Maharashtra’s Biggest Election Issue: Will Savarkar Finally Get a Bharat Ratna?

Politics

Maharashtra’s Biggest Election Issue: Will Savarkar Finally Get a Bharat Ratna?

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

On Monday, Maharashtra will go to polls, as evidenced by the number of “happy birthday XX politician” posters on the highways. It is a significant Assembly election, considering the state is home to some of the biggest cities in the country, including financial capital Mumbai, and the paradise for scooter enthusiasts that is Pune. Maharashtra boasts of the largest economy in India, and often makes national news (every time an election comes around, at least) for the sorry state of our farmers, who must deal with droughts year upon year, and the condition of the roads, which make a basic activity like driving look like a dangerous stunt.

Either way, it’s important for the people of this state to choose their future administrators wisely. The options are clear — give the Shiv-Sena-BJP combine another chance, and hope they get their love-hate relationship in order, or vote for a Congress-NCP partnership, whose members probably all moved to a private island the last time they were in power. So obviously, we’d expect that as manifestoes are released and politicians campaign, the constituents are keeping a keen eye on development projects promised to us ahead of voting day. 

Unfortunately for these constituents, however, if there was a mention of any such development (“one crore jobs and better healthcare”, in case you were wondering), it’s now lost in the noise created by the latest political debate to take social media by storm. This new “burning question” has everyone from Arnab Goswami to WhatsApp uncles offering opinions: Should “Veer” Savarkar be conferred the Bharat Ratna?

The promise to honour Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as a Bharat Ratna last surfaced during Vajpayee’s rule in 2002, but was rejected after national outrage. This year, however, it’s back in the BJP’s manifesto for Maharashtra. Home Minister Amit Shah first brought up the controversial figure at an event in Banaras Hindu University earlier this week, urging the audience to take a leaf out of Savarkar’s book, and stressing on the importance of rewriting history from the Indian perspective. “The uprising of 1857 wouldn’t have become a part of our history but for Veer Savarkar,” he said, referring to the ideologue’s book The Indian War of Independence, in which Savarkar argues that calling it a mere revolt would be falling prey to the colonial narrative.

The promise to honour Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as a Bharat Ratna last surfaced during Vajpayee’s rule in 2002, but was rejected after national outrage.

Since then, everyone’s offered their own opinions on the man, either labelling him a disgrace and traitor or a patriot and freedom fighter, depending on where they get your news from. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Thursday – in his typically balanced fashion – that he had nothing against Savarkar, but didn’t fully agree with his Hindutva ideology. Former minister Nitin Gadkari, meanwhile, didn’t think the question was up for debate, saying there was a “hundred per cent” chance that Savarkar would be conferred the highest civilian honour, since it’s “what the people want”.

But that second bit depends heavily on who you ask. Savarkar is most infamously known as the man whose revolution against the British was cut short by his 11-year stint in the notorious Andaman jail. He is said to have written a number of mercy petitions to the British (the first in the first year of his imprisonment), declaring that he would give up his freedom struggle, and declare unwavering loyalty to the British, in return for his own freedom. He’s also been criticised for allegedly having written a book on his own life, and releasing it as a biography written by another author, in which he speaks about his own bravery.

The same article that makes the claim about his biography points out that Savarkar delayed the freedom movement with his Hindutva movement since it deepened the communal divide at the time. Once India won its Independence, Savarkar was put on trial for (and later acquitted), for the assasination of the Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and is said to have been “very close” to Nathuram Godse, the man convicted for the killing. So this sudden interest in his life has obviously not gone down well with members of the Congress, who believe this new call for honouring Savarkar is nothing but another attempt at rewriting history in favour of the RSS, the right-wing organisation Savarkar was never a part of.   

{His supporters also love to point out that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi released a postal stamp in Savarkar’s honour when her government was in power.

On the other hand, the support for Savarkar has been on the rise in the last couple of decades. Shortly after his name was rejected for the Bharat Ratna, in 2002, the airport at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar islands was renamed Veer Savarkar International Airport. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited his jail cell last year to pay respects. His supporters also love to point out that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi released a postal stamp in Savarkar’s honour when her government was in power. This side of the argument chooses to focus on the man’s earlier work as an “atheist” and a “rationalist”, who set up the Free India Society in London to help bolster the freedom movement abroad, years before he was sent to jail. They remind us that Savarkar was a supporter of science and technology and he spoke out against irrational religious practices. 

However, his legacy hangs in the balance between those who paint him as the saviour of Hindutva and those who think of him as the man who sowed the seeds of Hindu extremism.

Anyway, as former PM Manmohan Singh summed up quite well: “The issue will be settled when the case comes before the committee that looks into these matters”. The elections will come and go, but we’re going to continue arguing over a title that’ll actually make little difference to the progress of Maharashtra, anyway. That is, until next week, when the next “burning question” comes up. 

Comments