It’s really a sad irony of history. We shall be observing the forthcoming Independence Day -- for the seventh year in a row -- under the auspices of those who were avowed enemies of our freedom movement and all the progressive, democratic and secular values it stood for.
Yes, avowed enemies. Just see how the ideological-political forefathers of the present rulers – and the organisations they represented -- conducted themselves during the decisive decades of our struggle for independence.
The ‘Veer’ Turned Bhagoda 1
The disproportionately magnified ‘bravery’ of VD Savarkar in London (where he was arrested in 1910 for his activities as an expatriate national revolutionary) and in Marseilles (where he managed to slip out of the ship S S Morea, then anchored in the port en route to India, and got re-arrested) was but a brief prelude to a long career marked by cowardice, opportunism and treachery to the cause he honestly espoused in the prime of his life.
Convict No. 32778, Cellular Jail
Savarkar wrote as many as five mercy petitions in 10 years: in 1911 (i. e., less than two months after arriving in the Cellular Jail, Port Blair) 1913, 1914, 1918 and 1920. These authentic documents showcase his shameless surrender blended with obnoxious flattery of the British government, his pitiable pleading for mercy and his readiness, once freed, “to serve the government in any capacity they like.” Just sample these (emphases and comments within square brackets ours).
In the second mercy petition dated 14 November 1913, he wrote:
“... my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men [a categorical renunciation of the revolutionary path] in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like … . By keeping me in jail nothing can be got in comparison to what would be otherwise. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?”
In the letter dated 30th March 1920 he wrote: “years before this have I informed of and written to the Government in my petitions (1918, 1914) about my firm intention to abide by the constitution and stand by it … I offered myself as a volunteer in 1914 to Government when the war broke out … I am sincere in expressing my earnest intention of treading the constitutional path and trying my humble best to render the hands of the British dominion a bond of love and respect and of mutual help. …I and my brother are perfectly willing to give a pledge of not participating in politics for a definite and reasonable period that the Government would indicate. … This or any pledge, e.g., of remaining in a particular province or reporting our movements to the police … any such reasonable conditions … would be gladly accepted by me and my brother. …”
In the penultimate paragraph of the long letter, Savarkar depicts himself as “a sincere advocate of loyal co-operation in the interests of both our nations,” and says, “… a release would be a new birth and would touch my heart, sensitive and submissive, to kindness so deeply as to render me personally attached and politically useful in future.” At the end he signs out as “Your most obedient servant, V.D. Savarkar, Convict no. 32778.”
That these were not empty promises were proved by Savarkar’s conduct. He never protested against the daily injustices meted out to himself and other inmates. Even when protests broke out in the prison and other political prisoners asked him to take the lead, he would encourage them to agitate but would not participate himself. Later in his memoirs My Transportation For Life the vainglorious ex-revolutionary explained why:
“If I were openly to lead them … the authorities … would get the opportunity they needed to take off all the concessions which had come to me and old political prisoners according to jail rules, and would put me back in solitary confinement. …To risk one’s life for such a petty object was to kill the national movement itself… [Oh! The fate of the national movement was dependent on this great individual!]. And further :
“…I would have forfeited thereby [by joining the agitation] my right of sending a letter to India.” … And if he “were punished or went on strike’’, he would be deprived of that right , thereby harming the strike and forfeiting “the chance of working for the freedom of the political prisoners themselves.” [How magnanimous! The ‘leader’ refuses to lead -- or even participate in the struggles for justice and self-respect -- not to save his own skin but out of concern for other prisoners!]
Over the years, by his words and deeds, Savarkar succeeded in convincing the authorities that he was really a changed man. He was relieved from solitary confinement. From hard manual labour like extraction of oil from coconuts, he was shifted to a clerical job and then to the post of foreman in the oil depot. In May 1921 his long-standing prayer for transfer to an Indian jail was granted. And finally in January 1924 he was released from Yerawada jail on conditions of non-participation in political activities and internment in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Savarkar thus served less than 14 years of Jail term including about 10 years in Kalapani. Given that he had been awarded double transportation for life - - which would work out to 50 years - - he was granted a remission of nearly 36 years!
