Mumbai: In 2004, Congress’s Mani Shankar Aiyar, then a Union minister, spurred a political controversy by allegedly insulting Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and ordering the removal of a plaque installed in his honour at a memorial in Port Blair. Aiyar’s remarks made waves across the country, but most of all in Savarkar’s home state of Maharashtra.
Speaking to ThePrint, a senior Maharashtra Congress leader who was deputed in Mumbai to field questions over the controversy recalled how he had to stand by Aiyar’s actions, with a caveat: “We respect Savarkar as an individual, our opposition is to his ideology.”
Open criticism of Savarkar does not necessarily translate into political capital in Maharashtra where the Hindu Mahasabha leader is also known for his contribution to Marathi literature and culture, some Congress leaders told ThePrint.
This is perhaps why, when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi made a statement about Savarkar during the Maharashtra leg of his Bharat Jodo Yatra, sources said the move took some in the party’s state unit by surprise. Gandhi’s comments, that mercy petitions Savarkar wrote to the British prove he was fearful of them, kicked off a political row similar to the one in 2004.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and both factions of the Shiv Sena — one now allied with the Congress — are squabbling over who holds Savarkar in higher regard, while the Congress is questioning his nationalist credentials. With nearly all political parties appropriating Savarkar in their own way, his political history is more nuanced than it seems at first.
Savarkar, historians and political observers say, was in conflict with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Moreover, while he was a friend of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s father Keshav Thackeray, popularly known as Prabodhankar, Savarkar was often the subject of criticism in Prabodhankar’s writings. And for all of Rahul Gandhi’s criticism, Indira Gandhi had issued a commemorative stamp in his honour and commissioned a documentary on Savarkar’s life.
“Like all personalities, V.D. Savarkar’s life has been caricatured for political gains. This is not a recent phenomenon,” Shraddha Kumbhojkar, head of the history department at Savitribai Phule Pune University, told ThePrint.
Kumbhojkar pointed out that in his autobiography Majhi Janmathep, Savarkar wrote that many in the Alipore jail would ask him about his famous escape from British captivity by jumping from the porthole of a ship at Marseilles, and that his contemporaries refused to accept his version when he told them that he didn’t have to swim for more than ten minutes. “So, the search for a romantic narrative has always influenced narratives about him (Savarkar),” she said.
“In more recent times, he has been perceived as a finished product, not as a person who evolved. Until 1907-08, for example, his opinions about Muslims were less hateful. Post-Andaman, he became a vehement Muslim hater, which is not perceived by political parties today. This distorts the understanding of history, and history is seen as if it’s supposed to serve the current dispensation,” explained Kumbhojkar.
Also Read: Shinde, Uddhav factions have new names. But what’s the origin story of ‘Shiv Sena’ & its symbol?
Savarkar’s mercy petitions
On Tuesday, addressing a rally in Washim on the occasion of Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary, Rahul Gandhi hailed the tribal icon as Congress’s idol, and compared him to Savarkar. Savarkar wrote mercy petitions to the British and accepted pensions, while Birsa Munda embraced martyrdom, he said.
At a rally in Akola two days later, Gandhi quoted a letter which he claimed was a copy of one of Savarkar’s mercy petitions to the British that read: “I beg to remain sir your most obedient servant.”
“When he (Savarkar) signed this letter, what was the reason? It was fear. He was afraid of the British,” said the Congress MP from Wayanad.
Historians do not dispute the mercy petitions, but insist that they should be seen through the lens of that time and circumstance, and that such petitions were not uncommon.
Savarkar was tried and sentenced to 50 years in prison in December 1910.
Author Vaibhav Purandare, author of a biography on Savarkar titled, Savarkar – The True Story of the Father of Hindutva, told ThePrint: “I’m not taking a legal point of view at all, but statements made by a prisoner under extreme conditions of torture cannot be considered as a genuine testament of their thinking and feelings. Savarkar was given two consecutive life terms of 25 years each, and at Andamans, he was treated in the most inhuman and mediaeval ways.”
