In an interview with Vir Sanghvi, Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar talks about the controversy on his remarks on Savarkar. Excerpts:
Are you surprised by the controversy set off by your actions?
Yes. I thought that the issue was Gandhiji. They are making out that the issue is Savarkar. All I have done is rectified the NDA's insult to Gandhiji.
The controversy is about the eternal flame which is called the Swatantra Jyot. It is not called the Savarkar Jyot or the Shahid Jyot. I find it extraordinary that a Swatantra Jyot should make no mention of Gandhiji.
I was lighting the flame on 9 August, which is the anniversary of Quit India — which Savarkar, incidentally, described as Split India — and I said in my speech that Gandhiji's slogan was Karenge Ya Marenge. It was not Karenge Ya Maarenge.
Only Ram Naik and the Sangh Parivar with their distorted view of history can think of the Quit India movement or even, of the freedom struggle, without according central place to Gandhiji.
What did you say about Savarkar?
I said nothing about him in my speech at the function. Nor did Lt. Governor Ram Kapse mention him. Afterwards, there was a press conference. Once again, nobody asked me about Savarkar and nor did I mention him.
After the press conference, a TV reporter asked my views on Savarkar. I said that my views were well known but whatever I had said or written about Savarkar was in my capacity as a free individual. Now, as a member of the Council of Ministers, I was bound by the views of the Cabinet.
I was asked if I still opposed the renaming of Port Blair airport after Savarkar and I confirmed that while I had certainly written this, I was now bound by the Cabinet's view on the subject.
When I was asked about Shahid Park, I said that the Shahid Park was dedicated to those who had been made shahid during the freedom struggle or at the Cellular Jail itself. It would diminish the memory of the martyrs if it also included people who had not actually been martyred. For instance, Savarkar did not die in the Andamans or even during the freedom struggle but died 20 years after independence of natural causes at home at the ripe old age of 83.
He was, of course, a freedom fighter. But happily, he was not martyred.
Why did you remove the plaque dedicated to his memory?
The Swatantra Jyot is mounted on a plinth that has four sides. On all four sides are plaques dedicated to the freedom struggle. Two of the plaques commemorate Madanlal Dhingra and Bhagat Singh, both renowned shahids. A third plaque contains several stirring patriotic sayings. Bizarrely, there was no mention at all of Gandhiji.
I thought it essential that we had a plaque recording Gandhiji's contribution to the freedom struggle. But there was no fifth side to put a plaque.
The only way we could have accommodated this plaque was by removing one of the existing plaques. The fourth plaque remembered Bahadur Shah Zafar and Savarkar and that was the one I removed.
Do you regret that?
Certainly not. As a patriotic Indian I was appalled to find a representation of our freedom struggle that completely ignored Gandhiji. As a responsible citizen, it was my duty to undo the insult to the father of the nation.
I'm proud to have done that.
You could argue that the Savarkar plaque was appropriate because he was imprisoned in that jail. Gandhiji was not.
Really? Then why was Savarkar on the same plaque as Bahadur Shah Zafar? How is that appropriate to the Andaman jail?
For that matter, neither Dhingra nor Bhagat Singh was hanged in the Cellular Jail. So, if it was appropriateness that Ram Naik was after, then he could have used the Swatantra Jyot to commemorate the hundreds of martyrs who died in the jail rather than one inmate who was released and who, happily, attained ripe old age in independent India.
It is not a question of 'why Savarkar'? It is a question of 'why not everyone else incarcerated in that jail?' And if it is a question of choosing between two freedom fighters then, in my view, Gandhiji must take precedence over everyone else.
Do you regard Savarkar as a patriot?
There is no doubt that Savarkar was a patriot. He loved his country.
But he insisted his country was a Hindu nation. He also insisted that Muslims constituted a different nation.
My patriotism embraces equally all the communities of India. I therefore believe in Bharatyata not Hindutva, a word coined by Savarkar to stand for Hindudom not Hinduism.
Savarkar himself was an atheist until his conversion to Buddhism late in life. His was a political demand for a Hindu nation. Mine is a secular belief in a secular nation. My patriotism is in the Gandhian mould. So I have nothing to be apologetic about.
Will your remarks cost the Congress the Maharashtra election?
After five years in opposition in Maharashtra, the BJP/Shiv Sena combine can't find a single anti-incumbency issue and therefore, like drowning men, is clutching at straws.
I do not think that their slapping my effigy with chappals — especially when the effigy looks more like Ram Naik than me — is going to change one vote in Maharashtra.
The effigy is part of the attack on 'Madrasis' which is an old Shiv Sena habit. They draped around the neck of the effigy a black scarf which only Vaiko and members of the MDMK wear. And they buttoned the top button of the kurta which Ram Naik does and which I consider an offence to good taste and proper dressing.
What about the insult to Maharashtra?
There is no insult to Maharashtra. The people of Maharashtra are well aware that giving Gandhiji place of high honour does not constitute an insult to Maharashtrian honour.
I did not insult Savarkar. I only rectified an insult to Bapu.
Why haven't you said all this before?
I tried very hard to say this in Parliament. It was the opposition which insisted that I make a statement. The leader of the house, Pranab Mukherjee, agreed immediately. I was ready with my statement. I had it cleared with the Speaker which is a necessary formality.
I was all dressed up in my cleanest white kurta — with the top button undone. But I was left with nowhere to go because the barracking continued for the rest of the session.
So what I should have said in the highest forum of democracy, I am now obliged to say in the rather more humble environs of the Hindustan Times.