The controversy over Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is neither political nor ideological. It only shows just how low and hypocritical the debate has become.
The Sangh Parivar has declared that it would unleash ‘nationalistic fervour’ in the name of Veer Savarkar. The maverick Mani Shankar Aiyar defiantly announced that he would not apologise for removing a plaque containing a poem penned by the controversial revolutionary.
Aiyar enjoys controversy. He probably feels he is doing an ideological service to the party, which gave up any discussion on issues long time ago—be they about history or political theory. The Sangh Parivar, which thrives on jingoism and lies, loves to hate Aiyar or Arjun Singh. Together, they all perpetuate ignorance about India’s past.
The Sangh cunningly conceals the fact that Guru Golwalkar and his swayamsevaks were consistently dead against Savarkar when he was politically active. Savarkar too was totally opposed to the RSS and its ideology of so-called cultural nationalism. The RSS believed in worship of the cow; Savarkar publicly endorsed cow slaughter, saying the cow was just an animal without any attributes of divinity. Savarkar in fact tried to propagate his version of the scientific temper and condemned what he regarded as idiotic practices of yagnas and pujas. He often made tremendous fun of the self-styled pundits who duped innocent people in the name of religion.
The RSS was born almost a decade after the Hindu Mahasabha. Many people wrongly think that Savarkar founded the Hindu Mahasabha. In fact, he did not. He was in the Andamans’s hellish Cellular Jail in 1915. He was still in jail when the RSS was formed in 1925.
Those who founded the RSS kept a calculated distance from the Hindu Mahasabha. The RSS did not want to ‘hurt’ the British and therefore did not participate in any political activity. When Savarkar was released from jail, many socio-political organisations felicitated him, but the RSS refused to join any of those felicitations.
True, Savarkar was opposed to Mahatma Gandhi, but so were Subhash Chandra Bose, M. N Roy, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Communists. Before going to Germany to seek Hitler’s help, in his particular fight against the British, Bose sought Savarkar’s blessings. The Communists regarded Bose as a Fascist. But later revisionism in the CPI(M) forgave Bose for his sins and extolled his revolutionary credentials. The followers of Bose subsequently became honourable members of the Left Front.
Why does Aiyar then not condemn Bose for deserting Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, and choosing to join the Nazis to liberate India? Or has Subhash babu been acquitted by the Congress for reasons of political expediency? I would be truly surprised if Maverick Mani ever tampered with a plaque commemorating Subhash babu, if he came across one.
Savarkar’S oft-quoted sin is his role in Gandhi’s assassination. Nathuram Godse was indeed under the spell of Savarkar as well as the RSS. The only common point between the RSS and Mahasabha was their murderous contempt for the Mahatma. It is impossible to forgive this crime against all humanity. But there is a technical, legal and rhetorical point here.
After all, the charges against Savarkar have not been proved (despite there being reasonable evidence, some of which cited by the RSS itself). The RSS hated Savarkar so much that it did not mind putting him in the dock. But the technical and polemical point is that Aiyar and his supporters consider ‘tainted’ ministers innocent because the charges have not been proved. By the same logic, Savarkar too could be exonerated.
However, the question is not of polemics, but of the politics of liberal values. The Sangh cannot be expected to provide liberal values. But at least one can expect these values from Aiyar! Not because he is a Congressman, but because he apparently regards himself as a Nehruvian. Panditji totally opposed Bose’s overtures to Hitler and even vowed that he would fight with a sword, if necessary, with Bose if he came to India with his Nazi supporters. But the same Panditji stood gallantly at the Red Fort trial of the INA generals and defended Bose and his comrades as freedom fighters. Panditji was the main lawyer in the trial, and he stood by those who were his ideological rivals. That was magnanimity and that was liberalism.
Perhaps Aiyar might read Mohit Sen’s autobiography, The Traveller and the Road. Just as the RSS refused to celebrate Independence Day, because freedom came with Partition, the Communists too refused to celebrate this day as it was seen as a compromise with imperialists and capitalists. Gandhi was an ‘‘agent of imperialism’’ and Nehru was ‘‘the running dog of capitalism’’, according to Indian comrades. But of course Aiyar cannot criticise the Left!
Yet the issue is not the Communist stance, but Aiyar’s stance on Savarkar as well as the BJP’s melodramatic appeal to nationalism. To be sure, the said plaque should and must bear Gandhi’s quotations. But then Gandhi’s quotations could always have been added to the ‘Swatantra Jyot’ without removing the voices of others. Aiyar insists that Savarkar was released after petitioning the British several times and therefore does not pass the patriotic test. But if this test is seriously applied, then a Pandora’s box would be opened. Even M N Roy and Comrade Dange were accused of similar sins. And what about the revolutionary CPI(M) embracing the RSS to defeat Indira Gandhi?
Magnanimity demands that the young Savarkar’s motivations be respected. Savarkar could have taken a safe and ‘respectable’ road of RSS-style Hinduism. No RSS leader or cadre was arrested for participating in the freedom struggle. Savarkar maintained his version of Hindu nationalism, fought for his beliefs and suffered a severe sentence of hard labour and torture. Bose chose his path and wrongly felt that the Nazis should support him. Although we differ with Bose politically, we don’t question his motivations. Similarly, the Communist commitment to freedom is also not questioned despite the blunders of 1942. Detractors of Dr Ambedkar have also accused him of collaborating with the British, yet nobody can question Dr Ambedkar’s commitment to freedom—not only from the British, but also from the caste system.
Sadly, what Mani Shankar Aiyar considers an ideological confrontation is nothing but a philistine ruckus. A Union minister cannot see himself as a participant in a college debate where the scoring of points becomes paramount. In the far more serious arena of national politics, the future course of history and historiography is determined.
The writer is editor, Loksatta