Friday, October 22, 2004

On Vir Savarkar: Historian Prof Sreedhara Menon

October 23

Prof Sreedhara Menon is the best known historian in Kerala. His
refusal to toe the Marxist line in writing Kerala history has gotten
him into lots of trouble with them. This article appeared in the
Indian Express I think on Sept 17th, with some points edited out.

I particularly liked it that he calls them as he sees them: "secular





The outburst of the secular fundamentalist, Union Minister Mani
Shankar Aiyar, against Vir Savarkar and the removal of the plaque
installed in his name in the cellular jail in the Andamans which was
his abode for over a decade under the British Raj have triggered a
controversy, generating a lot of heat. Normally, the initiative for
such an action with political overtones should have come from the
Union Home Minister. It is strange that the Petroleum Minister has
arrogated to himself this right. Aiyar has since justified his action
as having been motivated by his desire to respect the memory of
Mahatma Gandhi who had no such plaque in his honour in the cellular
jail. Evidently, Aiyar has resorted to cthis argument as an
afterthought to save himself and his Government from the embarrassment
caused by the strong reactions from a section of the intelligentsia
and the political class. The existence or non-existence of a plaque in
honour of Gandhiji in the Andaman jail does not reduce or enhance the
stature of his personality as the supreme leader of the Indian
Independence Movement. The Mahatma's place in history as the Father of
the nation is assured and does not need any advocacy by Mani Shankara
Aiyar and his ilk for the perpetuation of his legacy.

The removal of the plaque from Savarkar's cell in Andaman
jail is an unpardonable act of meanness. It is heartening to note that
Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh, an academic par excellence who
according to his own confession has become a politician by accident,
has distanced himself from Aiyar's stand and has conceded that
Savarkar was a patriot and freedom fighter. It is also significant
that Savarkar's acquittal in spite of his being an accused in the
Gandhi Murder Case was also stressed by the Prime Minister. It would
be pertinent in this context to recall Savarkar's role in the Indian
Freedom struggle in the early phase of his career in historical
perspective, whatever might have been the nature of his activities in
the later years of his life.

The activities of Terrorist organizations comprised of militant Hindu
youth form an important chapter in the history of India's freedom
struggle. Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra were in the forefront of this
Terrorist movement. The terrorists preached the cult of violence and
founded secret societies to encourage acts of individual terrorism
against the oppressive British bureaucrats. In Bengal sprang up early
in the twentieth century the Anuseelan Samithi and other terrorist
groups with which were associated political activists like Bipin
Chandra Pal, Pulin Das et al. Bhupendranath Dutta, the brother of
Swami Vivekannda was actively associated with a terrorist group. The
venerable Aurobindo Ghosh himself advocated violence as a means of
political action for the achievement of freedom from foreign bondage
and was arrested for alleged complicity in the Muzzafarpur bomb case.
Punjab had its chain of secret societies under the leadership of Lala
Hardayal, Ajit Singh, Rash Bihari Bose and others. Maharashtra became
the cradle of militant Hindu nationalism and revolutionary activities
started even in the closing years of the 19th century. Lokamanya
Tilak was a source of inspiration for the militant nationalists. He
did not rule out resort to violence as a means of achieving 'Swaraj'
He was held responsible for the murder of Mr. Rand the Collector of
Pune and sent to jail after a sensational trial. The emergence of
Savarkar on the political scene of Maharashtra has to be seen in the
background of the above developments and not in isolation.

Savarkar was the brain behind the terrorist movement in Maharashtra.
He organized individual terrorist attacks on British officials. He
founded in 1899 a terrorist group called Mithra Mela which became the
precursor of the more well knit and active terrorist group Abhinava
Bharat founded by him in 1900. There was a branch of Abhinava Bharat
in almost all educational institutions in the Bombay Presidency and
terrorist outbreaks became a normal feature of political life. The
Abhinav Bharat proclaimed its goal as the establishment of a Republic
of India, the princes having been considered as mere puppets.

Savarkar subsequently left for London where he continued his
anti-British activities. The India House founded by Syamji Krisna
Varma in 1905 was the rendezvous of the politically active Indian
youth in London. This body had become virtually defunct after its
founder was exiled by the British authorities. In 1907 the leadership
of the India House was taken over a group of youngsters led by
Savarkar. It was a member of this group Madanlal Dhingra who
assassinated the British bureaucrat Curson Wilyie in London in 1909
and he was sent to the gallows by the British . During his stay in
London Savarkar helped his compatriots in Maharashtra by supplying
arms for the fight against the British. Sumit Sarkar, the Leftist
historian has recorded in his 'Modern India 1885 to 1947' that it was
the pistols secretly sent by Savarkar from London that were used to
kill the District Magistrate of Nasik in December 1909. Savarkar was
arrested by the British Police for transportation to India to be tried
in the Nasik Conspiracy Case

On his way to India by ship Savarkar eluded the vigilance of the
British Police and escaped through the toilet hole and swam across
the British Channel to France in a bold bid for freedom from British
clutches. However, he was re-arrested, brought back to India and
sentenced to a long term of rigorous imprisonment of which he spent 11
years in the cellular jail in Andamans. During this period he had not
only to undergo hard labour but was also subjected to physical
torture. After his release from the jail as a physical wreck he
thought it wise to buy peace with the British in his own enlightened
self-interest and also in the national interest for service to the
country in the manner he deemed fit. It should be noted that Sri
Aurobindo who was active in politics just for five years from 1905 to
1910 went into political oblivion and led the life of a yogi avoiding
confrontation with the British.

