SWAMINATHAN, the protagonist of R.K. Narayan's engaging debut novel, Swami and Friends, was a ten year old schoolboy when the spirit of nationalism penetrated the placid provincial town of Malgudi. He was captivated by the mystical name of Gandhi, and fascinated by the image an earnest-looking agitationist clad in khadi conjured up before him -- that the Indian population needed only to spit once, perhaps in unison, to drown out all of Britain.
An emotionally charged recounting of the miseries inflicted upon Indian handloom weavers by textile imports from Lancashire left him mortified and easily persuaded to consign his cloth cap to the flames of nationalist protest. There was no room to pause for reflection as he cast the khadi cap newly purchased by his schoolteacher father to the bonfire. Nuances such as the origin of the cap were immaterial in the headlong rush of patriotic fervour.
As the non-cooperation movement in Malgudi moved beyond exhortation to mass political action, Swaminathan, though an "unobserved atom" in the milling crowds, could still claim a part that was "by no means negligible". He thrilled to the sensation of shattering window panes in his school and embarked eagerly on the job of paralysing activity at another establishment. Still heady with the saliva metaphor that he had heard the previous day, he swore that he would "spit at the police" if they sought to restrain the crowd assembled outside the town's Board School. His juvenile voice was drowned out in the din but it entered the stream of history -- one of the many atomised expressions of passion that converged to galvanise a whole town.
The heroism evaporated rather rapidly when the expected retribution came from the officers of the law. At the impact of solid wooden batons on human skulls and the sight of foreheads streaming with blood, Swaminathan "felt giddy with fear" and took to his heels. Unable to outpace an angry constable, he could only plead ignorance of all that had happened around him and beg forgiveness. He went home with the constable's admonitions ringing in his ear and survived his father's wrath through an innocent artifice. His teacher the next day was more exacting, inflicting a severe punishment that had Swaminathan fleeing the school in utter chagrin, with a vow not to return.
Swaminathan went on to a new school and his life quickly subsided into the routine of quotidian ordinariness that Narayan records with such evident delight and irony. As a novelist of the resolutely ordinary, Narayan would not think of propelling any of his characters into the realm of politics and public affairs. The consequences that might have arisen if Swaminathan had gone onto a life in public affairs would seem to await the creative efforts of another novelist.
If great literature often reveals the mundane activity that lies at the core of history, politics revels in the transformation of the ordinary into the epic. Vajpayee's role in the freedom struggle and the subsequent efforts to embellish it with the badge of heroism fit in perfectly with this pattern of creating and perpetuating myth. Although flimsy, the basis of the myth has been sustained over the years despite frequent and often overstated challenge, with not a little subterfuge.
After conducting its own investigation into Bateshwar '42, Frontline approached Vajpayee with the request that he confirm or deny the authenticity of the key confessional statement. The response came from a Supreme Court lawyer, N.M. Ghatate, who claimed to have Vajpayee's approval for the course of action he adopted. Quite plainly, Ghatate pronounced the documents a "total forgery". (See lead story in this feature)
The lawyer had obviously little familiarity with his client or with the matter that was at issue. Curiously, he had in 1974 been involved in a similar effort to bring civil and criminal charges against Blitz, which had carried a rather overwrought and sensationalist story on Vajpayee's role during the Quit India movement on the basis of the same set of documents.
The story in Blitz had been met by a three-pronged legal response. Apart from Ghatate's legal notice, Nanaji Deshmukh, then the organising secretary of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, filed a criminal case in a Lucknow court against the tabloid paper and M.C. Tiwari, a sympathetic lawyer, applied to the District and Sessions at Agra to make the record of the trial (number 3 of 1943) available for inspection.
The RSS mouthpiece, Organiser (March 2, 1974) reported that at a later hearing in the Agra Sessions Court, counsel for Vajpayee "expressed doubts" about "the genuineness of the alleged statement of Shri Vajpayee and prayed for permission to make photocopies of the alleged statement and some other documents in the file to ascertain their genuineness."
A week later, the same paper took a rather different line in an editorial challenge to Blitz: "Even if what Atalji has said in the statement is true, how does it prove that he was an approver? Whatever happened in Bateshwar on August 27, 1942, took place in the open, in broad daylight in the presence of hundreds of people. Even before arresting Atalji the police had come to know Kakua's name from the people and the other accused."
No definitive conclusion emerged from this series of legal encounters. Nanaji Deshmukh's defamation suit was dismissed on grounds of locus standi -- he was neither an aggrieved person nor the representative of an organisation which had reason to feel aggrieved (since the Jan Sangh did not exist in 1942). Ghatate's legal notice and Tiwari's effort to establish the provenance of the documents that Blitz had published meandered away into obscurity.
The matter came up again in 1989, when an embattled Rajiv Gandhi launched a characteristically vitriolic and intemperate verbal assault against Vajpayee. Individuals who had betrayed the national movement, he said, were engaged in a renewed effort to dismember the nation in league with insurgent forces in various parts of the country. Since this assault came in the course of the Prime Minister's Independence Day address, it was propelled to the forefront of public attention and became the subject of lively debate.
Vajpayee's response was remarkably low-key. He would only deny that he had ever testified against any person in court or that any individual was convicted on the basis of evidence tendered by him. Most observers familiar with the verbal excesses of an insecure Prime Minister were prepared to accept this disavowal as adequate.
Congress members of Parliament were not quite so easily put off, though they proved unable to sustain the case after having overstated it to begin with. Certain partisans of Vajpayee were sufficiently moved by these exertions to attempt a defence on his behalf. For instance, the Gwalior-based daily newspaper Swadesh, which is well known for its RSS connections, ran a story which acknowledged the authenticity of Vajpayee's 1942 statement in all substantive respects. But it interpreted this not as a pointer to Vajpayee's indifference towards the national movement, but as an affirmation of the Gandhian values of truth and non-violence. Clearly, the Vajpayee myth had by then acquired proportions that made all manner of ideological contortions permissible in its defence.
In the most recent period, Vajpayee has presented his role in the Quit India movement of 1942 in contrary ways: as a passive bystander (in an evidence-based discussion) and as an avid participant (in the public discourse). It is this curious and contradictory amalgam that the BJP's candidate for the Prime Minister's post presents at this stage -- in his effort to reach back to the days of the freedom struggle for an anchorage in the nation's public life. R.K. Narayan's characters often deal with such dilemmas, but precisely because of their ordinariness, deal with them in a greater spirit of candour and transparency.