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Former president Pranab Mukherjee speaks as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat adjusts the mike during the closing ceremony of ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’, an (RSS) event to mark the conclusion of a three-year training camp for Swayamsevaks, in Nagpur on June 7, 2018. (PTI)

India’s ex-pres Pranab reminds RSS of ‘soul of pluralism’

WT24 Desk

Speaking at its headquarters, former president of India Pranab Mukherjee on Thursday did some plain-speaking on nationalism and patriotism to RSS cadre telling them that India’s multiple faiths and cultures made it tolerant and that the soul of the nation resided in its pluralism and secularism.

Calling for a dialogue to balance competing interests and reconcile them, he made it clear that hatred dilutes nationalism and intolerance will dilute national identity. “Divergent stands in public discourse have to be recognised.”

Sharing “some truths that I have internalised during my 50 year long public life” as a parliamentarian and administrator, he said the soul of India resided in “pluralism and tolerance”.

“This plurality of our society has come through assimilation of ideas over centuries. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation,” he said addressing the third year annual training camp at the RSS headquarters here even as his acceptance of the invitation to the event came in for strong criticism from Congress leaders and Left parties.

Invoking the vision of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, Mukherhjee said India’s nationhood was not one language, one religion or one enemy.

“It’s the perennial one universalism of 1.3 billion people who use more than 122 languages, 1,600 dialects in their everyday lives, practice seven major religions, belong to three major ethnic groups… live under one system, one flag and one identity of being ‘Bharatiya’ and have no enemies. That is what makes India a diverse and united nation,” he said, speaking in English and peppering his speech with some words and phrases from his mother tongue Bengali.

He said intolerance diluted nationalism and hate was destroying people. “Only a non-violent society can ensure participation of all sections of people in the democratic process, especially marginalised and dispossesed. We must move from violence, anger and conflict to peace, harmony and happiness. Our motherland is asking for that. Our motherland deserves that,” Mukherjee said in his 30-minute address.

The former president surprised the political world when he accepted RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s invitation to attend the organisation’s event at its headquarters. While the Congress officially maintained silence, its leaders including Anand Sharma, Ahmed Patel and his own daughter Sharmistha were critical of it.

As television channels beamed images of Mukherjee watching a drill by RSS cadres in the company of Bhagwat, Sharma tweeted that the image of Mukherjee at the RSS headquarters has anguished millions of Congress workers in the country.

Earlier, Mukherjee, who had strongly denounced the saffron founthead during his entire political career, visited the memorial of RSS founder KB Hedgewar and wrote in the visitors’ book: “Came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of India KB Hedgewarji.”

On patriotism, the former Congress leader said: “From our Constitution flows our nationalism. The construct of Indian nationalism is Constitutional patriotism which consists of an appreciation of our inherited and shared diversity, readiness to enact one citizenship at different levels and an ability to self correct and learn from others.”

Meanwhile,BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav tweeted his appreciation of former president Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at an RSS event calling it ‘great’.

“Great address by Dr Pranab Mukharjee at Nagpur. His address and Dr Bhagwat’s address are in a way complementary to each other. Nation First is the core message of both,” Madhav tweeted.

The mood in the Congress camp, however, kept changing. It started with stunned silence over the former president’s decision to attend the event, changed into ‘anguish’ from a few leaders, including Mukherjee’s daughter, and finally came the sigh of relief after Mukherjee had delivered a sharp speech.

In what many analysts saw as a strong message to the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mukherjee said, “the soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance.”

In his 35-minute speech delivered in English, Mukherjee said, “Secularism and inclusion is a matter of faith for us. India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one nation.”

Congress leaders started the day by expressing anguish over the former president’s presence at the RSS headquarters.

Ahmed Patel in a tweet that many believe was at the behest of Sonia Gandhi wrote: “Didn’t expect this from Pranab Da.”

This came hours after Congress leader and Mukherjee’s daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee had warned him against attending the function, saying his speech would be forgotten but the visuals will remain and be misused by the BJP’s ‘dirty tricks department’.

Another senior Congress leader Anand Sharma also tweeted his ‘anguish’ saying, “The images of Pranab Da, veteran leader and ideologue at RSS Headquarters have anguished millions of Congress workers and all those who believed in pluralism, diversity and the foundational values of the Indian Republic.”

But, as Pranab Mukherjee’s speech unfolded, the mood in Congress changed.

Anand Sharma told a news channel, “Nobody in the Congress had any doubt about Mr Mukherjee’s clarity, courage, conviction and his commitment to the idea of India. The message that he has given is of an India that is inclusive and tolerant, peaceful, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. Is the RSS willing to absorb is the question I had raised and that is still in my mind.”

Emboldened by the speech, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala hailed the former president for showing the “mirror of truth” to the RSS.

Addressing an unusual late night press briefing, Surjewala praised the veteran party leader for reminding the RSS of India’s “pluralism’, ‘tolerance’, ‘secularism’ and ‘inclusiveness’ as an article of faith and soul of the country”.

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram, who had earlier requested Mukherjee to show a mirror to the RSS, lauded him for highlighting Congress’ ideology during his speech. “Happy that Mr Pranab Mukherjee told the RSS what is right about Congress’ ideology. It was his way of saying what is wrong about RSS’ ideology,” Chidambaram tweeted.

But, not all were happy with the speech. CPM leader Sitaram Yechury tweeted, “He would have done well to remind the RSS of its own history – banned thrice by Congress governments, first time by Sardar Patel, following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.”

The CPM general secretary said in the “history capsule” delivered by Mukherjee, the absence of Mahatma Gandhi and his assassination spoke volumes.

West Bengal’s Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury questioned the need for Mukherjee to go to the RSS’s Nagpur headquarters at all.

“More than what he said, what is important is who he is telling all this. Where is he saying this? What was the need?” said Chowdhury, who is considered close to Mukherjee.

Trinamool Congress secretary general Partha Chatterjee said, “We feel his attending the event is undesirable. I am shocked at what Pranabda has done.”

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