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Interview: A book on how Gita Press helped shape Hindu Right

Akshaya Mukul talks about his well-researched and eminently readable book on the Gita Press that places the institution from Gorakhpur within the larger context of the growth of Hindu nationalism.

books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:50 IST
Manjula Narayan
Akshaya Mukul's Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India is a well-researched and eminently readable book on the Gita Press that places the institution from Gorakhpur within the larger context of the growth of Hindu nationalism.
Akshaya Mukul's Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India is a well-researched and eminently readable book on the Gita Press that places the institution from Gorakhpur within the larger context of the growth of Hindu nationalism.

Akshaya Mukul (photo below) talks about his well-researched and eminently readable book on the Gita Press that places the institution from Gorakhpur within the larger context of the growth of Hindu nationalism.

A lot of research has gone into this.
I've been at it for around five years. After I finished it in January 2014, Ram Guha read it and made suggestions. He suggested a very good editor - Rivka Israel: she edited it, cut it, put a lot of sense into it; you know what a good editor can do. The book had become huge - 2,20,000 words. It was cut to about 1,65,000 words. Then it went to a few publishing houses. Now, the new thing is easy-to-deal-with books that don't have more than a 1,10,000 words. But Harper Collins was ok with it.

It also took five years because I had to travel quite a bit - to Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Banaras, Allahabad. These places have very good old libraries. And then digging out old stuff was a bit of a problem. I wanted one of the issues of the journal Chand, which used to come out in the early 1920s - a particular issue on Marwaris, which was banned in that period. Chand was taking on all castes. It brought out issues on Kayasths too so it was an equal opportunity offender. They did it to everyone, they were quite a gang. I was looking for this Marwari Ank but all the libraries in Allahabad and Banaras had all the issues of Chand but not that one because it was banned at that time and the community had bought up all the issues and destroyed them. But one antiquarian in Banaras dug up this copy of Marwari Ank for me! So there are people who helped a lot outside the archives. That's how it took a lot of time. And then sitting in Teen Murti and going through the archives. The idea was to join the dots and see the role that the Gita Press played in the larger Hindu movement that was happening.

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You've brought out the community angle and the context in an interesting way.
The Gita Press started as a kind of part self-introspection - that, 'Look, there's a lot happening among the Marwaris; the new generation is not following the righteous part of Hinduism, they are becoming wayward; they are getting modern education, which is not good; they are into drinking; they are into having relationships with women outside the caste' - all sorts of things that constitute a very immoral universe for some people. The Gita Press came partly out of that angst about what was happening in the Marwari world.

An earlier short-lived journal too addressed Marwaris but this one had a larger canvas of including all Hindus. It was trying to talk about spirituality but it was, right from the beginning, also a very political project. The Gita Press started in 1923 but became big from 1926 onwards. That's the year they started the journal Kalyan, which became the vehicle to propagate a lot of things. Already, they were publishing the Ramayana, the Mahabharat, the Gita and other texts. Their production was cheap and high quality and it took these texts to every Hindu home irrespective of caste. It was very ambiguous because they were the same bunch of people who didn't want Dalits to enter temples.

But Dalits also read it.
Yes, Dalits also read it. The idea was that Hinduism should speak in one voice just like Islam does. According to them, Hindus were in big trouble because they didn't speak in one voice. In the first issue of Kalyan in 1926, Hanuman Prasad Poddar writes in the editorial that what Hindus needed was sangh bal, unity of strength. There was a proper subhead in the editorial called 'Hindu-Muslim Samasya'. So it was a political project. Otherwise, they always said it was a journal for bhakti, gyaan and vairagya, renunciation. But they were hitting at various levels. Anyone who was spiritually inclined but not a believer in Hindu right wing ideology would read it. From time to time, they'd speak of political things that were happening. They were unique in the sense that they created a very Bania model of Bhakti. A lot of people go to the temple because it makes them feel happy, peaceful.

Now, for the first time you find that, through Kalyan and other journals, they were saying, 'Do certain things, take the name of Lord Ram 50,000 times and you will get what you want in life.' It's a quick return, like a business. They were the first ones to also start Gita and Ramayana tests with centres going almost up to Madras. At these centres, they'd test people's knowledge in the Gita and the Ramayan. Then, they started the bank -In Bihar and UP, old people write the name of Ram and send the notebooks to Gita Press and feel, 'Oh, I've taken the name of Ram 5 crore times'. So it was operating at various levels. Politically, from 1926 onwards when Kalyan started, the Gita Press allied with Hindu right wing parties - Hindu Mahasabha, RSS, later on with Jana Sangh and subsequently, even with BJP.

