The Congress has sought to put a lid on the heat generated by Rahul Gandhi’s remarks concerning Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, after this threatened to scald attempts to forge Opposition unity. After Congress ally Shiv Sena (UBT), worried about its Maharashtra base, raised the matter with Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, an agreement was reached to cool off on Savarkar for now.
But it was neither the first time, nor the last, that the Congress has struggled with how to view the Hindu Mahasabha leader, who fought the British but is identified now more with fashioning Hindutva as a political ideology, and has been adopted by the Sangh Parivar as one of its icons.
Post-2000, amidst the rise of the BJP and its glorification of Savarkar, the Congress view has hardened, with the party targeting him as a “coward” who had pleaded with the British for forgiveness.
The comments by Rahul that led to the recent controversy also were along the same lines. Asked whether he could have apologised to escape the defamation conviction, which led to his disqualification as an MP, Rahul said: “I am not Savarkar that I would apologise. I am a Gandhi and a Gandhi does not apologise.”
While studying in the UK, Savarkar joined other Indians abroad who had leant their efforts to fight the British rule back home. In March 1910, a 27-year-old Savarkar was arrested over these activities. While being extradited back home, he escaped from a steamer near the coast of France, and swam ashore. As that episode made headlines, Savarkar was rearrested and handed over to the British.
At the age of 28, Savarkar was sentenced to two life terms and sent to Cellular Jail in the Andamans. The prison was meant to break the most hardened of prisoners, and Savarkar also faced torture and brutality.
He was released from jail in 1924 following contested “mercy petitions” and a promise to not participate in political activities.
A new chapter in his life started with his election as President of the Hindu Mahasabha at Ahmedabad in 1937. He continued in the role until 1943.
After Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, who was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, Savarkar was tried, but was acquitted by court.
On November 22, 1957, during proceedings in the Lok Sabha, Raja Mahendra Pratap, an Independent MP from Mathura, moved a Bill “to recognise the service to the country of certain persons, namely, Shri Vir Savarkar, Shri Barindra Kumar Ghose (brother of Shri Aurobindo Ghose) and Dr Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda)”.
The Deputy Speaker allowed the Bill to be introduced, but objections were raised by Congress members. Finally, there was a division of votes, with 48 votes in favour and 75 against the introduction of the Bill. Mahendra Pratap walked out, declaring: “I hope every Bengali and every Maratha will also walk out.”
Support for Mahendra Pratap came from unexpected quarters: CPI MP and Left stalwart A K Gopalan. The Kasaragod MP said: “There was a discussion whether this Bill can be introduced. Then the Deputy Speaker gave the ruling that it can be introduced. After that, it was opposed. This is a very unusual thing that even at the very introduction a Bill is being opposed.”
Gopalan’s argument in turn found another supporter: Feroze Gandhi, the grandfather of Rahul Gandhi. “This action of opposing the introduction of the Bill by the government amounts almost to a vote of no-confidence in the Deputy Speaker,” Feroze Gandhi said.
In 1965, when Savarkar was critically ill, the Congress government led by Lal Bahadur Shashtri released Rs 3,900 for his help from the Home Minister’s fund, and later gave another Rs 1,000. The Maharashtra government, also led by the Congress, granted Rs 300 per month relief to Savarkar from September 1964 until his demise on February 26, 1966.
By that time, Indira Gandhi had taken over as leader of the Congress and government. With the passing of the baton from leaders forged in the fires of the freedom struggle, the nature of politics had already started changing.
Two days after Savarkar’s death, some members of the Bhartaiya Jana Sangh (the predecessor of the BJP) and Praja Socialist Party requested the Lok Sabha Speaker (Akali Dal-turned-Congressmen Hukam Singh) for a reference of condolence. The Speaker rejected this, saying it “would be creating a new precedent because we usually do not make such a reference to such personalities and dignitaries. Therefore, however great our respect for the departed person, we should avoid breaking the precedents that have been set up.”
Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Satya Narayan Sinha backed the Speaker.
Again, it was a CPI MP, H N Mukherjee (Calcutta Central seat), who objected. “The passing away of Vir Savarkar is a matter of such national importance that Members of Parliament sitting on a day when that happens ought to register our feelings. We do not do it; it’s something unheard of and unthinkable. If rules preclude us from condoling the death of a very great man merely because he did not have the dubious distinction of having been a member of the Central Legislative Assembly where Shri Satya Narayan Sinha was a luminary, this is something I cannot comprehend.”
In response, Sinha conceded: “We can do it (offer condolence).”
There were also demands and suggestions from different quarters after his death for a memorial to be set up in his memory and issuing of a postage stamp. Records show that during January-May 1967, at least eight special/commemorative postage stamps in addition to six public postage stamps in the new definitive series were issued, but the government said it could not issue one in the name of Savarkar in 1966 or 1967, “due to the limited capacity of the Security Press and shortage of adhesive paper, which is imported”.
But after repeated requests from many quarters, the first such stamp in his memory was issued, on May 28, 1970, when Indira Gandhi was the PM.
Not much later, on December 1, 1972, during a reference to those who favoured the extremist line in the Independence movement struggle, Congress MP from Nizamabad M Ram Gopal Reddy told the Lok Sabha: “Netaji Subhash Bose adopted that path, Aurobindo Ghose took that path, and Vir Savarkar also followed the same path, so we need not feel ashamed of it.”
The same day, Deputy Home Minister F H Mohsin told the House that the government had received proposals to rename Port Blair after Savarkar.
On March 7, 1973, in reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on whether the government considers Savarkar a freedom fighter, Minister of Home Affairs Umashankar Dikshit of the Congress said the government had taken a decision to accord the status of freedom fighter to Savarkar. However, on the issue of Savarkar’s property in the UK that was confiscated by the British, Dikshit said the said property was auctioned and it was acquired by a third party, “It has not been found feasible and legally practicable to restore that property to his heirs.”
In August 1985, another Congress MP, Chandra Shekhar from Khalilabad in UP, told the Lok Sabha: “We cannot ignore his (Svarkar’s) great contribution to the freedom struggle. Therefore, I would appeal to the Honorable Home Minister to rename Port Blair as Savarkar Dham after the name of India’s brave son.”
Both Jana Sangh MP Balraj Madhok and CPI MP Ramavatar Shashtri had earlier called for renaming Port Blair as “Vir Savarkar dweep”.
As the Ram temple movement drew fresh battle lines between parties, the Left completely distanced itself from the Jana Sangh with which it had earlier allied and shared power in states; with the BJP and Left both supporting the Janata Dal government in 1989. Meanwhile, the Congress hardened its stand on Savarkar.
During the NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee, a profile of Savarkar was published to mark his death anniversary by the government in February 2003, and a portrait of his installed in the Central Hall of Parliament by President A P J Abdul Kalam on February 26, 2003. The Left parties and Congress boycotted the function.
Then Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote to Kalam against installing Savarkar’s portrait, saying it would be a “great tragedy if the Central Hall is utilised” for it.
When the UPA government of Manmohan Singh was in power, in August 2004, there was an uproar in the House as BJP and Shiv Sena MPs alleged that a plaque at the newly built Swatantrata Jot (flame of independence) at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans had been removed on the instructions of then Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer, who had inaugurated the memorial.
During the 2019 Assembly polls in Maharashtra, in which it could not get a majority, the BJP’s promise included asking the Central government to confer Bharat Ratna on Savarkar. However, the BJP-led Central government is yet to do the same.