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Bharat Ratna for Savarkar is an essential piece of Hindutva mosaic

The Modi election machine has once again led the Opposition and critics of its regime on a merry dance by invoking a controversial Hindutva icon. In its manifesto for the Maharashtra state legislature elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promises to confer Bharat Ratna, the highest civil award, posthumously, on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. It is pertinent to note that the Bharat Ratna is not awarded by the Maharashtra state government. It is a national award conferred by those who rule at the Centre.


Savarkar’s portrait was already installed in the Central Hall of Indian Parliament in 2003 by the BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Modi, unlike Vapayee, does not have to appease coalition partners and can go one step further.


Like moths to a flame, Opposition leaders and public intellectuals are rushing to take the Savarkar Test and will be once again singed. The more they target Savarkar without understanding the BJP’s game, the stronger he becomes as an icon.


Many have wasted their breath pointing to the pathetic apology letter written by Savarkar to the British colonial government seeking his release from the Andaman Cellular Jail offering to collaborate with it on return. Others have pointed to Savarkar’s complicity in the murder conspiracy against Mahatma Gandhi citing the findings of the Jivan Lal Kapoor Commission set up by the government in 1965 to examine the evidence that was left out during the Gandhi murder trial.


The Congress party’s increasingly weak-kneed response to Hindutva’s challenge saw it fielding former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to say that the Party was not opposed to “Savarkarji” but only to his ideology of Hindutva. He also added that Indira Gandhi had released a stamp on Savarkar. Why the Congress was called upon to make such a pointless public statement remains a mystery.


Savarkar with or without Bharat Ratna will make little difference in the Maharashtra elections to anyone except perhaps a few Chitpavan Brahmins and Hindu zealots. However, the significance of Savarkar is deeper and beyond the state election.


The Modi government does nothing that does not fit into the declared ideological predilections of the RSS. Prime Minister Modi’s ideological education took place in the morning branch meetings (shakhas) of the RSS and seems to have remained largely unaffected by his somewhat controversial university education in “entire political science”. He is doing what he was taught by the RSS – marrying Hinduism to ultra-nationalism and has got the support of Corporate Capital for that agenda. As long as the backing was limited to small businessmen and local shopkeepers, the project could not take off. Now it has.


Modi in his second term is trying even harder to mainstream the RSS-defined agenda of ultra-nationalist Hinduism, illiberalism, regimented social thinking, and intolerance of dissent. These will define the political contours of a “new India” imagined by the BJP’s parent organisation.


Savarkar spelt out the foundational ideology of Hindu nationalism and it is essential for the BJP to promote him. Moreover, his youthful involvement with the radical Indian nationalist underground in London allows the RSS to claim that its leaders also come from a tradition of the Indian freedom struggle. By referencing to these early years, Savarkar’s long collaboration as leader of the Hindu Mahasabha and the British colonial government is conveniently hidden, including at crucial moments such as the Second World War and the Quit India movement.


Savarkar’s book The Indian War of Independence is also an important text in furthering the ideological war between Hindu nationalism and secular liberal nationalism. If the birth of the latter can be traced from the founding of the Congress in 1885, Savarkar’s book traces the roots of nationalism earlier, to 1857. In his book on 1857, the leadership of the rebels is not liberals dreaming of parliamentary democracy but sanyasis, religious leaders and princes dreaming about restoration of Hindu kings.


To expand the reach of Hindutva nationalism the RSS and the BJP have to revive a historical narrative about centuries of political-cultural humiliation under the rule of Muslim dynasties – from the Slaves or Mamluks, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Sayyids, Lodis and the Mughals, and then the British. They can ask for retribution and psychological reparations in the present only by attributing nationalist aspirations and nationalist humiliation to what were essentially a bunch of fragmented indigenous kingdoms conquered by diverse foreign invaders.


The spectre of Hindu society breaking down in the present requires that 13th century wars are made central to our historical imagination. This will establish the core Hindutva idea that the “true” India, Hindu India, is under threat from a combination of religious minorities and a liberal elite that has dominated the Indian State since Independence.


Savarkar’s Hindutva laid the ground for “othering” long-resident minorities by arguing that their religions, the founts of their cultures, did not originate within the geographical boundaries of India. The liberal elite’s secular ideology is a threat because it provides the basis for allowing a culturally diverse and multi-religious India.


The multi-culturalism of secular politics inhibits Hindu zealots from unapologetically celebrating their numerical dominance. In Modi they have a Hindu authoritarian leader who can ensure that the liberal elite does not become as powerful as it was earlier. The idea of a conspiracy of the elite is being embedded in the minds of the people and helps to justify the use of state power against the liberals as ‘enemies’ of the people. It generates popular support for crushing the universities and other institutions where multi-cultural humanism flowers.


The belief of some opposed to the Modi government, that it will lose support if India’s economic crisis worsens, is self-delusional. It does not understand how well the Modi regime is able to work electoral democracy by winning hearts and minds over to the Hindutva narrative.


Savarkar is the new hero for ‘new India’. His writings undercut the legitimacy of religious minorities as equal citizens of India and of the liberal elite to lead the country. Savarkar then is an essential building block of Hindu authoritarian politics.

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