Gandhi Peace Prize, 2021 awarded to Gita Press, Gorakhpur; Press’ contributions to Social Transformation are yet to be found

The founder-editor duo of the Press, Jayadal Goyankda and Hanuman Prasad Poddar were among the 25,000 arrested in the country after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

A seemingly innocuous press or publishing house, whose Ramcharitmanas is one of the most popular books in Northern India is more powerful than it looks.

Former President Ram Nath Kovind was a guest at the centenary celebrations of the press; Ajay Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath, in 2022, praised the Press for its inspirational work in spreading Sanatan Dharma. This powerful and well-connected institution is the Gita Press, Gorakhpur.

Recently, the union government announced that the Gandhi Peace Prize for the year 2021 will be awarded to Gita Press, Gorakhpur in recognition of its outstanding contribution towards social, economic and political transformation through non-violent and other Gandhian methods. Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman in 2019 and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh in 2020 have been awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize before this.

Gandhi Peace Prize is an annual award instituted by Government of India in 1995, on the occasion of 125th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi as a tribute to the ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi. The jury that decides the awardee is headed by the Prime Minister. Other members are the Chief Justice of India, Leader of the Opposition/single largest Opposition party and two eminent personalities.

The Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury stated that despite being a member of the jury that decides the winner, he was not part of the selection process this time. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh is on record stating that awarding the Gandhi Peace Prize 2021 to Gita Press is like ‘awarding Savarkar and Godse.’ In a lot of ways, the government has been openly embracing Savarkar and his Hindutva legacy. Therefore, it is not surprising that the government decided to award the Gandhi Peace Prize to the Gita Press.

Gita Press, irrespective of whatever soft power it now wields, especially seen in the context  of its losing relevance, has been a harbour of acutely communalist sentiments and regressive ideals. Started by a Marwari Businessman Jayadalal Goyandka, it started to engage with religious and political issues in a more frequent manner from 1926. After the entry of Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the Press became more powerful and eloquent.

The Gita Press does not even adhere to a basic anti-caste position, that is Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to untouchability and caste system, which many term but a feeble opposition to the reality of caste oppression.

For example, in the Gita Press’ trust, all members of the board of trustees are Marwaris and no other person from any other caste has been given a top level position. Reportedly, the manager of the Press said in May 2023 that they still believe in the Varna System as mentioned in the Gita. This is not some new stand that the Press has taken.

While Mahatma Gandhi went on to promote the temple entry movement, Hanuman Prasad Poddar vehemently opposed Gandhi this and any other move by Gandhi to dilute stringent caste norms. When Gandhi declared that he will only attend a wedding if one of the partners is Harijan- Poddar remarked: ‘If this (what Gandhi said) is true it is really dangerous. Now anyone wanting the Mahatma to bless their child would have to marry their son/daughter to a Harijan. What does one say about Mahatmaji?’ [1]

This is not to argue that the present process of awarding should only depend on this or any organisation’s past. However, the organisation has not reformed itself in any radical manner and the trust’s management and the exclusive caste-based selection of board of trustees is an example.

Akshaya Mukul in his book on Gita Press- Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India– argues that Gita Press’ opposition to Partition and it holding Gandhi responsible for it was not a stand alone response but a part of collective Hindu nationalist organisations like the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha and others. He calls Gita Press a crucial cog in the wheel of Hindu nationalism that struck up alliances with everyone: mendicants, liberals, politicians, philanthropists, scholars, sectarian organisations like the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha, Jana Sangh and VHP, and conservative elements within the Congress.[2]

Hanuman Prasad Poddar, who joined as a founding editor of the Gita Press’ magazine, Kalyan, was also one of the founding trustees of Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Moreover, today, although the Press was not started by Poddar, he remains the ideologue of Gita Press in a way along with the founder Jayadalal Goyandka. Poddar maintained his casteist stance; according to Akshaya Mukul’s book, he maintained that ‘practising untouchability does not mean hatred for anyone’ and ‘untouchability is scientific and has the sanction of the shastras. The Founder-Editor duo were also among the 25,000 arrested in the country after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.[3]

Hanuman Prasad Poddar remained a casteist person even in the 1960s. It is evident from his lament that his own family members “despite knowing of his status, act in a contrary fashion and that they go for movies, eat bread that maybe is made by Muslims or untouchables.”

One could always argue that the 1960s and 1970s are long bygone years and the Gita Press cannot be judged today by the actions and views it had or its founders had then. However, not only does Poddar remains a guide to the organisation, his articles are still republished in the Press’ journal, Kalyan.[4] Additionally, texts like Stri Dharma Prashnottari – a book on the duties of women, continue to be published irrespective of the regressive notions such books propagate. With respect to places of worship too, Poddar took a stand on restoration. He said in a speech that the Somnath Temple has been rebuilt due to the efforts of Sardar Patel and that the holy temple in Kashi, Ayodhya, temple at Sidhpur and various other religious places should be liberated.[5]

This murky past and its adherence to those discriminatory principles of the past – do make the Gita Press a questionable choice, if not a bad one, for the Gandhi Peace Prize. However, the government of the day is known for making bad choices, while believing them to be the best ones. Therein lies the unsurprising yet ironic choice for the 2023 Gandhi Peace Prize.

(The author is a legal researcher with the organisation)

[1] 264, Mukul, Akshaya. “Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India-Foot soldier of the Sangh pariwar.” 201.

[2] 252, Ibid

[3] 59, Ibid

[4] 81, Ibid

[5] 317, Ibid


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