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V.D. Savarkar

V.D. Savarkar

Amit Shah is a street-smart politician who made it big in Indian politics thanks to his closeness to Narendra Modi. He is notorious for his crude use of religion and muscle power to win elections. Nobody associates ethics and etiquette with his brand of politics. Anything and everything that fetches votes is acceptable to him. 

Shah has never been known for any original thinking. Recently, he made a statement to eulogise V.D. Savarkar and prepare the ground to confer the title of Bharat Ratna on him. Shah said that the 1857 revolt would have remained the Sepoy Mutiny had “Veer” Savarkar not described it as the First War of Independence. There is an element of truth in what Shah said, as Savarkar was the first to give that description to the 1857 revolt.

Shah did not, perhaps, know that Savarkar was born long after the 1857 event had happened. In other words, Savarkar did not have any first-hand information about the revolt. He was not a historian, either. Like Modi and Shah, who perpetuate the myth that Sardar Patel was opposed to all the policies of Jawaharlal Nehru, Savarkar gave a twist to the revolt for his own selfish motives.

His competence to do so was as strong as any modern-day newspaper columnist’s ability to describe Shah’s Kashmir action as a great event in Indian history. Both are fanciful accounts. Unlike Shah, Savarkar was a good writer. He had written his own biography and got it published under another person’s name. He wanted to project himself as a great, extraordinary leader. Nobody had ever resorted to such a stratagem.

Savarkar demonstrated his writing skills when he was jailed in the cellular jail at Port Blair in Andamans. He was there for about 10 years. True, he suffered a lot. Unlike hundreds of freedom fighters who embraced martyrdom in the jails, Savarkar wrote a series of letters to the British authorities seeking clemency. He promised to abjure all violence and remain a faithful servant of the British if he was released.

That is exactly what he did. He remained an obedient servant of the British for letting him come out of the island as a free subject of the British. I have no clue on how on earth he became a “Veer” when the real brave people preferred to face the brutality, first, of the British and, later, of the Japanese who took control of the Andamans during the Second World War. 

Netaji Bose visited the cellular jails when they were under Japanese control but he did precious little to save the freedom fighters lodged there.

I have a friend whose great grandfather was a doctor posted in the cellular jails. When the Japanese occupied Andamans, he was incarcerated in the same jail where he served as a doctor earlier. The Japanese suspected him to be close to the British. He became a martyr. His great grandson owns the Dalhousie Public School. His great grandfather suffered torture at the hands of the Japanese, whose collaborator was Netaji Bose.

What is “Veer” Savarkar’s greatness? He was the first to conceptualise Hindutva. He was also the first to argue that Hindus and Muslims could not co-exist. He was actually the first to advance the two-nation theory that ultimately resulted in the vivisection of the country. Alas, it is Mohammed Ali Jinnah who is credited with the two-nation theory.

Of course, Savarkar could be credited with propounding a theory which ultimately resulted in the rise of the first “Hindu” ruler in about 800 years. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is not considered Hindu enough, as he was a liberal who had to lead a coalition government by keeping the three key issues of Article 370, uniform civil code and Ayodhya on the shelf. It was his ideology that resulted in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Small wonder that the BJP wants to invest Savarkar with the highest civilian award in the country. Why should anyone oppose it when his picture hangs in Parliament House, opposite to that of Gandhi? It is the beauty of Indian democracy that the victim and the tormentor can coexist beautifully. Where else is both Gandhi and his killer Godse are venerated, except as in 21st century India, ruled by Modi and Shah?

To return to 1857, it was Savarkar who played up the role of Mangal Pandey who was just a footnote in history. Pandey  rose to fame when at Barrackpore on March 29, 1857, he appeared with a loaded musket in front of the quarter-guard and shouted expletives at his comrades for not joining him. Probably, the previous night they had planned the attack, only to chicken out in the morning.

Pandey was ordered to lay down his arms. Instead, he fired at Sergeant-Major Hewson, but missed him. Fellow sepoys persuaded him to surrender, but he refused. Pandey then shot at Lt. Baugh but the bullet hit only his horse. When he felt surrounded, he shot himself. The bullet made only a deep graze on the chest, shoulder and neck.

He was tried by a court-martial presided over by an Indian, Subedar-Major H.L. Tewari with 14 other Indian subedars and jamedars. They sentenced him to death for mutiny. Pandey did not contest the charges against him. He confirmed that he was under the influence of “bhang”.

"Yes, I have been taking “bhang” and opium of late, but formerly never touched any drugs", he confessed. "I was not aware at the time of what I was doing" ( Mangal Pandey: Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Penguin).

Where is the great freedom-fighter in Pandey? He was so wobbly under the influence of “bhang” that he could not kill himself, not to mention Hewson and Baugh. What forced him to take “bhang” and fire at the British officers? Was it a great national issue? 

