BJP’s fervent bid to confer Bharat Ratna on Savarkar shows party's strategy to embed RSS in Indian history
Adding Savarkar to the pantheon of national heroes with government sanction at this stage would be a permanent move that cannot be rescinded later — a level of state patronage that Savarkar never received except under colonial times.
The ultimate goal of conferring the award to Savarkar is, of course, undermining Gandhi and his position as the tallest leader in the national movement and by extension, the regard that the Congress enjoys by being Gandhi's party
It helps the RSS frame Indian nationalism as Hindu nationalism, rather than the secular anti-colonial nationalism represented by the Communists and the Nehruvian wing of the Congress
The BJP and the RSS are sick of appropriating Congress and nationalist figures and pretending that they were their heroes and it shows
The proposal to award the Bharat Ratna to Savarkar is as much about elevating the RSS, Golwalkar and Godse, as it is about the recipient himself.
Such attempts are only a small part of a longer effort of institutionalising the RSS in favourable terms in state history. This was a long time in the making. There were attempts to install a statue of Savarkar in Marseilles, which had to be abandoned after widespread protests over Savarkar's actual record, which then made French authorities put their foot down on the planned sculpture. His portrait installed in Parliament, alongside Gandhi's in the early 2000s by saffronites. The NDA government under Vajpayee in May 2002 renamed Port Blair Airport as Veer Savarkar International Airport, shamelessly only a few months after the Gujarat pogrom. However, national criticism led to the government aborting an attempt to confer the Bharat Ratna to Savarkar under Vajpayee.
The fact that RSS icon Nanaji Deshmukh was given the award last year was a test-drive — a litmus test to see if they could get away with awarding figures with a history of advocating bigotry. In December 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Savarkar's jail cell in Andaman Cellular Jail to pay homage to the saffron ideologue.
If it were simply a matter of elevating figures not embraced openly by the Congress, or major figures left out in awards by Congress-led governments, Bhagat Singh would have a Bharat Ratna by now.
The tactical savviness though, is telling. The Maharashtra BJP forwards the demand and frames it as giving a Marathi patriot his deserved due — on regional grounds. In the future, it would be easy for the BJP to confer the award to other communalists such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee from Bengal, a state they are currently focused on taking over.
The ultimate goal of conferring the award to Savarkar is, of course, undermining Gandhi and his position as the tallest leader in the national movement — and by extension, the regard that the Congress enjoys by being Gandhi's party. It helps the RSS frame Indian nationalism as Hindu nationalism represented by the Congress right, Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, rather than the secular anti-colonial nationalism represented by the Communists and the Nehruvian wing of the Congress. Reverence can also be projected through titles: Vinayak D Savarkar becomes Veer Savarkar in the language of the Indian government, on par with Pandit Nehru, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Lokmanya Tilak, Periyar and Maulana Azad.
Adding Savarkar to the pantheon of national heroes with government sanction at this stage would be a permanent move that cannot be rescinded later — a level of state patronage that Savarkar never received except under colonial times. It would also enable the government now to go on a naming and renaming spree with greater ease — with schools, hospitals, national holidays, roads, and government schemes honouring him and other communal figures. A total of 23 colleges in Assam were named after Deen Dayal Upadhyay, sparking public outrage and an aggressive demand to justify the policy.
The BJP and the RSS are sick of appropriating Congress and nationalist figures and pretending that they were theirs — Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar, Patel, Malaviya, Subhas Chandra Bose — and it shows.
Politics of the move aside, does Savarkar deserve the Bharat Ratna? No.
There is little to justify a man like Savarkar receiving the highest civilian award given by the country.
Some of Savarkar's reputation comes from his "early phase" as a "secular revolutionary", a misconception shared by some leftist scholars as well. However, there was never a secular Savarkar. Nalini Taneja's work states:
"Not only does Dhananjay Keer, his biographer, describe an incident in which a twelve year old Savarkar leads a march of his school mates to stone a village mosque, but Savarkar himself in his later recounting, uncritically and with pride, recounts the same incident. "We vandalized the mosque to our heart's content and raised the flag of our bravery on it. We followed the war strategy of Shivaji completely and ran away from the site after accomplishing the task." (VD Savarkar, Savarkar Samagra, Vol. I, Prabhat Prakashan, pp. 152-153).
Savarkar's 1907 book on the 1857 uprising acknowledges the role of Muslims in the struggle (published only 50 years after the revolt, it was not like Savarkar had a choice), but several paragraphs in the book celebrate the struggle of Hindus against the British the way they had fought against Muslim "barbarians and their oppression". No Secular Savarkar in sight, sadly. It remains his most anti-colonial text.
Since 1857, the colonial regime in India was strongly anti-Muslim. This began to change in the first decade of the 20th Century. Savarkar was guilty of leading the charge against Muslims' political rights the moment there was proper enfranchisement of Muslims for the first time since 1857 revolt, which he himself termed as "war of Independence".
His "revolutionary activities" amounted to going to London, joining a society (Free India Society) that soon enough murdered an official at the India office at London and then fleeing from Britain. He was caught and subsequently jailed. Decades later, Savarkar emerges as a communal politician. His pretext was the alleged mistreatment of Hindu prisoners by Muslim jailers, but this was probably invented given that he engaged in communal politics back at the age of 12 itself.
When in jail, he wrote infamous mercy petitions to the British, begging for release and pledging loyalty, with not one word written about Indian freedom:
"Now no man having the good of India and humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-1907 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress. Therefore if the Government in their manifold beneficence and mercy, release me I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress."
