Hindsight is not the best lens to view history, especially when this provides one the indiscretion of being selective about facts. I was reminded of the verity of this at the needless controversy about whether Veer Savarkar was advised to submit a mercy petition to the British at the behest of Gandhiji. The fact is that Savarkar did appeal to the British to show clemency. It is also true that Gandhiji advised him to do so stating the facts and circumstances of his case. To make a causal link between these two independent facts and state them as truth is where the mischief originates.
Firstly, it is important to see the role of Savarkar in perspective. That he was a patriot was never in doubt. His burning passion was to see India free from British rule, and he paid a very high price for the courage of his convictions, including close to 12 years in jail, most of which in the horrific Cellular Jail in the Andamans — kaala pani. Even when he was studying law in England at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was persuaded to the cause of violent revolution against the British, and was arrested and deported to India for this reason. On his way back, when the ship docked at Marseilles, he made a courageous attempt to escape, was rearrested and incarcerated in the Andamans.
It is important to remember that not only Gandhi but Sardar Patel and Bal Gangadhar Tilak petitioned the British government for his release. It is true that Savarkar himself also did the same. Prisoners were given the opportunity to do so, and what Savarkar did was exactly what a great many revolutionaries of that time did also. Moreover, there was nothing unpatriotic about this, considering that at that time the Congress itself was looking not at throwing out the British but only greater autonomy under British rule. In fact, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi released a postage stamp in Savarkar’s memory in 1970. Of course, when the BJP came to power in 2002, it went further. The airport at Andamans was renamed as the Veer Savarkar airport, and a portrait of Savarkar unveiled in Parliament in 2003.
Savarkar has rightly been the target of those in India who believe in our inherent plurality and inclusiveness of vision. In May 1923, Savarkar’s short essay, “Essentials of Hindutva” was published. It is important to objectively analyze this polemic. We can have little objection to Savarkar when he claims that the term “Hindu” was recognised from ancient times, that a civilisation was associated with that name, that this civilisation in spite of its internal diversity was culturally cohesive, that — in spite of the caste system — it represented an ideological unity, and that it was always associated with a defined geographical territory, recognised by ancient texts — Bharatvarsha. A reading of Hind Swaraj would show that Mahatma Gandhi said much the same.
However, Savarkar went beyond this to argue that only those people could lay claim to belonging to India for whom it was both pitrbhumi or a fatherland and the land of one’s ancestors, and divyabhumi or holy land. In saying this, he accepted that Hindus who had converted to Islam or Christianity could be Indian because their ancestors were born in India; but they had to be excluded because India was not their holy land since their religion had extraterritorial loyalties, centred in Mecca or the Vatican.
There can be no condoning of this racist argument. What is worrying, however, is that the BJP-RSS continue to believe in this goal as an article of faith, whatever gloss they may seek to put on it for expedient reasons. One direct consequence of Savarkar’s Hindutva doctrine was the birth in 1925 of the RSS. M.S. Golwalkar, the longest serving head of RSS (1940-1973), took the arguments of Savarkar to a new level of bigotry. In his book, We or Our Nationhood Defined, he wrote: “The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and languages, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture… in a word they must cease to be foreigners; or may stay in the country, wholly subordinate to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights.”
This dangerously xenophobic thinking in a country where, even if Hindus are in a majority, there are people in sufficiently large numbers of other religions, is a matter of deep concern, especially since the ruling party today does not expressly repudiate the theories of Savarkar and the RSS, or publicly and definitively deny the goal of a Hindu Rashtra. What is amazing is that the BJP does not understand how spectacularly impractical and irrelevant this goal is in today’s India, more than seven decades after the adoption of the Constitution that guarantees a plural and inclusive Republic with full respect to people of all faiths, who have also lived here — not geographically isolated but cheek by jowl with other faiths—for centuries. The creation of a Hindu Rashtra would entail either expelling these very large minorities, which is unfeasible, or subjugating them as second-class citizens, which is a recipe for disaster. Quite apart from the violent mutilation of the Constitution, it would lead to perennial social instability, unmitigated religious strife, endemic community conflict and a state of public volatility that would put an end to the peace and harmony so necessary for progress and prosperity.
Savarkar needs to be judged in this context. His racist theory of a Hindu Rashtra needs to be strongly repudiated. But it hardly serves the purpose to ridicule him as a coward who was an unseemly supplicant seeking the mercy of the British. He was a courageous opponent of the British, who paid a huge penalty for the courage of his convictions. At the same time, he held dangerously xenophobic views which are inimical to our Republic today. Gandhiji would have recognised his courage in opposing the British, and strongly opposed his views on the creation of a Hindu Rashtra. That must be Savarkar’s place in history.