“The curious fact is that as we move into the 21st century, historians have become central to politics. We historians are the monopoly suppliers of the past. The only way to modify the past that does not sooner or later go through historians is by destroying the past….Mythology is taking over from knowledge”.
It was in the wee hours of dawn of the 21st century that renowned scholar and historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had talked about the process of “destroying the past” to “modify” it or how “mythology is replacing knowledge” in his speech at Columbia University in New York City.
Much water has flown down the Ganges, the Rheins, the Yangtzes of the world and as we stand at the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century, one realises that how this process -- both literally and metaphorically -- has advanced to different corners of the globe.
With the ascent of Hindutva supremacist forces in polity and society in this part of the world, perhaps this process has reached its extreme, so much so that every other saffronite seems to have gathered enough confidence to claim legitimacy to any weird thing. The news that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in its election manifesto (for the Maharashtra Assembly) has promised that it would confer Bharat Ratna, the country’ topmost honour, on VD Savarkar if voted to power, should be seen in this light.
This promise on part of the ruling dispensation does not appear surprising.
For quite some time -- since its ascent to power at the Centre with full majority for the first time in 2014 -- the BJP has given enough indication to go for it. As rightly noted by analysts, the “[m]ain reason for this announcement appears to be the BJP’s desire to maintain its proprietary hold on Hindutva politics" and its keenness not to share the space of Hindutva ideology politics with anyone.
The question is: Why does Savarkar still remain such a controversial figure that this proposal has met with condemnation from different political quarters? This is despite Savarkar's involvement in anti-British radical political activities since his youth, which he continued with when he went to England for studies in law and had even written books, monographs to support the cause -- one of the most famous one was a book in Marathi titled, The Indian War of Independence of 1857, which talked in glowing terms about Hindu-Muslim unity displayed during this war. He was even sentenced two life terms for his activities.
In fact, it needs to be simultaneously acknowledged that Savarkar displayed tremendous cowardice in jail, wrote six mercy petitions to the Britishers for an early release -- wherein he had even expressed his readiness to “serve the government in any capacity they like”.
There is also enough material to expose how Savarkar himself propounded the ‘two nation’ theory - "there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems, in India" -- two years before Jinnah talked about it. Or how, when the broad masses of Indian people led by Congress and other radical sections of society were waging a ‘do or die’ struggle against the British in early 1940s ( Quit India Movement), Savarkar had no qualms in touring India and asking Hindu youth to join the British military’s efforts to suppress the rising tide of the people’s movement.
Any neutral observer of the whole situation would be wary of glorifying such an individual and putting him on the same pedestal as the great leaders of the Independence movement, who never wavered on their path or sought clemency for their acts.
It is clear that the BJP, which claims that it has ushered us into a ‘New India’, thinks otherwise. And it is no coincidence that Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, who is considered the first terrorist of Independent India, is being increasingly valorised not so surreptitiously these days.
Coming back to the issue of honouring Savarkar, what needs further emphasising is that there are many other sinister aspects of his personae that have not received due attention.
For example, Savarkar's role as a key figure in Gandhi's assassination.
One can recall Vallabhbhai Patel, who had written to Nehru on February 27, 1948 about it: “I have kept myself almost in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu’s assassination case.” His conclusion was: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through.”
Thanks to the Report of Commission of Inquiry into Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi 1965 – 1969, which was published in 1970 by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs in two volumes and is popularly known as Kapoor Commission report, which has confirmed what Patel had concluded. It said: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”
Second, when newly independent India was engaged in evolving a Constitution based on the principles of equality, justice, liberty and fraternity; like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Savarkar also had great difficulty in accepting India as an inclusive and secular state, where every citizen will have equal rights, irrespective of caste, gender, religion etc. It was during this period that he had professed great affinity for Manusmriti.
“Manusmriti is that scripture which is most worship-able after Vedas for our Hindu Nation and which from ancient times has become the basis of our culture-customs, thought and practice. This book for centuries has codified the spiritual and divine march of our nation. Even today the rules, which are followed, by crores of Hindus in their lives and practice are based on Manusmriti. Today Manusmriti is Hindu Law,”
Third, the way Savarkar propagated politics of revenge in general and even went to the extent of propagating rape as a political weapon to further the cause of Hindu Rashtra, is equally reprehensible. His 'magnum opus' Bhartiya Itihasatil Saha Soneri Paane ('Six Golden Epochs in Indian History)' can be considered to be a representative of his new weltanshauung, where he carefully departs from his earlier nationalist philosophy and focusses his attention on the project of Hindu Rashtra.
