Is BJP serious about Bharat Ratna for Savarkar?

‘If they were really serious (about conferring the Bharat Ratna on Savarkar) what were they doing for the last five years?‘
‘Why do they have to take so long?‘
‘Gandhi himself never got the Bharat Ratna so it does not really matter.‘

IMAGE: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, centre. Photograph: Kind courtesy Savarkar Smarak  

Does Vinayak Damodar Savarkar deserve the Bharat Ratna?

Was he a true revolutionary or did he succumb to the hardships of the cellular jail in the Andamans and apologise to the British to secure his freedom?

In his lifetime, Savarkar was never as controversial as he is now, decades after his death in 1966.

Even more controversial are his thoughts about Hindutva. His opponents believe Savarkar was the first leader to reject the idea of a pluralistic India.

In an interview last week, Union Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah hailed Savarkar, saying, ‘There were very few people as patriotic as Savarkar and very few families made sacrifices for the nation like the Savarkar family.‘

The Bharatiya Janata Party, in its manifesto for the Maharashtra assembly election, promised that if re-elected, its state government will recommend Savarkar for the Bharat Ratna, India‘s highest civilian honour, posthumously.

This announcement has sparked off a debate about Savarkar‘s true legacy.

“Modi may not acknowledge it openly, but the trajectory of India (today) is what Savarkar envisioned,” Vikram Sampath, who recently published Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924, tells ‘s Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

Why did Savarkar write half-a-dozen mercy petitions to the British? Was it an act of cowardice as his critics allege?

They weren‘t apology letters, they were petitions. I‘ve included all of Savarkar‘s petitions in my book. I didn‘t see him apologising anywhere.

It is a wrong notion that has been brought up recently, in the last 10, 15 years. It was not a big deal earlier.

Writing petitions was a very normal procedure. It was a provision given to every political prisoner.

Savarkar was not the only prisoner who filed those petitions.

If Bhagat Singh had a lawyer to fight his case, should it be said that he wanted to escape?

During the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements, (Mahatma) Gandhi also campaigned for the release of political prisoners.

Savarkar did not seek an apology in his petitions to the British (government). As a good lawyer, all that he did was to seek clarification on their (prisoners‘) position.

He said we are held in this hellhole without knowing whether we are general convicts or political prisoners.

Only the people convicted of crimes like rape and murder were given harsh treatment, that too for a limited period of time after which they got remission.

But in Savarkar‘s case, the harsh treatment went on for years.

So what is wrong if a prisoner asks about his status?

If I am a political prisoner, then I must get some benefits. Like, all political prisoners could meet their families or write to them regularly.

But Savarkar could meet his family only once in one-and-a-half years or write one letter in a year. His sister-in-law died and neither Savarkar nor his (elder) brother (lodged in the same jail) knew about her death.

He also acted as a spokesperson in a 1917 petition, where he said that if his name is an obstacle in releasing other prisoners, then he should be held back but others should be released. He said ‘it would give me as much happiness‘.

Interestingly, his younger brother Narayan Rao approached Gandhi in 1920 who told the former to file a petition and said he too will file a petition on their behalf seeking the release of the Savarkar brothers.

The whole narrative of Savarkar being a coward is a very recent construct.

When Savarkar died, (the then prime minister) Indira Gandhi called him a patriot and a revolutionary.

So the tag of ‘coward‘ to Savarkar is a recent phenomenon?

If after Independence Savarkar was known as a coward, then would Indira Gandhi have called him a patriot and praised his valour after his death? Was she also supporting a coward?

In my view, after his photograph was placed in Parliament during Atal Bihari Vajpayee‘s government and when Mani Shankar Aiyar removed his plaque from the cellular jail in Port Blair, this whole demonisation of Savarkar began.

This has been developed into a convenient stick to beat with. And when politics begins (over an issue) you cannot do much.

If one assesses academically and historically, it (filing mercy petitions) seems a very normal phenomenon, which many people did.

Sachindranath Sanyal (revolutionary and one of the founders of the Hindustan Republican Association) writes in his book that he was also advised by Savarkar to write a petition. He wrote the same petition as Savarkar, but he was released while Savarkar was not.

The British feared him (Savarkar) and his brother so they were not released.

They felt if the Savarkar brothers are released, the revolutionary movement in Bombay Presidency that had fizzled out would rekindle again.

Sachindranath Sanyal, after his release, went back to revolutionary activity whereas Savarkar never took that step. Sanyal was again sent to the Andamans.

Both cases are different. People make this kind of comparison quite out of context.

I also see this comparison between Savarkar and Bhagat Singh. They say Bhagat Singh preferred to be hanged while Savarkar signed a petition seeking mercy. It is not up to the prisoner to choose his punishment.

Savarkar was not awarded capital punishment, he was given a 50-year jail term. Would he have asked for mercy if he was sentenced to death? We don‘t know.

In the case of Sanyal, the conditions for release were different.

Savarkar was released on the condition that he will not participate in politics and he will be confined to the district of Ratnagiri.