The renegade was duly rewarded, while hundreds of political prisoners - - well-known and unknown, in cellular jail and elsewhere -- remained incarcerated for full terms, suffering and fighting against inhuman torture that killed many of them, but never begging for mercy. Among them was Jatin Das, who died in Lahore jail in 1929 on the 64th day of a hunger strike for improvement in the status of political prisoners, and on whose martyrdom Savarkar had no qualms shedding crocodile tears. And there were other kinds of petition also. Bhagat Singh and his comrades for example filed a petition to the authorities, but the request was for granting them the status of Prisoner of War (POW, since the court had convicted them for waging war against the British Empire) and execution by firing squad (see box).
“The war shall continue. It may assume different shapes at different times. It may become now open, now hidden, now purely agitational, now fierce life and death struggle. …It shall be waged ever with new vigour, greater audacity and unflinching determination till the Socialist Republic is established …
“Our humble sacrifices shall be only a link in the chain” of numerous great martyrs …Since “according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore war prisoners …We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.”
-- From Bhagat Singh’s petition
As for the restrictions on political activities and movement beyond Ratnagiri, these were withdrawn by the Congress ministry as soon as it came to power in Maharashtra in 1937. The Government of India did not object, convinced that the sheep in lion’s skin will never roar again, let alone bite, but only serve the British lion in its game of divide and rule.
Responsive Cooperation with Colonial Masters
We have seen that in his mercy petitions the ‘Swatantrata veer’ had promised loyal cooperation with the colonial government. For public consumption, however, he presented the same offer in a more grandiose phrase that conceals the essence: “responsive cooperation’’. At a time when the people of our country were vigorously protesting Viceroy Linlithgo’s unilateral action of tying up India as a belligerent in World War II, he announced the Hindu Mahasabha’s (HM) stance in the following words: “So far as India’s defence is concerned, Hindudom must ally unhesitatingly, in a spirit of responsive cooperation, with the war effort of the Indian government.”
This position was further elaborated in his birthday message of 25 May 1941, titled “Hinduise all politics and militarise Hindudom!” He explained, “as an immediate step to give effect to this Hinduised political progress, elect only those Hindus … in the Legislatures and all other political bodies as Hindu representatives who pledge themselves openly and uncompromisingly to safeguard, to defend, and to promote uncompromisingly the interests of Hindudom as a whole. … secondly, as the first and immediate step to militarize Hindudom, let every Hindu youth who is capable to stand the test, try his best to enter the army, the navy and the air force or get the training and secure employment in the ammunition factories and in all other branches connected with war crafts.” If this slogan is sincerely implemented, he assured his followers, “the resurrection of our Hindu Nation is bound to follow …”
Now, what sort of resurrection of “Hindu Nation” did Savarkar expect by joining hands with the British? Surely not freedom from colonial bondage! In the Hindutva framework, it could only mean liberation from the alleged ‘1000 years of slavery under Mohammedan rule’. Hence the call to (a) elect only Hindu hardliners committed to fighting ruthlessly against the ‘other’ - - the Muslim community; and (b) learn the art of war, because the struggle would have its military dimension too.
The most substantive measure in “mutual help” or “responsive cooperation” was formation of coalition governments in Sindh, NWFP and Bengal. The opportunity presented itself when in 1939 the Congress ministries, elected two years ago, resigned in protest against tagging India with the British war chariot without seeking consent from the people of India. This was perfectly in sync with the national mood. But the HM trod the opposite path. In a show of extreme opportunism, it joined hands with parties at the opposite extreme of the ideological spectrum, such as the Muslim League. This, on the one hand, helped the British government maintain its claim that it enjoyed the support of the people of India and, on the other hand, pushed the HM further ahead in the good books of its royal patron. Particularly interesting in this regard is the experience of Bengal, because it involved a small-time British loyalist who literally had greatness thrust upon him by the Hindutva lobby.
