Manmohan Singh on Savarkar: Why Congress Must Study Its Own Past

The Sonia Gandhi-Rahul Congress had taken a hard line against Savarkar, while the Indira Regime had a softer stance.

Updated21 Oct 2019, 04:25 AM IST
4 min read

The BJP has successfully plunged the Congress into ideological confusion again with its Maharashtra assembly poll promise of a Bharat Ratna for Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Just like it went into a tailspin on the reading down of Article 370, the Congress can’t seem to decide what stand to take on Savarkar. There’s the ‘hard line’ adopted by the Sonia-Rahul Congress, articulated by leaders such as Lok Sabha MP Manish Tewari and Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, who opposed the proposal, slammed Savarkar as a ‘conspirator’ in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination along with Nathuram Godse, and questioned his credentials as a freedom fighter.

And there’s the ‘soft line’’ of the old Indira Congress, which former prime minister Manmohan Singh reintroduced into the current discourse at a press conference in Mumbai recently: “...we are not against Savarkarji (but) we are not in favour of the Hindutva ideology that Savarkarji patronised and stood for,’’ he said.

Significantly, he recalled that Indira Gandhi was the one who released a commemorative stamp in Savarkar’s memory in 1970.

Manmohan Singh’s ‘Savarkar Comment’ Reveals Schism Within Congress

Dr Manmohan Singh’s comments are being seen as an attempt at damage control in election season in Maharashtra, where Savarkar has a following.

While the BJP jumped on his remarks as more evidence of schisms within the Congress ranks, the real import of what Dr Singh said lies in the subtext. The former PM unwittingly exposed the ignorance of the current Congress leadership of its own history.

On Savarkar at least, the BJP has done its reading; not so the Congress. Tewari, Baghel and other enthusiasts who pounced on the BJP for proposing to honour someone they virtually dubbed as ‘traitor’, seem blissfully unaware of the ambivalence that has characterised their party’s attitude towards Savarkar. This was true before Independence and even after.

There was a brief period when Savarkar was blackballed as a co-conspirator in Gandhi’s assassination.

However, he was later released for lack of evidence, and the Congress lapsed back into equivocation till Sonia Gandhi changed the line under the influence of left-wing historians who were ideologically opposed to Savarkar’s Hindu politics.

Sonia and later Rahul took a belligerent line. In fact, Rahul led the charge in Parliament in 2016 amid loud protests from the BJP when he mocked: “We have Gandhi. You have Savarkar.’’

Sardar Patel & CD Deshmukh Wanted to Partner With Hindu Mahasabha

As subsequent events have proved, perhaps mother and son should have consulted the institutional memory of seniors like Manmohan Singh for advice on hot-button political issues, rather than relying on academicians. In fact, even a simple Google search would have served them better. There’s a wealth of information out there on the peculiar nature of the relationship between Savarkar and the Congress.

For instance, when Savarkar was incarcerated by the British in Cellular Jail on Andaman and Nicobar Islands for his anti-colonial revolutionary, Congress leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Vithalbhai Patel and Bal Gangadhar Tilak demanded his release. This was in 1920.

It’s a different matter that later, Savarkar went on to become a huge critic of Gandhi and the Congress, and forged an opposing ideology which he popularised as ‘Hindutva’, when he became the president of the Hindu Mahasabha of which Godse was a member.

Ironically, while Jawaharlal Nehru detested Savarkar, top Congress leaders like Sardar Patel and CD Deshmukh reached out to him for a partnership with the Hindu Mahasabha immediately after Independence.

Gandhi’s assassination ended the possibility of even a dalliance with Savarkar and his organisation. The Mahasabha was banned along with the RSS.

Resurrecting Savarkar Within Congress Discourse

Savarkar was resurrected in the Congress discourse by late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who ordered a monthly pension to be paid to Savarkar. Shastri’s successor, Indira Gandhi, went several steps further. Not only did her government issue a stamp honouring Savarkar, she commissioned a Films Division documentary on his life and made a private donation of Rs 11,000 to his memorial fund. “Savarkar’s defiance of the British government has its own place in the freedom struggle,’’ she once said.

The chasm between Sonia Gandhi and her party on Savarkar became public in 2003, when the Vajpayee government moved to install his portrait in Central Hall.

A parliamentary committee, with senior Congress leaders Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil as members, approved the proposal.

It seems Sonia Gandhi was unaware of this. A few months later, she shot off a letter to then the then President APJ Abdul Kalam, urging him not to unveil the portrait. “It will be a great tragedy if the Central Hall of Parliament is utilised for installing a portrait of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was not only accused in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case, but supported the two-nation theory of Jinnah,’’ she wrote.

Later, she discovered that the decision was approved by two of her senior leaders. According to media reports from that time, she hit the roof and humiliated them in front of others at a party meeting. There were deep divisions in the party on the issue. Sonia loyalists like Mani Shankar Aiyar, Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh criticised Mukherjee and Patil for compromising party position, but others like Jaipal Reddy remained silent on the controversy, while leaders from Maharashtra dissociated themselves from their party’s vilification campaign of Savarkar.

Complexity of Congress’s Position on Savarkar

Former information and broadcasting minister Vasant Sathe had said, “Indira Gandhi was not a narrow-minded persons. Savarkar’s contribution to the freedom struggle has to be viewed in totality. You can disagree with his Hindutva, but you cannot ignore the fact that he was a great poet and a rationalist.’’

It is interesting that another prominent secular leader of those times, Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M), too kept quiet on the Savarkar portrait controversy.

Perhaps he was acutely conscious that a painting of his father, NC Chatterjee, who succeeded Savarkar as Hindu Mahasabha president, was also installed in Parliament and unveiled by none other than another prominent secular leader, then Vice-President KR Narayanan.

Perhaps the Congress should study its own history to understand the complexity of its own positions.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Published: 19 Oct 2019, 12:55 PM IST

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