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Historians scoff after Modi equates BJP's journey with freedom struggle

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:47 IST

The BJP appears to have changed the strategy in its attempt to compete with the Congress party's imprint on the country's national consciousness.

From trying to falsely associate itself with the independence movement, the BJP, it seems, has now decided to belittle the significance of the freedom struggle entirely.

In a curious speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the BJP and its workers had to suffer more in independent India than what the Congress suffered during British rule.

Speaking while laying the foundation stone for a new party office in Delhi, the PM equated BJP's political journey since the times of the Jana Sangh with the freedom struggle.

"The BJP will perhaps be the first party in India that has, ever since its inception, been swimming against the current," he said, adding, "No other party has made as much sacrifice as the BJP post-independence."

He also noted: "Even the Congress may not have faced so much difficulty during British rule as BJP workers had to face since 1950 till date."

BJP's lack of history

The BJP has always been conscious of its lack of history. The party itself was born as late as in 1980, and even its formative avatar, the Syama Prasad Mookerjee-led Bharatiya Jana Sangh, came into existence only after independence, in 1951.

The first general elections that it contested as the BJP in 1984 brought it only two seats, and it could not become the largest party in Parliament till 1996.

The earliest leaders of its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are widely known to have kept away from the freedom struggle, which is the historical bedrock of the Congress's existence in the country's electoral politics.

Belittling the freedom struggle

This has always been the BJP's disadvantage vis-a-vis the Congress, and the party has always sought to negate it by attempting to associate itself with freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose. Even there, it has been selective, and has consciously stayed away from the legacies of many others like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

However, what Modi's latest statement indicates is that the BJP now wants to build a new narrative altogether, plastering its own history over that of the freedom movement.

The Congress, of course, has not taken kindly to it, saying that the PM has "disowned...humiliated and denigrated the entire freedom struggle", and belittled the sacrifice of "crores of Indians and Congressmen".

It has demanded that Modi must apologise and retract his statement.

No comparison with freedom movement

However, it is not just the Congress party that has objected to the statement. Historians and academics have also been left bewildered and outraged.

Former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Prof. Mridula Mukherjee, said she was shocked at the statement, essentially because there is no comparison between the national independence movement and the BJP's electoral journey.

She recalled that during the freedom struggle, thousands were hanged, lakhs were in jail at any point of time, and even leaders spent years in jail.

Mukherjee said that for example, Nehru spent a total of 10 years in prison. Gandhi too was in jail for a long time, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak was exiled to Burma for six years.

The magnitude of British oppression can be gauged from the fact that after the revolt of 1857, the British killed over one lakh Indians to re-establish their rule.

She further reminded that the only two periods of oppression for the BJP and the RSS were when the RSS was banned in 1948, and then during the Emergency.

BJP didn't rise because of its ideology

According to Dilip Simeon, historian and political commentator, BJP did indeed "swim against the current", if the PM is referring to the activists who were political exponents of the Hindutva ideology.

That is because "the bulk of the Indian population was resistant to the extremist views of Savarkarite nationalism", he explained.

"In fact the main cause for unease amongst the Hindutva leaders has always been the perceived failure of the Hindu population to turn into a monolithic political bloc. The sole circumstance in which its ideas can gain currency is communal violence, and the persistence of a climate of hatred," he added.

Simeon also noted that the comparison of BJP's political time-line with the role of the Congress in the freedom movement was 'ridiculous'.

The Congress, in the era, was "an umbrella organisation, linking together all sides of the anti-imperialist spectrum, from Left to Right, from those who held 'Hindu nationalist' ideas to those who worked for 'Muslim interest'".

In contrast, "in the midst of the 1942 movement, Hindutva hero VD Savarkar's advice to the Hindu Mahasabha's annual session in Kanpur was to perform the 'patriotic' service of enlisting in the colonial armed forces as part of the Hindu militarisation movement, and to "continue to capture all centres of political power".

Simeon also pointed out that even after independence, RSS leader MD Deoras wrote to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency in 1975, pleading loyalty and congratulating her for the Supreme Court's decision on her election.

Carelessness towards language

Purushottam Agrawal, academician and former member of the Union Public Service Commission, told Catch that the PM's statement illustrated "the extinction of historical memory and the inexcusable carelessness towards language in our society".

It shows that the PM is not conscious of the implications of his statement, he added.

Agrawal, too, recalled the lakhs of Congress workers and leaders who had spent years in jail, as well as those freedom fighters who, even today, are under the government's patronage.

He added that considering that Modi has now received the rare distinction of being a Prime Minister who deleted his tweet, he no longer feels surprised, but sad at his statements.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 20 August 2016, 9:48 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.