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Modi Builds Image by Hijacking Halos of India’s Freedom Fighters

With no freedom struggle icons of its own, the Narendra Modi-led BJP is looking elsewhere, writes Shashi Tharoor.

6 min read
Modi Builds Image by Hijacking Halos of India’s Freedom Fighters
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Sardar Patel Week is set to be observed from his birth anniversary on 31 October. In this context, The Quint is republishing this story about appropriation of leaders such as Patel.

So Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen the anniversary of the 1942 Quit India movement to launch a campaign called “70 Saal Azadi: Zara Yaad Karo Qurbani”. It’s actually 74 years since that historic event, not 70, but this column isn’t a quibble about mathematics. Rather, it seeks to raise some key questions about history.

What’s going on here? The BJP which, led by the PM, has sought to drape itself in the mantle of nationalism, is now seeking to appropriate the freedom struggle for its cause. Ironically, the Quit India movement is an occasion the BJP could well have chosen to criticise rather than celebrate, since it resulted in the jailing by the British of all the leaders and thousands of workers of the nationalist movement, a resultant free hand to the Muslim League to build up a support base it had lacked in the elections of 1937, and thus, strengthened the hands of those who wanted Partition.

But the Modi government has no intention of repudiating Quit India as a Congress folly. It wants to make heroes of freedom fighters, by implication placing them on its own side in a contemporary retelling of history pegged to the 70th anniversary of our independence.


Jana Sangh Had No Freedom Fighter

The complication is that the politicalcause to which the BJP is heir – embodied in the Jana Sangh, the RSS, the Hindutva movement – had no freedom fighter of its own during the nationalist struggle for azadi. The BJP traces its origin to leaders who were not particularly active during the nationalist movement. The lack of inspiration for the people in the parent body of the BJP means people like Modi have to look for role models elsewhere.


Laying Claim to Sardar’s Legacy

The process had already begun, lest weforget, when then Chief Minister Modi moved aggressively to lay claim to the legacy of one of India’s most respected founding fathers, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, before the 2014 election.

In his quest to garb himself in a more distinguished lineage than his party can ordinarily lay claim to, Modi called on farmers across India to donate iron from their ploughs to construct a giant 550-foot statue of the Iron Man in his state, which would be by far the largest statue in the world, dwarfing the Statue of Liberty. But it will be less of a monument to the modest Gandhian it ostensibly honours than an embodiment of the overweening ambitions of its builder.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Run for Unity event organised on Rashtriya Ekta Diwas, at Rajpath, in New Delhi, 31 October, 2015.

Modi’s Motives

Modi’s motivesare easy to divine. His own image had been tarnished by his inaction (or worse) during the massacre of more than a thousand Gujarati Muslims in a pogrom on his watch in 2002. Identifying himself with Patel is an attempt at character-building by association – portraying himself as an embodiment of the tough, decisive man of action that Patel was, rather than the destructive bigot his enemies decry.

You can be sure that the evocation of the freedom struggle over the next year will be accompanied by statements about how Patel forged national unity, stood up for the nation’s Hindus during the horrors of Partition and was firm on issues like Kashmir while Prime Minister Nehru was allegedly pussy-footing.

Modi has openlysaid that India would have been better off had Patel, not Nehru, been made India’s first prime minister. Patel himself wrote to Nehru that “in our combination lies our greatest strength”. But boosting him over Nehru serves a contemporary BJP-versus-Congress political purpose too.


Projecting Modi As Sardar

It helps that Patel is widely admired for hisextraordinary role in forging India that gave him an unchallenged standing as the Iron Man. Patel represents both a national appeal and a Gujarati origin that suits Modi. The Modi-as-latter-day-Patel message has been resonating well with many Gujaratis, who are proud to be reminded of a native son the nation looks up to, and with many of India’s urban middle-class, who see in Modi a strong leader to cut through the confusion and indecision of India’s messy democracy.

But Patel’s conduct during the violence that accompanied Partition stands in stark contrast to Modi’s. Both Patel and Modi were faced with the serious breakdown of law and order in their respective domains, involving violence and rioting against Muslims. In Delhi in 1947, Patel immediately and effectively moved to ensure the protection of Muslims, herding 10,000 in the most vulnerable areas to the security of Delhi’s Red Fort.