“He was kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. He was given all kinds of inhuman punishments such as standing handcuffs, where he was chained to the wall, hands were extended above his head and tied to the wall, and he was made to stand there for 8-10 hours. He was not allowed to access the toilet and had to stand in his own filth,” he said, adding that other political prisoners held at Kala Pani wrote similar mercy petitions.
Purandare said the “pension” that Gandhi mentioned was an allowance that the British government gave prisoners as compensation for loss of livelihood. “People like Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi also got such allowances…When the British government decided to reduce the allowance, Bose had written a letter objecting to it,” he added.
However, Kumbhojkar said she didn’t know of any other political prisoners who made such appeals. “Like all colonial prisons, the cellular jail in Andaman was designed to break the person mentally and physically. Each prisoner there was treated with cruelty and unjust oppression. It is just that V.D. Savarkar survived to tell the tale,” she said.
Adding, “Whether the mercy petitions can be interpreted as his thoughts and feelings, it is the readers’ discretion. I will say that he indeed must have intended to secure release and hence was ready to accept restrictions on his liberty. His behaviour after the release clearly supports this, as he abided by his promise to not touch any political issues while he was in Ratnagiri.”
Savarkar was released from prison in 1924 on the condition that he would not leave Ratnagiri district and was kept under surveillance
Savarkar & the Congress
Rahul Gandhi’s critics pointed out that his grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had in a letter to Pandit Bakhle — secretary of the Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Rashtriya Smarak — dated 20 May 1980, praised Savarkar, calling him a “remarkable son of India”. “Veer Savarkar’s daring defiance of the British government has its own important place in the annals of the freedom movement,” she wrote.
A copy of this supposed letter was shared by Maharashtra Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis on Twitter Friday as part of a thread of archives in response to Rahul Gandhi’s remarks.
The Government of India, under Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister, even issued a stamp in Savarkar’s honour following his death on 26 February 1966. A documentary was also commissioned on him by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
A Maharashtra-based Congress leader who did not wish to be named told ThePrint: “Indira Gandhi may have written the letter out of her generosity, but the Congress is opposed to his (Savarkar’s) ideology. Having said that, privately in the past we have informed leaders of the All India Congress Committee that anti-Savarkar stands don’t necessarily work in Maharashtra.”
Congress’s main charge, political analyst Hemant Desai underlined, is that Savarkar was complicit in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, but was acquitted. “But now, this charge is not in the discourse at all. Rahul Gandhi’s remarks about Savarkar have taken away some of the attention away from Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. And it also ticked off the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) party, putting the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) on shaky ground.”
Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut slammed Gandhi’s remarks Friday as “unwarranted” and “embarrassing”.
Meanwhile, refuting speculation about a rift in the MVA, Congress Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh backed Gandhi by saying that the Congress does not “distort history unlike the BJP”. Ramesh, the general secretary in charge of communications, downplayed Shiv Sena (UBT)’s reaction to Gandhi’s remarks by terming it an instance of “difference in perspectives”.
Also Read: Savarkar never offered a clear definition of Project Hindutva. A new book shows that again
Shiv Sena’s Savarkar
Leaders from both factions of the Shiv Sena — the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena (UBT) and Eknath Shinde-led Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena — maintain that party supremo Bal Thackeray was always an ardent admirer of Savarkar and shared his ideology of an “Akhanda Bharat” (unified India) and inclusive Hindutva.
To their credit, Bal Thackeray did strongly censure criticism of Savarkar by Congress leaders. On Aiyar’s remarks, he had led a ‘Jode Mara’ (hit with slippers) agitation and even whacked the Congress leader’s effigy with his own slipper. Similarly, in 2011, when Congress leader Digvijaya Singh suggested Savarkar was the first to propose the ‘two-nation theory’, senior Thackeray lashed back with an editorial in the party’s mouthpiece, Saamana, saying Savarkar was against partition but he was isolated.