Mukherjee in Bose’s Bengal
As opposed to the angry youth of Bengal, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee had been a Raj-bhakt since his youth and was duly rewarded for that. At 30, he became the youngest-ever Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University in 1934. He introduced the practice of a march-past on the University Foundation Day by the University Training Corps, where the cadets had to salute the Union Jack. During a rehearsal of the march- past, a student from Vidyasagar College refused to salute the symbol of foreign rule. The VC had him publicly flogged and the students of his college went on a protest strike. Mukherjee then rusticated two student leaders from both the college and university. Under the joint leadership of the Students Federation and the Students League (affiliated to the CPI and the Muslim League respectively) students of all colleges in Calcutta went on a strike. Led by the budding student leader and future communist stalwart Biswanath Mukherjee, a big students march went to meet the University Syndicate. Under pressure, the Syndicate reversed the VC’s decision. The loyal admirer of the Union Jack had to bow down before the militant unity of patriotic Hindu and Muslim students.
Mukherjee’s mental make-up landed him on the lap of the HM in 1939 and he took charge of ‘Hinduization’ (read communalization) of politics in Bengal. The man who came out most forcefully against this dangerous trend was Subhash Chandra Bose. At a public meeting in Jhargram, West Bengal, Bose said on 12 May 1940:
“The Hindu Mahasabha has deployed sannyasis and sannyasins with tridents in their hands to beg for votes. At the very sight of tridents and saffron robes, Hindus bow their heads in reverence. By taking advantage of religion, and desecrating it, the Hindu Mahasabha has entered the arena of politics. It is the duty of all Hindus to condemn it. …Banish these traitors from national life. Don’t listen to them.”
According to Mukherjee’s Leaves from a Diary, Bose met and told Shyama Prasad that if he went about building Hindu Mahasabha as a political body in Bengal, “He would see to it, by force if need be, that it was broken before it was really born.” And to an extent, Bose did walk his talk.
Shyama Prasad joined the Fazlul Huq ministry in December 1941 as Deputy Chief Minister and worked closely with the governor of Bengal in opposing the Quit India Movement (QIM). Even before the movement was actually launched, he wrote to the Governor:
“Let me now refer to the situation that may be created in the province as a result of any widespread movement launched by the Congress. Anybody, who during the war, plans to stir up mass feeling, resulting internal disturbances or insecurity, must be resisted by any Government that may function for the time being.”
He also offered his suggestion on how to dupe the people:
“The question is how to combat this movement (Quit India) in Bengal? The administration of the province should be carried on in such a manner that in spite of the best efforts of the Congress, this movement will fail to take root in the province. It should be possible for us, especially responsible Ministers, to be able to tell the public that the freedom for which the Congress has started the movement, already belongs to the representatives of the people.”
Apart from helping the Britishers maintain their tottering rule, Mukherjee played a very prominent part in the partition of Bengal. As a context it should be noted here that in the early 1920s a powerful campaign against soaring communal tension in the aftermath of the collapse of the united noncooperation-Khilafat movement was built up in Bengal, under the leadership of Deshbandhu C R Das and a group of younger leaders from both parts of Bengal, representing all major communities as well as political formations -- such as Subhas Bose from the Congress, S H Suhrawardy from the Muslim League, Dalit leader Jogen Mandal, Krishak Praja Party leader Fazlul Huq -- all of whom considered themselves disciples of the DeshBandhu. It inherited and carried forward the spirit of Hindu-Muslim unity embodied in the historic movement against partition of Bengal in 1905 and resulted in the Bengal Pact of 1923. The Pact, something like a memorandum of understanding between the two major communities on the question of how a “United Bengal” could govern itself once Swaraj was achieved, was welcomed by the broad masses and endorsed by the Bengal Congress but disowned by the High Command. However, the aspiration for a united Bengal lingered on and expressed itself pointedly in course of the national debate on the Cabinet Mission Plan. On the basis of an understanding with Congress leaders like Sarat Bose (older brother of Subhas Bose) and Kiran Shankar Roy, Suhrawardy announced a proposal of United Bengal in Delhi on 27 April 1947. At the Press Conference, the then Prime Minister of Bengal made an impassioned plea for setting aside religious differences in order to create an “independent, undivided and sovereign Bengal”. Shyama Prasad promptly shot off a letter to Mountbatten on 2 May, arguing that Bengal should be partitioned even if India remained united.2 In an attempt to impress the Congress High Command, he sent a similar letter to Sardar Patel on 11 May. While many in the British establishment were sympathetic to the plan and Jinnah open to it, Nehru rejected it on 27 May saying an undivided Bengal was acceptable only if it remained within the Indian Union. Time and tide were against the Plan and it met its natural death. After 15 August, Mukherjee gleefully remarked that if Congress divided India, he too has partitioned Bengal!
