Distorting history

In Rajasthan, Savarkar is the new hero of history textbooks that give short shrift to Gandhi and Nehru and the movements they led during the country’s struggle for freedom.

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

BJP president Amit Shah releasing a publication at the inauguration of 29th Savarkar Sahitya Sammelan, dedicated to Savarkar's life and works, in Mumbai in April.

BJP president Amit Shah releasing a publication at the inauguration of 29th Savarkar Sahitya Sammelan, dedicated to Savarkar's life and works, in Mumbai in April.

THE much-anticipated “achche din” may have proved illusory for the common man, but they have certainly arrived, albeit posthumously, for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the original purveyor of Hindutva. Not only has he stolen a march over Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ideologues like M.S. Golwalkar and his guru K.B. Hedgewar, he is even marginalising the Father of the Nation.

History textbooks are being revised to impart a retrospective halo around Savarkar, the man who played a limited role in the national freedom struggle in the first decade of the 20th century. He was an atheist then. Later, when he donned the Hindutva cloak, he became a British loyalist. In a classic case of a molehill being transformed into a mountain, Savarkar now has pride of place in Rajasthan school history textbooks. Ignored are his numerous apologies to the British, his promise to work for the perpetuation of British rule, and so on.

His anti-Muslim stance seems to make up for all his sins of omission and collusion. Even his stand on the cow—remarkably, he did not consider the cow to be the mother of all Hindus or sacred—is no dampener in times when the lynching of innocent people in the name of gau raksha is commonplace.

The Rajasthan government in particular has stepped up its pace of rewriting history. Without any noise, Mahatma Gandhi is being marginalised in books meant for school students. Jawaharlal Nehru, too, predictably, is fading away. In their place come the likes of Savarkar, Hedgewar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and religious leaders like Vivekananda and Aurobindo. The Rajasthan government has introduced textbooks for students of class VIII onwards that often belittle the contribution of Gandhi and Nehru to the freedom struggle and eulogise Savarkar’s contribution.

In a class X textbook, Savarkar is hailed as a great revolutionary whose “lifelong sacrifices… for the country's independence is beyond words”. A chapter on the Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements consigns Mahatma Gandhi to the sidelines. Whereas these movements, along with the Non-Cooperation movement, were earlier dealt with at length in the curriculam for senior secondary school students, they now get a fleeting mention. Gandhi’s role in them is downplayed, while Nehru’s role is completely omitted. He does get mention as one of the torchbearers of the freedom struggle, but he is put on a par with Deen Dayal Upadhyay, whose role in the freedom movement was not worth a mention. Nehru’s vision of the Non-Aligned Movement is completely ignored. The Congress’ politics of inclusion as opposed to the politics of exclusion practised by the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha is also ignored. Savarkar is elevated to the level of a great leader on a par with Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and B.R. Ambedkar. No mention is made of Nathuram Godse’s role in Gandhi’s assassination or of Savarkar’s possible link with it.

All this should not come as a surprise, given Savarkar’s track record. As a 12-year-old boy, he is said to have led a march of his classmates to stone a mosque after rumours of cow slaughter gained currency. This was his “revenge” against the “atrocities” committed against Hindus during Hindu-Muslim riots.

As noted by Jyotirmaya Sharma in Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism , “Savarkar’s own account of this act speaks of his rage against the deeds of physical violence committed against the Hindus by Muslim rioters. (For him, it was always the Muslims who initiated a riot.) So, when Hindus killed Muslims in acts of retribution, Savarkar and his friends would dance with joy.”

If Savarkar stoned a mosque as a boy, it is almost in the fitness of things that today he is being resurrected in school textbooks by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has in its ranks men and women who watched or abetted the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Not many would have forgotten Union Minister Uma Bharti’s infamous line, “ Ek dhakka aur do ” (give it one more push), as she sat watching the Babri Masjid being demolished by kar sevaks. Today, temples of learning are being tampered with.

Interestingly, the whole attempt to find a place for Hindutva heroes centres around Savarkar. Luminaries like Hedgewar and Golwalkar are not so much in the limelight yet.

The apparent anomaly is explained by Professor Aditya Mukherjee, who co-authored RSS, School Texts and The Murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project , with Mridula Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan: “Savarkar was the original ideologue of Hindutva. Golwalkar and others borrowed the idea from him. He was the one who gave the idea of pitrabhoomi and punyabhoomi whereby only a person whose birth-land and sacred land happened to be here could claim to be Indian.”

