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On Savarkar, Rahul Gandhi should learn from previous Congress leaders

Calling Savarkar 'an agent of the British' may endear him to a tiny ultra-radical left constituency, but is neither good politics, nor true to history, nor to the traditions of his party

The problem with Savarkar was that he was too much of a realist, and did not entertain a romanticised idea of Hindu-Muslim unity, which Gandhi and Nehru shared.

It was a Don Quixote moment for Rahul Gandhi when during his controversial Bharat Jodo Yatra he charged V D Savarkar with being an “agent of the English”. To buttress his allegation, he produced a copy of a letter Savarkar had written to the British, which ended with “Sir, I beg to remain your most obedient servant.” According to Rahul Gandhi, the use of this expression by Savarkar showed he “helped the British.”

Even Savarkar’s severest critics wouldn’t use this to paint him as a traitor or a betrayer of the nation. Mahatma Gandhi, while corresponding with the British, too used such expressions as this was the norm then.

In a communication dated June 22, 1920 addressed to Baron Chelmsford, the then viceroy and Governor General of India, Gandhi introduced himself as a “devoted well-wisher of the British empire”. Again, while explaining his stand on the issue of Khilafat, he spoke about “my duty to the empire to which I owe my loyalty.” While threatening to “sever all connection with British rule”, Gandhi however, assured the viceroy that he “still retained faith in the inherent superiority of the British Constitution”. Gandhi signed off the letter with these words — “I have the honour to remain, your excellency’s faithful servant.”

What is the difference between how Gandhi and Savarkar ended their respective letters? While the former said he was a “faithful servant” of the viceroy, the latter signed as an “obedient” one.

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Can one judge Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement on the basis of his use of expressions such as “devoted well-wisher of the empire “ or declaring his “ loyalty “ to the British? Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Subash, Savarkar, Hedgewar, Aurobindo, Bhagat Singh and a whole lot of revolutionaries were fired by a patriotic zeal, worked ceaselessly and selflessly and made enormous sacrifices to free the country from the foreign yoke, and ended up paying a heavy price in the process.

Though the freedom fighters were men and women of great calibre and character, they were neither infallible Gods nor clones of each other. At times they had strong differences – in nuances, approach and views on the road map to freedom. They did make mistakes in assessing situations, taking decisions and reaching conclusions. But these were unintentional errors of judgement. Before sitting on judgement, with the clear advantage of hindsight, one must see the context and circumstances in which they operated.

Four revolutionaries — Ram Prasad Bismil, Roshan Singh, Rajendra Lahiri and Ashfaqulla Khan — were sentenced to death in the famous Kakori Conspiracy of 1925. The convicted first filed an appeal before the Privy Council, which was rejected, as were representations made by prominent citizens to the governor and the Viceroy. As a last resort, they filed a mercy petition to the King-Emperor himself in London. Obviously, the mercy petitions were couched in a certain format and language, so as to possibly evoke a positive response from the authorities. It would be utterly ridiculous to label these revolutionaries as “British lackeys” or “traitors” on the basis of aphorisms used in these mercy petitions.

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Savarkar’s contemporaries had their differences with him, but they admired him for his sacrifices and commitment to the country.

The Bombay Chronicle, welcoming his freedom from incarceration, wrote, “Savarkar is almost a legendary figure to the modern generation. His career reads almost like a romance, and though the struggle for freedom has received a new orientation during the last quarter of a century under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, there will not be a true nationalist in India who will not feel happy today.”

After his release, Savarkar made his first public speech at a function in Ratnagiri at a Congress function. Several groups in Bombay, including the city Congress unit, carried Savarkar in a procession from Azad Maidan to Girgaum. Congratulatory messages were received from Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and C Rajagopalachari. M N Roy, then a young Congressman (later an important Communist ideologue) said that Savarkar was his hero since his school days.

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In 1966, Indira Gandhi after Savarkar’s death, termed him as “a byword for daring and patriotism.” In her tribute, she further said, “Mr Savarkar was cast in the mould of a classical revolutionary and countless people drew inspiration from him.” A letter (May 30, 1980), from Indira Gandhi to Pandit Bakhle, then secretary of Swatantryaveer Savarkar Rashtriya Smarak, reads, “Veer Savarkar’s daring defiance of the British Govt has its own importance in the annals of our freedom movement. I wish success to the plans to celebrate the birth centenary of this remarkable son of India.”

The problem with Savarkar was that he was too much of a realist, and did not entertain a romanticised idea of Hindu-Muslim unity, which Gandhi and Nehru shared. He was ahead of his times, could see through the emerging Muslim League, Communist and the British nexus, which was working in tandem to force a partition of the country on Hindu-Muslim basis.

Congress banked on an elusive Hindu-Muslim unity to prevent a possible partition of the country. Savarkar, while striving for “Akhand Bharat”, focused on preparing the Hindus for the impending disaster waiting to hit them in the shape of communal riots and vivisection of the country.

Rahul Gandhi’s narrative while taking on Modi or BJP, often reeks of Communist toxicity. The trope, he used against Savarkar, is typical Marxist shibboleth, totally divorced from the traditional Congress paradigm. It may endear him to a tiny ultra-radical left constituency, but is neither good politics, nor true to history, nor to the traditions of his party.

The writer is a columnist and a former chairman of Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC)

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 12:00 IST
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