He could not go out. I have covered that period in the upcoming second volume of the book (to be released next year) that even when the district was hit by plague, Savarkar was not allowed to move out for three weeks. There was constant surveillance on him.

Even in 1931-1932 he was in confinement when V B Gogate, a revolutionary, conducted a political assassination whose inspiration was said to be Savarkar.

So his support to the revolutionary movement continued throughout. It was like Jekyll and Hyde.

On the forefront, he posed as a social reformer who was only interested in eradication of untouchability for which he did a lot of work. But his underground support for the revolutionary movement continued.

Leaders like Rash Behari Bose or even Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose wrote letters thanking him for his support.

Is it true that Savarkar did not utter a word about Bhagat Singh‘s hanging?

He wrote about it in Shraddhanand (a Marathi magazine). He also wrote about Jatin Das who died in prison during the famous hunger strike (by Bhagat Singh and friends).

In fact, (Mahatma) Gandhi was silent on Jatin Das‘s death which caused a furore in the Congress about which Subhas Chandra Bose also wrote.

The whole country was charged, but Gandhi did not utter a word. Jatin Das‘s death made the British bring reforms in the treatment of political prisoners.

Savarkar wrote about Bhagat Singh, but it was in Marathi and probably that‘s why it was never noticed by the mainstream English media.

People didn‘t know that. He always castigated Gandhi for not standing up for the revolutionary cause.

Ideologically, they were different. Savarkar openly supported armed struggle (for freedom).

Coming to Hindutva, one gets a feeling that the Muslim warden at the cellular jail was specifically harsh on Hindu inmates. And that is how the seeds of communalism was sown in Savarkar. But in earlier chapters, you also mention that Savarkar attacked a mosque in Ratnagiri in his teens. Did he have this communal mindset against Muslims since youth or he did he take to that path later?

These were smaller incidents. It became easy for a lot of Hindus to convert (to Islam) not out of conviction, but to safeguard themselves from torture.

Savarkar writes that if someone is converting out of conviction and belief, he has no problem. But if the conversion is because of allurement or coercion, then there is a problem.

There is no way for the Hindu community to get these people back as there is no concept of conversion in Hinduism.

So, therefore, he goes into this shuddi movement borrowing from the Arya Samaj. When converting out (of the Hindu fold) is easy, converting in should also be the same.

Otherwise, the community starts losing numbers and it is detrimental to its future.

I feel Savarkar‘s Hindutva was mainly in response to what was happening in the country (at that time).

The seeds of communalism was sworn before because of the Khilafat movement. Communalism is bringing religion into politics.

There was no business of mobilising support in India for a kingdom (caliphate) outside.

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Why should Indians be mobilised (in support of) a caliphate in Turkey and its restoration? Gandhi had promised Swaraj and re-establishment of Khilafat within a year of the agitation.

Common sense would suggest that why would Britain re-establish the caliphate in Turkey, which they conquered in war, on our demand? We were a colony and a slave country.

But people were mobilised in the name of religion. People like Shaukat Ali and Mohammad Ali were leading this movement.

The Khilafat movement was more about Hindu-Muslim unity to fight for Independence which Mahatma Gandhi started.

But it did not work at all. I have mentioned that Swami Shradhanand said even Jawaharlal Nehru talks about (how) he was so scared of the characters who were part of the Khilafat movement.

From the stage they were calling for jihad.

(Dr B R) Ambedkar too said it was too huge a price for the country to pay for a mythical idea of Hindu-Muslim unity which never happened.

A year later when the Khilafat agitation failed, there were communal riots all over India.

Leaders lose control when the mob takes over, as happened during the Ram Janambhoomi movement. The charged atmosphere leads to violence when emotions are played with.

The same thing happened then (after the Khilafat movement) as you promised the sky but nothing happened.

The Moplah (Muslims in Malabar, Kerala) carnage happened in 1921 and thousands of Nairs were killed.

Don‘t you think the Moplah issue was a class struggle and not a religious one as the Hindus were landholders while the Muslims were peasants, as many Marxist historians say?

I don‘t think so. If that was the case, Gandhi and the Khilafatists should have condemned those riots.

Gandhi called them .

These were Gandhi‘s words when they openly killed people and raped women. This cannot be justified.

It was a communally divisive movement, but the Khilafatists congratulated the Moplahs. At such a time when you are playing with fire, there has to be a counter from the other side and that is what Savarkar did.

He wrote about this in prison. And this was his first intellectual salvo against Gandhi.

Savarkar‘s Hindutva could not defeat Gandhi‘s Hinduism in his life time. Why did Gandhi succeed and Savarkar fail to convince the Hindu masses?

Gandhi was an amazing person when it came to mobilising and bringing people together. He brought the country together.

Savarkar thought way ahead of his times. Even the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) could not get along (with him) on many issues.

Savarkar wanted to dismantle the caste system and thought against cow worship. Gandhi believed that the caste system was integral to Hinduism.

He felt if the caste system went away, Hinduism wpuld crumble. Position has to be hereditary and intelligence comes from genes, these are Gandhi‘s words.

This appalled both Savarkar and Ambedkar who said anybody can become prime minister. And today, a chaiwallah has become prime minister of India. You don‘t need to be born in a (high class) family.

