Hanuman Prasad Poddar and the Gita Press
Mr Akshaya Mukul has researched the life and times of Mr Hanuman Prasad Poddar in detail in his book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India. Indpaedia, as a neutral archive, posts articles that Indpaedia’s volunteers might not agree with. In this case, Indpaedia’s volunteers agree with the national policy on reforming marriage and inheritance laws and supporting birth control.
The Gita Press: A vehicle of Hinduism
Print Tradition : How Gita Press shaped the orthodox challenge to the Hindu Code
By Akshaya Mukul | From (Caravan
Gita Press saw itself as a vehicle of Hinduism on a global stage
Its publications: The scriptures and Kalyan
WHILE OTHER HINDI JOURNALS of colonial India—whether religious, literary or political—survive only in the archives, to be read by scholars interested in unravelling the heady days of Hindi and Hindu nationalism, Gita Press, with its flagship monthly Kalyan, has grown and prospered as the only indigenous publishing enterprise of the period that continues to this day. With around 70 retail outlets across India, including stalls at many railway stations, Gita Press is a stupendous success in the world of Indian publishing.
Founded in 1926, Kalyan did exceedingly well from the start, with a circulation of 3,000 copies each month by the end of its first year: an unbelievable figure for a genre-specific journal. By the end of 1931, its monthly circulation was 16,000. This grew by more than 50 percent in the next three years, to reach 27,500 by the end of 1934. Today, Kalyan has a circulation of over 2 lakh copies monthly, while its English counterpart Kalyana-Kalpataru has a circulation of over 1 lakh.
Additionally, Gita Press has triumphed in its key mission: publishing cheap and well-produced editions of the Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata. A pamphlet published in April 1955, when President Rajendra Prasad visited Gita Press at its Gorakhpur headquarters, stated that the press had printed and sold 27.8 million copies of its publications, excluding Kalyan and Kalyana-Kalpataru, since its founding in 1923.
As of last year, the business had sold 71.9 million copies of the Gita; 70 million copies of various works by the bhakti poet Goswami Tulsidas, including the Ramcharitmanas; and 19 million copies of the Puranas, Upanishads and other ancient scriptures. Then, there are its tracts and monographs on the duties of ideal Hindu women and children, of which 94.8 million copies have been sold so far, along with more than 65 million copies of stories from India’s mythic past, biographies of saints, and devotional songs.
The birth and success of Kalyan and Gita Press existed within a triangle, the points of which were the flowering of Hindi and Hindu journals, Marwari munificence, and the blurring of the demarcation between religion and politics, especially in the United Provinces (roughly the present-day states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand). The first of these distinct but interconnected factors involved the consolidation of Hindi, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the language of Hindus; and the rapid growth of its public sphere, in which journals, newspapers, publishing houses and public figures played an important role—with the colonial state keeping a sharp watch through its widespread machinery of informants and tough laws.
Serving sanatan dharm, political role
Second, Gita Press was a Marwari enterprise with a difference, where profit took a back seat. At the forefront was religious philanthropy in the name of saving sanatan Hindu dharma—the unchanging form of the Hindu religion, believed to have existed from time immemorial. In terms of ambition, it was a grand enterprise, unlike anything the Hindi literary world had witnessed until then, or has seen since.
Third, and most important, the 1920s were a period of competing political communalism between Hindus and Muslims. The entire nationalism debate was increasingly vitiated by religious schisms, exacerbated by a series of riots over the issue of cow protection, throughout the Hindi heartland of the United Provinces and Bihar. Congress leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, who founded the Hindu Mahasabha, which had many links with Gita Press, and others who were not enthused with Congress politics, lent support to the endeavour. The coming together of sanatan dharma leaders, such as Malaviya, and the Arya Samaj in 1923, at Banaras, and the decision to make common cause on cow protection and reconversion to Hinduism, bolstered conservative Hindu groups further. In 1925, the birth of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, with which Gita Press would later forge a close alliance, completed the scenario in which Kalyan got a firm footing.
Gita Press had both the sanction of Indian nationalists, and a deep reach, through Kalyan, into middle-class homes. Nowhere else could you get articles by Mohandas Gandhi, presidents S Radhakrishnan and Rajendra Prasad, the Swatantra Party founder C Rajagopalachari and the Congress party leader Govind Ballabh Pant—as well as Hindutva stalwarts such as the R S S head MS Golwalkar, the Ram Rajya Parishad founder Swami Karpatri Maharaj, and the spiritual leader Prabhudatt Brahmachari—all in one special issue. Considering its significance, the near-total lack of critical evaluation of Gita Press by its contemporaries is surprising; instead, it has been relegated to an odd paragraph, appendix or footnote. Little has been written about how Hindu nationalists used Kalyan’s novelty and reach among the Hindu reading public, with Gita Press and its iconic founding editor, Hanuman Prasad Poddar, as willing partners.
