Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has, perhaps unknowingly, done an almost blasphemous act on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the undisputed crowning jewel of Hindutva politics. At the launch of a book on the Hindu Mahasabha leader, Singh touched upon a topic that RSS followers rarely feel comfortable discussing – Savarkar’s various mercy petitions to the British begging to be pardoned when he was lodged in the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
“It has been repeatedly said that he (Savarkar) filed multiple mercy petitions before the British government. The truth is, he did not file these petitions for his release. Mahatma Gandhi had told him to file a mercy petition. It was on Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence that he filed a mercy petition,” Singh said at the function Wednesday.
Savarkar’s five mercy petitions – filed between 1911 and 1924 – have been a hush-hush matter in the Indian public sphere. And school textbooks have played an important role in keeping it that way. Based on my own experience and after talking to several students and teachers of history, I would like to claim that no History textbook taught to kids in Indian schools tells them about Savarkar’s apologies and clemency petitions filed before the colonial government. Savarkar seeking mercy from the British has not been taught even to undergraduate History students.
But now, Rajnath Singh’s attempt to Gandhi-wash Savarkar in the mainstream discourse has carved the Hindutva ideologue’s clemency petitions in stone. What was previously only a debate between politicians and historians is now in the town square.
Savarkar as a mythological hero
Besides school and college textbooks, kids learn about ‘history’ also from myths and mythologies. A popular source of learning such urban mythologies are the immensely popular comic books published by Amar Chitra Katha (ACK). One of these books is titled Veer Savarkar. Its introduction section presents Savarkar in a hagiographic manner: “No history textbook will tell you the hardships Indian revolutionaries had to suffer and the sacrifices they had to make for their country’s freedom. Many (prisoners in Cellular Jail) went insane and a few committed suicides, but Veer Savarkar refused to be daunted. He valiantly continued the fight for human dignity and freedom, even in prison. What was the secret of Savarkar’s strength? He was utterly confident that India would achieve freedom. That conviction gave him hope and courage to overcome depression and keep fighting wherever he was – inside the prison, or outside.”
Savarkar, though considered one of the foremost adherents of Hindutva ideology, which is now being led by the RSS, was also celebrated by the secular-liberal politicians and history book writers. Indira Gandhi had condoled Savarkar’s death and her government had issued a commemorative postage stamp honouring him in 1970. Perhaps Indira Gandhi did not want to cede any icon seemingly associated with the anti-British struggle to the RSS. Manmohan Singh propagated a more nuanced view by saying that the Congress “was not against Savarkar” but against his Hindutva ideology.
We can clearly see that before Rahul Gandhi took over the driving seat of the Congress, the party always tried to co-opt Savarkar, despite his alleged role in M.K. Gandhi’s murder, although it was never proved. That’s why we do not find any negative reference to Savarkar in the textbooks written during the Congress era.
Savarkar seeking mercy and writing letters to this effect has been in public domain more as folklore and as a contested fact/fiction. Now, one of the most powerful Union ministers in the Narendra Modi government has endorsed this fact, albeit in a different context, thus putting the legacy of Savarkar under unexpected and newfound scrutiny.
Indian historiography and an ‘infallibile’ Savarkar
India’s mainstream, dominant historiography limits modern Indian history to two narratives. One, anti-colonial struggle, and two, secular communal binary. These two are central to the much-celebrated concept of the Idea of India. This is how history is taught to the uninitiated kids in the school.
The story of India goes like this: Once upon a time, we were a great nation. We have thousands of years of uninterrupted history. The first aberration came with the Muslim invaders. Most of them were bad, a rare exception was Akbar, who was a great assimilator and tried to take everyone along. Then came the British, who plundered India. We fought the First War of Independence in 1857. Then came a great saviour and epitome of Hindu-Muslim unity, Gandhi, who led the freedom struggle, and finally British rule was thrown out. In between, the British worked on the divide and rule policy, and with the help of M.A. Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, broke this great nation into two parts.
All schools of Indian history writing – nationalist, secular, communal, Marxists, subaltern – have an almost similar narrative to tell, though with some minor differences, especially with respect to the Mughal period.
Actually, this uncontested historiography has provided the RSS with an opportunity to sugar-coat Savarkar with a Gandhian topping, as Gandhi indeed was sympathetic towards Savarkar and wanted his early release from the prison. Savarkar’s first two mercy petitions had nothing to do with Gandhi who was in South Africa at the time and would return to India only in 1914. Gandhi was not a national level leader yet and held little sway. Gandhi did try to help Savarkar in his release later on, though and even wrote favourably about him in his journal Young India until he became clear of his communal and divisive views.
Gandhi and Savarkar: Shared itinerary
But we don’t need Rajnath Singh to tell us that Gandhi and Savarkar were on the same page. When it came to Hinduism and the varna system, they did indeed converge.
Despite having semiotic differences and propagating different means and methods, teleologically both of them have similar ideas on Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.