What Savarkar said then was far ahead of his times. Today, 80 years later, we are able to understand and appreciate it.

Upper caste Hindus hated Savarkar‘s social reforms in Ratnagiri where he advocated inter-caste marriages and dining.

He opened a temple in Ratnagiri, Patit Pavan, which was open to every community and caste. These things scared the upper caste Hindus.

He faced a lot of ostracism from his own community. Gandhi, on the other hand, played safe.

A lot of things he did by invoking religion in terms of bringing Ram, Ram Rajya and bhajans, which were symbolic that appealed to the people.

People don‘t like disruption. They like a certain framework and try to reform within that.

Savarkar was talking of something very nihilistic, which people were not able to accept then. Here Savarkar failed.

Savarkar misses men like Ebrahim Gardi when he speaks of Muslim ‘invaders‘. Gardi was a Maratha Muslim general who laid down his life for the Maratha cause in the Third Battle of Painpat in 1761.

A person‘s thoughts and philosophy are largely influenced by contemporary events and happenings.

I presume — I wouldn‘t know — that looking at the equation between two communities, his experience in jail and then the Khilafat movement somewhere changed Savarkar as a person.

If you read his 1857 book, he gave a lot of (importance) to Bahadur Shah Zafar and Maulvi (Liaquat Ali) who fought against the British.

If you see his speeches in London, he talks about how India is a rainbow where every colour is important, be it Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Jains or Buddhists.

His later writings are more a reflection of the times in which he was living.

Ambedkar, like Savarkar, also mentions (that) the (Muslim) appeasement policy of Gandhi and the Congress tempered his beliefs to a large extent and went to the other extreme.

After Narendra Modi‘s victory in 2019, do you think Savarkar‘s idea of India has won over Gandhi‘s?

I don‘t link it to Modi or anything. I have said repeatedly that Savarkar‘s vision of India works for multiple reasons.

Savarkar always spoke of a strong, militarised country which is what India is today. Gandhi spoke of dismantling the army after the Kashmir war in 1947. He wanted India to be a peaceful country so the army was not needed.

Savarkar wanted an industrialised nation, capitalism and a free market economy, which is what India has become and not a Gram Swaraj, charkha-run nation.

Our foreign policy and what happened in Balakot are not the acts of someone who will turn the other cheek if slapped on one.

Savarkar wrote shatrucha shidrat (inside the enemy camp; go and attack them).

Prime Minister Modi may not acknowledge it openly, but the trajectory of India (today) is what Savarkar envisioned.

Do you think Savarkar deserves the Bharat Ratna?

It hardly matters. A lot of people hold him in reverence. These are political issues and during election time, it becomes a nice thing to talk about.

If they were really serious (about conferring the Bharat Ratna on Savarkar) what were they doing for the last five years? Why do they have to take so long?

Gandhi himself never got the Bharat Ratna so it does not really matter.

These awards posthumously are more symbolic to acknowledge their contribution to the country.

It also makes a point that for the longest time, the narrative in this country has been very monochromatic and just one line of thought was perpetuated about one family.

Now, the time has come for other narratives. History is always about competing narratives. There is no single narrative in history.

Considering the domination was so linear so far, other voices and other thought processes are being heard now.

There is no one idea of India, but there are multiple ideas of India. It is a symbolic way of acknowledging alternative ideas of India.

The trouble is Savarkar‘s idea of India is not pluralistic.

I don‘t think so at all. If you see his presidential speeches of the Hindu Mahasabha, he speaks about a constitution of free India to be one where nobody is discriminated on the basis of religion, caste, gender or race.

Hindus won‘t get special privileges because they are in the majority and similarly, the minority communities too won‘t get any special privileges by virtue of being a minority.

Everybody is equal in the eyes of the law. There will be no infringement on religious activities of any community.

They can do what they want in their homes. Let us not get religion out on the streets. This applies to both the majority and minority.

This what he says in his book Hindu Rashtra Darshan which is (a collection of) his speeches as president of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Why it is said Savarkar wrote that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj made a mistake by not permitting the rape of Muslim women when they were taken as captives?

Oh God! The problem is that Savarkar wrote in Marathi. He was a very sarcastic person. He never wrote straight. There was lot of tongue-in cheek remarks.

When people translate from Marathi to other languages, translators make a mess. He speaks of a (Muslim) subedar in Kalyan whose daughter was sent back (by Shivaji).

Savarkar writes if war rules have to work then, both parties have to agree on a common principle. Like by sunset, both sides will stop fighting.

Savarkar says when your enemy does not agree, and here it is not about Hindu or Muslim, but ‘enemy‘, then why should you?

It should apply the same way to India and Pakistan. If Pakistan is not reciprocating to goodwill, then you are foolish to keep doing the same.

This whole business of treating their women well and sending them back, which we did, was never reciprocated by them (the enemy).

So should we continue to be good or should we pay them back in the same coin in the language that they understand?

It was a metaphorical question that was posed in the book which gets twisted that he advocated the rape of the enemy‘s women. It was lost in translation.

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