Poddar was more concerned with spirituality than politics; at times, he even felt the business of running a press frustrated his spiritual aims. However, in the years preceding the independence of India, disillusioned with what he called the anti-Hindu policies of the first Congress government, Poddar made a clear choice to openly support, even get actively involved in, the politics and struggles of Hindu nationalist groups and, later, political parties such as the Jana Sangh. When Hindu nationalist groups began what the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot described as “using ethno-religious appeals to build up agitational movements,” Kalyan became a propaganda vehicle to disseminate their worldviews. The increasingly polarised position of the Gita Press, and its growing importance to the Hindu nationalist cause, can be traced through several such agitational movements, including the opposition to the Hindu Code Bill and other social reforms that sought to reconcile Hindu practices with the rights to equality guaranteed by the nascent constitution of the Indian state.
Hanuman Prasad Poddar
On the Sarada Act (minimum age of marriage)
IN 1929, when the British Indian government passed the Sarada Act, which fixed the minimum age of marriage for girls as 14 and for boys as 18, Kalyan remained silent on the subject. Hanuman Prasad Poddar, who edited Kalyan until his death in 1971, and whose writing still dominates its current issues, was opposed to the law but chose to keep his anger out of the pages of the magazine. He wrote, in a letter to Gita Press’s founder Jaydayal Goyandka, “I am a big opponent of this law not only because it relates to the age of girls but due to its interference in religious matters. There is a need to get this law revoked so that in future no need is felt to legislate on such matters. To break the law and go to jail is the only way out. I think opposing the legislation from a social and religious perspective would not help. The law has to be opposed politically.”
But, he further stated, “Kalyan should not get involved in this. Instead, it should concentrate on propagating humanity, ideal behaviour and devotion to gods. Today, Kalyan’s message is spread among thousands of government employees. The moment we turn political they will move away from the journal. It is not about losing subscribers but principles.” Less than two decades later, however, as Hindu nationalism grew more vocal, these principles changed as well.
On modernising Hindu laws (on marriage and inheritance )
In 1941, the colonial government appointed a Hindu Law Committee to advocate the formation of a Hindu law code. The committee was revived in 1944, to prepare a draft Hindu Code Bill, aimed at modernising the laws of Hindu marriage and inheritance. The political scientist BD Graham, in his 1990 book on the origins of the Jan Sangh, summarised its aims: extending “the rights of Hindu women by enforcing monogamy, recognizing the principle of inheritance through a daughter, and giving a woman complete rather than limited control of her property.” The Hindu Code Bill incensed orthodox Hindus, who saw it as an affront to their religion in the name of social reform. As a grand coalition of myriad orthodox elements emerged, Kalyan became an important voice in the campaign against the bill, not only educating its readers but also exhorting them to protest.
An alert Kalyan had kept an eye on a slew of legislation being introduced in the constituent assembly, which had been elected in 1946. One early piece of legislation that had caught Goyandka’s attention related to the payment of compensation to a wife separated from her husband. In August 1946, Goyandka wrote an article in Kalyan titled ‘Hindu Vivah Ki Pavitrata Evam Tatsambandhi Kanoon’—The Sanctity of Hindu Marriage and Related Laws—in which he argued that such “independence is not promised to women in the Hindu social structure. A woman has to live with her father till marriage, with her husband as a married woman and after his demise she has to live either with her son or some other relative. She cannot be independent at any cost.”
Goyandka stressed the supremacy of the shastras—which, according to him, already governed each and every aspect of Hindu life—and the inadvisability of tinkering with them. He also expressed his opposition to three more planned laws that would legalise divorce, inter-caste marriage, and marriage within the same gotra—patrilineal kinship group. For Goyandka, these pieces of legislation would not empower women, but would make them morally depraved. Therefore, Hindus had to oppose them unitedly. Goyandka stated that Malaviya, who he believed was the biggest benefactor of Hindus, saw such social legislation as a diversion from more serious problems that plagued the country.
On 21 February 1947, the four-member Hindu Law Committee, chaired by the Calcutta High Court judge BN Rau, submitted its report to the government. The historian Geraldine Forbes wrote in her 1996 book, Women in Modern India, that the Rau Committee’s report “masterfully blended two views of Hindu society”—it “nationalized the women’s rights movement, claiming that it would be possible to combine the best elements from the ancient Hindu texts with legal principles suitable for contemporary society.” A bill based on the report was introduced into the Central legislature.
