Portrait as Mirror, unveiling of Vinayak Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament, then and now

This article is on the unveiling of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s portrait, in 2003, first in the premises of Indian Parliament and then, two months later, in the Maharashtra assembly. It was published in Communalism Combat, April 2003. By well-known historian, Anil Nauriya, it offers an insight into both the man himself and his politics.


Portrait as mirror (April 2003 Year 9, No.86, Communsalism Combat)

In February 2003 it was the Indian Parliament; now, in April 2003, it is the Maharashtra State Assembly. In both these hallowed premises now hang the portrait of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. A man who was implicated in Gandhi’s assassination by none less than the former Indian deputy prime minister and home minister Sardar Patel; a man whose dream for India was that of a militarised Hindu nation chiselled with the politics of revenge and exclusion. We reproduce here two articles from the mainline media that raise serious questions on this highly disturbing development. For more detailed documentation on this issue, readers are invited to visit our website, www.sabrang.com). 

A PORTRAIT of VD Savarkar was unveiled in Parliament by the President, APJ Abdul Kalam, on February 26. On the face of it, the matter may seem confined to “portraiture” and may seem to have ended. In fact, the problems of the ruling party, of the central government and of the constitutional functionaries involved in the episode may have just begun. The implications touch upon the future course of government in India. The issue has a bearing also on the role of certain sections of the print and electronic media, for the portrait episode has acted as a mirror to them as well.

After the facts relating to Savarkar’s involvement in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and on certain other issues were brought into the public domain, the authorities had three options. The first was to apologise and turn back from the course on which they had embarked. The second was to postpone the ceremony and verify the facts. The third was to brazen it out. They chose the third. This was facilitated by the existence of sections of the electronic and print media which live for the moment and thrive on party handouts rather than on painstaking and independent investigation. The tradition of closely scrutinising claims made by ruling parties, whichever these may be, seems to have been forgotten.

In view of the political ineffectiveness of the NDA allies, it is the BJP-RSS and the Shiv Sena, which together comprise the effective ruling combine. Spokesmen of the BJP and RSS asserted that they did not need testimonials from the Congress, the principal Opposition party, or from any other quarter. They went on, however, to cite statements made on Savarkar’s death in 1966 by Indira Gandhi, C Rajagopalachari and a famous communist from Maharashtra.

The fact is that Sardar Patel’s letter dated February 27, 1948, to the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, became public knowledge only in May 1973 when Volume 6 of Patel’s correspondence was published. In the letter, Patel, who was deputy prime minister and home minister, wrote about the plot to kill Gandhi: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through.” (page 56).

Now, Dr. Kalam has, at the behest of the ruling combine, unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament of the world’s largest democracy a portrait of this very individual. And this has been done to the applause of the ruling alliance. It is surprising that large sections of the media have yet to acknowledge the meaning of the event. Some sections of the electronic media even offered Savarkar’s claimed position in Maharashtra as justification enough.

Patel was privy to the intelligence reports. Many intelligence reports are also referred to by the Kapur Commission of Inquiry in the “conspiracy to murder Mahatma Gandhi”. This Commission submitted its report in 1969. In page 318 of Part II of the report, Savarkar’s involvement with the assassins is clearly recorded. Though Savarkar was not convicted in the murder trial, this had little to do with his political responsibility for the murder. Even as regards Savarkar’s legal responsibility for the conspiracy, it was not a case of “no evidence”. The approver, Digambar Badge, had implicated Savarkar. The trial court took the view, as the distinguished barrister, KL Gauba, records in pages 220–221 of his book Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, that the approver’s evidence required corroboration.

Savarkar was thus clearly implicated in the Gandhi murder case. Although legal responsibility was apparently not proved according to the evidentiary process, his political responsibility is patent. That is why even in the course of the murder investigation, Savarkar pleaded illness and gave, as was his wont, an undertaking. He said in a statement to the commissioner of police on February 22, 1948: “Consequently in order to disarm all suspicion and to back up representation I wish to express my willingness to give an undertaking to the government that I shall refrain from taking part in any communal or political activity for any period the government may require in case I am released on that condition.” (KL Gauba, page 209). Clearly, the giver of the undertaking was apprehensive about the evidence against him.

