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Does Gita Press Deserve Gandhi Prize?

Ram Puniyani |
It opposed every move towards a just society, from women’s equality to eradicating untouchability.
Gita press ganshi

The Union Ministry of Culture has awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize 2021 to Gita Press, a publisher ofHindu religious scriptures. This prestigious prize has been awarded in the past to anti-colonialists such as like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh, and committed social workers such as Baba Amte.

This is the centenary year of the Gita Press. It was formed with a declared goal to promoteIndia’s spiritual and cultural heritage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the Gita Press for spreading awareness and promoting peace, while Congress leaders such as Jairam Ramesh hit the nail on the head. Ramesh tweeted, “There is a very fine biography from 2015 of this organization by Akshaya Mukul in which he unearths the stormy relations it had with the Mahatma and the running battles it carried on with him on his political, religious & social agenda. The decision is really a travesty and is like awarding Savarkar and Godse.”

The Gita Press was founded when conservative Hindus were upset due to the Dalits striving for equality and freedom, and when women were getting an education and emerging in India’s social arena. Its foundation was preceded by the formation of the Hindu-nationalist Hindu Mahasabha and followed by the formation of the RSS a couple of years later. Initially, the Gita Press and its magazine, Kalyan, were not against Mahatma Gandhi and even published some of his writings. Things changed after the Poona Pact in 1932, after which Gandhi devoted himself to eradicating untouchability and pursued the demand for Dalits to be allowed into temples.

Gandhi’s pre-Poona Pact fast had shaken the country and vast sections Hindus started thinking deeply about the horrid practice of untouchability and the caste-varna system. Its impact on the country is well reflected by Akshaya Mukul, the writer-journalist who has written one of the best books on the Gita Press (Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India). He points out, “While Padmaja Naidu called it a “catharsis” that would cleanse Hinduism of the “accumulated corruption of centuries”, Rabindranath Tagore, who rushed to visit Gandhi after receiving news of his fast unto death, called it a “wonder”.

Here, the agenda of the Gita Press and its founders, Hanuman Prasad Poddar and Jayadayal Goyandka, became apparent. They criticised Gandhi’s movement for temple entry and inter-dining with Dalits. On issue after issue, Kalyanpublished diatribes against Gandhi’s struggles against caste-varna values. It maintained that the Hindu shastras are supreme, and the movements launched by Gandhi were in total opposition to them.

Its publications and books, apart from Gita, Ramayana,Srimad Bhagwad, Vedas, and Vishnu Purana, were made accessible to broad sections of society at a very low cost. It also aimed at Non-Resident Indians. Its books started being published in other Indian languages than Hindi, including English.

The Gita Press also focussed on opposing women’s equality. It did so through books like Nari Shiksha (Education of Women) by Poddar, Grahasth Mein Kaise Rahein [How to Lead a Household Life] by Swami Ramsukhdas, Striyon ke Liye Kartavya Shiksha (Education on their Duties for Women) and Nari Dharm (Duties of Women) by Goyandka, apart from a special issue of Kalyandedicated to what it considered women’s concerns. In a nutshell, these books and magazine issues, which sold by the millions, totally opposed the values enshrined in the Constitution of India.

Swami Ramsukhdas’s book supports wife-beating as a way to overcome the “sins of the past”. Interestingly, advises a rape victim and her husband in the following way: “As far as possible, it is better for a woman [rape survivor] to keep mum. If her husband also comes to know of it, he too should keep mum. It is profitable for both of them to keep quiet.” It advises against remarriage of women as well. “Once a girl is given away in marriage as a charity by her parents, she does not remain a virgin any more. So how can she be offered as charity to anyone else? It is beastly to remarry her.”

In June 1948, Kalyanpublished these words: “The abundance of unmarried women, innumerable abortions, rising divorce rate, women working in hotels and shops in complete disregard to their honour and purity are telling us loudly that Western civilization is a curse on women,” It argued that the “system created by the sages and saints for Indian women at home and in society was endowed with knowledge.”

While the Hindu Code Bill was being drafted, the Gita Press’ publications and founders fiercely opposedthe provisions being discussed. They argued that these were against the shastras and Indian culture. Dr BR Ambedkar, who was then the law minister, was the primary target of their criticisms. Kalyanwas harsh on him even earlier, when he had demanded equality for the former Untouchables. This time, too, the article made highly disparaging and casteist remarks about Ambedkar. For example: “Until now, the Hindu public was taking his words seriously, but now it is confirmed that the Hindu Code Bill introduced by Ambedkar is the most important part of his conspiracy to destroy Hindu dharma. It would be a matter of great humiliation, shame for the Hindus and a blot on Hindu dharma if a man like him remains the law minister.”

The role of the founders of Gita Press in Gandhi’s murder led to their arrest. At the time, Ghanshyam Das Birla, who was very close to Gandhi, said that while Gandhi practised Sanatan Hindu dharma, the founders of the Gita Press were promoting Satanic Hindu dharma!

This press was also part of the plot to install Ram idols in the Babri mosque, backed cow protection movements, and regularly provided advice to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party in elections.

The Gita Press formed the base on which conservative, mainly Brahmanical, values were and are promoted. It promotes Hindu nationalist politics by propagating a narrow and exclusivist version of Hinduism. Gandhi’s Hinduism evolved with time to include the humanistic aspects of religion. The Gita Press totally backed communal disharmony through Kalyan and countless books. We live in times when Gandhi’s principles are being put upside down, and we must reverse this trend. Amity, caste and gender equality are what will help India progress, not their opposites.

The author is a human rights activist. The views expressed are personal.

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