The British had introduced a new cartridge, allegedly greased with pork or beef fat. It caused resentment among upper caste Hindu and Muslim soldiers, who believed that it was a conspiracy to break their caste and religion. It was the fear of becoming an outcaste that prompted Pandey to drink “bhang” and charge at the British on that day.

Pandey knew that the upper caste monopoly in soldiering would go if the Scheduled Castes, who had no problem using such cartridges, were allowed to fill the places vacated by the likes of him. He could not avert what he had feared. After the revolt, the British began to employ a larger number of Scheduled Castes in the forces than was the case earlier. So it was in his caste's interest that use of the cartridges should be opposed tooth and nail. In other words, there was no national issue involved in his protest.

Then, how did Pandey become the great harbinger of independence in the so-called "nationalist" discourse? It was Savarkar who found a great mutineer in Mangal Pandey. He converted a non-hero into a hero in his book in the same way as his followers prefixed "Veer" to Savarkar's name and made a mockery of all the freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri in his  Autobiography of an Unknown Indian writes about the dangers of what I would call factification of myths: "… throughout my life I have tried to remain free from the influence of the myths to which my countrymen have succumbed, realising what a suicidal thing it is for a nation to have a false view of history and consequently of its future. 

“Even if I had not been warned on this score by my reading of history, I have been warned by the awful spectacle of the ruin the Germans and the Japanese have brought on themselves through their adherence to myths".

In the instant case, the myth is that Pandey's shots, literally in the air, signalled the 1857 revolt. No evidence has been proffered so far to suggest that the mutineers in Meerut in May the same year were triggered by Pandey's bullets when they marched to Delhi and liberated the Capital. That they also indulged in a little bit of "nationalistic" looting and killing is something which we would like to hide in the national interest.

Did the 'mutineers' have any political idea? There can be no disputing that they had many legitimate grievances against the arrogant British. But were they driven by the passion of freedom for the country? 

Bipin Chandra, who traces "India's Independence Struggle" to the mutiny makes this valid point, "Apart from a commonly shared hatred for alien rule, the rebels had no political perspective or a definite vision for the future". For a while, power seemed to be within the reach of the mutineers. What did they do? 

They installed a doddering old man, suffering from diabetics and high blood pressure, by the name of Bahadur Shah Zafar, on the throne of Delhi. What was his claim to the throne? That he was a descendant of Aurangazeb, in whose name there was a road in New Delhi only to be renamed after former President Abdul Kalam soon after Modi came to power. 

To be fair to him, Bahadur Shah Zafar was a poet who proved that poets do not make good political leaders.

After successfully capturing Delhi, the mutineers issued a declaration from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh on August 25, 1858, in the name of Bahadur Shah Zafar. One of the charges they made against the British was that they were giving freedom, equality before the law, to every Indian. How could the feudal landlords, who were thrilled at the prospect of power returning to them, reconcile themselves to the concept of equality?

The declaration, inter alia, said: "The people of Hindostan, both Hindoos and Mohammedans, are being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the infidel and treacherous English … the British Government in making zamindary settlements have imposed exorbitant jumas, and have disgraced and ruined several zamindars, by putting up their estates to public auction for arrears of rent, in so much, that on the institution of a suit by a common Ryot, a maid servant, or a slave, the respectable zamindars are summoned into court, arrested, put in gaol and disgraced…" 

Small wonder that the eminent jurist, the late Nani Palkhivala, had said, "Let us not pretend that the rule of law is a concept which can be regarded as a part of the Indian psyche". How could any "common Ryot or maid servant or slave" support the 1857 mutiny if they had chanced to read this declaration? I, for one, would not. And that is precisely what happened. The mutiny did not fire the imagination of the common Indian.

Except for some rulers who were personally affected by the Doctrine of Lapse the British had foolishly introduced, the mutiny was opposed by many Maharajas, the intelligentsia and the merchant class, who even organised prayer meetings in places as far away as Bombay and Calcutta for the success of the British. They even provided men and money to the British. 

"Among the sepoys themselves, a great proportion remained loyal to the Raj. Delhi was retaken by just 1,700 British and 3,200 Indian soldiers! The task-force that blew up the Kashmere Gate in Delhi, facilitating British victory at great personal risk, consisted of only six British officers and 24 Indian soldiers (10 from Punjab and 14 from Agra and Oudh). 

These facts contradict the modern assumption that all the Indians who actually experienced colonial rule saw it as inherently exploitative"  (India the Grand Experiment by Vishal Mangalwadi). In the end, what kind of a character was Mangal Pandey? He revolted only when he was contrived to believe that the grease in the cartridge was made of pork and beef fat.

A little comparison of the mutiny with the French and American revolutions would be in order. The French Revolution occurred 70 years earlier. It did not result in a free society but it tried to give France a democratic constitution and inspired a quest for freedom in many countries. 

The American Revolution took place a decade after the French. It is a tribute to American spirituality that their revolt against the British succeeded in turning independence into freedom. When mythification becomes a national pastime, non-heroes become heroes and cowards become the brave. What a tragedy! 

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 21st October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 43)