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Savarkar, Nehru, Bose: India belongs to no single ideology. No politician gets this today

Whether it is hatred for VD Savarkar or Nehru, the older generation of politicians, who understood that all ideologies deserve to be respected, are gone.

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How Veer was VD Savarkar? According to Rahul Gandhi: not Veer at all. In fact, he was conspicuously lacking in courage. Speaking in Maharashtra, Savarkar’s home state, Rahul set off an uproar when, without any real provocation or topicality, he launched an attack on Savarkar.

Nothing that Rahul said was particularly new. It is not disputed that when Savarkar was jailed in the Andamans by the British, he wrote several mercy petitions and letters of apology to them. Nor is it untrue that he signed off letters to British authorities with ‘Your Obedient Servant.’

So, why raise all this again in Savarkar’s own state? This is not clear, but Rahul’s suggestion that Savarkar was a lackey of the British was based essentially on not providing a context to Savarkar’s letters and actions.

Yes, he did sign his letters with ‘Your Obedient Servant’. But this was a fairly common way of ending letters in that era. It did not mean, as Rahul suggested when he spoke in Hindi, that Savarkar had told the British that he was their naukar. A modern parallel would be to take a letter that ended with “Yours Faithfully” and claim that this meant that the author of the letter swore to be ever faithful. As for the mercy petitions and apologies, they did not exist in a vacuum.

Savarkar was kept in inhuman conditions in prison and subjected to torture. In those circumstances, anyone’s will would have been broken. Many people would have written anything to put an end to the torture. So yes, Savarkar did apologise to the British, but should we not make allowances for the circumstances under which the apology was delivered?


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Obsession with past political figures

The general response to Rahul’s Savarkar-bashing is that it was unprovoked and unnecessary. It embarrassed the Shiv Sena, the Congress’s ally in Maharashtra (though Rahul, who was never keen on the Shiv Sena alliance, might not mind embarrassing his allies). It also handed an issue to the BJP, which has gone on and on about it.

My objection to Rahul’s attack on Savarkar is different and not based on political expediency. My point is: why, in the 21st century, are we so obsessed with figures from the past? Savarkar was released from the Andaman prison in 1924. Is it not bizarre that nearly a century later, we treat the circumstances of his release as a current political issue?

Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of Savarkar is the freshest in our memory. But all politicians from all parties engage in this sort of let’s-blame-the-dead politics. Union Law and Justice Minister Kiren Rijiju recently offered his own interpretation of Kashmir in 1947. His basic thesis was: it was all Jawaharlal Nehru’s fault. (But isn’t everything, according to the BJP?)

And in the aftermath of Rahul Gandhi’s attack on Savarkar, the BJP’s IT cell retaliated in kind. Its head suggested that Motilal Nehru had to intervene to get Jawaharlal released from prison because “Nehru was a coward.”

And on and on it goes. There is, of course, all the Mahatma Gandhi-bashing and Nathuram Godse-glorifying. At least one BJP MP has hailed Godse, Gandhiji’s murderer, as a true patriot. Every Gandhi Jayanti, social media comes alive with tweets and posts from pro-Sangh Parivar handles attacking Gandhiji and offering excuses for Godse’s actions.

What about the confusion over Sardar Patel? As home minister, he banned the RSS, but he is nevertheless a Sangh Parivar hero. The Sangh position is that, had he lived (he died in 1950), he would have kept Nehru in check. Or even: Patel was an opponent of Nehru’s who represented a line of thought more in keeping with today’s Sangh Parivar philosophy.

I guess we’ll never know what would have happened had Patel lived, but though he clearly differed with Nehru on some issues, there is no doubt that the two men were not sworn enemies. They were close and worked together.

How about Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, now often cast as the great Indian leader who was exiled by the evil Jawaharlal Nehru? In fact, Bose named brigades in the Indian National Army after Gandhi and Nehru (though, sadly, not after Savarkar).


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Age of misinformation

There are two reasons why this kind of nonsense emerges again and again. The first is that social media creates a parallel reality of its own. If you read a WhatsApp forward pertaining to a historical personality and decide to double-check the facts (which most people don’t), the chances are that a Google search will lead you to a bogus site with bogus history written by the same sort of people as those who authored the WhatsApp forwards.

Because nobody reads books any longer, this kind of manufactured internet history goes unchallenged. This works both ways. It isn’t just the Hindutva lobby’s rewriting of history. It is also the Congress’s demonisation of such figures as Savarkar. Google will also send you to a site that will record the mercy petitions without any of the context.

Why do our politicians do this? Why are they so obsessed with abusing long dead figures? I used to think that the BJP believed it was necessary to attack Jawaharlal Nehru because it undermined his legacy and therefore his descendants. But now, even when the Congress is not a major player in Indian politics, the attacks continue with even greater vehemence.

For the Congress, this kind of name-calling is a relatively new development. I doubt if Indira Gandhi was a great fan of Veer Savarkar. But, she saw the logic in not resorting to name-calling. As the BJP reminded us after Rahul launched his attack on Savarkar, Indira wrote in 1980 that “Veer Savarkar’s daring defiance of the British government has its own important place in the annals of our freedom movement.” She went on to describe him as “this remarkable son of India”. In 1966, when Indira Gandhi was prime minister, the government issued a stamp in Savarkar’s memory and it even paid for a documentary on Savarkar.

This attitude existed on both sides of the political divide. Atal Bihari Vajpayee made no secret of his admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, and when, as foreign minister in 1977, he discovered that, following the Congress’s defeat, the Foreign Ministry had removed a portrait of Nehru, he had it put up again. He was as gracious about Rajiv Gandhi, referring to the time he needed medical treatment when Rajiv was PM. Rajiv put him on a delegation to the US so that he could be treated there.

Even Sonia Gandhi, who is less of a consensus figure than her mother-in-law was, did not attack Savarkar when his portrait was unveiled in Parliament in 2003. She simply did not attend the function.

But that era is over. An older generation of politicians understood that our country has many ideologies and that all of them deserve to be respected. Just because you did not agree with someone’s views, it did not follow that you vilified them and continued to abuse them decades after they were dead.

India belongs to nobody and to no single ideology. Everyone makes his or her contribution. We may not approve of all of those contributions or agree with the views of every historical figure. But, we owe it to history to respect the men and women who worked for the nation.

Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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