In her 2012 book, Debating Patriarchy, historian Chitra Sinha detailed how the controversial Hindu Code Bill “introduced two types of marriage: the sacramental and civil,” promising a great deal of freedom and flexibility in marriage and divorce—a paradigm shift that immediately invited the ire of Hindu traditionalists. Even those who had the sacramental, traditional marriage could have it civil-registered; this would enable either partner to subsequently seek divorce. The bill also did away with polygamy, made impotency grounds for divorce, and did away with restrictions on marriage between people of different castes or of a shared gotra.
In terms of inheritance laws, Sinha notes, the Hindu Code Bill emphasised individual rights and blood relationships. Thus “the widow, the daughter and the widow of a predeceased son were brought at par” with those who received property through the traditional law of inheritance, through agnates.
The Hindu Code Bill was shelved, but taken up again in independent India, in April 1948. Kalyan’s response was swift and direct. The June issue carried a detailed piece of commentary referring to the Hindu Code as “A Plan for the Destruction of Hindu Culture.” The article’s unnamed author stated that the proposed legislation was the handiwork of people who knew nothing about the shastras, but were so influenced by Western civilisation’s according of primacy to physical needs that they were out to destroy the Hindu jati.
BR Ambedkar, who was then the law minister, was the primary target of the criticism. Kalyan had been harsh to him in the past for demanding equality for untouchables, and this time, too, the article made highly disparaging, casteist remarks about him. Sir Sultan Ahmed, a former law minister, who introduced the bill in the legislature in 1944, was not spared either.
The magazine claimed that the bill was being forced through parliament despite a clear lack of support for it, which it said the Rau Committee had realized when it travelled across the country eliciting people’s opinions. The committee’s report had been submitted in the face of strong opposition from one of its members, the former Calcutta High Court judge Dwarka Nath Mitter, who was an expert on Hindu law. The journal relied heavily on Mitter’s dissenting note, which in turn may have been the result of witnessing “such strong opposition to the reforms suggested,” as Sinha noted in her book. Mitter had maintained an exhaustive record of the deliberations of the Hindu Law Committee, and of the views of both opponents and supporters of various provisions of the bill. He had come to the conclusion, as noted in his dissenting statement, “that the majority of the Hindus incline to the view that the codification of Hindu Law is neither possible nor desirable.”
For Gita Press, Mitter’s chronicle of public hearings on the Hindu Code Bill—including opposition by orthodox groups such as the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Akhil Bharatiya Dharma Sangh, the Akhil Bharatiya Varnashram Swaraj Sangh and various Jain associations—was a godsend. Kalyan used it to make the point that the votaries of the Hindu Code Bill were in a hopeless minority. The journal also emphasised the opposition to the bill by leading conservative politicians such as Malaviya and Kailash Nath Katju, and by women novelists like Anurupa Devi of Bengal. “Are they all bereft of wisdom?” the June 1948 diatribe against the bill asked. “Are only a handful of reformists wise?”
In response to the progressive argument that legislating the Hindu Code would promote caste and gender equality in society, the same article asked if equality had brought happiness in the Western domestic world. “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 civilisation is a curse on women,” it argued. “The system created by the sages and saints for Indian women at home and in society was endowed with their knowledge.”
Realising that its arguments against the bill would have even greater resonance among orthodox sections of society if articulated through the Hindu–Muslim prism, the article presented the legislation as a Muslim assault on Hindus’ domestic domain. Thus, the provision for giving a daughter inheritance rights to her father’s property was seen as a straight lift from Muslim law: “Since the bill is the brainchild of Sir Sultan Ahmed it is natural such a provision has been made.” Kalyan painted a dreadful picture of the repercussions of daughters getting inheritance rights. “The battle between brothers will now become a battle between brother and sister. Daughters may get rights from their fathers, but will have to give away similar rights to their husband’s sisters. There will be no benefit, but the peace and tranquillity of our homes will vanish. Daughters live with their husbands. How will if benefit the family if they get a share of their father’s wealth?”
There was the fear that giving girls aged 16 and above the freedom to marry anyone of their choice might lead to them tying the knot with Muslim boys. “In one corner of the house, Bhagwan will be worshipped; at the other end there will be recitation of the Quran and the cooking of beef. Which Hindu will tolerate such a law?”