A second Congress leader pointed out that when the Shiv Sena moved to the larger Hindutva cause in the 1980s, away from just espousing the ‘sons of the soil’ agenda, it found a perfect mascot in Savarkar — a Marathi Hindutva ideologue.
While Sena’s demand for a Bharat Ratna for Savarkar is an old trope, political observers say it became more vociferous after Modi’s ascent to power in 2014 as the BJP began expanding its footprint in Maharashtra by encroaching on Sena’s ideological turf. This has since resulted in a tug of war with each claiming the Hindutva narrative for themselves.
“Taking Savarkar’s name is an emotional plank. Savarkar’s ideology is an academic issue, not a political one. The Shiv Sena may celebrate him, but Prabodhankar had himself criticised Savarkar in many of his writings,” said political commentator Prakash Bal.
Historians, however, also say that Savarkar and Prabodhankar had good personal relations and would visit each other.
Senior Shiv Sena leader Ravindra Mirlekar, however, said, for his party, Savarkar was a stringent patriot. “We don’t just have love for Savarkar, we are devoted to him. Prabodhankar had a clear opinion and Savarkar’s Hindutva was also from the same fabric.”
“Unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi said something and it has given the BJP an opportunity, but Uddhavsaheb has clarified that the RSS was not even a part of the freedom struggle. Moreover, Savarkar had heavily criticised the RSS,” Mirlekar told ThePrint.
Critical of RSS, BJP idol
While comparing Birsa Munda to Savarkar, Rahul Gandhi had referred to the latter as an idol of the BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS. His remarks sparked protests Friday by members of the BJP and the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena across Maharashtra.
The same day, Fadnavis shared on Twitter a 1920 letter to then Viceroy Lord Chelmsford purportedly written by Mahatma Gandhi, which ended with the words: “I have the honour to remain, Your Excellency’s obdt. (obedient) servant”.
Fadnavis wrote while sharing the letter, “Rahul ji, yesterday you had asked me to read the concluding lines of a letter. Let me today give you some documents to read. Have you read this letter of our respected Mahatma Gandhi? Does it have the same last lines you wanted me to read?”
In the same thread, he shared Indira Gandhi’s supposed letter to Pandit Bakhle, a document where former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao is appreciating Savarkar, and a video of NCP chief Sharad Pawar applauding Savarkar, among others.
“Now the question arises, by repeatedly making statements about Veer Savarkar, are you just worrying about your vote bank? However much I condemn this, it is not enough,” wrote Fadnavis.
RSS leaders, too, have spoken out in Savarkar’s favour multiple times.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said at a book launch last year that the “era of Savarkar has arrived in the country” and that it is more visible since 2014.
Similarly, in October this year, Sangh leader Indresh Kumar, while addressing a programme of RSS workers, condemned “insults” of Savarkar, saying that he was the only one who got a double life term and was tortured in jail, while Congress leaders were accorded comfortable jail terms.
But while BJP and RSS members hail Savarkar as their idol, the Hindu Mahasabha leader did not exactly get along with the RSS when he was alive. Also, contrary to the BJP and the RSS’s belief, Savarkar was not anti-cow slaughter and only saw the cow as a useful animal.
Speaking at ThePrint Off The Cuff in July last year, historian Vikram, who has written a two-volume biography of Savarkar, said, “There were huge differences of opinion with Golwalkar (M.S. Golwalkar, second RSS Sarsanghchalak) and RSS on several issues, but the public discourse is not of nuance anymore.”
“Savarkar made a very famous comment that if there is an epitaph of an RSS swayamsevak, it will have only three lines – he was born, he joined the RSS, he died. There is no other singular achievement in his life,” added Sampath.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
Also Read: Subhas Chandra Bose wasn’t ‘anti-Savarkar’. Here’s how it’s more nuanced than you thought