"I hereby acknowledge that I had a fair trial and just sentence. I heartily abhor methods of violence resorted to in days gone by and I feel myself duty bound to uphold law and constitution (British, added) to the best of my powers and am willing to make the reform a success insofar as I may be allowed to do so in future."
The role of Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha he led, and the RSS that worships him - in the freedom struggle - was zero. They did not support the Non-Cooperation movement oled by Gandhi because Muslims were involved and because the idea of a mass movement led by anyone other than themselves horrified Hindu communalists and conservatives. Saffron history refers to that period as an unholy alliance and Gandhi's first betrayal of Hindus.
Saffron forces played no role in the Civil Disobedience movement or in the Quit India movement. They were also uninterested in the struggle for universal adult franchise spearheaded by Ambedkar and sections of the Congress.
While Gandhi, the Congress and Subhash Chandra Bose spent the World War II period intensifying the movement to decolonise India, Savarkar was recruiting Hindu soldiers into the British army. When the Congress resigned from all the state ministries it held during the Quit India Movement, Savarkar advocated steadfast loyalty to the British and at his direction the Hindu Mahasabha allied with the Muslim League to occupy the ministries vacated by the Congress. Even Jinnah did more for the cause of Indian freedom than Savarkar did — yet one cannot fathom Jinnah receiving such an award.
Savarkar spoke of Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations far before Muslim intellectuals or leaders came up with separatism. This makes Savarkar the progenitor of the two-nation theory, not the Muslim League, and a separatist.
He was never a mass leader or organiser. His strengths lay in serving as an ideologue and in political manoeuvring. The only mass movements that the saffron organisations he led or which were inspired by him were endless communal riots — something not to be proud of. Partition violence and the Gandhi murder were Savarkar's biggest political achievements.
It is argued that Savarkar was more anti-caste than any other saffron leader such as Golwalkar, Moonje, Mookerjee or Hedgewar — but a skim through the pages of his speeches as Hindu Mahasabha President (Hindu Rashtra Darshan) show that he was anti-caste for two reasons. The first was that a communal polarisation across castes would help marginalise the Muslims better. The second reason was that he shared with Golwalkar and other communalists the same conversion anxieties, and saw caste discrimination as a major factor in that, unlike the others. A third reason was that he "lost" his caste position when he crosses the sea and went abroad — he had a personal stake in traditions being relaxed, even if among upper castes.
Savarkar was booked in the Gandhi murder case, and was ultimately acquitted only because the other accused carefully coordinated their depositions in order to whitewash Savarkar's role, leading to the court finding insufficient evidence. Awarding Savarkar the Bharat Ratna would mean underplaying the Gandhi murder, an act of terrorism and an attack on secularism, and would cement the right wing charge that secular leaders were simply Muslim appeasers.
The society and values that Savarkar advocated for are not in line with the Indian Constitution — and in fact, run rather contrary to it. Golwalkar and Savarkar were the biggest admirers of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and it was visible in their politics. Ghettoising and marginalising the Muslim was a stated goal. He also petitioned the British for military conscription, compulsory military training in schools, and all Hindus owning guns (what for and against whom? Of course, the Muslims, not the British).
While on paper appearing a little more liberal than other Hindutva leaders, Savarkar never led or joined a movement for social reform and saffron groups led the opposition to women's rights, temple entry or anti-untouchability movements.
Interestingly, his views on the cow may prove embarrassing to the current BJP regime. As with other issues, Savarkar's political hypocrisy comes out in plain sight. He advocated for cow protection, sometimes on "scientific and economic" grounds, sometimes to simply oppose the Muslims, sometimes on the basis of the Hindus' "love for animals".
There is an overdose of gratitude, compassion, notion of all living beings being one in the cow worship of Hindus. But the cow slaughter indulged in by non-Hindus has an excess of cruelty, ungratefulness and demonic (asuric) taking of life. It is not religious madness but irreligious wickedness. For this reason, these non-Hindus should discard their 'religious' cow hatred and consider cow protection done for economic reasons to be their duty. (1935, Ksha kirane or X rays, Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, Vol. 3, p.171-172)
But he also displayed disdain for cow worship, at the cow being treated as a national emblem by conservatives, and even advocated for the eating of beef to defend the Hindu nation:
If a fortified city of our Hindu nation is attacked and supplies are running out, do we wait endlessly for fresh supplies to be brought? Dedication to the nation makes it the duty of the leader to command the slaughter of cows and the use of their flesh as food. If we persist in worshipping the cow, the only option is for our soldiers to die of starvation and lose the city. (Vigyananishtha Nibandh, Parts 1 and 2, Chap 1.5)
The communists, socialists and social reformers did much more to further the cause of Indian freedom, peasant emancipation, workers' rights, social change and social harmony than any saffron leader — yet not a single one has ever been awarded the Bharat Ratna (regardless of regime in power) other than Ambedkar. The eligible candidates are many, but the BJP shortlist is terrible in quality and biased beyond the regular bounds of partisanship. So yes, there is a problem with how the Bharat Ratna has been awarded over history, but adding saffronites to the halls of the hallowed is the opposite of a solution.
Savarkar cannot be called a patriot, he was not a freedom fighter, advocated solely communal violence, and his destructive ideology has only had a negative impact on India. He is, thus, both unqualified for and undeserving of the award, while his vision for the country uniquely disqualifies him. Inciting riots is not a valid achievement.
The author is a PhD research scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His main research is on the propaganda of the Hindu right in modern India.
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