They have done it at all crucial points: in the early 1930s, when the temple entry movement started, they got very upset with Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi had a very close relationship with Poddar. To put him in his place, Poddar would cite Gandhi's earlier articles where he had said different things - "Look what you wrote and what are you doing now?" Gandhi was constantly evolving and changing on issues. It (the correspondence) started getting worse and worse. At one point, when Gandhi said 'I will not attend weddings unless one person is a harijan,' Poddar thought 'The old man has lost it'.

In the letters, Poddar says temple entry is like rape. He sees it as a loss of individual rights, as something that's being imposed.
Yes. He tells Gandhi, "How fair is it to attack us because we are opposed to temple entry?" They got into a larger massive correspondence, and it starts getting worse in the 1940s. He really attacked Gandhi for the creation of Pakistan. Then, once Pakistan became inevitable, from February-July of 1947 onwards, Kalyan starts writing that if Pakistan is created for Muslims, let India be created for Hindus alone. They have a proper template for what independent India should be: it should be called Hindustan; Muslims should not be in the army. It's a highly problematic construct of new India that they wanted.
After Gandhi is killed, Poddar was among some 25,000 people who were rounded up - something which the Gita Press is very quiet about. Even in the huge archives of Poddar, there's only one mention. In Poddar's correspondence there is a reference that another person at Gita Press with whom he had clashed, Mahavir Prasad Poddar, was spreading lies about his involvement. It's a fact that on that day, according to that letter, he was in Delhi.

Even when BD Goenka wrote to GD Birla asking to help get Poddar out of jail as he had clout with the government, GD Birla said no 'because they were not doing sanatana dharma, they were doing shaitan dharma'. This kind of alliance with the Hindu right wing continued even after 1947. With the Hindu Code Bill, they said all sorts of things: that (as a result) "Christians and Muslims would enter our homes, marry our daughters, beef would be cooked in our homes". But Nehru would have none of this. He kept on and got the Hindu Code Bill passed.

Nehru was the only one who never wrote for Kalyan.
He didn't write ever. In the 1950s, Nehru visited Gorakhpur to see a flood, and Poddar claims he gave him his car. Nehru went to Gita press and they gifted him books but that's it. They kept writing to him to write a message for their readers but he kept out of it. When he died, they had an obituary. They had one when Motilal Nehru died, when Indira Gandhi was killed, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated… They kept doing it because also throughout, a huge section of the Congress supported the Gita Press. Hanuman Prasad Poddar had very close relationships with Madan Mohan Malviya and Rajendra Prasad. Even as president, Rajendra Prasad visited and inaugurated the main gate. But it was only for Malviya that Kalyan brought out a special issue.

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When Malviya died in 1946, they brought out the 13th issue of Kalyan. It was impounded by the British government because it was so rabid and called on people to kill Muslims. So this whole project, which they claim was started for spiritualism, became overtly political time and again. All the elections 1951-52 onwards, they openly issued appeals through Kalyan. They said don't vote for Nehru because he's the one who brought the Hindu code bill. They also issued an appeal to not vote for Ambedkar because he's the brain behind the Hindu Code Bill. Nehru won while Ambedkar lost - but not to their candidate. Since they were available to all kinds of Hindu homes, at all flashpoints of politics, it became a big vehicle for the Hindu Mahasabha and others to carry their message through Kalyan to Hindu homes.

While reading the book it struck me that many of their ideas were common in forward caste Hindu homes at least, and that a large part of the success of the Gita Press is due to that. And it still continues. Maybe Hindus with secular ideas failed by not recognizing that.
We were dismissive about it. As you rightly said, these ideas are still there; they were always there. I can be religious but I might not be communal at all, so looking down on anything religious or saying that it's decadent to be religious… That, in a way, helped the right wing to grow and spread. The other day, I was at JNU and a student asked me why the Left didn't do so well. The reason is because you have to engage with religion; you cannot completely negate it. And engaging with religion doesn't mean approving all aspects of it. I agree that the secular world has completely failed to deal with it; religion has to be engaged with.

With the Naxals in the late 1960s, the people at Gita Press were very worried about Communism. There is a correspondence between Poddar and a big Marwari industrialist from Kolkata called Halwasiya. He said, "Let's do what the Communists do: have pamphlets, monographs, spread our word around because that's the only way to do it, and in this, we can get the help of the RSS and the Jan Sangh." The Left was doing something like this but over the years they just lost out while these guys got better and better and spread.

