India’s national identity has taken shape after the confluence and the assimilation of multiple cultures that have created a tolerant society, former President Pranab Mukherjee
said at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s headquarters
in Nagpur on Thursday.
On a closely watched visit that irked his Congress party, Mukherjee, who was India’s President from 2012 to 2017, said pluralism, a common history and the celebration of diversity make the country special.
Any attempt at defining our nationhood with religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only dilute our identity, Mukherjee said at a function of the RSS’s third-year officers’ training camp, discussing the notions of “nation, nationalism
"Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us," he added.
The senior leader, who has been associated with the Congress for about five decades, also pointed out that art, literature and scholarship flourished in liberal institutions in ancient India.
Mukherjee said India needed to shun violence in every form --- both physical and verbal, stressing the society must tread the path of peace and harmony.
Around 6:30pm, Mukherjee stepped on to the dais flanked by leaders of the right-wing, nationalistic group. Next, the RSS flag was hoisted and a prayer chanted at the venue. Seated next to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Mukherjee watched as RSS volunteers showcased their skills.
In his speech, Bhagwat harped on “unity in diversity”, stressing the RSS wanted to unite the entire society. “All of us are the children of Mother India,” he said, advocating a “democratic mindset”.
Governments, too, have their limitations and the fate of a country can be changed if the society is mobilised, he said.
Earlier in the day, TV news channels beamed visuals of Mukherjee’s visit to RSS founder KB Hedgewar’s birthplace in Nagpur.
“Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India,” he wrote in the visitors’ book, according to a photo tweeted by news agency ANI.
But Mukherjee’s Nagpur visit touched many raw nerves in the Congress camp that launched a counterattack on the organisation, which it considers ideologically opposite.
Party leader Anand Sharma said Mukherjee’s decision “anguished millions of Congress workers and all those who believed in pluralism, diversity and the foundational values of the Indian Republic”.
The Congress tweeted a video that it called a “primer” on what the RSS stood for, describing the group as “Anti-Development” and criticising its history.
“The RSS was never part of the freedom struggle against the British…,” the Congress said in a blog on its website. “The RSS has never respected the tricolour, and it is only recently, that they have allowed the flag to be unfurled at their headquarters."
In the build-up to the event, several Congress leaders questioned Mukherjee’s decision. Even Mukherjee’s daughter, Congress leader
Sharmistha Mukherjee, warned the former President against what she called the “dirty tricks” department of the Centre’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The RSS, which many describe as the BJP’s ideological parent, defended its invitation to Mukherjee and said the Sangh “reaches out to influential people from different walks of social life and opinion makers”.
Soon after curtains came down on the event, TV channels started debating whether the Congress overreacted before Mukherjee's speech, which eventually upheld pluralism and India's national identity.