Ajit Karnik, in his comment, 'Savarkar's Hindutva' (Economic and Political Weekly, April 12, 2003) writes about how Savarkar condemned Marathas for not taking revenge on Muslims. According to him:
"...On pages 390-391 of the above-mentioned book, Savarkar takes to task the Marathas for not taking revenge on Muslims in response to the atrocities committed around the year 1757 by Abdalli. Savarkar would have liked the Marathas to not just take revenge, but to annihilate Muslim religion (Mussalmani Dharma) and exterminate the Muslim people and make India “Muslim-free”.
Savarkar reports with great approval how Spain, Portugal, Greece and Bulgaria had done a similar thing in the past and ensured the safety of Christianity.
It is worth noting that in this much discussed book, Savarkar propounds the thesis of the 'collective guilt of Muslims.' He lays down the thesis that Muslims need to be punished for not only what they themselves have done but what their co-religionists had done.
In a way, Savarkar presents himself as the father of the language of Pratishodh, Pratikaar, all synonyms for revenge, retribution and retaliation, and a pioneer thinker who inspired a wide spectrum of fanatic individuals and violent organisations.
Karnik further adds:
Further (page 392), Savarkar is unrelenting in his criticism of the Marathas for failing to exact revenge, not only on Abdalli and his forces for their atrocities on Hindus, but on those ordinary Muslims who continued to live in Mathura, Gokul, etc. According to Savarkar, the Maratha army should have killed ordinary Muslims (i e, not soldiers), destroyed their mosques and raped Muslim women. The revenge was to be taken, not on the perpetrators of the earlier atrocities, but on those who had nothing to do with the earlier episodes, on those who were ordinary residents of these places and whose only crime was that they shared their religion with the perpetrators of the earlier atrocities.
The act of ethnic cleansing has come in for a lot of criticism in the civilised world of late. It is not difficult to surmise how Savarkar would have reacted to such incidents if one compares his approach towards similar incidents in the past.
But one of the most reprehensible and also the least known part of Savarkar's life is the way he criticised Shivaji for his chivalry towards the daughter-in-law of Nawab of Kalyan, who was captured and brought before him by his army. He calls this act perverted virtue. (Bhartiya Itihasatil Saha Soneri Paane, Chapter 4 and 5, P. 147-74).
The legend goes that when one of his enthusiastic assistants presented before him the daughter-in-law of the Nawab expecting to get some special favour, Shivaji not only reprimanded him for such an act but also punished him and sent back the woman to her place with full honour.
Even now we proudly refer to the noble acts of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Chimaji Appa, when they honourably sent back the daughter in law of the Muslim governor of Kalyan and the wife of the Portugese governor of Bassein respectively. But is it not strange that when they did so, neither Shivaji nor Chimaji Appa should ever remember the atrocities and the rapes and the molestation perpetrated by Mahmud of Gazni, Muhammad Ghori, Alla-uddin Khilji and others on thousands of Hindu ladies and girls like the princess of Dahir, Kamaladevi, the wife of Karnaraj or Karnawati and her extremely beautiful daughter, Devaladevi...
But because of the then prevalent perverted religious ideas about chivalry to women, which ultimately proved highly detrimental to the Hindu community, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa could do such wrongs to the Muslim women.
(Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, P. 461, Delhi, Rajdhani Granthagar, 1971.)
Savarkar condemns this act by Shivaji and says that he was wrong, as this cultured and human treatment could not evoke in those fanatics the same feelings about Hindu women. It may be shocking to note that thus Savarkar gives a theoretical justification for the innumerable rapes of the 'other' women by the fanatics of the Hindutva brigade who supposedly followed in communal riots/pogroms later.
How things unfold in the near future remains to be seen, but BJP and the larger Hindutva Parivar will have to be told that their choice and their yearning for the 'Jewel of India' is a disgrace to the memory of the known unknown leaders of independence struggle and whatever might be their claims, it just reiterates the moral vacuousness of their project, which is based on hate and exclusion.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.