Creating a cult of anti-Gandhis
Last month, a row broke out in my alma mater, the University of Delhi, when the students’ organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), sought to install a bust of their Hindutva icon, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, alongside the busts of Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. Those who — unlike the statue-installers — were aware of essential historical details, pointed out that, in ideological terms, the other two patriots whom the ABVP sought to exalt were utterly incompatible with Savarkar. Bose was a left-wing Congressman; Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary Marxist. How, asked these critics of the ABVP, could they in any way be clubbed with the sectarian Savarkar?
The activists of the ABVP did not care to answer this question, perhaps because they are more comfortable with slogan-shouting than with intellectual debate. However, the right-wing invocation of these left-wing leaders did not begin with this incident at Delhi University. It has been going on some years now. The prime minister repeatedly invokes the name of Bose, and not just in Bengal. With the sort of flamboyant flourish that is so characteristic of him, he personally “opened” a large cache of documents in the National Archives of India (that these documents did not reveal anything revelatory is another matter). Other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders regularly praise Singh, for giving his life in the cause of freedom from the British rule.
Indeed, one might argue that even the ABVP’s invocation of Savarkar is not strictly tenable in historical terms. In the 1930s, Savarkar was with the Hindu Mahasabha, which at the time saw itself as superior to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Despite this organisational rivalry, however, the posthumous invocation by the ABVP does have a certain ideological coherence, in that Savarkar was an influential proponent of the theory that India must be pre-eminently a country for Hindus, to be run by Hindus alone.
On the other hand, Singh and Bose were both bitterly opposed to Hindu majoritarianism. Singh was a Marxist, who believed that an individual’s identity was primarily determined by his or her class position. Being a worker or peasant was more important than whether one was Hindu or Muslim or Savarna or Dalit. Singh’s own organisation, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), had activists who were Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and Sikh. As for Bose, all his life he devotedly subscribed to the credo of inter-faith harmony. As the president of the Indian National Congress, and as head of the Indian National Army (INA), he fought for an independent India in which there would be absolutely no discrimination between Hindus and Muslims at all.
Given how far Bose and Singh were from them in ideological terms, how can Hindutvawadis claim these two freedom fighters as their own? One reason is that these patriots have been tragically disowned by their own ideological kinsfolk. For most of his career in politics, Bose was a devoted Congressman; even the INA was, as he put it, “the forward bloc” of the mainstream of the freedom struggle. But Indira Gandhi’s Congress disowned Bose, as it disowned so many other great Congressmen and Congresswomen. Likewise, while Singh was a Marxist, he has no place in the official iconography of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), for the pathetic reason that his group, the HSRA, was not allied to the original, undivided, Communist Party of India. So the CPI(M) will elevate Lenin and Stalin, but downplay this authentic Indian Marxist.
This shameful disavowal by the Left and the Congress has allowed the ABVP to pretend to have an admiration of secular socialists who, had they been alive, would have detested Hindutva. However, there are two other reasons why the ABVP seeks to place Bose and Singh alongside Savarkar. The first reason is that all three believed that violence was preferable to non-violence as a strategy to liberate India from colonial rule. The second reason is that all three, at different points in their career, opposed Mahatma Gandhi.
It is well known that Savarkar was the ideological mentor of Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse. In truth, his hatred of the Mahatma was intensely personal as well — when Kasturba Gandhi died, in prison, Savarkar urged his followers not to contribute to a fund being created in her memory. On the other hand, Singh’s opposition to the Mahatma was entirely ideological — and it came from the Marxist Left, as distinct from the sectarian Right. Bose’s relationship with the Mahatma was much more complex. He continued to admire Gandhi even after he broke from the Congress. After taking over the Azad Hind Fauj, Bose became the first Indian to publicly acknowledge Gandhi as the “Father of the Nation”.
The hot-headed Hindu young men of today do not know or care about these nuances. That Savarkar was, in ideological terms, well to the right of Bose, and even farther to the right of Singh, does not detain them unduly. That, among the trio they seek to elevate together, Savarkar’s opposition to the Mahatma was the most thoroughgoing as well as the most long-lasting does not interest them either. It is enough for them that, at some stage in their career, in some form or another, Bose and Singh also came into conflict with Gandhi.
For the angry young Hindu male of today, non-violence was a pussyfooted, weak-kneed and feminine response to colonial rule. For him, the idea that Muslims and Christians must have the same rights as Hindus in our Republic is anathema. That a politician like Gandhi would seek to give his life in the cause of inter-faith harmony, shows to the angry young Hindu only how utterly deluded that politician was, and why his legacy must be rejected entirely.
The hardline Hindu Right’s new-found love for Bose and Singh is not a product of a belated appreciation of their virtues. Rather, it is a product of their deep and enduring hatred of Mahatma Gandhi. They can, and will, use anyone, anything — and, at any time and in any manner — to diminish the Father of the Nation.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World
The views expressed are personal