Similar fears were expressed about lifting the ban on marriage within gotras and allowing divorce. Hindu marriage was a spiritual bond, Kalyan argued, and cited one A Mark Mathews as having said “Divorce is a blot on American society” to drive home the point that India was adopting this social disease.
While making it clear that only pandits and scholars of the shastras had the right to interpret and point out the rights and wrongs in Hindu marriage, Kalyan requested readers to send letters of protest to Jawaharlal Nehru. As a strategy to exercise moral pressure on the government and votaries of the legislation, Kalyan reproduced a letter to the Delhi-based Indian News Chronicle, which claimed even the late Mohandas Gandhi disapproved of the Hindu Code Bill. The letter-writer said the Mahatma could not have imagined “a situation in which a wife would be doing things separately from her husband. Taking care of children and looking after the house would take away all her energy.”
A SELECT COMMITTEE WAS SCHEDULED to meet regarding the bill on 20 July 1948, and the constituent assembly session was to commence on 4 August. Kalyan urged opponents of the Hindu Code Bill—including Jains, Arya Samaj members and Sikhs—to be vocal. One of the most outspoken objectors to the Hindu Code Bill was Swami Karpatri, an old ally of Gita Press, who had been spewing venom in Sanmarg, the daily newspaper he had founded. The two platforms combined resources, and, in its July issue, Kalyan reproduced a public notice that had first appeared in the newspaper. “Everyone is caught up in their own troubles. The government will make use of the current situation and pass the bill. The government should follow the principles of democracy,” the notice read. People in the villages were not even aware of the Hindu Code Bill, it argued. “We request Nehru to carefully read the note of dissent by Mitter. We also request everyone opposed to the bill to send letters and telegrams before 4 August to the government. If this is not done, later we will be told there was not enough opposition to the bill.”
In its August issue, Kalyan made another fervent appeal to the government. Apart from reiterating earlier arguments, the Marwari activist and businessman Bhagwan Das Halna asked lawmakers to consider the views of Malaviya, “the uncrowned king of Hindu India,” as well as an opinion that had been written by four judges of the Calcutta High Court, which stated that “Most of the rules of Hindu law are now well settled and well understood, and a code is not, therefore, called for at all. We are not aware that the whole of the personal law of any community in any country has been, or is sought to be, embodied in a code, and it is our conviction that all communities in India, like the Muslims for instance, will stoutly resist any attempt to foist a code of personal law upon them. We see no reason why the Hindus should be treated differently.”
The Hindu Code Bill could not be taken up during the August 1948 session of the constituent assembly, but Kalyan kept up its campaign. In an editorial comment in October, Poddar warned readers that “President Rajendra Prasad advised shelving of the bill on legal grounds, but this has not been accepted. Only the debate on the bill has been put on hold until the next session. As before, the general public and organisations should continue to hold protest meetings and send letters and telegrams.” Indeed, as Prasad’s personal secretary, Gyanwati Darbar, recounted in an interview for the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library’s Oral History project, “Prasad had strongly opposed the Hindu Code Bill right from the beginning. He felt the bill would destroy our strong family links and our cultural tradition would go haywire.”
Kalyan’s criticism of the Hindu Code Bill had so far comprised general religious and communal rhetoric, but it soon began to sharpen its political attack on several fronts. In its March 1949 issue, in a four-page critique titled ‘Hindu Code Bill: A Danger to Culture and Religion,’ the journal challenged the proposed legislation on three grounds. First, it held that the constituent assembly had no right to legislate on religious matters, as neither the voter nor his representative were required to have any knowledge of religion. If they had no knowledge of religion, how could they decide on a religious issue? Second, it argued that the constituent assembly had agreed in principle not to interfere in matters of religion, but was now violating that promise as marriage was the holiest ritual for Hindus. Third, Kalyan contended, in a secular country, making laws relating to any one religion was outright objectionable. The last charge—of interfering with the religious code of the majority community while letting off minorities—was levelled against what was seen as Nehru’s preferential treatment of minorities, especially Muslims.
Kalyan even attacked the very basis of the constituent assembly, saying it did not truly represent the people as it had been constituted by provincial assemblies that were elected by a minuscule 35 million people out of a total population of 400 million. “And if Muslim votes are taken out of this … the voter percentage goes down even further,” the article said.
