Former President Pranab Mukherjee spoke on the meaning of Indian nationalism, ancient Indian culture and tradition, the concept of patriotism, secularism, and tolerance in a closely-observed highly political event at the headquarters of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur on Thursday.

“I am here amongst you to share my understanding with you of the concepts of nation, nationalism and patriotism in the context of India,” Mukherjee said at the start of his address to RSS karyakartas at the ‘Tritiya Varsh’ event.

“Indian nationalism emanated from universalism. We see whole world as one family. India derives its strength from tolerance,” the former President pointed out after narrating the history of India from ancient times.

“Our national identity has emerged after a long drawn process of confluence and assimilation, the multiple cultures and faiths make us special and tolerant,” he said while highlighting that “Delhi was captured by Muslim invaders”.

“They ruled for 600 years after which India was taken over by a mercantile company,” said Mukherjee, whose address at the RSS event was the significant political event on Thursday due to the polar opposite worldviews of the organisation and the former president.

Praising Jawaharlal Nehru, Mukherjee said the nationalism of the first Prime Minister of India was not bound by religion or language. In the same breath, he also praised the nation-unifying task undertaken by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel following India’s freedom in 1947.

Quoting from Nehru’s book ‘Discovery of India’, Mukherjee said, “I am convinced that nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs and other groups in India.”

“As Gandhi ji explained, Indian nationalism was not exclusive nor aggressive nor destructive,” the former President said.

“Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogma and identities or religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our identity,” he warned at the gathering attended by the entire top brass of the RSS, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“For us, democracy is not a gift but a sacred trust,” said Mukherjee.

“Every day we see increased violence around us. We must free our public discourse form all forms of violence – physical as well as verbal. We must move to peace, harmony and happiness,” he said while stressing on the necessity of dialogue in public discourse.

“You are young, disciplined, well-trained and highly educated. Please strive for peace, harmony and happiness. Our motherland deserves that,” he said directly addressing the young RSS graduates.

Wearing the Sangh uniform – white shirt and khaki trousers – RSS swayamsevaks performed a ceremonial march past and a drill before the former President. It was the first time ever that the valedictory session of the Tritiya Varsh (third year) was telecast live across national news channels, due to the highly-anticipated address of the 82-year-old former Congress loyalist.

Speaking ahead of Mukherjee’s speech, Bhagwat said Mukherjee will remain what he is and the Sangh will remain the Sangh even after the event.

Bhagwat said his organisation wants to unify the entire society and no one was an outsider for it. “People may have different views but they are all children of mother India,” he said pointing out that the Sangh has been inviting prominent people to its event every year.

The session began on 14 May at Nagpur. Of the 707 swayamsevaks who completed their third year in 2018, 191 were post-graduates and 375 were graduates.

Before arriving for the event, Mukherjee paid tributes to KB Hedgewar at his memorial in Nagpur and visited the house where the RSS founder was born.

Writing in the guest book, Mukherjee hailed Hedgewar as “a great son of Mother India”.

“Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India,” Mukherjee wrote in the visitor’s book as he visited Hedgewar’s birthplace here.

His visit has raised many an eyebrow, including in his own party. Mukherjee’s daughter Sharmishtha had criticised his decision stating that though his words might be forgotten the visuals of him addressing RSS karyakartas would be remembered forever.

She said that her father was giving the BJP and the Sangh a handle to plant false stories.

Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel had expressed his disapproval at former president Mukherjee visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur and said he did not expect this from him.

Former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s son Sunil Shastri, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s nephew Ardhendu Bose and author of ‘Breaking India’ Rajiv Malhotra were among the dignitaries present at the event.

While the Sangh is often described as a Hindu right-wing organisation, it calls itself a nationalist and cultural organisation rather than a political or religious one.