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JNU row: The religious can be liberal

Free atmosphere at a university shapes both - a person’s politics and liberalism.

columns Updated: Feb 24, 2016 11:46 IST
Sujata Anandan
Nagpur
JNU students protest for JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar’s release in New Delhi. (HT File Photo)

I forged two of my most enduring friendships more than 30 years ago. The friendships, which were made on my university campus in Nagpur, have transcended time, ideology and death. As a shy undergraduate with no lofty ideas of freedom of speech and expression, I was brought into the ambit of Shrikant Jichkar, the students’ union president. He was with the NSUI and the opposition was led by the ABVP. But there were no violence or ideological bigotry.

It was at a mock parliament that Jichkar organised that I first met Nitin Gadkari but through the years I never saw him espouse any views that militated against my own liberalism – and that was something I acquired from my association with Jichkar. He was a committed Congressman but he was also a devout Hindu and it is from him, given that both of us came from the land of the RSS and had at various times encountered teachers professing that ideology, I learnt to make the difference between Hindutva and Hinduism. Jichkar was a liberal Hindu. He was ordained as an agnihotri by no less than the shankaracharya of Kanchi Koti Peetam against bitter opposition from the caste Hindus in the city.

He also conducted a vajpeya yagna in the 1990s that drew even the Panchajanya editor’s curiosity. But what to me was a lasting example of the spirit of the true understanding of Hinduism is that he organised a mass thread ceremony for his daughter when she came of age — and the daughters of all his friends and relatives or anyone else if they so wished.

That is not the kind of equality the RSS will grant to women. I do not think that the event went down well with many in the RSS. Over the years as Jichkar organised pravachans and such events, he left the RSS ideologues far behind. I cannot help but think that had he lived (he died in 2004), he might have been the Congress’ answer to the BJP today.

For while he attended international conferences on religion with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar despite having no deeksha, so erudite was he on religion that he got referred to as ‘His Holiness’ by many. Through it all he never lost his commitment to the Congress’s secular ideology. The RSS never knew what to make of him for he steadfastly turned down all their requests to join their ranks – he was quite happy to be what he was. He was as comfortable giving an annual lecture about the budget as he was about the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

Both my friends ended up as ministers in the Maharashtra government and MPs at different times. Gadkari made a bid for the Nagpur parliamentary constituency three years before the 2014 elections and I did not see him being queasy about wooing the substantial Muslim vote in the constituency.

His biryani parties were legendary and though his old home always had a couple of cows and buffaloes tied to the front door, I never saw him unduly bigoted about what his Muslim friends ate; you would not see him lynching anyone for eating beef.

I would like to think it was the free atmosphere at the university, uninterrupted by government ham-handedness, that shaped both my friends’ politics and liberalism. They did not have to choose between one or the other. They could be both religious and liberal. We were never in the league of the JNU but the NSUI and ABVP were even then bitterly opposed to each other.

Neverthelss Shrikant Jichkar and Nitin Gadkari could still be friends.