ early 20th century pages, can be found in contemporary Gita Press publications too, as well as in daily activities of the Sangh Parivar. These include opposition to friendship or love between Hindu women and Muslim men, insistence that good Indian women’s primary duty is as wives and mothers, justification for domestic violence, opposition to birth control based on the bogey of ‘Muslim population growth’, oppressive rules to control widows’ sexuality and many other efforts to impose patriarchal discipline on women. It’s no surprise to learn that the Gita Press carried Hitler’s appeal to women to confine themselves to the role of wives and mothers.

Below is an excerpt from an article by historian Shamsul Islam 

It is true that (December 16th gangrape convict) Mukesh made reprehensible statements about women in general and the rape victim in particular. …but the fact is that rapist Mukesh is not alone in holding male chauvinistic views denigrating women. India is flooded with popular religious literature denigrating women. Gorakhpur-based Geeta Press is the largest supplier of this kind of literature. It publishes literature espousing the ‘Hindu’ way of life for women on a very large scale. The low-priced publications are available throughout the country, especially the Hindi belt, and are even sold through Government-allotted stalls at railway stations and government roadways stands.
Geeta Press has published more than a dozen titles on the subject, the most prominent of which are: Nari Shiksha (Education of Women) by Hanuman Prasad Poddar, Grahsth Mein Kaise Rahen by Swami Ramsukhdas, Striyon ke Liye Kartawya Shiksha (Education of Duties for Women) and Nari Dharm (Religion of Woman) by Jai Dayal Goindka and a special issue of the magazine Kalyan on women.
The authors extensively quote from ancient texts like Shiva Purana and Manusmriti. They borrow heavily from these and other ‘holy’ texts and uphold a subservient wife as the ideal Hindu woman. For instance, in the book titled How to Lead a Household Life which is in a question-answer format, when a question is posed, “What should the wife do if her husband beats her up and troubles her?” Swami Ramsukhdas offers the following sage advice to the battered wife and her parents: “The wife should think that she is paying her debt of her previous life and thus her sins are being destroyed and she is becoming pure. When her parents come to know this, they can take her to their own house because they have not given their daughter to face this sort of bad behaviour.”
And if her parents do not take her to their house, learned Swamiji’s pious advice is: “Under such circumstances what can the helpless wife do? She should reap the fruit of her past actions. She should bear the beatings of her husband with patience. By bearing them she will be free from her sins and it is possible that her husband may start loving her.”
And there is another piece of holy advice for a rape victim and her husband: “As far as possible, it is better for the woman (rape victim) to keep mum. If her husband also comes to know of it, he too should keep mum. It is profitable for both of them to keep quiet.”
Is it proper for woman to demand equal rights? The sagely answer is very unambiguous: “No, it is not proper. In fact, a woman has not the right of equality with man…in fact it is ignorance or folly which impels a woman to have desire for the right of equality with man. A wise person is he/she who is satisfied with less rights and more duties.”
This literature about Hindu women openly preaches and glorifies the ghastly practice of Sati. To the question-”Is ‘Sati Pratha’ (viz., the tradition of the wife being cremated with the dead body of the husband on the funeral pyre) proper or improper?”-the answer is: “A wife’s cremation with the dead body of her husband on the funeral pyre is not a tradition. She, in whose mind truth and enthusiasm come, burns even without fire and she does not suffer any pain while she burns. This is not a tradition that she should do so, but this is her truth, righteousness and faith in scriptural decorum…It means that it is not a tradition. It is her own religious enthusiasm. On this topic Prabhudatta Brahmachariji has written a book whose title is Cremation of a Wife with her Husband’s Dead Body is the Backbone of Hindu Religion, it should be studied.”
Apart from glorifying Sati, the Gita Press publications like Nari Dharm produces dozens of shlokas from holy scriptures to establish that women are not capable of enjoying independence. This book begins with the chapter swatantarta ke liye striyon ki ayogyata (incapability of women for independence). Ironical as it may seem, the above publications of Geeta Press can be bought from government-allotted rent-free stalls at more than 70 railway stations and book vendors or mobile vans that often sell their ware even in the premises of the Central Secretariat in New Delhi from where the Democratic India is governed.