It was Savarkar's association with the Hindu Mahasabha and his non-
participation in the freedom struggle under Gandhiji's leadership,
particularly the Quit India Movementof 1942 that have been advanced as
arguments to question his credentials as a patriot and freedom
fighter. Many Indian revolutionaries and for that matter even Congress
leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose disagreed with the Gandhian method of
the political action and chose to follow their own paths to attain the
cherished goal. Eminent national leaders like Pandit Madan Mohan
Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Sir C.Sankaran Nair had their own
strong reservations about the Congress policy of appeasement of the
muslim minority and they gravitated to the Hindu Mahasabha. In fact,
it was Madan Mohan Malaviya who took the initiative in forming the
Hindu Mahasabha in 1916 and he was assisted in this endeavour by Lala
Lajpat Rai and others. Sir C.Sankaran Nair presided over the special
session of Hindu Mahasabha in 1931. All the three persons mentioned
above were Presidents of the IndianNationalCongress at some time or
other and are still held in high esteem by the people for their
contribution to the National Movement. Should they be considered as
unpatriotic for the simple reason that they were associated with the
Hindu Mahasabha for reasons of their own?

Savarkar became the President of the Hindu Mahasabha and declared at
its Nagpur session (1939), "We Hindus are a nation by ourselves". This
was a natural response to the Muslim League demand for a separate
state based on the theory that the Muslims in India constituted a
separate nation and cannot be considered as unpatriotic in the context
of the times.

As for the Quit India movement, it should be noted that a
group of Congressmen led by C. Rajagopalachari and the Indian
Communists themselves opposed it. Rajaji's opposition to the movement
did not stand in the way of his becoming the first Indian Head of
State (Governor-General) in independent India. The Communists who were
condemned as unpatriotic betrayers by the Congress in 1942 have today
become patriotic enough to be considered as their bosom partners at
the centre. The great revolutionary of earlier days M.N.Roy extended
his unconditional support to the British and even offered his services
to Lord Wavell for appointment as a member of the Viceroy's Executive
Council. Dr. Ambedkar whom we revere today as the architect of the
Indian Constitution was himself a member of the Viceroy's Executive
Council, which took the decision to arrest Gandhi in the wake of the
Quit India Resolution of August 8, 1942. The nation honours his
memory today by observing his birthday April 14 as a national holiday!

Mention may also be made of the social revolutionary of Tamil Nadu
E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker who advocated the cause of the Dravidasthan
seeking the support of the British in the pre-independence era. Would
Mani Shankar Aiyar dare to say a word against him and step into the
soil of his own home state? R.Sankar and A.A.Rahim, two Congress
leaders of Kerala, did not worry about the unity of India when they
supported the declaration of Travancore as an independent State by
the Maharaja in 1947. The former became the Congress Chief Minister of
Kerala and the latter a Minister of State in the Central cabinet under
the Congress rule. In fact, several distinguished personalities like
S.Radhakrishnan, R.K.Shanmukham Chetty, N.Gopalaswamy Iyengar,
V.T.Krishnamachari and others who were rewarded by the British with
knighthood were not considered unqualified to hold top posts in
independent India.

Viewed in the above background it is incomprehensible why Savarkar
alone should be considered a political untouchable and his memory
pursued with vindictiveness by a group of self-styled intellectuals.
Let me quote Sumit Sarkar again on the role of Savarkar and the RSS
from his "Modern India" " Golwarkar's RSS kept strictly aloof from the
August rebellion. Savarkar on 4 Sept. 1942 urged the Hindu Mahasabha
members of the local bodies legislatures and services to stick to
their posts and continue to perform their regular duties and Syama
Prasad Mukherjee was actually a Bengal Minister while Midnapore was
being ruthlessly suppressed " In spite of all this Jawaharlal Nehru
did not consider Syama Prasad Mukherjee as unpatriotic enough to be
denied a place in his Cabinet.

The current controversy about Savarkar's role in the national movement
is really unfortunate. His life and work have to be assessed
objectively in a broader historical perspective. It deserves special
mention that Savarkar was the first writer to present the Revolt of
1857,'Sepoy Mutiny' in the eyes of the British, as an important
episode in Indian freedom struggle. His work "The Indian War of
Independence 1857" is a valuable contribution to the historical
literature on the subject. What Jawaharlal Nehru has to say about this
in his "Discovery of India" written in 1945 is extracted below " A
great deal of false and perverted history has been written about the
Revolt and its suppression. What the Indians think about it seldom
finds its way to the printed page. Savarkar wrote the "History of the
War of Indian Independence" some thirty years ago, but his book was
promptly banned and is banned still". Of course it was published in
free India. The fact is that when the balance is struck, whatever be
the fulminations of Mani Shankara Aiyar and his tribe, Savarkar has
his own legitimate place in the history of modern India as a patriot
and freedom fighter. The removal of the plaque kept in his honour from
the cellular jail in Andamans where he spent more than a decade of his
life is not only an insult to the memory of this valiant revolutionary
and freedom fighter but also an injustice to history Let us hope that
the plaque will be restored to its original place and the soul of
Savarkar allowed to rest in peace. The earlier this is done, the
better for the Government and the people of India.

(The writer is a former National Fellow of the ICHR and can be
contacted on e-mail

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