Our violent streak
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Our violent streak

Subhas Bose, Savarkar & Bhagat Singh are still adored for their call to shed blood for the nation, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2007 23:26 IST

As part of its celebration of the 60th anniversary of Independence, a leading newspaper ran a series of exhortations from nationalist leaders of the past. One came from Subhas Chandra Bose. Addressing a rally in Burma in July 1944, Bose said that "men, money and materials cannot by themselves bring victory or freedom”. All patriots, he continued, "should have but one desire today — the desire to die so that India should live — the desire to face a martyr’s death, so that the path to freedom may be paved with the martyr’s blood”. Bose ended his speech with these stirring words:

“Friends! My comrades in the War of Liberation! Today I demand of you one thing, above all. I demand of you blood. It is blood alone that can avenge the blood that the enemy has spilt. It is blood alone that can pay the price of freedom. Give me blood and I promise you freedom.”

It was once the conventional wisdom that Indian Independence was achieved through a popular mass movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. This freedom struggle was celebrated precisely because it was based on satyagraha and ahimsa, on a morally robust, truthful, and non-violent means of collective protest. While that wisdom is endorsed by most historians, some scholars have argued that the British might have quit India much earlier had they been faced with a well organised armed struggle. Some others have claimed that the British quit India when they did not because of Gandhi or the Congress or the official discussions on the Transfer of Power, but because they had succumbed to fear and panic in the wake of the popular support for the returning soldiers of the Indian National Army. The nervousness of the British was reinforced by the revolt of the naval ratings in 1946. And so they left, before being forced to leave.

This historical revisionism is both provoked and reinforced by a strong current of public opinion. Gandhi is held to be the Father of the Indian Nation. But many Indians would rather that India had placed someone else on that pedestal. The prime candidate on the right is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a hero to the RSS and the BJP who, between them, were successful in installing his portrait opposite Gandhi’s in the halls of Parliament. The prime candidate on the left is Bhagat Singh who, since his death at the hands of the British in 1931, has become a hero to Leftists and Marxists of all shades and stripes. (The latest to claim him are the Naxalites, who, to stave off the accusation that their icons are all foreigners — as in the notorious slogan ‘China’s Chairman is our Chairman’ — have now started speaking reverentially of the martyred Sikh.)

Beyond Left and Right, there is the fascinating, intriguing, figure of Subhas Bose. Although he was stoutly secular and by no means a card-carrying communist, both the BJP and the CPI(M) have sought at various times to claim him. But his popularity is not confined to political parties or programmes. Many ordinary Indians also admire him, as witness his presence on posters and calendars in middle-class homes across the land. Bose’s appeal is enhanced by the fact that for the bulk of his career he operated within the mainstream of, indeed at the very top of, the national movement. He was twice elected President of the Indian National Congress. That he then broke away from Gandhi and company and forged an alternative path of his own places him in a different category from Savarkar and Bhagat Singh.

However, despite these differences in personality and philosophy, from the historian’s point of view, Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Bose are akin in two crucial respects — namely, that both opposed Gandhi, and that both opposed him on the question of non-violence. It is in this that their continuing appeal lies. For many Indians believe that had freedom come at the price of our collective blood, it would have come sooner, and it would have been more comprehensive. What India needed, these Indians believe, was a real revolution — a revolution that would have swept away the cobwebs of colonialism, allowing the new nation to lay its foundations on principles altogether different from what the British bequeathed us. For the Right, the correct national principles would have drawn from the classical or mythical Hindu past; for the Left, on the models already provided by the Russian and Chinese revolutions. What we got instead — so the argument runs — was a derivative political system, borrowed uncritically from our erstwhile colonisers.

In the eyes of these critics, a real, that is to say violent, revolution, would have restored to the Indian people a sense of self-confidence, so cruelly dented by the rulers who had crushed and oppressed them. The Right principally identify the rulers with alien religions — hence the Hindutva claim that the Hindus had suffered for a thousand years at the hands of first Muslim and then Christian invaders. On the other hand, from the perspective of the Left, the rulers were representative of exploitative economic forces. It was not that the Mughals were Muslims — it was that they were feudal. And the Christian faith of the British was irrelevant — what mattered was that their regime was capitalist and imperialist.

Savarkar and Bhagat Singh, and their followers and epigones, represent political tendencies that can be clearly identified. These are a religion-based nationalism in the one case, and a class-based socialism in the other. These political trends, of course, are not restricted to India. In different shapes and guises, they have emerged and re-emerged in other parts of the world. The politics of Subhas Bose in his last phase was a more curious amalgam, a mixture unique to himself, a mish-mash of ideologies both Western and Indian. He certainly favoured an assertive and interventionist State. His admiration for a strong State, however, was ecumenical. He began by praising Soviet Russia, but ended by allying with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. In his worldview there are also traces of Indian or more especially Bengali influence — the call for blood sacrifice, for example, must come from the traditions of Kali worship in his native province.

In the end, though, these varying traditions and ideologies are united precisely by that call for blood. Blood must be spilled, and plenty of it: whether to build a Hindu Rashtra, a Socialist Utopia, or a Bose-ian India. One’s own blood, and the blood of one’s enemies. As it happened, India won Independence chiefly through the means of non-violence, and India consolidated its Independence through multi-party democracy rather than by a single-party dictatorship of Left or Right.

As it happens, those who lost the political argument continue to have millions of followers and admirers. The chief architect of Indian freedom was Gandhi; the chief architect of Indian democracy, Jawaharlal Nehru. However, were a poll taken among middle-class men, Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Bose would all garner more votes than Nehru and — in some states and among certain communities and classes — even more votes than Gandhi.

To be sure, this is mostly a male or macho thing. It is Hindu men and socialist men and Bengali (though not only Bengali) men who wish that one of those other men had lived long enough to have become India’s first Prime Minister or Chairman or Führer. It is interesting, this phenomenon, this adoration of violent revolutionaries by men who owe their political independence and their democratic freedoms to a bunch of (now mostly dishonoured) non-violent reformers.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India after Gandhi.

First Published: Sep 05, 2007 23:19 IST