The Left didn't engage with the caste system either.
Exactly, that's the biggest failure. In the Hindi heartland, you can't do politics without engaging with caste. The Left is nowhere in the Hindi heartland precisely because of this. You can't say caste doesn't exist. Which world are you living in? Similarly, with religion, you have to deal with it at some point.

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Among those who wrote for Kalyan, the journal from Gita Press, was Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India (left) and C Rajagopalachari, the last governor-general of India. (Getty Images)

S Radhakrishnan was writing for Kalyan, a big progressive Hindi writer like Premchand was writing for them, Harivanshrai Bachchan, who was very close to the Congress, wrote for them - so they were all engaging. We cannot categorise Harivanshrai Bachchan as a communal person. They were engaging at the level that they wanted to; they were not writing what Poddar was writing. This kind of eclectic mix of people who were writing for it attracted a lot of people to the journal. It addressed concerns of different kinds of people at various levels and so it became very successful. The Gita Press were the first ones to realise that the diaspora needs to be addressed and came up with a journal in 1934, which is still surviving. So there must be something that they did right.

Last week, there were many tweets saying the Gita Press is shutting down.
Right. It's temporary. The Gita Press barely manages its profit because it started as a no-profit no-loss venture and it's run by a trust; not by a family. They have their problems and strikes have been a consistent thing in their history. Their first strike took place in 1932. Last year, it was shut for a day. The strikes are happening because they don't pay. You say you're on the larger mission of saving Hinduism, but people have to run their households, send their children to school. They have always been very miserly with paying workers. In fact, when the second big strike took place in 1936 or so, Poddar was siding with the workers and went back to his native place in a huff. He wrote to the trust that 'Listen, you can't pay such wages to people and expect them to survive!' So they have this old problem.

Who runs the trust?
It's a Marwari trust. It is supposed to have only upper caste people. The trust rules say that.

What about the workers?
The workers in my interactions with them are mostly upper caste. There might be 190 permanent staff, the rest are daily wagers. Now the whole game plan is to shift the operations out of Gorakhpur if it continues like this. Their editorial shifted to Banaras in the late 1990s. The whole idea is to outsource or move to another town. But moving to another town would be a massive operation. And there's the identification of the city with this press. You don't say Gita Press; you say Gita Press, Gorakhpur. They are not being able to deal with a changing economy, rising wages. But nothing will happen. The Gita Press will come out of it. It has seen far worse. Hopefully, they'll come out of it because there are enough groups with vested interests, which will not let it die.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

The most difficult part was the amount of material! As one went though it and joined the dots, looking at, say, the papers of Madan Malviya, JD Birla, or Jamnalal Bajaj, I realized Hanuman Prasad Poddar was bigger than what I had thought when I started the book. I had no idea that he had created such a huge network.

Why is he so under the radar?
A lot of people are accusing me and saying the book is a deliberate act to destroy the great image of an institution like Gita Press. That was not the idea. When I started, I had many doubts and questions but I didn't realize they would be addressed like this. The kind of things that were happening with women, the way they were dealing with workers , the way they were conniving with Hindu right wing groups. I thought they would have some alliances but… There is a mention of a riot taking place in the late 1920s in Gorakhpur in which Gita Press people are arrested. Many people were involved and many were arrested. This is not the image of the Gita Press that I had in mind when I started. So at the back of your mind is the idea that people have a very different image, so how do you deal with it? Well, you write. I couldn't have stopped writing about it. Seeing those papers day in and day out, I discovered new things about Hanuman Prasad Poddar and the institution. For instance, his relationships with women were warped. If he were alive, I would have asked so many questions… about that woman who killed herself, about Raihana Tyabji, who came from a highly affluent background, and about the American woman Irene Wolfington.

When I read that section I felt like there was some sublimation of the erotic… and also that perhaps there wasn't any sublimation.
If you read the letters (Poddar's letters to the women), at one level, it's like how a modern Radha would have written to Krishna; then it gets erotic at times, and then ends with 'aapki behen'. It completely confuses you. He was treated like God. A lot of people have mailed me saying, "How can you write this?" But I was very careful that not a word that I wrote would be without referencing because I know it involved a lot of people's faith in this institution. I have just presented it as it is.

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But if there was something that had to be written, I'd write it. If they were silent about Gandhi in 1948, it had to be written; if they were openly beseeching Hindus to kill Muslims, it had to be written, and if they are doing it even now, it has to be written. Initially, I was worried about how to go about it but once I saw the entire papers, I joined the dots.

