Manish Tewari blames Savarkar for Gandhi's murder, Manmohan Singh says party not against the man: Why Congress can't make up its mind on Hindutva leader's legacy

  • Former prime minister Manmohan Singh's recent statement about VD Savarkar might have been an attempt to balance out his party's hardline position on a hot-button issue.

  • However, the conflicting stance of senior Congress leaders also brings to fore the faultlines among a party which is already rumoured to be divided between factions of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi's supporters.

  • Congress' overtly critical views on Savarkar appear to be of recent vintage, and equally neoteric is the party's confusion over where to position itself regarding the radical Hindu leader

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh's recent statement about Vinayak Damodar Savarkar might have been an attempt to balance out his party's hardline position on a hot-button issue. However, the conflicting stance of senior Congress leaders also brings to fore the faultlines among a party which is already rumoured to be divided between factions of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi's supporters.

Singh on Thursday said, perhaps by means of clarification on several strong condemnations from within his party, that the Indian National Congress was never against Savarkar. The former prime minister said that his party only stood against the Hindutva ideology espoused by Savarkar and not the man himself, ANI reported.

"We are not against Savarkar, but we are not in favour of the Hindutva ideology that Savarkar patronised and stood for either," Singh said.

Singh's comments came after a controversy erupted after the BJP announced in its Maharashtra manifesto that it will try to recognise Savarkar's legacy by giving him a Bharat Ratna (India's highest civilian award.) A section of Congress leaders was quick to pan the move; some went to the extent of suggesting BJP won't stop short of rewarding Nathu Ram Godse, a former RSS member, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.

Congress leader Manish Tewari was leading the charge from the front. "I would like to ask a counter-question — Why Mr Savarkar? Why not Mr Godse, after all Mr Savarkar was only an accused in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and Mr Godse was convicted. So, therefore, in the 150th year of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, if the NDA-BJP government is going to honour somebody who was tried for Mahatma Gandhi's assassination... and ultimately in 1969, when the Kapur commission was set up it found that possibly, he (Savarkar) and some of his other colleagues had prior knowledge of the events that took place on 30 January, 1948," Tewari said.

 Manish Tewari blames Savarkar for Gandhis murder, Manmohan Singh says party not against the man: Why Congress cant make up its mind on Hindutva leaders legacy

Representational image. News18

Senior Congress leader Debabrata Saikia also criticised the government's move in a statement and said, "The nomination of Savarkar's name for posthumous award of the Bharat Ratna is an insult to the hallowed memory of the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi. Savarkar was accused as a co-conspirator in the Mahatma Gandhi murder case and though he was acquitted due to lack of evidence, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was convinced that Savarkar was guilty."

Savarkar started as an opponent of the British Raj and participated in anti-British activities but his "true colours" emerged once he was sentenced to 50 years in prison and incarcerated in the Cellular Jail in Andaman, Saikia said. He submitted several mercy petitions to the British authorities till his release in 1924, he said in a statement.

"Savarkar's moral weakness is magnified by the moral courage displayed by Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who did not beg for mercy from the British and merely requested that he be executed by (a) firing squad as befitted a Prisoner of War," the Congress leader maintained.

However, Congress' overtly critical views on Savarkar appear to be of recent vintage, and equally neoteric is the party's confusion over where to position itself regarding the radical Hindu leader. Even Singh pointed out that Congress hasn't always been opposed to Savarkar.

"As far as Savarkar is concerned, you would recall that Indira Gandhi had issued a postal stamp commemorating him," Singh said. However, what he failed to mention was the party's chequered past of indecisiveness over Savarkar.

Indira indeed issued a commemorative stamp in Savarkar's honour in 1970, a private donation of Rs 11,000 to his memorial fund, and hailed the Hindutva hero's "daring defiance of the British government" as having its own "important place in the annals of our freedom movement" and even commissioning a Films Division documentary on him.

Congress even approved of installation of Savarkar's portrait in Central Hall of the Parliament in 2003 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power. Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil were on the parliamentary committee that cleared the proposal mooted by the then Lok Sabha speaker Manohar Joshi. That Sonia later came down heavily on the two leaders, is part of another story.

According to media reports from the time, barely three months after approving NDA government's request of placing Savarakar's portrait in the Parliament, Sonia penned a letter to then president APJ Abdul Kalam Azad to slam the brakes on it.

"It will be a great tragedy if the Central Hall of the Parliament is utilised for installing a portrait of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was not only accused in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case, but supported the two-nation theory of Jinnah. We appeal to you to please reconsider your kind decision of attending the ceremony, so that the highest secular traditions of our country, as enshrined in our Constitution, are protected in letter and spirit," the letter read. She even boycotted the function in the Parliament to unveil Savarkar's portrait.

However, at that time too, the subject became a deep embarrassment for the party as BJP went about its task of reminding the party of Indira commemorating Savarkar's legacy.