As for the specific clauses of the bill, the article painted a gruesome picture of their prospective impact. Allowing marriages within gotras would mean that distant cousins, and even uncles and nieces, could marry each other. Inter-caste marriages would become legal, and marriage between Hindus of any caste, and between Hindus and people of other religions, would be valid. Kalyan presented a scenario in which a capricious son of a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya could bring home any girl—either of a lower caste, or a Christian or Muslim—and even consume meat, causing immense pain to family members who followed the varna system. If a Christian or Muslim declared himself a Hindu and married a Hindu girl, the couple’s son, it warned, could inherit the mother’s wealth and then revert to the original faith of his father.
A bigger perceived threat was the gradual redundancy of shastric marriage rituals as court marriages became more common and acceptable. Divorce, as Kalyan understood it, could take place simply if one partner in a marriage levelled allegations against the other. This would destroy the great tradition of women being pativrata—worshipping their husbands. The loss to a woman, especially to her character, was stressed, as the husband, “in order to escape paying of maintenance could cook up stories to prove her to be immoral.” Adoption was another issue raised—Kalyan maintained it was a religious process that had to follow an elaborate ritual, but the provisions for adoption in the bill allowed a man without a child to adopt a non-Hindu child.
The Hindu Code Bill was also seen as a threat to the joint-family system. Kalyan argued, “It is due to this system that, despite suffering thousands of years of oppressive foreign rule, Hindu families could retain their fortune.” For the magazine, giving an individual the right to his or her share of property could create situations in which one member of a family decided to sell off his share without consulting the others. The inheritance clause in the new law threatened the time-tested system of succession on the basis of seniority among male descendants.
Protests against the Hindu Code Bill intensified as Kalyan took upon itself the task of involving its readers. Claiming that even within the Congress there were differing opinions on the proposed law, the magazine asked readers to send letters of protest to Prime Minister Nehru and the Lok Sabha speaker GV Mavalankar. It also published appeals by Swami Karpatri and Algu Rai Shastri, a Congress politician and a member of the legislative assembly of the United Provinces, who had made his name working for untouchables. Karpatri argued that the bill was neither tarksammat nor shastrasammat nor loksammat—based neither on logic, nor the shastras, nor public opinion. And Shastri, strangely seeming to forget his own work among untouchables, asked the government to leave such matters to religious gurus and not overstep its bounds by taking up the task of social reform. “It is as if you send someone to your house to make arrangements to feed your guests and he sells off your property,” he wrote in Kalyan’s July 1949 issue.
Kalyan also employed a novel literary tool to stoke resistance during the Hindu Code Bill controversy, carrying an account of a dream a swami had from “midnight to dawn” on 15 June 1949. The swami reproduced every piece of dialogue he claimed to have heard in the magazine’s August issue. The dream was set in a courtroom, and featured Ambedkar as a lawyer. The case being heard was of a Brahmin woman who had been lured into marriage by her doctor, who claimed to be a Brahmin from Madras but turned out to be a Chamar, from an untouchable caste of leather workers. The man who had testified to the doctor’s caste was also found to be of low caste. While married, the Brahmin lady alleged, she had received a share of her father’s property, which was sold, and the money pocketed by her husband. In the dream, Ambedkar, as counsel for the husband, argued that his client had done nothing wrong under the Hindu Code Bill. However, the judge termed the law illegal and ruled in favour of the Brahmin woman. When Ambedkar protested, and even threatened the judge with dismissal, the judge replied that he would request “mother nature” to throw out “black English rulers” just the way “real English rulers” had been made to leave. Then, “pure democratic government would be established.”
Ambedkar bore the brunt of Poddar’s hostility throughout his stint as law minister, and Kalyan demanded his resignation on the slightest pretext. In 1950, newspaper reports of Ambedkar’s allegedly negative remarks about the Hindu gods Rama and Krishna caused the magazine to launch a fusillade against secularism in general and the “anti-Hindu” Ambedkar in particular. “Such signs do not augur well for a democracy in its infancy,” it prophesied that May. “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 their law minister. Through peaceful but effective means we should force the government to remove him and withdraw the Hindu Code Bill.”
Kalyan called on Rajendra Prasad, India’s “religiously inclined” president; prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the “international statesman”; the “elderly experienced” home minister Sardar Patel; and top Congress functionaries, to sack Ambedkar and withdraw the Hindu Code Bill, to exhibit their sense of justice and belief in democratic principles.
When the Hindu Code Bill finally came up for discussion in parliament, in 1950 and 1951, it was stalled through a series of motions. One of the members of the constituent assembly, the eminent lawyer Prabhu Dayal Himmatsingka, was an old friend of Poddar’s and a fellow accomplice in the 1914 Rodda Arms Robbery case, in which they had both been convicted of stealing pistols that were used for revolutionary activities. Along with the senior politician Biswanath Das, Himmatsingka moved the legislature to seek wider discussion on the bill. A series of motions followed, with some parliamentarians demanding that the bill be sent to another select committee and others demanding that the proposed law be universally applicable to citizens of all religions. The bill was eventually put in cold storage for a few years. A disappointed Ambedkar resigned from his post as law minister.
