Throughout human history, the most fervent, adventurous and tireless travellers have always been ideas. In their travels they have often been misunderstood, misapplied, and sometimes even misappropriated. Sometimes, in history, the spread of ideas has been carried out as if they were seeds which needed careful cultivation; at other times their spread has been curtailed as if they were dangerous infections. It might even be said that at times both these processes have usually been simultaneous and complementary.
The university is the space which is supposed to be most fertile for the generation of fresh ideas. Over the last few weeks, the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University have seen the government’s efforts to silence their voices by arresting students on charges of sedition as symbolic of the attempt to destroy this generative space. On the 18th of March, the last two students still held in prison, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, were released on bail.
The weeks preceding their release had seen a student’s movement which had no parallel in the annals of recent Indian history. The movement did not just limit itself to mass protests, marches, and sloganeering, but also organised a series of open classes, where experienced and erudite professors delivered lectures on nationalism. The series was called “What the Nation Really Needs to Know” and eminent professors like Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, Achin Vanaik, Nivedita Menon, Ayesha Kidwai, and Suvir Kaul spoke on a whole host of issues related to the concept of nationalism and what it meant to be a nation. Professor Makarand Paranjape also delivered a lecture, arguing for an intermedial, diatopical reading of Tagore and Gandhi. Appended to his lecture was a sharp critique of Leftist movements in general and the left inside JNU in particular. He chided Kanhaiya Kumar, the President of the Student’s Union, who had also been jailed for sedition, for not checking his facts in the speech he had delivered upon his release. Kanhaiya had stated that M.S. Golwalkar met Mussolini in Italy; in actuality, Professor Paranjape said, it was Dr. B.S. Moonje who had met the Fascist dictator.
While M.S. Golwalkar is the better known ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, Dr. B.S. Moonje was no less influential in the formation of the ethos of militant Hindu nationalism. A brilliant ophthalmologist who discovered a new way of treating cataract, he was the head of the Hindu Mahasabha from 1927 to 1937, when he was succeeded by V.D. Savarkar. He was a close friend and mentor of Hegdewar as well. After attending the Second Round Table Conference in England in 1931, Moonje went on a tour of Europe, which included a long stay in Italy. He met Mussolini on the 20th of March of that year, and the conversation he had, along with his impressions of the Italian dictator, are well recorded in his personal diary. Moonje was most interested in the military training of boys, and as he wrote in his travel journal, he had made plans to visit military schools in England, Germany, and France, alongside those in Italy.
Moonje recorded quite categorically in his diary that Hindu India needed some institution for the military regeneration of its people. That he was greatly impressed by Mussolini’s Balila and Fascist organisations is hardly a matter of doubt; indeed in the entry recording his meeting with Mussolini he expressed his desire to model an organisation in India on similar lines with the same objectives. It is hardly a matter for conjecture that the RSS with their black caps and khaki shorts are deeply indebted, not just for their uniforms, but also for their militant ideology to the Balila and Fascist organisations which Moonje inspected at Mussolini’s behest.
Before we make up our minds to condemn Moonje for importing and implementing the Fascist militant ideology in India, and become convinced of his guilt by association with Mussolini, we must remember that he was not the only noted Indian to have done so. In fact, it is little known that Mahatma Gandhi also met Mussolini; as did the great poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal was part of the delegation sent by the Muslim League to the Second Round Table Conference, and he was personally invited by Mussolini himself to Rome.
There are no authoritative records of the conversation the two had; but apparently Mussolini asked Iqbal “What do you expect us Italians to do?” to which Iqbal replied, “Europe is left with no moral values. Stop blindly following Europe and learn from the East”. We can already discern a preliminary difference between Moonje’s approach and Iqbal’s. While Moonje wished to learn from Mussolini on how to inculcate a military spirit among the Hindus, Iqbal wished to teach him the moral and ethical values which Europe had lost. Iqbal wrote two poems entitled ‘Mussolini’- one in 1931 and the other in 1935. In the first poem, Iqbal admired the invigoration of Italy’s youth under Mussolini. The last two lines of the poem can be read as praise for Mussolini’s character in bringing about this transformation in Italy:
Whose benevolent eye has graced this miracle upon you?
He whose vision is like the light of the Sun!
If we find Moonje guilty by association with Mussolini, then we must hold Iqbal to be equally culpable. Perhaps it would be simpler to condemn them both and be done with it. But that would make us miss out on the most important lesson we can learn from this entire affair. It is true that both Moonje and Iqbal were impressed by Mussolini, but we must also inquire, what was it that impressed them? Iqbal had no interest in the military training schools of the Balila, and Moonje likewise had no interest in teaching Mussolini Eastern values. An astute reader of Iqbal’s poetry would immediately realise that what impressed Iqbal was the idea of Mussolini as a singular and exceptional individual, whose khudi or Ego was fully developed and commanding. What impressed Moonje was the ideology of Mussolini, with its deep-rooted Fascistic and militaristic tendencies. To understand the significance of Moonje’s meeting with Mussolini, we must learn to make a subtle and essential discrimination between idea and ideology.
