We are living in times when finding the middle ground is becoming increasingly difficult. The latest case in point is the BJP’s call for Bharat Ratna for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar aka Swatantryaveer Savarkar. The Maharashtra BJP incorporated this demand as part of its manifesto along with asking for a similar honour for Mahatma Phule. Soon after, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah joined the chorus, clearly in an effort to paint Savarkar critics as “anti-BJP”, and hence, anti-Hindu.
First, why did the BJP, which has been ruling the state and the Centre for the last five years, think it prudent to demand the highest civilian honour for Savarkar even while it failed or ignored the same all these years? The answer lies in the state BJP’s recent political manoeuvres aimed at winning over the Maratha and other caste groups either by offering them reservations or engineering defections. Most of the imported breed of leaders are either from the Congress or its off-shoot, the NCP, and therefore, clearly lack the Hindutva pedigree. This accommodation by the BJP undoubtedly antagonised its traditional vote base of Brahmins and upper castes. Having faced severe criticism for open and unabashed defections, how can it convey to its traditional vote base that it is not deviating much from its core agenda? By making a demand to honour Savarkar with the Bharat Ratna.
This is the BJP’s new-found way of outreach to various communities, even while keeping its core in good humour. By doing so, it has exposed itself yet again to criticism of its “selective appropriation” of icons representing divergent ideologies. Savarkar is more known as the father of Hindu rashtravad (Hindu nationalism), but at the same time he also represents Maharashtra’s glorious tradition of social and religious reformers. The BJP doesn’t seem to be interested in Savarkar’s reformist side.
Unfortunately, in the current highly vitiated political atmosphere, one has to be critical of Savarkar to gain membership of the country’s liberal elite. On the other hand, mere proclamation of one’s affection for Savarkar opens the doors of the country’s now-privileged Hindutvawadi groups. But, notwithstanding the danger of being labelled “rightist” or being accused of peddling “soft-Hindutva”, there is a need to bring out certain positive aspects of Savarkar’s other-than-Hindutva ideology.
Not many are aware that traditional Hindutvawadis despised Savarkar for his modern approach to life. He bluntly wrote how “India is 200 years behind Europe” and has to give up its religious discourse if it wants to catch up with the modern world. Unlike conventional Hindu leaders, Savarkar openly embraced an “era of machines” and appealed to others to give up their narrow vision of religion. New-Hindutvawadis will certainly find themselves at odds with Savarkar, who openly asked them to give up vegetarianism. His criticism of those who call cow “gau mata” is fairly known. What is relatively unrevealed is his comparison of the cow with donkey and pigs. “If Hindu puranas have talked about a cow, they also have talked about pigs in the form of (Lord Vishnu’s) Varah Avtaar. Then why not set up pig-protection groups on the lines of gau rakshaks,” he asks in one of his essays. He bravely ridiculed the idea of 33 crore gods living in a cow.
Some of his criticism of Hindu traditions is so harsh and direct that it can be found “unprintable”. In an another essay, he came down heavily on the Hindu caste system and questioned “upper caste” Hindus who won’t mind consuming cow-urine and cow-dung but at the same time refuse to accept a glass of water from the hands of the supremely intellectual Ambedkar. Savarkar even questioned Hindu gods. He also led an agitation demanding untouchables’ entry into Hindu temples.
Much of this, unfortunately, has been forgotten in a country witnessing a Hindu resurgence. Isn’t it ironic that the political party that likes to portray itself as “Hindutvawadi” is trying to appropriate Savarkar at a time when the country is witnessing growing incidences of mob lynching over protecting the cow? For the BJP, Savarkar is a mere Hindutva icon who can help garner (or polarise?) more votes and whose call for scientific temper can easily be ignored. By its politically opportune approach to Savarkar, the BJP may get few more votes, but it will further narrow the intellectual middle path. Neither “Hindutvawadi nor anti-Hindu” approach will take us anywhere.
(The writer is editor, Loksatta)
This article first appeared in the October 21 print edition under the title ‘Contested terrain’