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Review: Syama Prasad Mookerjee; Life and Times by Tathagata Roy

Tripura governor Tathagata Roy’s biography of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the parent party of the Bharatiya Janata Party, shows that Mookerjee was a “constitutionalist” and not a “confrontationalist”

books Updated: Jun 01, 2018 17:39 IST
Ranjona Banerji
Ranjona Banerji
Hindustan Times
Bharatiya Janata Party,Bharatiya Jana Sangh,Tripura
20 April 1949 - Lord Layton Leader of the Reuters Goodwill Mission chatting with Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel (centre), and Syama Prasad Mookerjee (right) at a tea party on 20 April, 1949.(HT Photo)
450 pp, Rs 599

The legend of Syama Prasad Mookerjee is one of India’s most curious and contentious. He was, without a doubt, a great intellect. And as an educationist – the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University at only 33 – he succeeded his illustrious father, Sir Asutosh Mookerjee and continued in the endeavour to keep education in Bengal at a high standard.

He was also a “constitutionalist” as the writer often refers to him and a politician who worked with ideologies that he opposed if only for the greater good. It is practically forgotten that he was India’s first industry and supply minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet and laid the foundation for much of India’s industrial policy and our public sector corporations. It is true that he has not been given enough attention by historians in independent India. And the matter of his death in Kashmir at the young age of 52 remains a question of mystery.

Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee quit the Indian National Congress and founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the parent part of the BJP, in 1951. (HT Photo)

Indeed, even as he was the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the parent party of the Bharatiya Janata Party, his own partymen have more or less forgotten him. The current prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP even confused Mookerjee with Shyam Kishore Varma, a Gujarati freedom fighter and socialist, mentioning how Modi brought back his ashes from Geneva. And yet, across Bengal at least, irrespective of party ideology, it is common knowledge that Mookerjee died in Kashmir with much conspiracy theory chatter that his enmity with Nehru played a part.

Thus, this book by former educationist, BJP member and Tripura governor Tathagata Roy is much anticipated. If the BJP does not celebrate – albeit several decades too late – one of its own, then Mookerjee’s legacy is doubly neglected. The origins of this biography are from two chapters by Prashanto Chatterji, former head of history at Bardhaman University, according to the Acknowledgements. Unfortunate health problems forced Chatterji to withdraw and Roy took over, conducting interviews with family, friends and associates and reading through various sources. The book was first published in 2012 by Popular Prakashan, when it did not get much traction and has now been republished by Penguin in 2018.

The result, sadly, is a mixed bag. The reader gets, more or less, a chronology of Mookerjee’s life. But there is so much back and forth and “more on that later” that it is easy to get confused. It is fascinating to learn that Mookerjee was so close to Rabindranath Tagore and S Radhakrishnan. We learn of the formation of the Hindu Mahasabha, the close association Mookerjee had with the Congress party, including MK Gandhi, Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Mookerjee’s relationship with Subhas Bose – the other hero of Bengal – is interestingly nuanced, where Mookerjee disagreed with Bose’s alliance with the Muslim League and his call to arms and yet he admired Bose as a great patriot. Mookerjee’s excellent use of language and his sharp yet moving speeches are well known. To many he was the best counter to Nehru in Parliament, a fine and fitting foil to the prime minister’s eloquence.

Mookerjee’s deep love for Bengal is highlighted and his role in the Bengal famine, his fight with British officers are commendable stories. His strong campaign during the Partition discussions to ensure that Bengal was partitioned (and did not all go to Pakistan) was appreciated by many. Yet the underlying thread here was a seeming distrust of all Muslims.

Given all this, the biggest expectation from this biography would be insights into Mookerjee’s mind. Is there a contradiction between his renaissance achievements and his fine mind, and his view of India as a “Hindu-Muslim” country with few meeting points? We see a movement in time through the telling of the story but gain little discerning comprehension. For instance, despite being head of the Hindu Mahasabha, Mookerjee worked closely with the Congress to which he once belonged. By the time he formed the Jana Sangh, he was clearly much closer to the RSS view of India than he had ever been before. How did this happen? Was it Jammu and Kashmir and Nehru’s pact with Liaquat Ali Khan of Pakistan and the subsequent neglect of the plight of Hindus in East Pakistan? Mookerjee was primarily it appears a Hindu and a Bengali though one is not clear in which order. I would not go so far as to call him “secular” because there was always a distance from Muslims on the whole and yet there were individual friendships and political coalitions. The Muslim League was distrusted by many and that is not unique to Mookerjee, even if Roy would prefer it so. It would have been helpful to understand these apparent contradictions better.

Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee (centre) with Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (to his immediate left), Dr Kailash Nath Katju, Governor of Bengal and Sardar Patel (extreme right) on Patel’s arrival at Dum Dum Aerodrome, Calcutta on 15 January, 1950. (HT Photo)

The biggest problem in understanding Mookerjee’s mind come however from the biographer’s own prejudices and political inclinations. Several of his summarisations, which include attacks on the Congress and Nehru, appear to come from Roy’s mind and not that of Mookerjee. There is also an inability to stay within the time zone. That is, Roy – perhaps unconsciously – often applies the politics of today to those of pre-Independent and newly Independent India. It makes for an annoying reading experience as it reveals the biographer’s pettiness of thought which is an injustice to his subject. It would perhaps behove the BJP of today to learn something from Mookerjee’s own ideas on compromise and coalitions!

Author Tathagata Roy (Courtesy Penguin)

Throughout the book, the biographer appears furious with the Hindu voters of India for preferring the Congress to Mookerjee’s two political parties, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Again, it is not made clear how much of this rage comes from Mookerjee or Roy. And one suspects they come from the latter. This again does not help Mookerjee’s cause and again, perhaps diminishes him in the eyes of a non-RSS, non-BJP, non-Hindutva reader.

Read more: Excerpt: Syama Prasad Mookerjee; Life and Times by Tathagata Roy

What is clear however is that the biggest disservice to Mookerjee has come from those within his own political ideology. What we see of the BJP today is not the sort of party that Mookerjee would have been part of, judging from this biography. Roy reiterates that Mookerjee was not a “confrontationalist” and he that he was a “constitutionalist”, both words the BJP today seems unaware of.

Indeed, it would befit Mookerjee’s legacy better if his story is told by a non-partisan professional historian. He surely deserves better than this.

Ranjona Banerji is an independent journalist.

First Published: Jun 01, 2018 17:37 IST