The ruling combine’s spokesmen have tried to suggest that the Congress, in its protest in regard to the portrait, has been misled by people who are dismissively described as some “Leftists” and “historians from Jawaharlal Nehru University”. However, RC Majumdar did not come under either category. His work, Penal Settlement In the Andamans shows that Savarkar’s earlier record which led to his incarceration in the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman Islands, is sullied.

From jail he addressed mercy petitions to the British Raj. His mercy petition dated November 14, 1913, is published in RC Majumdar’s book in pages 211–214. In the petition Savarkar wrote: “Now no man having the good of India and humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906–1907 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress. Therefore, if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress.”

In accordance with this undertaking, Savarkar never thereafter took part in the freedom movement. It is significant that this mercy petition also entered the public domain only in 1975 when RC Majumdar’s book was published by the government of India. The earlier petition which Savarkar addressed in 1911 is yet to come to light but is referred to in the 1913 petition.

As has already been repeatedly stressed by the Opposition parties, Savarkar was out of sync with the idea of nationhood which lay at the heart of the freedom movement and which underlies India’s Constitution. For example, on August 15, 1943, Savarkar declared: “I have no quarrel with Mr. Jinnah’s two–nation theory. We Hindus are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations.” (Indian Annual Register, 1943, Vol II, P.10). He had made a similar statement in 1939, seeking to define Hindus by themselves as a nation. It is not the task of the Indian nation to confer special honours upon those who do not subscribe even to its basic values.

Where do we go from here? So far as the ruling combine is concerned, it has drawn a perfect picture of itself. For the first time since the present government came to power at the Centre, and perhaps for the first time since the Jana Sangh and then the BJP were founded, Savarkarism has been enshrined as the defining characteristic of Hindu communalism. Given the self–portrait of itself that the BJP combine has given the country and the world, its NDA allies need to consider how far they are willing to take their flirtation with it. It has been a costly dalliance. Savarkarism was, as Patel had noted, only the ideology of the “fanatical wing” of the Hindu Mahasabha. A year after Gujarat 2002, this has become official.

The constitutional authorities who facilitated this and lent their office for the purpose are answerable before the world. It is not as if they had not been apprised of the facts. They were warned, though, to be fair, the warning did not come early enough. We should perhaps have been prepared for this outrage when a Shiv Sena nominee was elected the Lok Sabha Speaker. It has also been clear for sometime that political parties alone cannot be relied upon to be alert to all challenges to Indian nationhood. It may be too much to expect an apology from all the individuals concerned. Somnath Chatterjee is an honourable exception.

But in the light of the remarks recorded by Sardar Patel and the other materials, all the constitutional authorities involved, whoever they may be and no matter how high the position they may hold, need to face their conscience and ask hard questions about their fitness to hold the offices they occupy. They are the custodians not merely of their own reputation but of the Republic’s prestige. All of us need to ask the same questions about the roles we claim to perform. It is time for the country, its media and its people to pause and ponder. Capitulation, sectarianism and the glorification of the politics of assassination cannot be part of the Indian self–definition.

This articles by Jyotirmaya Sharma in hinduonnet.com is also worth reading. It is being reproduced below: the original can be found here.

Savarkar’s politics of revenge


The petition from Convict No 32778 to the home member of the government of India, dated November 14, 1913, must simply be seen as an act of self–preservation. Convict No 32778, in this case, was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. His appeal to the ‘mighty’ English government for being ‘merciful’ does not merit opposition to his portrait being hung in the Central Hall of Parliament. There are other more compelling reasons.

Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Savarkar talks of an incident when the 12–year–old Savarkar led a march of his schoolmates to stone the village mosque. Savarkar’s own account of the incident speaks of him and his friends dancing with joy whenever they heard of Hindus killing Muslims in acts of retribution.

