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Savarkar’s Portrait in K'taka Assembly Gives Fresh Impetus to BJP’s Hindutva Campaign

Latest actions taken to further the party’s dual objective of rebuffing Maharashtra’s claim on the bilingual district, while simultaneously giving a push to the Hindutva campaign
Karnataka Assembly

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Karnataka government's move to put up Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar Savarkar's portrait at the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha (state assembly building) in Belagavi, is the latest in a series of actions taken to further the party’s dual objective of rebuffing Maharashtra’s claim on the bilingual district, while simultaneously giving a push to the Hindutva campaign, to install the Hindu nationalistic icon alongside other great leaders of the national movement.

The dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra over areas that both States claim to be theirs has turned malevolent and raucous in recent weeks with sporadic incidents of violence. The conflict has acquired a dangerous turn despite the fact that the BJP governs both states.

The clash that has forced the Centre, specifically the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah to intercede, demonstrates the limitations of political parties unleashing linguistic parochialism as a means to expand the electoral and political footprint.

This is where the iconisation of Savarkar has the potential to act as a handy tool for the BJP while simultaneously acting as a wedge and assist resolving the conflict between the warring people of the two states.

The memory of Savarkar can be harnessed and thereafter presented to the people of both states as the unifying force and an emblem of a majoritarian ideology that is shared by a large number of people in the two states.

The foisting of the image of the Marathi leader on the people of Karnataka would go a long way in reducing animosity between the two sub-nationalities.

The two can be enlisted in the project to secure unanimous acceptance for Savarkar and convey to them that this is far more important a political project than locking horns over a few hundred square kilometres of land that is actually conspicuous in its multilingual and multicultural character.

Part of the BJP’s problem stems from the fact that the build-up to this round of conflict which has been raging for the past several decades, was assisted by the BJP in the years when it was not in power in Maharashtra as well as in Karnataka.

The demand for the inclusion of Belagavi, erstwhile Belgaum, has been sporadically escalated in Maharashtra from 1960 onwards when the territories of the two states were redrawn. There was considerable support for the demand that the city of Belagavi along with several hundred villages be included in Maharashtra.

In 1966, the Mahajan Commission, a panel set up by the Centre and headed by former Chief Justice of India Mehr Chand Mahajan when the Congress was a dominant party in both states, ruled in Karnataka’s favour.

But because religious chauvinism is a handy tool for political parties to gain currency, the BJP and the Shiv Sena fanned the sentiments little realising that the issue would boomerang on them after they were voted into office.

Part of the problem stemmed from Belagavi and several border towns and numerous villages having multilingual populations. In India, the principle of linguistic states has only been partially followed as a result of which land disputes have ranged between various states with the pot being constantly stirred by forces of chauvinism and even mainstream parties whenever they sensed gains to be made in a particular state.

The BJP’s pressure also increases with the stance of opposition parties. Significantly, the Nationalist Congress Party staged protests in the past alongside the Maharastra Ekikaran Samiti.

Not to be outrun, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray has slammed the state government over the Maharashtra-Karnataka border issue. "Karnataka has been asking for our areas, villages...,' he said.

Stepping up the attack on the BJP he further queried, "Is there any government in Maharashtra? Like before the Gujarat (assembly) elections (in November-December 2022), some businesses were shifted there, so before the Karnataka elections will our villages be given to Karnataka?.."

The embrace of the memory and legacy of Savarkar by the Karnataka unit of the BJP has to be seen as a tactic to ward off the offensive from political forces in Karnataka. The planned campaign is at one level, aimed at establishing Karnataka’s legitimacy in the Marathi-speaking pockets in the border areas in the north.

This strategy is more than a decade old and every party in Karnataka have played a part in the state’s efforts to barricade Belagavi from the intentions of Maharashtra.

On the other hand, the Karnataka BJP’s ‘project Savarkar’ advances the party’s nationwide drive to enhance the image and position of Savarkar among the nation’s greats. Moreover, the systemic campaign of the BJP in Karnataka would secure the endorsement, albeit tacit, of significant sections of people in Maharashtra for his universal following in the state.

The BJP has taken advantage of the lack of consistency from the opposition parties, especially the Congress, in regard to the stance to be adopted towards the legacy of Savarkar. Part of the problem stems from the Congress being unable to take the debate on Savarkar to another plane for the now worn-out theme of whether the Marathi ideologue was a ‘Veer’ (brave) patriot or not, and whether he had written several mercy petitions to the colonial government or not.

