Govt says Gita Press award unanimous, Lok Sabha LOP says no invite to be on jury

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury underscored that he was neither invited nor was he informed about the proceedings of the Gandhi Peace Prize jury

Gita Press entrance (photo courtesy: Gita Press)
Gita Press entrance (photo courtesy: Gita Press)

Ashlin Mathew

A jury headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has conferred the 2021 Gandhi Peace Prize to Gorakhpur-based Gita Press on Sunday, June 19. While scholars on Gita Press and Gandhi slammed the award, Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who should have been on the jury, said he was not invited for proceedings.

The 100-year-old Gita Press, the largest publisher of Hindu religious texts and founded by Jai Dayal Goenka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar, is famously known to have remained silent on Gandhi’s assassination.

Established in 1923, Gita Press publishes a monthly magazine Kalyan in 15 languages and heavily subsidised copies of the Gita, Ramayana, Upanishads, Puranas, and “other character-building books and magazines”. Kalyan now has a circulation of over 2 lakh and its English counterpart Kalyana-Kalpataru, of over 1 lakh.

While the ministry’s press release says it was a unanimous decision, Chowdhury underscored that he was neither invited nor was he informed about the proceedings of the jury. “The code of procedure for the award states that the Leader of the Opposition should be part of the jury. However, the Modi government did not inform me. They are behaving in a highly arbitrary manner and being completely undemocratic,” said Chowdhury.

The Congress MP from West Bengal pointed out that the government should invite him for the meeting to seek his opinion, but neither did he nor his office get an invitation.

The code of procedure states that the jury shall comprise five members — the Prime Minister, who would chair the jury; the Chief Justice of India, the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha or where there is no such Leader of Opposition then, the leader of the single largest party in that House, and two other eminent persons. It is not immediately clear who the other two eminent persons were as the press release only mentioned PM Modi.

Union ministry of culture stated that the jury headed by Modi unanimously selected Gita Press “in recognition of its outstanding contribution towards social, economic and political transformation through non-violent and other Gandhian methods”. It goes on to add that Gita Press has published 41.7 crore books in 14 languages, including 16.21 crore Shrimad Bhagvad Gita. In 1992, Poddar was honoured with a postage stamp with his image on it by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government.

“Gandhi Peace Prize 2021 recognises the important and unparalleled contribution of Gita Press, in contributing to collective upliftment of humanity, which personifies Gandhian living in true sense,” reads the statement.

In the statement, Modi recalled the contribution of Gita Press, “in promoting the Gandhian ideals of peace and social harmony. He observed that the conferment of Gandhi Peace Prize on Gita Press, on completion of hundred years of its establishment, and is a recognition of the work done by the institution in community service”.

Akshaya Mukul, the author of Gita Press and the making of Hindu India, said the publishing house is completely antithetic to what Gandhi stood for. “The publishers say they stay away from politics, but when Kalyan started they collaborated with large Hindu nationalist organisations such as Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and later Jan Sangh and much later BJP.

Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh also cited Mukul's book while tweeting that: "The decision is really a travesty and is like awarding Savarkar and Godse.

Slamming the government, Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi said it was a travesty of Gandhian ideals that the government has decided to award the Gandhi Peace Prize to Gita Press. “It would have been better if they had, as per the last few years, not awarded the price at all,” said Gandhi.

The ideology of religious fundamentalism, explained Tushar Gandhi, adopted by Gita Press is at absolute variance with the sanatan dharma practiced by Bapu. “But by awarding the Gandhi Peace Price to Gita Press the Government has indirectly awarded the RSS and its ideology of radicalised fanatic Hinduism and awarded the ideology that murderers Bapu and is today practising the doctrine of hate and decisiveness,” added Gandhi.

Mukul too pointed out the irony of awarding Gita Press in the name of Gandhi. Of the 25,000-odd people who were arrested in the aftermath of the assassination of Gandhi on suspicion, even the Gita Press founder and editor were arrested. After their arrest, when Sir Badridas Goenka approached GD Birla to help them, he refused. He is known to have said that the two were not propagating sanatan dharma but shaitan dharma, said Mukul.

While it is a fact that Gita Press had close relations with Mahatma Gandhi, said Mukul, but by early 1930s the relationship completely deteriorated because of Gandhi’s insistence on temple entry, inter-dining after the Poona Pact and subsequently Gandhi working for Hindu-Muslim unity even before the Partition. He added that they blamed Gandhi for the partition and for the creation of Pakistan. Through the pages of Kalyan, it not only accentuated the Hindu-Muslim divide, criticising Gandhi both privately and publicly but also fanned communal hatred.

In his book, Mukul writes that the aspect of Gita Press and Kalyan that has the greatest significance in the present times is the platform it has provided for communal organisations such as the RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and many others. The post-Independence years saw Gita Press become a vehicle for the agitation against the Hindu Code Bill and in the cow-protection movement.

It is also ironic because the motto of Gita Press is “devotion, knowledge and renunciation”, but their actions run contrary to this, explained Mukul. “At all flash points of history, Gita Press has defended the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. They supported the Babri Masjid demolition going as far as to say what was demolished was not a mosque, but a temple because it was on the Ramjanmabhoomi. In fact the very first fund to build the Ram temple was started by Gita Press in 1949,” said Mukul. They even sought vote of orthodox organisations such as Ram Rajya Parishad and Hindu Mahasabha.

Tushar Gandhi added that he was not surprised that a ‘committee’ headed by the Prime Minister awarded the prize as the decision is that of the PM rubber-stamped by a pliant committee. “It is yet another attempt to saffronise Gandhi,” he stressed.

The Gandhi Peace Prize has been awarded earlier to organisations such as ISRO (2014), Ramakrishna Mission (1998), Grameen Bank of Bangladesh (2000), Akshaya Patra Foundation (2016). It has also been awarded to Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2005), Dr Nelson Mandela (2000), Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said (2019) and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (2020).

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Published: 20 Jun 2023, 9:25 AM