Vandalising a mosque was their contribution to preserving Hindu dharma and establishing national honour. Savarkar’s description of this incident is significant. “We vandalised the mosque to our heart’s content and raised the flag of our bravery on it. We followed the war strategy of Shivaji completely and ran away from the site after accomplishing our task,” says Savarkar.

The Muslim boys in the village retaliated. Savarkar’s band of dharmavir warriors met the challenge with knives, pins and foot rulers. Savarkar recounts the victory of the Hindus in this dharma yuddha. In every sense, therefore, Savarkar is the father of the language of pratishodh and pratikaar, all synonyms for revenge, retribution and retaliation. The BJP, Shiv Sena, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Narendra Modi and Praveen Togadia are heirs and successors of Savarkar.

To understand Savarkar and his spiritual progeny better, it would be useful to re–read his long essay on 1857. Savarkar’s notion of nationalism never went beyond being a pale imitation of Mazzini. What is chilling about his account of 1857 is the use of the term political jihad being waged by Hindus and Muslims together against the English. The most significant aspect of this political jihad was its reliance on violence.

While there could be endless discussion on the efficacy of violence as a tool to further nationalistic ends, what is noteworthy in Savarkar’s account is his justification of violence against English women and children. Here is an example. This is what happened in Bibigadh, in Kanpur. The scene is one where the prison guards refuse to massacre the English. Begum Saheb, the chief officer of Bibigarh, which is under the control of the rebels, sends a message to the butchers’ colony in Kanpur: “In a short while, the butchers entered Bibigarh with naked swords and sharp knives in the evening and emerged out of it late in the night. Between their entering and coming out, a sea of white blood spread all over. As soon as they entered with their swords and knives, they butchered 150 women and children. While going in, the butchers walked on the ground and while coming out they had to journey through blood.”

Savarkar’s unemotional comment here is that the accumulated account between the two races had been squared. Revenge, therefore, was for Savarkar the establishment of natural law and justice. From this axiom, he derives a principle of nationalism. According to him, Hindus and Muslims were ‘two’ nations. He argues that wherever injustice increases and nations go up in flames, wherever nationalist wars are fought, revenge for injustices that the nation suffers is taken by killing the perceived perpetrators from another nation.

Formally at least, Savarkar put forth the two–nation theory before Jinnah. Revenge was, however, impossible without making Hindus more ‘manly’. Here lies the core of Savarkar’s incomprehension of the central tenets of Hinduism. He did make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva and accorded the latter unprecedented primacy. His conception of Hindutva, however, had an unlikely source. Savarkar greatly admired the political and religious fervour of Islam. He envied Muslims their social cohesion and valorous fervour, a factor that had made them as a body so irresistible.

The Muslims, according to Savarkar, possessed qualities that made them unassailable whereas the Hindus were hemmed in by metaphysics and tradition. After Chhatrapati Shivaji’s establishment of a Maratha empire, the Hindus had “absorbed much that contributed to the success of the Muhammadans.” It would be useful to recapitulate Savarkar’s thesis about what made the Muslims so irresistible. They had a unified church, which was lacking in Hinduism. This made them better equipped to take on their opponents. In sharp contrast, the Hindus were hopelessly divided in terms of schools of philosophy, debilitating metaphysical propositions, castes and conventions masquerading as tradition.

The Hindus were left to reconcile doctrines such as the karma theory and principled opposition to use of force, all of which lead to a disjuncture between theory and practice. In short, the ‘self’ had absorbed a great deal of the ‘non–self’ to redefine itself. This is the very foundation of political Hindutva. It is based on a cynical misunderstanding of Hinduism, while offering no alternative metaphysics or moral universe. The central tenets of political Hindutva are revenge, retaliation and the sorry principle of ‘might is right’.

Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament is a sad testimony to the disappearance from public life of notions such as gentleness, civility and non-injury. Nothing could be more un-Hindu than that. 



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