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Why frame Veer Savarkar?
by Ved Pratap Vaidik


Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was sentenced to two life imprisonments running into 50 years when he was 27 years old. When he escaped from a British ship in 1910, the world came to know for the first time — much before Gandhi and Nehru joined the mainstream freedom movement — that India was trying to free itself from the clutches of the British. Savarkar internationalised the Indian freedom movement by being the first person whose case was fought at the International Court in the Hague.

Considering all this, why have there been objections over Savarkar’s portrait being installed in the Central Hall of Parliament? Three reasons are advanced: One, that he was involved in the conspiracy of Gandhiji’s assassination; two, that he is the father of Hindu communalism; three, that he wrote an elementary petition to the British government while he was in the Andamans and thereby grovelled at the feet of the British for clemency.

Savarkar, no doubt, was implicated and prosecuted in the case involving Gandhi’s murder. He was, however, duly exonerated. A comparison between Savarkar and Gandhi is totally uncalled for. Luminaries like Gandhi are born only once in centuries.

But Gandhi was by no means the sole spokesman of Indian nationalism, a fact borne out by the presence of stalwarts such as Subhas Chandra Bose, B.R. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Periyar and Savarkar. Can the nationalist strands represented by these leaders be written off so easily? Hegemonic claims of secular nationalism have always attempted to marginalise the alternative voices as much as the Right-wing has contested the legitimate claims of a secularist agenda. In this battle, whoever is in the position of power begins to wield the stick of historiography. What the BJP and the Shiv Sena are doing at the moment is what the Congress did when the latter was in power. Take the example of Ram Manohar Lohia. Attempts were made to write off Lohia as a credible leader. But as soon as his disciple Rabi Ray became the Lok Sabha speaker, he had a portrait of Lohia installed in the Central Hall of Parliament.

Now the prime minister is a member of the BJP and the speaker of the Lok Sabha is a Shiv Sena member and they wish to accord a status due to a national hero to Savarkar. Could there be a more opportune time for the installation of the portrait of Savarkar in Parliament? Imputing to the BJP motives other than this would be wide off the mark.

Coming to the question of Hindutva, the small book Hindutva, written by Savarkar in 1922, presents facts, arguments and conclusions. Eighty years ago, when the Khilafat movement was at its peak, Amanullah, the king of Afghanistan, was being invited to rule over India by Muslim leaders just because he was a Muslim. Muslim communalism was beginning to raise its ugly head and instead of joining the bandwagon of the Congress, Savarkar preferred to plough his lonely furrow. Gandhi and other leaders were also finding it difficult to stand their ground — either out of goodwill or helplessness. Savarkar shook Hindu society out of its slumber by writing Hindutva.

His actions are very much in line with what Ambedkar did for the Dalits and what Periyar accomplished for the Dravidian movement. Although the majority of Hindus went with Gandhiji, it was Savarkar who was the first to oppose the rising tide of Muslim communalism by calling it so.

Another much criticised aspect of Savarkar has been his support to Jinnah’s ‘two-nation theory’. Savarkar, in fact, was a votary of  ‘Akhand Bharat’ — United India. He did recognise that the Hindus and Muslims were living like two nations during those unfortunate times. But he always argued the case for an Akhand Bharat which never relegated Muslims to second-rate citizenship.

This idea of second-rate citizens was a later insertion into the Hindutva ideology. In his presidential address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, Savarkar spoke of giving special guarantees to Muslims for protecting their language, culture and religion. He reiterated on several occasions: “Nobody would be discriminated against on the basis of religion, caste or creed. Absolute equality for all would be ensured and no one would be allowed to dominate others.” He opposed not the Muslims, but the ‘blackmail’ being practised by the Muslim leadership.

There is no doubt that his articles and speeches created an ‘anti-Gandhi’ atmosphere and sharpened the lines of India’s Partition unwittingly. But the Muslim leaders did not even touch the ‘balm’ proffered by Gandhi and Nehru. The cleavages of Partition had already been dug up much before Savarkar came to the scene.

One does not know which brand of ‘Hindutva’ India would have accepted — Gandhi’s ‘soft’ Hindutva or Savarkar’s ‘hard’ Hindutva — if Savarkar had not remained interned for 27 years and had returned to India in 1910 having qualified as a barrister. Gandhi’s ‘soft’ Hindutva failed and Pakistan was born out of the appeasement of the Right-wing Muslim leadership. Even Lohia, in The Guilty Man of India’s Partition, holds Nehru and other Congress leaders responsible for Partition. Savarkar, instead, consistently opposed Pakistan.

Savarkar’s Hindutva was very different from the one being touted by the BJP and their allies today. Can anyone imagine that the ‘Father of Hindutva’ advocated beef-eating (in special circumstances), rejected the divinity of the Vedas, denounced the sanctity of the caste system and launched a virulent attack on the hypocrisy of the priests? It was not easy for the RSS to digest and appropriate such a revolutionary.

The acrimonious verbal duels that took place between the Hindu Mahasabha and the Sangh parivar till 40 years ago were more raucous than the current battle between the Congress and the parivar. If the unveiling of the statue of Savarkar reveals the desire of the Sangh parivar to claim a new icon for itself, it should only gladden the hearts of the opposition parties that Savarkar’s India is rooted in the rationalistic philosophy of life and not on some theological rockbed.

As far as the question of Savarkar tendering an apology to the British is concerned, whose version should one accept as authentic? The one propagated by our know-all politicians or that of the British officer to whom the petition was addressed? In 1913, Reginald Craddock, representative of the then governor-general, had gone to Port Blair on Savarkar’s pleadings to look into the most inhuman conditions prevailing in the cellular jail.

The petitions were submitted to Craddock by five revolutionaries — one of whom was Savarkar. These were petitions for clemency and not apologies. In these petitions, all the five revolutionaries had mentioned the inhuman atrocities being perpetrated against them and were demanding civilised behaviour from the government.

In these petitions, they had resorted to a sugar-coated phraseology for securing their release. It is true that Savarkar gave the assurance of eschewing the path of bloody revolution and violence and of following the constitutional norms and loyalty to the British government. But this was in consonance with Shivaji’s tradition of ‘one step backward, two steps forward’. As far as loyalty to the British raj was concerned, one comes across several such letters by Gandhi in his early phase. It is also noteworthy to see what Craddock had to say about Savarkar’s petition.

In his secret note of December 19, 1913, he noted that Savarkar was shamming his ‘change of heart’ and that he did not express the slightest remorse or regret for what he had done. Craddock further said: “In the case of Savarkar, it is quite impossible to give him any liberty here and I think he will escape any Indian jail. So important a leader is he that the European section of the Indian anarchists would plot for his escape, which would, before long, be organised.” When the petition did not convince the British, why are our politicians today so eager to accept it as a symbol of national betrayal?

The writer is a former editor of Nav Bharat Times



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