Savarkar a national icon? BJP’s new poll trick

Columnist  | Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Opinion, Columnists

After Chhatrapati Shivaji, Savarkar occupies the highest position on the list of Maharashtra’s icons.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

The raging controversy over Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is another skilfully scripted narrative constructed by Bharatiya Janata Party, especially its Maharashtra unit, to ensure the focus of people prior to polls stays on emotionally agitating matters and not on day-to-day economic concerns. There are sufficient reasons to believe that the BJP’s victory in this year’s Lok Sabha polls would not have been possible but for the successful marketing of the party’s project of cultural and political renewal of the nation and its (majority) people. Despite the not — so — unimpressive performance of the Devendra Fadnavis government, and successful resolution of conflicts between coalition partners, there were concerns over the return of local factors in these elections and their negative impact on the BJP’s performance.

After Chhatrapati Shivaji, Savarkar occupies the highest position on the list of Maharashtra’s icons. Both are historical characters and their memories are sustained by what has been represented in the past and how this percolated down to public consciousness. Like every historical “great” or those whose inclusion is sought in the catalogue of nationalists, Shivaji and Savarkar’s contemporary image was constructed by a potent blend of fact and fiction, myth and reality. Historical references to make a case for their contention are cited selectively. For instance, to establish Savarkar’s revolutionary fervour, BJP leaders, home minister Amit Shah downwards, recalled the codifier of Hindutva ideology writing a book on the 1857 uprising and terming it as the Indian War of Independence. But, if this is cited as an impelling reason for the Bharat Ratna, one wonders if Karl Marx too would be bestowed with the same honour. This thought arises because Marx, who died 75 days before Savarkar’s birth, too termed events in 1857 as the “First Indian War of Independence”!

Instead of getting trapped in mindless debate of whether Savarkar was “Veer” (brave) or acted cowardly by writing serial clemency pledges to the colonial regime, or being reduced to citing references ranging from his depiction of events in 1857, or even examining Indira Gandhi’s decision to issue a postal stamp in his memory, there is a necessity to delineate the different faces of Savarkar through sequential phases of his life. Like every historical character, great or otherwise, no person is uni-dimensional. Take Indira Gandhi, now ironically recalled by the Sangh Parivar to make a case for their revered ideologue: Although viewed positively for her tackling of the events leading to the liberation of Bangladesh and the 1971 war with Pakistan, she certainly cannot be endorsed for ruthless suppression of individual liberties and institutional repression during the Emergency.

Likewise, the three distinct phases of Savarkar’s life have to be discussed instead of getting entrapped in the cacophony being dished out as debate. His life can be neatly divided into three phases — the first beginning with his childhood till 1911, when he is jailed in Cellular Jail, Andaman Islands. In this phase, he struck a balance between revolutionary nationalism and Hindu nationalism, although he made his mark in the former role. His acts of bravado coupled with the jail term earned him the label of a “brave freedom fighter” or “Swatantra Veer Savarkar”. For Savarkar critics, it would be wrong to deny this phase in his life.

But, history will remember Savarkar not for his role in the first phase of his life. The most significant phase of his life began with the jail term in 1911 and ended with 1937 when his incarcerations at various levels eventually ended and he entered public life. The position that Savarkar holds, and for which the BJP wishes to honour him, stems from what he “did” in these 26 years: It was during this phase that he wrote his seminal work — Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? and became a revered ideologue for future generations of Hindutva votaries. It was during this phase when Savarkar guided Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in establishing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to “supply Hindu society with power and pillars”. In this phase, Savarkar also wrote some of his communally divisive fiction whose publication was permitted by the British because they did not treat anything which was not anti-colonial in nature as “political”. The BJP wishes to elevate him to the highest levels in the list of national icons for Savarkar’s role in codifying Hindu nationalism and giving voice to the sentiments articulated previously by early Hindu nationalists. The present regime’s effort is not the first, although this campaign is more amplified, given its mastery in political communication.

Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister unveiled in 2003 Savarkar’s strategically placed portrait in the Central Hall of Parliament. This act marked a partial conclusion of an orchestrated effort to elevate Savarkar into a national icon despite his contentious involvement, although unproven, in the conspiracy to murder Mahatma Gandhi. Vajpayee also wished to bestow the Bharat Ratna on the ideologue and a file was sent to President K.R. Narayanan. He did not act on the file for long but Vajpayee did not pursue the matter because he was a political leader in a different mould from today’s dominant lot.

The third phase of Savarkar’s life is least discussed and appreciated by the BJP because post-1937, the ideologue championed the Hindu Mahasabha’s cause, criticised the RSS and remained politically inconsequential. The BJP is certainly using Savarkar in the first phase of his life to glorify him for his accomplishments in the second phase. This demonstrates that despite bravado, the BJP concludes that there is yet no public consensus on embracing Savarkar for his “true” contribution.

Sadly, Manmohan Singh too recalled Indira Gandhi’s decision to honour Savarkar, although the decision marked the start of the Congress’ oscillation between soft and unabashed Hindutva. Mistakes of the past are being repeated. Savarkar’s assessment as national hero is being forced on people by the BJP although the Jivanlal Kapur Commission concluded: “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.”