Gandhi and Savarkar had many common ideological trajectories. Their idea of nation as a continuum and India having a glorious past was not very dissimilar. In fact, this is the dominant idea of India which was also the core of the book The Discovery of India, written by the so-called progressive and incorrectly considered as a Left-oriented politician, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Even in the aftermath of communal violence and after the Muslim league emerged as the foremost voice of the community, winning elections, Savarkar and Gandhi kept arguing for a United India with almost childlike zeal. Then, Dr B.R. Ambedkar entered the debate and wrote a long thesis – The Pakistan or the Partition of India (1940). It provides Ambedkar’s counter-arguments to the ideas proposed by both Gandhi and Savarkar.
Ambedkar wrote, “Strange as it may appear, Mr. Savarkar and Mr. Jinnah instead of being opposed to each other on the one nation versus two nations issue are in complete agreement about it. Both agree, not only agree but insist that there are two nations in India—one the Muslim nation and the other the Hindu nation. They differ only as regards the terms and conditions on which the two nations should live.”
Savarkar was quite clear about his idea that Hindus and Muslims are two nations, but there should be no partition and both nations should live as one country. By virtue of being majority, Hindus will hold the dominant position and Muslims must live as subordinates, co-operating with the Hindu nation.
Gandhi, on the other hand, while supporting one nation was never so blunt about this eventuality. He kept harping on Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram/Ishwar Allah Tero Naam and kept assuring Muslims that their interests will be protected in a Hindu-majority India. This is, in fact, convergence between Savarkar and Gandhi, and not a binary as propagated by liberal historians.
Ambedkar explained the fallacy of the Gandhian idea when he wrote: “Mr. Savarkar’s scheme has at least the merit of telling the Muslims, thus far and no further. The Muslims know where they are with regard to the Hindu Maha Sabha. On the other hand, with the Congress the Musalmans find themselves nowhere because the Congress has been treating the Muslims and the minority question as a game in diplomacy, if not in duplicity.”
Gandhi and Savarkar also held similar views on the Hindu social system – the varna system. Savarkar, in his book Essentials of Hindutva, listed many institutions which he thought were essential for making a nation. In that list of Vedas, language, religion, geography, etc, he put the varna system at the top. He writes: “And thus we find that institutions that were the peculiar marks of our nation were revived. The system of four varnas which could not be wiped away even under the Buddhistic sway, grew in popularity to such an extent that kings and emperors felt it a distinction to be called one who established the system of four varnas. Reaction in favor of this institution grew so strong that our nationality was almost getting identified with it.” He argues that the system of four varnas may disappear when it has served its end. He did not provide any timeline for that. This sounds so Gandhian that it can be camouflaged as Gandhian text!
Majoritarian-hegemonic view on national language
Savarkar further argued for a national language which can only be Hindusthani or Hindi: “A Nanak, a Chaitanya, a Ramdas could and did travel up and down the country as freely as they would have done in their own provinces teaching and preaching in this tongue. As the growth and development of our genuine national tongue were parallel to and almost simultaneous with the revival and popularization of the ancient names Sindhusthan or Sindhus or Hindusthan or Hindus, it was but a matter, of course, that language being the common possession of the whole nation should be called Hindusthani or Hindi.”
Savarkar proposed that India should adopt Sanskrit as Dev Bhasha and Sankritised Hindi – “Sanskrit Nishtha” Hindi, the Hindi which is derived from Sanskrit and draws its nourishment from the latter” – as Rashtra Bhasha or national language. Gandhi and many other Congress leaders had similar views on national language.
Gandhi was one of the strongest votaries of adoption of Hindi as a national language. He wanted all Indians to learn Hindi. In his address to the Gujarat Education Conference in Bharuch, he said: “Hindi is the only language which could be adopted as national language because this is a language spoken by majority of the Indians.” Like Savarkar, Gandhi also hold a majoritarian view on language policy. He even founded Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in 1918 and told Kannada speakers to learn Hindi.
In the matter of national language, there was only one difference between them. Savarkar supported Sanskrtised Hindi whereas Gandhi was for Bol Chal ki Hindi (commonly spoken Hindi).
On such counts, Savarkar and Gandhi converge. The counter-narrative was provided by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who fought relentlessly against the idea of varna and caste, challenged the idea of the nation as a continuum (he famously said in the Constituent Assembly debate that ‘India is a nation in the making’), and debunked the idea of Hindu Rashtra or Ram Rajya. He said: “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality, and fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”
Ambedkar also critiqued Savarkar on his beliefs toward Muslims and how they should not have a national home. “If he (Savarkar) claims a national home for the Hindu nation, how can he refuse the claim of the Muslim nation for a national home?”
This one statement by Ambedkar underlines that the quest for a Hindu nation will, by its implication, lead to a Muslim nation. History proved Dr Ambedkar right.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)