Bharat Ratna for Savarkar: To be or not to be is the question

Fresh controversy erupts as BJP tries to push for the country’s top honour for the formulator of the Hindutva philosophy, writes Charanjit Ahuja

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When recently Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi praised Vinayak Damodar Savarkar through a tweet, Singhvi received a call from a senior party leader about the tweet and its timing. The call was reportedly made at the behest of Congress President Sonia Gandhi who was upset with party’s troubleshooter for his tweet.

What Singhvi had tweeted, “I personally don’t subscribe to Savarkar’s ideology but that doesn’t take away the fact that he was an accomplished man who played part in the freedom struggle, fought for Dalit rights and went to jail for the country”. In the aftermath of the tweet, even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to clarify at a press conference in Mumbai, “We are not against Savarkar ji, but we are not in favour of the Hindutva ideology that Savarkar ji patronised and stood for either.”

The controversy comes amid a political row over BJP’s push of Bharat Ratna for Savarkar. Union home minister Amit Shah during campaigning in Maharashtra had observed that history needs to be rewritten from an Indian perspective. BJP leaders have been advocating “Bharat Ratan” for Savarkar, who was charged with murder in the plot to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. Whether or not he was part of the plot to murder Gandhi has not been established. Savarkar was also against Gandhi’s “obsession” with Hindu-Muslim unity. In the contemporary political scenario, Savarkar has been catapulted to national consciousness yet again with BJP and Shiv Sena clamouring for posthumous conferment of the Bharat Ratna on him.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackerary have repeatedly invoked Savarkar in election rallies across Maharashtra. Indeed stalwarts like Sardar Patel or Dr BR Ambedkar richly deserve the Bharat Ratna for long and so is Savarkar for his different voice for freedom struggle.

When Indira praised Savarkar

Ironically, while the present day Congress leadership is trying to snub Singhvi for his praise of Savarkar, but facts reveal that way back in 1980, the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had lauded the contribution of Veer Savarkar. In a letter to Pandit Bakhle, Secretary, Swatantrayaveer Sarvarkar Rashtriya Smark, Indira Gandhi had written, “Veer Savarkar’s daring defiance of the British Government has its own important place in the annals of our freedom movement”.

Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi’s letter No. 836-PMO/80 dated May 20, 1980, had gone on to eulogize Veer Savarkar as “the remarkable son of India”. It may be recalled that Indira Gandhi as prime minister had also issued a postal stamp in Savarkar’s memory.

There may be a difference of opinion on the contribution of Veer Savarkar, but facts are that he was a firebrand revolutionary who formed the country’s first secret the society called the “Mitra Mela” which was later called “Abhinav Bharat” to achieve freedom. English rulers were so scared of his activities that they got him classified as a “D” or dangerous criminal and extradited him to India from London and served him two life sentences amounting to 50 long years and packed off to the Cellular Jail in Andamans. Throughout his life, Savarkar also fought for the cause of Dalits. After taking to active politics in 1937, Savarkar became the voice of the Hindu community as the president of the All India Hindu Mahasabha.

A Bharat Ratna might just be a very small way of correcting this major historical wrong, comments Dr. Vikram Sampath, Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and author of Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past. Prime Minister Narendra Modi considers Savarkar as one of his idols and Union home minister Amit Shah is an ardent follower of Savarkar. Little doubt that BJP leadership is seriously considering the idea of bestowing India’s highest civilian honour Bharat Ratna on Savarkar.

BJP vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe suggests “A Bharat Ratna would be an apt recognition of Savarkar’s contribution to India as a freedom fighter, social reformer, and political visionary.” That Savarkar was an accused in Gandhi’s murder at the behest Jawaharlal Nehru is a historic fact, but it is also true that he was let off due to lack of evidence against him. That the Nehru Government never appealed in the higher court against Savarkar’s release is further evidence that the case against him was weak. Indeed there is merit in the BJP’s move to confer Bharat Ratna on Savarkar! However, like the Shakespearean “to be or not to be that is the question”, the dilemma remains! 

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