While reformist and conservative politicians engaged in intense battle in the legislature, Poddar and Kalyan reworked their opposition to the bill. Instead of harping on the threat to Hindus’ existence, Poddar said there were more urgent tasks at hand for the government of the new nation than passing the Hindu Code Bill. In the September 1951 issue of Kalyan, he reminded the government of the various problems afflicting the country. “Somewhere there is drought, somewhere there is flood. There is an outcry for food. On the other hand Pakistan is giving a call for jihad and Mian Liaquat is raring to fight. In such a situation our policy should be to forge unity and affection so that everyone supports the government in one voice and strengthens it. But unfortunately, at such a juncture our government is bringing the Hindu Code Bill.”
Poddar realised the bill could be used as a poll issue during the first general election, in 1951–52. However, his appeal to voters in Kalyan could not prevent the landslide victory of the Congress party. A confident, newly elected government under Nehru reworked the legislation, dismembering it into four separate bills—the Hindu Marriage Bill, the Hindu Succession Bill, the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Bill, and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Bill. Over a span of three years, between 1954 and 1956, the four bills were passed by huge majorities.
Still, Poddar did not give up. In 1954, when the government sought public opinion on the Hindu Succession Bill, he reiterated his stated opposition and requested his readers—“Hindu janta, educated, learned, Hindu institutions, religious gurus, business organisations”—to write to the law minister protesting against the bill. But it was a lost battle. Gita Press never forgave the Congress, especially Nehru, for what it saw as an assault on the majority community.
Adapted by (Caravan from Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, published in Aug 2015 by HarperCollins Publishers India.
Opposing birth control
How the Gita Press opposed birth control to shore up the Hindu population
An excerpt from the book charting the role played by the Gita Press in India’s Hindutva movement.
Even though, by the mid-1930s, (Hanuman Prasad) Poddar’s relationship with Gandhi had started wearing thin on many counts, certain ideas and principles the Mahatma held helped the Gita Press counter threats to its views on women’s sexuality. One such threat was the use of contraceptives by women as a means of “birth control” – a term coined by Margaret Sanger, the American feminist and propagator of the slogan “every child should be a wanted child”. The use of contraceptives by women was still in its infancy worldwide and was being resisted by conservative elements, and Sanger was tirelessly lobbying for a woman’s right to choose when to have a child.
At the end of 1935, Gandhi in a long interview to Sanger had argued that the remedy did not lie in contraception or any other artificial birth-control measure but in women saying “no to their husbands when they approach them carnally”. Confident that husbands, not all of whom were “brutes”, would understand this resistance from their wives, a method he claimed to have taught to many women, Gandhi upheld another principle – that physical union should take place only to produce children. Otherwise, he told Sanger: “When both want to satisfy animal passion without having to suffer the consequences of their act it is not love, it is lust . . . When a husband says, ‘Let us not have children, but let us have relations’, what is that but animal passion?”
Sanger’s counter that Gandhi’s method of self-restraint could result in “irritations, disputes and thwarted longings” did not convince him.
When she gave “hard cases” of people who had experienced nervous breakdowns as a result of sexual restraint, he responded that these must be “based on examination of imbeciles”. Gandhi reiterated his sex-only-for-procreation position in Harijan in March 1936, while also expressing admiration for Sanger’s “zeal”.
For Poddar, the Gandhi–Sanger debate was a godsend. In his April 1936 article Vartaman Shiksha, Poddar acknowledged that in India having too many children was a cause of misery for parents, but called it divine providence. “Birth is pre-ordained . . . If someone does not believe in this, then self-restraint is the only solution.” Echoing Gandhi, Poddar said he did not want to be disrespectful to Sanger as her intentions were right, but contraception in the Indian context was both harmful and sinful. He argued the sole purpose of birth-control measures was to satisfy sexual passion, and that could encourage adultery.
Without mentioning the source (a common habit with him), Poddar referred to an article by Gandhi that warned of negative consequences of artificial birth control, many of which were still not apparent. One consequence was the wave of sexual liberty among school- and college-going females, as restricting the use of contraceptives to married women was impossible. Besides, with the availability of contraceptives, marriage had lost its sanctity and become merely a means to satisfy the sexual urge.
