As a student of history, I have seen that in some cases interested parties do push history off its academic pedestal and try to erect it on a foundation comprising hearsay, emotions, personal experiences and faith. The creature standing on this base ceases to be history and is cursed to inhabit the shadowy world where facts are unwelcome. The populists, peddlers of hoaxes and inhabitants of echo chambers often try to bestow a pedigree on this creature. A pedigree that crumbles when subjected to rigorous scrutiny.
Another effort that has baffled me is the quest to slot people and events into binaries—black or white. Throughout history, man has walked on the grey side. And that is why no trained historian shuns the greys. I feel that this game of binaries might perhaps be rooted in the need for closure. Perhaps, that is also why we have so many conspiracy theories about deaths.
Will we ever have closure on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s death? Will the conspiracy theories about Lal Bahadur Shastri’s passing in Tashkent die out? Or even those about the comparatively recent passing of everyone from Madhavrao Scindia to Rajesh Pilot to G.M.C. Balayogi and Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy?
This special issue of THE WEEK, too, features a man whose death has got more press than his life. But we have set the death aside to focus on the life of Syama Prasad Mookerjee—former Union minister, a colossus in academia, former president of the Maha Bodhi Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, a fine orator and founder of the Jana Sangh.
Senior Special Correspondent Rabi Banerjee accessed declassified documents from the home department of West Bengal and spoke to multiple sources to bring you this uncommon life. Justice Chittatosh Mookerjee’s article on his uncle is a wholesome addition to the package. There are also interviews with former governor Tathagata Roy and Netaji’s grandson Chandra Bose.
I am sure that it was no easy assignment for Rabi, considering that both Mookerjee’s detractors and admirers seek to highlight elements that bolster their arguments. And also taking into account the amount of misinformation peddled about him and magnified by WhatsApp University. Neither Rabi nor I would claim that the Mookerjee story is complete. We only hope that it would encourage others to complete the story—with facts. For example, Mookerjee’s stand on Article 370 alone is worth studying; his views on the legislation had changed over time.
The most widely circulated Mookerjee quote is the one that calls for one flag, one prime minister and one Constitution for India. I agree to the last two wholeheartedly. The first one is debatable though. Every US state has a flag featuring local elements, and they take nothing away from “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Republics in the USSR had their own flags; many Russian cities have flags. Australian states and cities have flags. Sometimes, flags reflect current realities. For example, the flag of the American state of Mississippi has been taken down in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests; the flag featured Confederate symbols. On September 2, a state commission picked a new design: a brilliant white magnolia—the state flower—on a rich navy blue backdrop, flanked by red and gold bars.
While nationalism and national symbols hold us in a warm hug of togetherness, it does not and should not call for an extinguishing of individuality. Else, why would a nationalist like Mookerjee reply in Bengali to Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to him in Hindi?