There can’t be a more paradoxical personality than Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in India’s recent history. Hindutvavadis love him because he was anti-Muslim but they ignore his criticism of the religion. Rationalists respect his scientific temper which is not much written about, but disrespect him for his blatant right wing views. And Congressmen historically disliked him for his anti-Gandhi, anti-minority politics and, in the present moment, loathe him purely because of the BJP narrative about Savarkar. Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of Savarkar mirrors just that.
The tragedy of contemporary politics is that no party, be it Congress or BJP, wishes to appraise Savarkar, or any other hero, in a fair manner. By critiquing Savarkar for clemency petitions, Congress tries to run down one of the leading freedom fighters. The BJP, on the other hand, takes a restrictive view of Savarkar by obliterating the rationalist in him.
Two Maharashtrian Brahmins and two organisations have been instrumental in shaping India’s post-Independence political discourse. These two organisations are the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the two men behind them are Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, respectively. Though both espoused the cause of the Hindus, both these leaders were far from being compatible with each other.
The Hindu Mahasabha was a direct reaction to the Muslim League. First it was the partition of Bengal, followed up by the Morley-Minto reforms that Hindus feared would pave the way for separate constituencies for Muslims. These developments expedited the formation of an organisation to protect Hindu interests. That was the Hindu Sabha, first set up in Punjab by Lala Lajpat Rai. In a year a number of Hindu Sabhas were formed in Bihar, Bengal, Bombay Presidency etc. Soon the need was felt to have an umbrella organisation to protect and further the interests of Hindus. Finally, all regional bodies resolved to come together on the occasion of the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 1915. But it took another six years to acquire the name, the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha. Interestingly, its constitution expressed loyalty to the British. Malaviya was spearheading a campaign to unite Hindus but the Mahasabha gained momentum only after Balakrishna Shivaram Munje and Savarkar joined the organisation in the early ’30s. Both had serious differences with Gandhi.
Of the two, Munje was an ex-Congressman while Savarkar carried no Congress baggage. A political revolutionary and religious rebel, Savarkar had pro-Hindu inclinations from his college days. He set up Abhinav Bharat, an organisation to help India acquire freedom by revolutionary means. Savarkar wrote extensively, praising the 1857 rebellion and he dreamed of a guerrilla war against the British. His famous book, The Indian War Of Independence 1857, for the first time projected the 1857 developments as a war for independence and not just a mutiny.
The book angered the British, and it was banned across its colonies. Around this time, as part of the efforts to organise Hindus under a single organisation, Savarkar’s brother Ganesh had organised an armed revolt against the Morley-Minto Reforms offering special status to Muslims. He was held guilty, which alerted Savarkar in London, who moved to Madame Cama’s home in Paris to avoid arrest. He, however, couldn’t escape since the British police came calling on March 13, 1910. He was arrested. As he was being shipped to India in the SS Morea, he escaped from his cell while the ship was docked in the port of Marseille on July 8 1910. The daring act backfired and Savarkar was re-arrested. Later he was brought to India and, following a trial, convicted and transported on July 4 1911 to the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. He was just 28 when he was sentenced for 50 years.
This is the point from where he begins to attract criticism for a series of clemency petitions, now being spoken of by the Congress. Savarkar’s supporters and Hindutva acolytes claim these petitions were a “tactical retreat”. However, many historians, including those who have refused to join the Hindutvavadi bandwagon, believe these clemency petitions were a complete surrender to the ruling power. Finally, the British released Savarkar after he endorsed the court verdict and British law, and “renounced violence” to gain freedom.
His critics believe this was the end of the “revolutionary” Savarkar since after release, he ceased to be anti-British, and accepted conditions to end the jail term and also to give up politics. Out of jail and under house arrest in Ratnagiri, Savarkar along with Munje started devoting more time to the Hindu Mahasabha. Both were critical of Congress’s apparent pro-minority stance. Both were staunch Hindus and their politics was clearly majoritarian. Both were exasperated by Gandhi’s growing influence and rapid marginalisation of pro-Hindu leaders as this highlighted the failure of the Hindu Mahasabha. It was here that one of Savarkar’s associates, Hedgewar, decided to find a new path to create another Hindu-centric organisation, the RSS.
Now, about the rationalist in Savarkar who wanted to reform Hindu religion. According to him, the cow was nothing more than an animal with enormous utility and he always refrained from viewing it as gau mata. He was for complete eradication of the caste system and he was not against people eating non-vegetarian food. Savarkar even criticised Gandhi for describing the 1934 earthquake in Bihar as “God’s curse on Indians”. His rationalist, progressive approach may have restricted the Hindu Mahasabha’s popularity. However, Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha were hardly seen as anti-British even when the war for freedom was picking up. This makes Savarkar more vulnerable to criticism from pro-Independence forces and also from Congress.
Weakened and ostracised, Savarkar led the rest of his life pushing for religious reform. The BJP discovered his political utility after the Ayodhya agitation and after former Union minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, in an unwise act, removed Savarkar’s plaque installed in Andaman’s Cellular Jail. Congress has been a mute spectator to the process of the BJP appropriating its icons, one after the other. Having appropriated Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the BJP is trying to woo Maharashtra Brahmins by owning Savarkar’s legacy.
But Savarkar’s adoption by the BJP is partial. The BJP wants him for his pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim and anti-minority image but won’t talk about Savarkar’s “cow is just yet another animal” beliefs. No Hindu organisation is close to Savarkar on modernising religion.
In geography, a land between national boundaries is considered as No Man’s Land. Similarly, in history, some personalities fall in no one’s category. Savarkar was one such, he is No One’s Man.
The writer is editor, Loksatta