Herald View: The irony of Gandhi Peace Prize to the Gita Press
The decision raised eyebrows the prize has been conferred on an organisation that has opposed most of the beliefs which Gandhi held dear
When the government of India conferred the Gandhi Peace Prize for 2019 on the late sultan of Oman, no questions were raised about communal or political considerations that may have weighed on the jury. Not many in India would possibly have been able to vouch for the contributions of the late sultan in promoting peace, but the award barely caused a ripple then, partly because the announcement came in the wake of the pandemic in 2021.
The lack of reaction was also partly because of the belief, widely held, that awards conferred by governments are to be taken with a pinch of salt and are almost always influenced by partisan and political considerations.
For the same reason, when the award for the year 2021 was announced on 18 June and conferred on Gita Press of Gorakhpur, which is celebrating its centenary this year, it should ordinarily not have caused much comment either.
It’s not even an issue that the recipient is of a specifically communal colour. The jury had earlier conferred the award on Vivekananda Kendra and Ekal Abhiyan Trust, both RSS affiliates, in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
The century-old Gita Press is hailed as the largest publisher of books on ‘sanatan Hindu dharma (the eternal Hindu religion)’ and in 14 different languages—it deservedly figured in the ‘honours list’ of a government which makes no bones about its Hindu credentials or Hindutva as its political ideology.
If the announcement still managed to ruffle feathers, raise eyebrows and trigger a controversy, it is because the Gandhi Peace Prize has been conferred on an organisation that has opposed most of the beliefs which Gandhi held dear. The award seemed perverse to many.
On the one hand, it reflected a warped sense of humour, on the other, ignorance of or contempt for Gandhian ideals (possibly even both). While the founder editor of Gita Press, Hanuman Prasad Poddar, was close to Gandhi, he was also among those who were arrested in 1948 for their suspected involvement in his assassination.
Poddar had drifted away from Gandhian thoughts and, through his publications, opposed Gandhi’s views on Harijans (Dalit people, whom he saw as ‘children of God’), communal harmony and gender justice. The publications of the Gita Press were critical of the Mahatma’s bid to open up temples to Dalits and to encourage upper-caste Hindus to break bread with Dalits.
In the 1940s, the publications began attacking Muslims. Poddar, who was close to the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS, the Jana Sangh and the BJP, supported the varnashram (the Hindu caste system), believed in the subservient place of women and in male dominance even outside the family as well, and held anti-Muslim prejudices.
He viciously attacked B.R. Ambedkar for marrying a Brahmin woman despite belonging to a heen varna (lower caste) himself. So, the question remains. Did the Gita Press deserve to get the Gandhi Peace Prize? They could have been given the Bharat Ratna or the Padma Vibhushan perhaps, but was the Gandhi Peace Prize at all apt?
Akshaya Mukul’s exhaustively researched book The Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India was published in 2015, and explains with devastating clarity why the award has been given. The Gita Press was, Mukul notes, driven by the need of Marwari businessmen to gain acceptance among upper-caste Hindus and to protect the interests of the minuscule minority constituted by them.
While the Press and its publications sought to promote spirituality and the ideals of bhakti (devotion), gyan (knowledge) and vairagya (renunciation), it was always a political project, from the getgo. As early as in 1926, the Gita Press published on the Hindu–Muslim question, and carried conversations on the controversy around beef eating.
An issue of the periodical Kalyan in 1947 featured a vision of a Hindu India without any Muslims. While the Press and its masters opposed the entry of Dalits into temples, they also propagated the idea that by behaving like ‘good’ Hindus, Dalits could hope to be born again as savarna (upper caste) Hindus. In effect, then, the Gita Press was the paper soldier equivalent of the RSS foot soldiers, and helped Hindutva gain access into the homes of mainstream Hindus.
The trust that owns Gita Press allows only Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, or baniyas, to become members. The Vedic school that it runs in Rajasthan also admits students from only these so-called upper castes and won’t admit Dalits, OBCs or Adivasis.
As Mukul argues in his book, Hindutva is not so much about sealing the dominance of Hindus wholesale but about securing and perpetuating the hegemony of the caste Hindus—the three ‘upper castes’—by emasculating the Dalit–OBC majority. Possibly this is why Hindutva proponents behave like a beleaguered minority while being 80 per cent of the population. For them only caste Hindus count as true Hindus.
This erodes the numbers, and effectively others a gamut of identities whose ‘pollution’ is to be fiercely resisted, and who are to be tamped down, lest the ‘true Hindu’ lose the upper-caste upper hand.
Is it ironic then that the baniya model of profiting from bhakti, as the Press does, is also endorsed by the satvik Brahmins? Possibly not—the capital of Brahminism, making a living by interceding with the deities and controlling access, is hardly dissimilar.