Rizwan Qaiser, who teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia, said: “If you see a long-term trajectory, they have picked up distinctive figures. Some people like Hedgewar were not as well promoted, but Savarkar is highlighted. He was more articulate than others. The halo around him was not seen with Golwalkar or Hedgewar. The very fact that he was sent to the Andamans is enough to raise people’s hackles if you question him in Maharashtra. He is seen there as ‘veer’, somebody willing to sacrifice. His cell is projected as a site of pilgrimage. They tried to project Deen Dayal Upadhyay, too, but it was like deadwood. It did not work. Savarkar remains their most easily identifiable icon. This despite his association with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Savarkar was sent to the Andamans for supplying a pistol to members of the Abhinav Bharat Society. It took him just a month to send his first mercy petition. In his subsequent petitions, he even claimed that his fellow prisoners were given certain privileges that were denied him. The British refused to be swayed. Soon, he even called himself a “prodigal son”.

He wrote: “The mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the paternal doors of the government.” The mighty did relent in 1924 when he was finally released. Before that Savarkar had cried for mercy a few more times. He promised to be “the staunchest advocate of loyalty to the English government”.

Now Savarkar is being hailed as a great patriot who sacrificed much for the freedom of the country. Qaiser said this was a “travesty”: “Often an image outlives a man. This image of Savarkar has been assiduously cultivated. It has to be countered.” He added: “Savarkar opposed the British in Bombay in 1909, for which he was subsequently sent to the Andamans. His apology letters from there are well known, how he pledged to work for furtherance of the British rule if clemency was shown to him. Interestingly, in all the photographs around the Andamans, while all other prisoners are shown in prison uniform and in shackles, Savarkar is seen wearing a Konkani suit. This is intriguing.”

Back in 1906, before setting sail for England, he founded the Free India Society to organise Indian students to fight for independence. He wanted laws to be changed by the British not just to include more Indians in the legislature but also give them the right to frame the laws. That was in the early years of his student and public life before he became a votary of Hindutva.

Interestingly, Savarkar worked actively to enrol Indians in the Army to perpetuate British rule. The Quit India movement had the tacit support of almost all leaders except Savarkar.

two-nation theory

Not only did Savarkar work to help India’s colonial masters, he was the first to moot the concept of two states. “Savarkar was the first to coin the mantra for two different states, one for Hindus, another for Muslims, the idea being the two communities are incompatible. In many ways, with his demand for a Hindu Rashtra in 1923, he paved the way for M.A. Jinnah’s demand in 1938,” said Qaiser, adding: “Jinnah in 1928 attended an all-party conference in Kolkata. There was no call for a separate state of Pakistan. The call for Pakistan came a decade later.”

Mukherjee chipped in: “He and Jinnah represent two ends of the same ideology.”

Giving space to Savarkar in textbooks is probably inevitable for a government driven by Hindutva ideology. However, why do it at the cost of the Father of the Nation? “That is because he [Gandhi] was the foremost and the most visible opponent of Hindutva. He was a practising Hindu yet opposed Hindutva. He was not a communalist. He had to be killed. Today, they are wiping out his name from books,” Mukherjee said.

“The RSS is deeply uncomfortable with a figure like Gandhi. He cannot be dismissed as ‘pseudo-secular’ or a leftist. He represents someone who is a Hindu believer and yet organically against communalism. His Hinduism is very different from Savarkar’s Hindutva. He also represents a strong belief in non-violence. Both these positions are not in sync with the current dispensation, and hence a marginalisation of Gandhi,” stated Charu Gupta, an associate professor of history at Delhi University. There is an oft-repeated allegation that in the history written by Leftist historians Hindutva icons were not given space. Mukherjee said: “How can anybody give due to apologists? To people who sent God-knows-how-many mercy petitions to the British for clemency. He claimed he never did any politics, just like the RSS claims it is a cultural organisation. Who is to believe that? It is pertinent to remember that upon his release he [Savarkar] became the president of the Hindu Mahasabha.”

In one of his mercy petitions, Savarkar had said: “I and my brother are perfectly willing to give a pledge of not participating in politics for a definite and reasonable period, that the Government would indicate...”

Notwithstanding the current glorification of Savarkar, Qaiser is not pessimistic: “As a student of history, I would say they will not succeed. It is not like you write something and it becomes history. This regime is not forever. The truth has to come out. They may rewrite textbooks for kids which is dangerous considering students are at an impressionable age, but what about the 72 collected works of Gandhi? What will happen to that? People know it across the world. It is an ideological battle. There are great pitfalls. More so when you consider young minds are being poisoned from day one, but it is a war that we will eventually win. We have to.”

“We are living in paradoxical times,” Mukherjee said. It is pertinent to recall what he has written in his book: “Let us not forget that.... the writers of hate textbooks make it possible for the Modis and the Togadias to successfully mobilise fascist mobs who revel in pulling down places of worship or dismembering women and children.” A note of warning the Rajasthan government would do well to heed.

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