Today the BJP is fond of upholding this communally divisive role of the founder of its predecessor Jan Sangh 3 as a great service to ‘Hindu nationhood’ and projecting him as the father of West Bengal. A politician whose single success was to help defeat -- temporarily, we believe -- the rich legacy of composite culture and progressive nationalism of Bengal as represented by Tagore and Nazrul Islam, Deshbandhu and (decades later) Bangabandhu, Bose and Haq and many others, with a Bengali adaptation of the Savarkar-Golwalkar formula of ethno-religious nationalism is still the party’s best bet in Bengal in its frantic search for an icon from the dominant caste Hindu community.
The anti-hero of Bengal is dead. He lives on -- among his worthy legatees, in the politics of the poisonous padmafool (Lotus flower).
RSS: A New Avatar of Hindutva
K B Hedgewar, like V D Savarkar, metamorphosed from a freedom fighter (as a Congress worker he courted arrest during the non-cooperation movement) to a communal crusader. He groomed himself in this new role in course of anti-Muslim riots and went on to establish the RSS -- with Savarkar’s blessings - - in 1925, the year that also saw the foundation of the CPI in Kanpur. (This was not a coincidence but a pointer to the differentiation and consolidation of political forces that was taking place -- this was also the period that saw the emergence of Bhagat Singh as a communist pioneer -- on the eve of the most crucial quarter-century in our struggle for independence.)
Riding Two Horses At Once
In its initial years the RSS purposefully maintained an ambivalent attitude to the freedom movement and the Congress. When the latter called for observing 26 January 1930 as Independence Day, Hedgewar sent out a misleading circular saying that since “the INC has adopted our goal of independence”, the shakhas should celebrate that day. But how? By worshiping “the national flag, that is, the bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag)”. So on that historic day, when the whole nation was celebrating the tricolour as a symbol of a united struggle, the RSS used the occasion to push its own divisive, exclusionary, majoritarian-communal agenda.
The double deception – the claim that Congress borrowed the goal of independence from RSS and the projection of the sectarian Hindutva banner (not the tricolour -- the symbol of united national struggle) as the national flag -- started a tradition of falsehood and deception that has continued ever since. The current sarsanghchalak, for instance, has gone on record stating categorically that it was indeed the tricolour that was hoisted in the shakhas on the first independence day! However, he could not deny the fact that Hedgewar never again sought to celebrate the Independence Day in subsequent years.
When Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, Hedgewar sent information everywhere that the Sangh would not participate in the Satyagraha. However, those willing to participate individually were not prohibited. This was a rather unusual position, but it killed two birds with one stone. It implied that no sincere and disciplined RSS worker should join the Satyagraha, but at the same time kept the door open for the leader to join the movement and court arrest. This again served two purposes: maintaining his credentials as a congressman and - - as C P Bhishikar, the official biographer of Hedgewar in Hindi - - noted, trying to recruit activists from the dedicated Congressmen in prison.
Bhishikar also tells us that the founder of RSS, in his speeches, “used to talk only of Hindu organisation. direct comment on the government used to be almost nil.” And it is well known that his lathi-wielding swayamsevaks never participated in the frequent clashes between agitating Indians and the police; they were trained and used only for the noble cause of communal violence in Nagpur and elsewhere. So when in 1928 Lala Lajpat Rai was brutally beaten up while leading a mammoth rally against the Simon Commission, and died after a few days, neither HM (of which Lalaji had been a President in the mid 1920s, i. e., during its moderate, pre-Savarkar phase) nor RSS so much as uttered a word of condemnation. It was young Bhagat Singh and his comrades who, despite having major political differences with the Congress and Lalaji, avenged the death of the Lion of Punjab and happily mounted the gallows.
Golwalkar’s Theory and Practice of Patriotism
Hedgewar was an actionist; it was left to the second -- and the longest-serving -- sarsanghchalak to elaborate the ideological-political program of the RSS. The most precise and clear exposition on nationalism, patriotism and independence movement available in his works goes as below:
“The theories of territorial nationalism and of common danger, which formed the basis for our concept of nation, had deprived us of the positive and inspiring content of our real Hindu nationhood and made many of the freedom movements virtually anti-British movements. Being ant-British was equated with patriotism and nationalism. This reactionary view has had [a] disastrous effect upon the entire course of the independence struggle, its leaders and the common people.”
