To criticise Savarkar or not: A false dilemma

Bharat Bhushan

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has come under criticism for commenting on V D Savarkar’s repeated mercy petitions to the British colonial government while incarcerated at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans.

Some cautious voices rue that it has allowed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to attack him and fear that voters in Maharashtra would be alienated by his comments. They argue that the timing of the comments will distract from the larger narrative he is building through his Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY). With an eye on the elections, they express fear that it could end the alliance between the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA), and predictably they end by blaming Rahul Gandhi’s advisers.

These critics seem to have internalised the BJP’s propaganda about Rahul Gandhi – his so-called political naivete and lack of a tactical approach to politics. It would be better for those giving Rahul Gandhi unsolicited advice on being a practical politician to stop making Savarkar into a holy cow. If they were to even flip through the 1969 report of the Justice Jivanlal Kapoor Commission of Inquiry into the Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi, they might learn something about Savarkar they would find hard to whitewash.

The Kapoor Commission examined evidence not presented and testimonies of witnesses not called in the Gandhi murder trial (including Savarkar’s bodyguard Appa Ramachandra Kasar and his secretary Gajanan Vishnu Damle) to establish his close association with the conspiracy to kill the Mahatma. Then they should ask themselves: Is it alright to praise Gandhi’s murderer Nathu Ram Godse, character assassinate Jawaharlal Nehru, blame Gandhi for the partition of India but put Savarkar, the originator of the two-nation theory, on a pedestal?

Besides, the BJP would have attacked Rahul Gandhi even without his statement on Savarkar. Even the most sensible things he says are turned upside down by the social media propaganda of the BJP. Perhaps just for once, he has put the BJP on the defensive. Even “friendly” media was compelled to organise prime-time debates, allowing commentators to contrast Savarkar with those freedom fighters who chose the gallows instead of apologising to the colonial government.

Moreover, concern about how it will affect voters in Maharashtra is quite irrelevant as there is no immediate election in the offing in the state. The Congress won only one seat of Amravati in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Did it lose 24 of the 25 seats it contested because of Savarkar? Contrary to the doomsayers, despite Rahul Gandhi’s supposed faux pas, the turnout at his public rally the next day at Shegaon in Buldhana was huge, filling up a 22-acre ground.

Nor is the MVA alliance between the Shiv Sena of Uddhav Thackeray, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress likely to break as it was never based on a shared ideological perspective. The Shiv Sena knows that Rahul Gandhi’s position on Savarkar is not new and that the Congress’ constituency is different from theirs.

Surely a party that stands against Hindutva also has to criticise the father of the idea of Hindutva. It might be recalled that when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government decided to install Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament in 2003, the entire non-BJP Opposition boycotted its inauguration, except Chandra Shekhar, who attended in an individual capacity. The Left and non-Congress parties had written to the then president, APJ Abdul Kalam, not to attend the event to “preserve the highest secular traditions of the country as enshrined in our Constitution”.

The two Congress MPs, Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil, who as members of a committee, had cleared the installation of the Savarkar portrait and the party came under public criticism for this. The Congress party’s spokesman was forced to issue a statement saying, “While Savarkar indeed was an early pioneer in the freedom movement and spent several years of incarceration in the cellular jail at Port Blair, his petition for mercy to the British authorities, his advocacy of the two-nation theory and his alleged association with the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi make it extremely inappropriate that his portrait be put up in the same hallowed precincts which celebrate the fundamental secular and democratic values of the freedom movement in nation building.” Party president Sonia Gandhi eventually did not attend the inauguration in solidarity with the Opposition. What Rahul Gandhi has said is consistent with the party’s position on Savarkar.

Will the comments on Savarkar erode the narrative built by the BJY? The BJY has twin objectives: To change the narrative about Rahul Gandhi being a non-serious politician who remains aloof from partymen and the masses and to revive the party’s moribund organisation across India. Both objectives are being realised by Rahul Gandhi’s long march, which is both a massive mass contact and a Congress rejuvenation programme. By taking on the BJP ideologically and criticising its icons, he is countering its divisive ideology and the distortions being deliberately introduced about the freedom movement’s true heroes.

Perhaps those keen on assessing everything through the prism of elections fail to notice that eight years of BJP’s propaganda has normalised a distorted view of the past and a majoritarian view of the present. This has to be countered to change the public perspective. Only then will it become receptive to a political alternative. The narrative against divisive politics, growing unemployment, price rise and the country’s economic crisis has to be situated within an alternative worldview.

While Rahul Gandhi’s critics only have utilitarian concerns, the Congress scion aspires to be the moral beacon for his party and those who see majoritarianism’s dangers. His goal is beyond tactical electoral gains and losses. Winning elections by compromising on the big moral questions of the day would be hollow. Pyrrhic poll victories here and there will not change India or lift Indian politics from the nadir it has touched.

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