Sardar Patel’s Efficiency

Because Patel was afraid that the local security forces might have beenaffected by the virus of communal passions, he moved army troops from Madras and Pune to Delhi to ensure law and order. Patel also made it a point to send a reassuring signal to the Muslim community by attending prayers at the famous Nizamuddin Dargah to convey a clear message that Muslims and their faith belonged unquestionably on the soil of India.

Patel also went to the border town of Amritsar where there were attacks on Muslims fleeing to the new Islamic state of Pakistan and pleaded with Hindu and Sikh mobs to stop victimising Muslim refugees. In each of these cases, Patel succeeded and there are literally tens of thousands of people who are alive today because of his interventions.


Gujarat’s 2002 Communal Pogrom

The contrast with what happened in Gujarat in2002 is painful. Whether or not one ascribes direct blame to Modi for the pogrom that year, he can certainly claim no credit for acting in the way Patel did in Delhi.

In Gujarat, there was no direct and immediate action by Modi, as the state’s chief executive, to protect the Muslims. Nor did Modi express any public condemnation of the attacks, let alone undertake any symbolic action of going to a masjid or visiting a Muslim neighbourhood to convey reassurance.

Onthe contrary, his condoning the violence served to provide protection and comfort to the rioters rather than to their victims.

One cannot imagine Patel saying to an interviewer, as Modi did, that he felt sorry about the killing of Muslims as he would about a puppy run over by a car in which he was a passenger. There is a particular irony to a self-proclaimed “Hindu nationalist” like Modi whose speeches reveal a thinly concealed contempt for Muslims, laying claim to the legacy of a Gandhian leader who would never have qualified his Indian nationalism with a religious label.


Appropriating India’s Martyrs

  • As PM launches a campaign to mark the 70th anniversary of independence, the move highlights lack of a historic figure the party can lay claim to.
  • Dearth of freedom fighters belonging to RSS and Jana Sangh means Narendra Modi will have to look for role models elsewhere.
  • Re-claiming leaders belonging to other parties has been BJP’s political strategy with PM Modi invoking Sardar Patel earlier.
  • However, Patel’s legacy lies in assuring the minorities even as communal passions flared up after Partition.
  • On the other hand, Modi has chosen to declare himself as a Hindu nationalist openly.


Sardar Patel believed in equal rights for all irrespective of their religion or caste. It is true that at the time of Partition Patel was inclined to believe, unlike Nehru, that an entire community had seceded. In my biography Nehru: The Invention of India (2003), I have given some examples of Nehru and Patel clashing on this issue. But there are an equal number of examples where Patel, if he had to choose between what was the right thing for the Hindus and what was the right thing morally, invariably plumped for the moral Gandhian approach.

An example, so often distorted by the Sangh Parivar apologists, was his opposition to Nehru’s pact with Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, on the question of violence in East Pakistan against the Hindu minority. The Nehru-Liaquat pact was indeed criticised by Patel and both of them disagreed quite ferociously.


Modi’s Contemptfor Muslims

But when Nehru insisted on his position, it was Patel who gave in, and his reasoning was entirely Gandhian: violence in West Bengal against Muslims essentially took away our moral right to condemn violence against Hindus in East Pakistan. That was not a Hindu nationalist position but a classically Gandhian approach as an Indian nationalist. In Modi, however, we have a prime minister who has openly declared himself a Hindu nationalist and has made speeches in the past with thinly concealed contempt for Muslims.

History has often been a contested terrain in India, as we all know, but its revival in the context of 21st century politics is a sobering sign that the past continues to have a hold over the present. Over the next year, we will see many more celebrations of various landmarks of the freedom movement. Every one of them will be sought to be hijacked in the ruling party’s attempts to appropriate a halo of nationalism that none of its forebears has done anything to earn.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached at @ShashiTharoor)

Also read:
Tharoor Hits Back: Muslims Have Right to Dissent on Loyalty Test
Nehru Wouldn’t Have Pressed Sedition Charges on JNUSU President

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