Even as late as 1969, Kalyan used a relevant portion from Gandhi’s Navjivan article of 1925 to make its point against contraception. Gandhi had appealed to doctors, saying that that they would do a great service to mankind if they stopped prescribing artificial methods of birth control. “Encouraging artificial methods is like encouraging evil. It makes men and women frivolous. Artificial methods would result in impotence and decline in sperm count. This remedy would prove to be worse than the disease.”
Gandhi’s stance on birth control through abstention was integral to his view of marriage as an institution that, as he told C.F. Andrews, “is a status lower than that of celibacy”.
Writing to Andrews way back in 1920, Gandhi had said, “Take it from me that there is no happiness in marriage.” Sex between husband and wife was abhorrent for him: “I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of man and woman. That it leads to the birth of children is due to God’s inscrutable way” and “. . . the occasion of marriage should remind us of self-restraint. If desires cannot be conquered, they should be harnessed.”
Vinoba Bhave, one of Gandhi’s closest disciples, lent his support to Gita Press’s campaign against family planning that for him represented the defeat of “spiritual and moral values”. Disputing the theory of population becoming a burden, Bhave warned that birth control would negatively impact not only the birth of children but also intelligence: “The creative energy we call sperm has given birth to the great poet Valmiki and fearless Hanuman. People are now misusing that creative energy. Husband and wife are making such an arrangement (using birth control) so that they can have sex but not produce children. If they continue like this, the nation will lose power.” Bhave’s one-point solution was to return to a life divided into four ashrams – brahmacharya, garhasthya, vanaprastha and sanyas – in which the garhasthya (householder) phase was to last from the age of twenty-five to forty- five, the right age for having children.
Charu Chandra Mitra’s 1948 serialised article Nari included a scathing attack on the practice of birth control and its impact on women’s freedom. For him, the freedom that birth control promised was harmful to women and the nation, and would have a direct and adverse impact on marriage since the age-old concept of marriage as “the sole way to contain the sexual urge” would no longer hold. Marriage and domesticity – the pleasure of bearing and rearing children – would be the biggest casualty of this freedom, he contended. Men and women who practised birth control, he predicted, would lead a lonely old age.
Gita Press’s opposition to artificial birth-control measures continued into the late 1960s. Kalyan now turned to KC Mishra, a medical practitioner who articulated a medico-religious argument. With over three decades of practice, as he claimed, Mishra regretted the adoption of Western methods, “that was akin to people in the plains wearing winter clothing required in Kashmir”. Mishra said birth-control measures being used in the cold countries of Europe could not be used in a warm country like India. Listing their side effects, Mishra said that even Dr Robert BMC Clure, who had worked on family planning in China for twenty-four years, in the Arab world for four years and in India for twelve years, had found problems with contraceptives.
Clure had said that “until public health education made sterilisation acceptable, there would be no good contraceptive available in rural areas”, and that “unnatural methods all have serious side effects on the nervous system besides leading to digestive trouble, etc.”. Mishra’s invocation to Indian youth was not to go in for sterilisation as it would in the long term weaken the nation. “If youth lose their power to produce, the nation would face a shortage of soldiers.”
The subtext of Gita Press’s sustained, often shrill, campaign with religious and moral overtones was not so much resistance to modern methods of birth control as it was another reflection of an Islamophobic mindset.
Population was an important ingredient in the communal competition, the bogey of the Muslim population rising at an unimaginably greater pace than that of the Hindus being one of the many used by Hindu nationalist groups.
Right from its inception, through the intense communal polarisation during the 1940s and 1960s, Gita Press made repeated use of common Hindu nationalist phrases such as “Muslim violence against Hindus”, “Muslim rape of Hindu women”, “Muslim pillaging of Hindu property”, “Muslim virility” and “increasing Muslim population” to drive home the story of victimhood of the Hindus at the hands of invader Muslims.
Already, Gita Press had carried Hitler’s appeal to German women to confine themselves to the roles of wives and mothers. Drawing from Hitler’s Germany was not an innocuous act, but Gita Press’s affirmation of its regard for the fascist ruler. In fact, when it comes to the “women question”, there is a great deal of similarity between Nazi Germany, Gita Press and other Hindu nationalist organisations like the R S S, Hindu Mahasabha and others; in particular, the “hysterical protective anxiety about numbers” vis-à-vis the Muslims shown by Gita Press and the entire Hindu right owes a lot to Hitler.