As the recent attack on Savarkar’s legacy mounted by Rahul Gandhi demonstrated – perplexingly levelled while the Bharat Jodo Yatra was travelling through Maharashtra – ideological adversaries have focussed on the ideologues his public and private activities and not on what Savarkar preached through his writings and speeches. 

They have not highlighted the contradiction in Sangh Parivar’s strategy of lionising Savarkar for his role prior to his conviction and subsequent deportation from the mainland to the Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands although he is considered a political guru for his codification of the Hindutva doctrine by his inspirational 1923 text, Essentials of Hindutva that inspired KB Hedgewar to lay the foundation of the hydra-headed Hindu nationalistic fraternity.

Part of the problem is that opposition to Savarkar by adversaries of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-BJP in recent decades has not only not been categorical and also been pulled down by a ‘sense of guilt’ at criticising his legacy. 

The opulent Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in Belagavi is ten years old. It was inaugurated by then-President Pranab Mukherjee in November 2012. Almost every party in Karnataka had backed this project, which was criticised by many for only one session being held here and many asked if such a huge amount should have been spent solely with the intention of neutralising Maharashtra’s claim.

Despite his acquittal after being arrested and charged with being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi, Savarkar lived in the shadow of humiliation till his death in February 1966. The government appointed a judicial commission in 1964 following an uproar after the release of other convicts in the Gandhi assassination case.

After being headed by subsequent Vice President of India, Gopal Swarup Pathak, the Commission was headed by Justice Jivanlal Kapur who submitted the report in 1969 stating infamously, "facts (unearthed or established by the Commission) taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group." 

Despite this Savarkar was not politically vilified and no campaign was started by the Congress party to expose the violent and divisive politics he espoused. Instead, the process of his resurrection was started in 1970 when Indira Gandhi commemorated Savarkar on the occasion of his birth anniversary. The stamp’s brochure referred to the author of the book on the first Indian war of Independence in 1857 as “Veer Savarkar” and mentioned his association with the Mahasabha in the context of the “removal of untouchability”. 

In 1983, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister once again after having returned to power in January 1980, the Films Division made a documentary film on Savarkar’s life. Directed by the well-known film director, Prem Vaidya, the film’s description on the website of the department states that Savarkar was an “important figure in the Indian freedom struggle, who was born on May 28, 1883, in the village of Bhagur near Nasik in Maharashtra.” This stripped his legacy of all controversy.

As a result, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee installed Savarkar’s portrait in February 2003 it was seen as a long-delayed honour and the decision of the Congress and all other Opposition stalwarts to boycott the inaugural event by then President APJ Abdul Kalam, it was presented as an instance of churlish behaviour.

But then President KR Narayanan had turned down the government’s proposal for a Bharat Ratna for Savarkar. It is now just a matter of time before the Hindutva icon is bestowed with that honour.

Two months after the installation in Parliament, Savarkar’s portrait was unveiled in the Maharashtra State Assembly. Although by this time many of the forgotten facts regarding Savarkar were disclosed in the public domain, the government chose to brazen it out and not halt the process of elevating Savarkar as a national icon at par with Gandhi and others.

By this time Sardar Patel's letter to Jawaharlal Nehru in February 1948 too had been publicised. In this, he wrote that “it was the fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through." (Volume 6 of Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, page 56). 

As part of the Karnataka unit of the BJP’s campaign to popularise Savarkar and lobby with the state’s people that the Hindutva codifier must be embraced by the people, the party and state government launched a programme in August this year. 

During the Independence Day celebration this year, there were clashes between BJP and Congress workers at several places in the state over posters of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Tipu Sultan in Shimoga and some other places. 

BJP workers subsequently mounted a sustained drive to “raise awareness” about Savarkar’s “contributions as a freedom fighter.” Some portraits of Savarkar were forcibly installed inside Congress offices too. 

The latest move of the state government and the Speaker of the Karnataka state assembly to install the portrait of Savarkar alongside those of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Swami Vivekananda, BR Ambedkar and Basaveshwara while leaving out India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, is part of the same process that has been pursued by the RSS-BJP for the past several decades.

It is just a matter of time before the confrontation between Maharashtra and Karnataka will be resolved at the initiative of national leaders of the BJP. The primary emphasis thereafter will be the plan to elevate Savarkar to a position that is much higher than what his legacy currently occupies. 

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. Views are personal. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

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