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Pranab Mukherjee, in speech at RSS event, underlines importance of tolerance in India

Pranab Mukherjee in his speech at an RSS function in Nagpur said that India’s national identity is of assimilation.

india Updated: Jun 08, 2018 15:31 IST
Pradip Maitra and Saubhadra Chatterji
Pradip Maitra and Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, Nagpur
Pranab Mukherjee,Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,RSS
Former president Pranab Mukherjee with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat at the closing ceremony of ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’, in Nagpur on Thursday. (PTI Photo)

Former President Pranab Mukherjee, speaking at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, said that attempts to define India’s nationhood on the basis of religion would “dilute our nationality.”

He added that “the soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance,” in what some analysts and politicians saw as a strong message to the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Still, Mukherjee’s presence at the Sangh’s HQ in Nagpur, where he paid homage to RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar as “a great son of mother India” and toured the building with the outfit’s chief Mohan Bhagwat and other senior functionaries, was also seen by some others as “bad optics”, especially coming from a man who hold Nehruvian ideologies close to his heart.

Backing Mukherjee, the Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said, “He has shown the mirror of truth to the RSS by reminding them of India’s pluralism, tolerance, secularism and inclusiveness as an article of faith and soul of the country.”

The party added that the visit had caused wide-ranging discussion, comment, concern and even consternation among a large section of Indians, who have an innate belief in the foundational values of democracy, pluralism, diversity of cultures, ethnicity, languages and religious practices.

In the course of a nearly 35-minute speech delivered in English, Mukherjee delved into the concepts of nationhood, nationalism and patriotism; and liberally quoted Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Kautilya, Lokmanya Tilak and Surendranath Banerjee, a former Congress party president during the British Raj.

“Secularism and inclusion is a matter of faith for us. India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one nation,” said Mukherjee, a former Congress leader for almost four decades.

“When I shut my eyes and dream of India, I am mesmerised that 1.3 billion people speak 122 languages, practise seven major religions and belong to three major ethnic groups. Yet, they are under one system, one flag, one Constitution and one identity, which we may call Bharatiya or Indian,” Mukherjee said.

Mukerjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters had evoked sharp responses with several leaders of his party, including his daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee criticising his decision.

RSS chief Bhagwat referred to the controversy in his introductory speech and said it was unseemly. “There can be difference of opinion and debate but we must keep the maryada. For one destination, people can take different paths. Diversity is good for India,” he said.

Mukherjee’s speech, coming as it does a year before the 2019 election, Mukherjee’s presence at the RSS headquarters was seen by some as giving credibility and recognition to an organisation which has been demonised by most of its opponents.

The speech got bipartisan support with BJP general secretary Ram Madhav tweeting soon after: “Great address by Dr Pranab Mukharjee at Nagpur. His address and Dr Bhagwat’s address are in a way complementary to each other. Nation First is the core message of both.”

RSS spokesperson Arun Kumar dubbed Mukherjee’s speech as that of an “elder statesman”. “We welcome his speech and the points he raised on issues such as nationalism, patriotism, and the need to end all types of intolerance and violence.”

The Congress party maintained that it respected different shades of opinion and discussions. “As Indians and as Congressmen, we encourage and believe in the democratic dialogue and recognise the right and sanctity of dialogue across different thought processes,” Surjewala said. “But a dialogue is only possible in a democratic order with an open mind and willingness to change, accept and adapt to the other person’s point of view.”

“He particularly reminded Prime Minister Narendra Modi that happiness of people is the happiness of ruler, their welfare is his welfare,” Surjewala added.

First Published: Jun 07, 2018 20:22 IST