Much of Gita Press’s concern about the declining Hindu population emanated from successive census reports that created the fear of Muslims racing past the Hindus, at least in the politically and socially volatile United Provinces. The census report in 1911 gave official credence to the Hindu nationalist narrative by making statements like “Musalmans are more fertile than Hindus”, and in 1921, “prohibition of remarriage of widows does not affect Muhammadans” and “both relatively and absolutely Hindus have lost”. Further, between 1911 and 1921, “Hindus decreased by 347 persons per 1,000”. Such reports only fuelled fears based on the belief that “the social and political influence of a population is in direct proportion to its size”.
The hysteria of “saffron demography”, a term coined by Particia and Roger Jeffery, was echoed by Poddar himself in reply to a Kalyan reader who wanted his views on family planning. Poddar severely criticised the government for its family planning programme. Repeating the moral and physical problems caused by the government initiative, he said the biggest threat was to “the future of the Hindu jati”.
Poddar was angry that the government’s family planning was gaining ground only among Hindus, while Muslims had termed it “anti-religious” and kept away from it. Muslims, he said, were allowed to keep more than one wife and, therefore, their population was rising at a greater pace while that of the Hindus was declining and was likely to dip further: “If the situation continues like this, the number of Muslims would be the same as the Hindus or may even surpass them. The adverse impact of such a scenario can be gauged from the formation of one Pakistan. Even the Christian population is rising. Every law-abiding citizen should pay heed to this, especially the Hindus.”
Poddar batted for self-restraint as the best form of birth control. It seems the reader had expressed concern about the shortage of food due to rising population; Poddar dismissed such a fear and told him to leave the task of feeding everyone to god.
Excerpted by Scroll.in with permission from Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, Akshaya Mukul, HarperCollins India.
Vignettes about Poddar/ Gita Press from India Today’s review of Mukul’s book
How wrong can right be
Akshaya Mukul's first-rate analysis of the Gita Press reveals how putrid some aspects of Hindu nationalism are
August 13, 2015 | Aakar Patel, India Today (The following vignettes from Mr Akshaya Mukul's book have been extracted from Mr Patel’s review.)
Two publisher-businessmen-writers (also agony aunts for your spiritual problems) pushed the message of Hindu nationalism from their press. Of these two Marwari men, one was first attracted to Gandhi and then put off by his caste reforms. He, Hanuman Prasad Poddar, is clearly unhinged, having the sort of spiritual epiphanies that would have been seen as messianic in a monotheistic nation. These epiphanies do not make him gentle: Poddar is an enthusiastic supporter of keeping Dalits out of temples and rejects the idea of dining together with them.
The idea and the definition of a Hindu identity as sharply posited against Islam and Muslims are a gift of this period. Much of this may be attributed to the Gita Press. It has put out over 150 million copies of various religious titles, primarily the Gita and the Ramayana of Tulsidas. This is astonishing for a country historically low in literacy and even lower in deploying its ability to read on actual texts.
This is coupled with a magazine called Kalyan (still extant) that reaches 200,000 homes. I did not know that it had an English edition that reached 100,000. These are staggering numbers, given how kooky the content of the magazine is.
It will not surprise the reader that Gita Press has a strong dislike of modern and English education, that it has a problem with cinema, and that it has attacked birth control. I was not surprised to learn either that it was in favour of child marriage, and so opposed to the law Muhammad Ali Jinnah brought about (called the Sarda act), which banned child marriage in India.
As is the case when men of any religious persuasion embark on spreading morality, the female and her behaviour is roped in. One of the most horrifying chapters is the one on family values ('The moral universe of Gita Press').
I was struck at how the press owners and their writers are preponderantly Bania and Brahmin. This has been a tradition for quite some time and the early part of the 20th century, according to this book, saw magazines which were aimed at reform in Marwari and Aggarwal society which were financed by Marwaris but were edited by Brahmins.
This caste-specific composition affected the press' output, naturally. Pushing the traditionalist positions on Hinduism also meant pushing caste. Mukul tells us that "much of the Gita Press's critique of the Hindu Code Bill stemmed from its opposition to lower castes gaining liberty of access to upper-caste homes through marital alliances that had the sanction of law".
This is, as I said, a scholarly work. In his bibliography, writer Akshaya Mukul lists two dozen works in Hindi under the secondary sources alone. The English ones run into well over a hundred, and each page and almost every paragraph shows the depth of the research. It is not easy to be entertaining with subjects as grim as the ones the author tackles, and the book is heavy going in parts, given the vast and in fact Tolstoyesque cast of characters, which include many national figures, including G.D. Birla, Ramnath Goenka, among others.
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist