Read Your Savarkar Right

A large section of Marathi civil society, intellectuals and social media have come out in support of Rahul Gandhi’s comments on Veer Savarkar made during the Maharashtra leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra

V.D. Savarkar (seated in the last row wearing a black cap); Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte (right) are in the front row during the trial of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins at Red Fort, 27 May 1948
V.D. Savarkar (seated in the last row wearing a black cap); Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte (right) are in the front row during the trial of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins at Red Fort, 27 May 1948

Sujata Anandan

Those who expected Maharashtra to erupt in righteous indignation after Rahul Gandhi once again referred to Savarkar’s mercy petitions to the British and his loyalty to their highnesses have reason to feel disappointed. An unexpectedly large section of Marathi civil society, intellectuals and social media have instead come out in support of Rahul Gandhi’s comments on Savarkar, made during the Maharashtra leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Of the recent controversy surrounding Rahul’s critical references to Savarkar, B.G. Kolse Patil, a retired judge of the Bombay High Court, said it was an attempt to divert attention from the issues being raised by the Bharat Jodo Yatra. “Savarkar deserves every criticism that comes his way for he was against the Indian Constitution. He wanted the British to stay on in India and not give us our freedom; he thought our Constitution was poisonous for the country. Why, then, should anybody be afraid of criticising Savarkar.”

It has also been pointed out that the many hagiographic accounts of Savarkar’s courage and bravery and his storied escapades were often inspired by his own writings. That persona was given permanence in popular memory, especially among Maharashtrian Brahmins, through a century of myth-making in cultural fare such as elocution contests and fancy-dress competitions during Ganapati festivals. The appellation ‘Veer’ itself, it has often been pointed out, is from Savarkar’s disguised biography that he himself wrote under the pseudonym ‘Chitragupt’.

But the harder they try to sanitise Savarkar’s past, the more facts seem to escape the mythology surrounding him. For example, the startling but little-known detail of Savarkar’s first conviction in 1908, in which he was imprisoned for four months for the attempted rape of a British woman named Margaret Lawrence. Savarkar even confessed to the crime, it has been pointed out on Marathi social media.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in his SAVARKAR SANS PROPAGANDA Read Your Savarkar Right Marathi social media is awash with references to Savarkar calling himself ‘Veer’, consuming beef, getting convicted for attempted rape and mocking ‘cow worship’ as intellectual bankruptcy book Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Savarkar advocated rape of ‘enemy women’ (a reference, in its context, to Muslim women). In the same book, he also labelled Chhatrapati Shivaji a fool for honourably returning to her family the captured daughter-in-law of the Adilshahi governor of Kalyan, without violating her.

After he was sentenced to two 50-year jail terms in 1910, more skeletons tumbled out. Savarkar apparently did not join other political prisoners in protesting ‘the third degree’ or inhuman conditions in jails, nor did he join other prisoners in the indefinite fasts. According to some accounts, he was spared hard labour and was allowed to work as an assistant to prison officials and in the library

He wrote as many as five letters of apology seeking clemency and assuring the British empire of his loyalty. He promised to serve the interests of the British after his release from prison and when Subhash Chandra Bose was leading the Indian National Army against the British, Savarkar was busy helping the British recruit Indians into the British army to defeat ‘the enemies of the British’, meaning those fighting for the liberation of India.

What is possibly even more embarrassing for the Sangh is that Savarkar made fun of people who treated the cow as mother. He had admitted to consuming beef in England, justifying the act by saying that he ate portions of a British cow, not an Indian cow.

But in the 1930s, when the editor of the Marathi magazine Bhaala declared that a true Hindu was one who considered the cow as his mother, Savarkar responded by saying: ‘If the cow is mother to anybody at all, then it is only the bullock and not Hindus. Hindutva, if it has to sustain itself on a cow’s legs, will come crashing down at the slightest crisis.’ Savarkar mocked cow worship as ‘buddhi hatya’ (a murder of the intellect). He was violently opposed to the consumption of gaumutra, and said, “We need not worship but care for the cow in the interests of agriculture and economics.”

The unsavoury details about Savarkar, his life and politics began to surface after 2014, when the BJP and the Sangh began to vigorously denigrate the role of Gandhi, Nehru and other freedom fighters. In a long Twitter thread, Rajan Mhapsekar recalled (in Marathi) that when he was in school during the Congress regime, Savarkar received respectful mention in history textbooks alongside Gandhi and Nehru. His own history teacher, a Congress supporter, never trashed Savarkar and treated the man with some respect, he recalls.

“My teacher taught us Savarkar’s poems with emotion. When he described to us how Savarkar had escaped (from a British vessel at sea near Marseilles on the French coast), his rendering of the escapade gave us goosebumps. We grew up with the image of Savarkar as a patriotic poet and among the greatest freedom fighters,” he remembers.

But after 2014, when the BJP began to trash Gandhi and Nehru and valorise Savarkar as the tallest Hindu and the greatest freedom fighter, historians and public intellectuals felt it was time to put out a fact-check, to respond to this Hindu myth-making.

Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, says his research has revealed that Savarkar helped Nathuram Godse secure the weapon that killed the Mahatma. In his book Let’s Kill Gandhi: A Chronicle of His Last Days published last year, he also claimed that it was Uddhav Thackeray’s grandfather, Prabodhankar Thackeray, a man who moved in Sanatani Hindu circles, who first alerted Gandhiji of the plot to assassinate him.

Prabodhankar Thackeray, adds Tushar Gandhi, also warned the then RSS chief K.B. Hedgewar that he would name him in the conspiracy if the conspirators did not desist. That could be the reason why the RSS detested the Thackerays, and initially opposed the BJP’s alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. The RSS was, however, overruled by BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and Pramod Mahajan.

Much to the embarrassment of the RSS and BJP, Marathi social media is all abuzz with all sorts of critical notes on revisionist history that targeted Nehru and Gandhi and built up Savarkar into a great Hindu icon and freedom fighter. They also point out that the Congress, in the first six decades after Independence, had let it be, doing nothing to embarrass Savarkar or the Sangh. Nor did Congress governments launch a witch hunt after Savarkar escaped conviction for Gandhi’s assassination. It was the BJP’s aggressive lionising of Savarkar after 2014, coinciding with an equally aggressive vilification campaign directed at Nehru, that forced the Congress to finally push back. This unexpected pushback, from not just the Congress but also Marathi civil society, seems to have shaken Savarkar idolators in the state; it’s also possibly why the threatened police case against Rahul Gandhi for allegedly defaming Savarkar has not yet been filed.

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