This endeavour to discriminate between the idea and ideology is one that perhaps an entire book could be devoted to. However, we must attempt to briefly delineate the difference with recourse to the method of going back to the root meanings of the word. The word idea stems from the Greek eidos which meant not just what is seen, or the image, but also the act of seeing itself. Martin Heidegger more poetically defines the idea as “what gives itself, what is there for and in seeing”. Ideology, as we know, is a recent French coinage, of the Greek ‘idea’ and ‘logy’. Logy itself is a derivative of logos which comes from legein, which according to Heidegger means “to lay, to bring together, to gather or collect.” Thus ideology fundamentally can be taken to mean that which brings together the image, or that which consolidates and solidifies what is seen, with the purpose of preserving it. An ideology is one which yokes together the idea with considerable violence, because without violence the idea is ephemeral and fleeting. An idea appears and disappears; ideologies, whether they be Fascist or Stalinist, Maoist or capitalist, are founded on their desire and ability to prolong their period of staying.
It is through this analysis that we can better understand the significance of Moonje’s meeting with Mussolini. Moonje was not just desirous of importing and implementing the Fascist, militaristic ideology in India among the shakhas of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. Rather, he was interested in laying the foundation for this ideology, establishing its reign, naturalising its stay, and consolidating its appeal among the Hindus. On the other hand, for Iqbal, Mussolini was just the apparent manifestation of his idea of the bulund khudi or developed Ego. In the second poem he wrote entitled ‘Mussolini’ in 1935, he was highly critical of the Fascist leader. At the same time he also critiqued the hypocrisy of European colonial powers who had condemned Mussolini for being a dictator when they themselves held tyrannical sway over millions of disenfranchised and disempowered colonial subjects.
So when we attempt to understand the significance of Moonje’s meeting with Mussolini, we must also link it with the incongruity generated by the sight of elderly, obese, upper-caste Hindu men carrying out exercises in khaki shorts and black caps in contemporary India. This incongruity, which often leads to mirth, is itself an indication of the very nature of ideology itself. Ideology is founded on the violent gathering together and persistence of an idea which in itself might be out of place in its times. It could hardly be a coincidence that the word fasces itself, from which the Fascists derived their name, meant a bundle of sticks bound together to signify authority in ancient Rome. It might seem to us that the Fascist ideology espoused by the RSS and its affiliates derives its roots from foreign soil, and that is the reason why it is incongruous and even absurd in our country. But ideas have always been adventurous travellers. They are generated in certain spaces, but move out from there and get assimilated somewhere else. They move with languages and across languages; whether nurtured by poet or scientist, they remain in constant flux, exercising enormous influence on certain cultures, while simultaneously getting forgotten or ignored in others. Ideologies too are well-travelled, but once they settle down, they tend to restrict the flow of ideas. We must learn to let ideas venture forth into the world, without fear from where they come, keeping in mind the old Bedouin proverb, “not by the roots, but by their fruits will you judge them”. We must remain wary of any ideas which overstay their welcome, whether they be foreign or indigenous, because then they are well on their way to becoming ideologies.
Ideologies limit and restrict the traffic of ideas; and the ideology which Moonje was so impressed in Fascist Italy, has shown a dogged resistance to change, and a persistent desire to circumscribe the limits of thinking. It is hardly a matter of doubt that Moonje would instantly recognise and feel at home in a contemporary RSS shakha, with its young men in black caps, white shirts and khaki shorts. But he would most definitely be astounded by the musical call for azaadi reverberating across the Azad Block in JNU. It is not as if he had never heard the word itself; but rather that the idea, as expressed by Kanhaiya Kumar, has travelled across time and space, and has been both modified and constituted by its journey.
Moonje met Mussolini in order to understand how to found an institution for the militant regeneration of the Hindus; such an institution would be a factory, producing able-bodied, ideologically oriented men who would transform the nation. But such an institution would not be a university. A university is not a factory which produces ideas; it is more like a station, from whence ideas can proceed onwards into the world. The problem with the current ruling dispensation is not that it fears ideas, but rather it attempts to circumscribe the traffic of ideas, whether it be from the streets of Kashmir to Jawaharlal Nehru University, or from there to Jadavpur. It is the struggle to keep alive this traffic of ideas which constitutes the real soul of the nationwide students’ movement.