It was Ram Guha's idea to call Hanuman Prasad Poddar '20th century Hindu missionary'. He is one of the biggest 20th century Hindu missionaries about whom very little was written. He intervened in family fights of Marwari families - he'd intervene if Dalmia Cement is being taken over by ACC; he intervened in the spiritual life; he dealt with the RSS… What a bandwidth this man had! At one level, he's a fascinating character.

He's a big discovery in this.
Yes, he is a big discovery. In fact, he's the centrepiece. He died in 1971 and Goyandka, who started Gita Press, died four-five years earlier. After that, Gita Press lacked the presence of a man like him. They are still living off the legacy of Poddar. They still use his articles. There's not a single issue of Kalyan in which Poddar's article is not carried, when Goyandka's article is not carried. Even now, they are republishing and rehashing them. There are a few new articles and editorials and all. From the artist Barda Ukil to a disciple of Abanindranath Tagore, and Nandalal Bose, he had a huge network of all sorts of people - artists, writers... Yet the irony is that when you read the history of Hindi literature, there's no mention of him.

Why's that?
One of the earliest histories of Hindi literature - Mishrabandhu - Vinod is a four-volume mammoth work. There is one paragraph on Poddar: he's the editor of Gita press and Kalyan and he writes well. That's it! One reason is that because of the overemphasis on religion, the Hindi literary world never saw it (the efforts of the Gita Press) as literary work or journalistic work. People mention Hanuman Prasad Poddar in footnotes and in their appendixes but nothing else. A lot of people wrote for the Gita Press - C Rajagopalachari, Radhakrishnan, even Tagore. They also carried articles by Annie Besant, CF Andrews… Gandhi wrote.

We are still dealing with the same issues (to do with the role of women especially) in the public sphere, within families. Are these ideas that Hindus will have to live with forever?
It's never going to be resolved. The problem is their refusal to change with the times. The 42-page monograph brought out first in 1926 called Stri Dharma Prashnottari, I gave it to my daughter to read and she said, "What is wrong with you? What are you dealing with?" The kind of things it says about women…

It is a conversation between Sarla, who is simple, and Savitri, who knows it all. Savitri is constantly telling Sarla how to deal with her sexuality, her husband, her marriage, her in-laws. What to do if you are a widow. They still think that the inner world is to be inhabited by women and the outer world is for men; English education is not to be given to women. Many readers, I'm sure, don't agree with it but they still read it. Stri Dharma Prashnottari sells for Rs 4 and has sold 17 lakh copies. Then you have the Nari Ank of 1948, which is in constant publication. If you read it, you can't believe which world they're living in - the way they look down on English education, on women staying in hostels. Basically, controlling women's sexuality was man's business: why does she wear these kind of clothes? Why would she stay out beyond this hour? When they said this in the early part of the 20th century, they were not unique. Everyone else was also saying things like this. But they are still saying this; their world view has not changed. Today, Kalyan is edited by Radheshyam Banka. I interviewed him. About Sati he says you cannot burn yourself like in the good old days but there are ways in which you can live like Sati even now!

It's very depressing. The Gita Press has never got beyond this moral universe; it's a highly problematic moral universe. Many others had the same views but they are all closed, but the Gita Press continued and they are publishing this and there is a constituency. There are enough people who believe in it.

When meeting people whose ideas don't sync with your own world view, how do you deal with it?
A lot of people were curious about why I was working on the Gita Press. Actually, it has the highest brand recall value. Everyone has some association - at home there's a Ramayana or Mahabharata from Gita Press. In Gorakhpur and Banaras, they were very curious. I said I wanted to put the new things that I have found out in the larger context of how Hindu nationalism was created and the role the Gita Press played. Many people looked upset. I apologised to them in the acknowledgements and said that the book might not be what they wanted.

They wanted a…
A hagiography. There are a couple of books, which you find in the Hindi heartland, on the Gita Press and Poddar, which are hagiographies. I have used them for Poddar's biographical details so that nobody can say I'm making it up. I have used what Bhagwati Prasad Singh wrote; then there are PhDs in Gorakhpur, Banaras and Allahabad. But they just reproduce the work in Kalyan without putting it in the larger context. The whole thing was, "We should not defame an institution like Gita Press." It's not that people have not read Kalyan of the 1940s; it's all available. But they just don't want to write about it. They don't want to look at it with that perspective. They'll say, "Oh, if they were doing it, so were Muslims." I'm sure the Muslim League and others were doing things too but when I am writing about the Gita Press, I'll say they are doing it.

Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
Akshaya Mukul
Harper Collins
Rs 799