Mukherjee and Patil remained silent on their decision not to object to the issue after Sonia huffed on the matter and Congress leaders Mani Shankar Aiyer, Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh questioned their wisdom to remain complicit in "compromising party position". But even then the party wasn't unanimous in condemning Savarkar.

Jaipal Reddy, another senior Congressman refused to give a clear apology and instead settled for a cryptic response: "In parliamentary committees, none of us functions as party members. I cannot make a comment."

Vasant Sathe, a prominent Maratha leader of his time, publically dissociated himself from the party's vilification of Savarkar. "Indira Gandhi was not a narrow-minded person. Savarkar's contribution to the freedom struggle has to be viewed in totality. You can disagree with his Hindutva, but you cannot ignore the fact that he was a great poet and a rationalist," he said.

Then later, the party fell into a relative period of a lull as far as Savarkar was concerned. But the subject rose its head again when the BJP came to power in 2016. This time, Sonia's son Rahul Gandhi was leading the charge in the Parliament in 2016. "We have Gandhi, you have Savarkar," Rahul said amid loud protests from BJP members, seeking an apology.

But Rahul deadpanned: "I just said Gandhi is ours and Savarkar yours. Did I say something wrong? Isn't Savarkar yours? Have you dumped him? If you have, you have done a very good thing," DNA reported.

Since then, the Congress party's official Twitter handle has started re-digging Savarkar's controversial past. From describing him as a "fake" freedom fighter, to highlighting his alleged role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, posthumously the radical leader has been on Congress radar every now and then.

The question then arises: what was the sudden need to flit back to the 'Indira Gandhi-era' stand. Perhaps, the answer lies in the fact that Savarkar's efforts to obliterate evils in Hinduism such as casteism are celebrated in Maharashtra, a poll-bound state, where Congress is hoping to make a return. The Congress' confusion is clear from Sathe's statement quoted above. This time around too, Singh's statement comes at a time when BJP has increased efforts to appropriate the Marathi leader ahead of the polls. Meanwhile, Shiv Sena, one of the most prominent Maratha parties, has perennially demanded recognition for Savarkar. So, Congress appeared to be the lone voice losing out in Maharashtra just before the elections.

Although to be fair, Congress' confusion stems from the very contrasting personality that Savarkar was. His clemency plea to the British after spending time in prison is in public records but so is the fact that he spent 27 years of his life in confinement, including over 10 years in Andaman, known as one of the most rigorous imprisonment cells kept by the Britishers.

Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel's opinion that he suspected Savarkar was involved in Mahatma Gandhi's assassination plot — a letter the former home minister wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948 is often quoted — but so was the fact that the Kapur Commission's allegation regarding Savarkar's involvement could not be proved in court. Equally irrefutable is Savarkar's crusade against casteism and so are his revolutionary activities at least before he was condemned to prison.

Savarkar said, "Once the children are educated together, they will not observe caste hierarchy in later life. They will not feel the need to observe the caste division. In addition, the government should abandon the title ‘special schools for low caste children’. This very title creates a feeling of inferiority among children attending the school."

In a letter to his brother Narayanrao on 6 July, 1920, Savarkar wrote, "I feel the need to rebel against caste discrimination and untouchability as much as I feel the need to fight against foreign occupation of India," an article in The Indian Express states.

"Savarkar suffered terribly at the hands of the British for his revolutionary activities and was later boycotted by society for opposing untouchability, caste rules and advocating widow remarriage, and intercaste dining," writes Abhinav Prakash Singh, an assistant professor at SRCC, Delhi University.

But there is also quantitative evidence to suggest that Savarkar was willing to go out of his way to accept British dominion status instead of Independence because of the Muslim League. An article in The Wire states, "When Gandhi had launched his individual satyagraha the following year, Savarkar, at the (Hindu) Mahasabha session held in December 1940 in Madura, encouraged Hindu men to enlist in 'various branches of British armed forces en masse'."

Equally problematic are his deeply communal views. Even though he attempted to create a larger 'Hindutva' identity to amalgamate all classes and communities which were residents of the subcontinent, but his clear disdain for Christians and Muslims was at display in his writings documented over the years.

"While he was careful to specify that Hindutva, or ‘Hinduness’, was different from Hinduism and encompassed a wide range of cultures including, among others, the “Sanatanists, Satnamis, Sikhs, Aryas, Anaryas, Marathas and Madrasis, Brahmins and Panchamas”, he nonetheless made it a point to warn that it "would be straining the usage of words too much – we fear, to the point of breaking – if we call a Mohammedan a Hindu because of his being a resident of India,'" The Wire article mentioned above quotes

It is this aspect of Savarkar that a BJP or a Shiv Sena has no trouble in stomaching, at least at a covert level, while a Congress that constantly reverberates between hard secularism and soft Hindutva — depending on political necessities — flinches at the mention of his name.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2019 17:53:39 IST