By Swapan Dasgupta
On February 26, 1966, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar died in Mumbai at the age of 83.
Two days later, distinguished CPI parliamentarian Hiren Mukherjee rose in the
Lok Sabha after question hour to suggest that the House pay homage to Savarkar
in recognition of his services to the nation. The Speaker agreed to write to the
family, conveying the feelings of the House. Earlier, the entire political class
joined President S. Radhakrishnan in paying homage to Savarkar. Prime minister
Indira Gandhi described him as a "byword for daring and patriotism"
and CPI leader S.A. Dange called him "one of the great anti-imperialist
Last week, Congress President Sonia Gandhi boycotted the function in Parliament
to unveil Savarkar's portrait. The leftist Delhi Historians Group, dominated by
discarded textbook writers, dubbed Savarkar "anti-national" and the
pro-CPI(M) Sahmat termed the installation of the Hindu Mahasabha leader's
portrait a "disgrace".
What has changed in these 37 years? Politics. When Savarkar died, he was a
fringe figure, out of active politics since 1948 when he was implicated but
acquitted in the Mahatma Gandhi murder case. He had a reputation as a Marathi
litterateur and was also honoured for first describing the upheaval of 1857 as a
"war of independence". Even among the charmed circle of Hindu
nationalists, he was peripheral. Savarkar had charisma but the Hindu Mahasabha
It is different today. Hindutva, the term Savarkar first popularised from prison
in 1923 is, by L.K. Advani's admission, "the ideological mascot" of
the ruling BJP. Savarkar's definition of the Hindu as one who regards India as
his fatherland and holy land, has moulded those seeking to extricate Indian
nationhood from Nehruvian clutches. For the new generation of "political
Hindus", impatient with the RSS' over-emphasis on organisation, the
agnostic and rationalist Savarkar is a key inspiration.
The extent to which Savarkar's concerns of yesterday shape the discourse of
today is remarkable. An extract from his 1937 presidential address to the Hindu
Mahasabha in Ahmedabad has been cited by the Congress to suggest that he was the
protagonist of the two-nation theory.
The claim doesn't withstand scrutiny. In that speech, Savarkar said, "The
solid fact is that the so-called communal questions are a legacy handed down to
us by centuries of cultural, religious and national antagonism between the
Hindus and the Muslims ... Let us bravely face unpleasant facts as they are.
India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on
the contrary there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and Muslims in
India." Indeed, Savarkar spent much of the 1940s warning of the imminence
of Congress capitulating to Muslim separatism. He spoke of the Congress'
"pseudo-nationalism" just as four decades later the BJP was to sneer
at its "pseudo-secularism".
Savarkar led a chequered life. As a daring revolutionary and prisoner in the
Cellular Jail, he enjoyed iconic status between 1911 and 1924 comparable to
Bhagat Singh in the 1930s. As leader of the Mahasabha from 1937 to 1948, he
earned the respect of many Hindus, but never secured their loyalty. Even this
respect turned to notoriety after his close disciple Nathuram Godse killed
Gandhi. In life, Savarkar was very famous but never very influential.
Power came posthumously. The attack on his reputation is actually a proxy battle
against his ideas.
The British were never
worried about Gandhi and Nehru, they were mortally scared of revolutionaries
such as Subhas Chandra Bose (who left India incognito to pursue his patriotic
activities), Aurobindo Ghose (who settled in Pondicherry, then a French
territory), and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (who preferred to stay, suffer, and
struggle in India). More than the so-called public image, what matters with
great nation-builders and patriots is their dedication, sacrifices, and love for
the country. If the Government has decided to honour Savarkar, it has only
atoned for the sins committed in the past.