So ‘Guruji’ (as Golwalkar was and is respectfully addressed in the RSS fraternity) is in effect asking his disciples to (a) reject the notion that all who live on the territory of India constitute the Indian nation and that they should jointly fight the British Raj (b) disown the “reactionary” view that patriotism/nationalism has anything to do with struggle for political independence and (c) embrace pure Hindu nationalism, which by definition excludes, if not abhors, other ‘nations’ such as Muslims and Christians. In fact Golwalkar also said elsewhere that the RSS was committed to freedom of the country through defending religion and culture, not through departure of the British.
But how did the RSS top brass restrain the cadres, many of whom felt an intense urge for participating in the raging struggle to liberate the motherland from foreign rule? On the one hand, there was the organisational culture of blind allegiance to higher-ups -- a culture nurtured through the shakhas since the inception of RSS and viewed as a great legacy to which every Sanghi, like a soldier, must submit. On the other hand, there was no dearth of vacuous sermonizing by the sarsanghchalak. In June 1942 for instance, Golwalkar said “It is futile to blame the strong for the injustice done to the weak… Sangh does not want to waste its invaluable time in abusing or criticising others. If we know that large fish eat the smaller ones, it is outright madness to blame the big fish. Law of nature whether good or bad is true all the time. This rule does not change by terming it unjust.”
Nobody in the RSS, of course, stood up and asked the leader: why then blame/criticise another ‘other’ -- the Muslims -- who proved themselves strong enough to rule the country over the centuries? Why don’t we accept this as an eternal law of nature?
With such ideological-political training and military discipline, it was but natural and inevitable that the RSS not only stayed away from, but actually backstabbed, the independence movement by relentlessly punching upon its principal bulwark: militant Hindu-Muslim unity. With a shared ideology, a more conventional style of doing politics and a much weaker organisational network, the HM also did the same, albeit with less efficacy. The Britishers happily used the duo (and also the Muslim League) as tools in their divide-and-rule gameplan and the communalists sought to befriend the Raj in their battle against the respective arch enemy: the ‘other’ community. Both groups of communalists came up with their own versions of two-nation theory 4 to justify their political missions, Savarkar famously said he had no quarrel with Jinnah on this question, and finally the country got a negotiated transfer of power only at a huge collateral cost of partition.
The Fight for a Democratic Secular Pluralistic India
What this entire history demonstrates is that the communal, like caste, is anti-national, in that it obstructs the different communities from happily bonding together as a nation while continuing to celebrate their distinctive cultures. And now, perched in power and hand-in-glove with the US-Israel axis, the forces responsible for the communal sabotage of our united independence movement are pulling out all stops to complete the unfinished agenda of partition. They are out to give their ideology of Hindu majoritarian nationalism the structural shape of a monolithic Hindu Rashtra by reducing Muslims to the status of second-grade citizens, if not disqualifying them altogether from citizenship with the help of a whole range of constitutional, legal and administrative measures as well as communal machinations on the ground. To fight this dastardly design by mobilizing all Indians in carrying to consummation the unfinished tasks of our struggle for independence - - the attainment of genuine liberty from class, caste, gender and communal domination and reconstruction of an egalitarian, democratic, secular, pluralistic, upright and prosperous India as conceived in the Constitution that we gave ourselves on the morrow of Independence – such is the pledge we must take on the occasion of the 74th Independence Day.
- 1. One who runs away from a fight or a difficult situation; a deserter or a renegade.
- 2. Mansergh and Moon (ed) Transfer of Power, Vol. X, London 1981, Document No. 281
- 3. Mukherjee ditched the HM in 1948, spent some time in political wilderness, and was roped in by Golwalkar in 1951 to become the founder president of Jan Sangh. The cadre base was supplied, of course, by the RSS and it comprised men like Upadhyay, Vajpayee and Advani.
- 4. As early as in 1937, while addressing the 19th session of HM in Ahmedabad, Savarkar said, “There are two antagonistic nations living side by side in India … India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogenous nation. On the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Muslims, in India.”