New India’s admiration for Savarkar doesn’t come in the way of reverence for Gandhi: But this won’t impress Jaffrelot


When I first met Christophe Jaffrelot at Delhi’s India International Centre way back in 2005-06, he seemed a much likeable person who was willing to engage and know more about India and Indians. Over the years, ironically, his idea of India has crystallised much on the lines of typical Western writers, reporters and commentators who fly down to India in a business class, reside in a five-star hotel, and then hit the dusty Indian road in a shining SUV with an English-speaking guide who would take him to predictable places and people. The outcome remains obvious, largely predetermined. And the journey ends up being an exotic trip to the Orient.

What has become a disturbing feature of Jaffrelot’s writings is his insistence on projecting India through the Western lens. Jaffrelot and the ilk don’t realise that India is waking up from its long colonial slumber. One aspect of this awakening could be seen at how India is no longer apologetic about pushing forward its supreme national interest on the global arena — the recent statements from Indian ministers S Jaishankar and Hardeep Puri are a case in point. A similar experience dawned upon this writer while recently reading Vikram Sampath’s new book, Bravehearts of Bharat, wherein the Sultanate and Mughal rulers appeared but as peripheral characters. Sampath has told the story from the perspective of the Kakatiyas, Karkotas, Ahoms, Cholas, Maharanas, et al.

Even more disconcerting is Jaffrelot’s heightened sense of illiberalism to even an iota of digression from the set historical pattern. For him, history seems an extension of Newtonian determinism — already perfect and perfected — which is ironic given that today’s scientists have moved away from Newtonian determinism to Einsteinian relativity and beyond. Jaffrelot also contradicts the general consensus among historians aptly summed up by EH Carr in What Is History?: “History is what the historian makes.”

The provocation for this article, however, has come from Jaffrelot’s latest piece, ‘Savarkar vs Nehru and Gandhi: Different versions of nationalism’ (The Indian Express, 3 November 2022), in which the author makes a fervent plea against “the wave of historical revisionism that India is experiencing today”. Jaffrelot writes, “Jawaharlal Nehru is one of the main victims of this trend — either he’s erased from history or his role in the freedom movement and the making of modern India is distorted. Mahatma Gandhi himself, although the government continues to use him as an icon in India and, even more abroad, is not recognised any more as the chief architect of India’s fight for Independence. Non-professional historians today claim that Independence was won by those who took up arms despite Gandhi. Some of them consider Veer Savarkar and his disciple, Nathuram Godse, who feature prominently in a play I recently saw in London, ‘The Father and the Assassin’, as the real heroes.”

But when one looks at India’s academic landscape and mindspace, one realises that the opposite has been the reality in Indian historiography since Independence, more so after the Marxists massively infiltrated the country’s top academic institutions in the late 1960s and the 1970s, under the patronage of then Education Minister Nurul Hasan. In India’s freedom struggle, only the Gandhian mode of resistance was singularly highlighted. Others were either royally ignored or found mention in passing.

Nothing explains this phenomenon better than the saga of Subhas Chandra Bose, whose role in India’s freedom struggle has been marginalised to such an extent that in the NCERT Class XII history textbook even the mention of Netaji’s INA (Indian National Army) exploits is missing. The British, however, saw the entire episode differently. For them, Mahatma Gandhi’s role in India’s freedom struggle was “m-i-n-i-m-a-l”, as then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee observed, slowly chewing out the word to make a dramatic impact. According to him, the role played by Netaji’s INA was paramount in India being granted Independence. The then Commander-in-Chief of British Indian armed forces, General Claude Auchinleck, agreed with him in his letter to Field Marshal Viscount Wavell on 24 November 1945. Auchinleck writes how “the present INA trials are agitating all sections of Indian public opinion deeply”.

As for Savarkar, Jaffrelot’s hatred for him is absolute and uncompromising. Hatred, however, often blinds one to reality. This becomes obvious when Jaffrelot criticises Savarkar for his endeavour to “Hinduise all politics and militarise Hindudom”. Why this distrust with “Hinduisation” of politics? Hinduism is a cultural phenomenon, “a way of life”, as the Supreme Court of India once observed, just like Christianity is deeply ingrained into the culture of Europe. The UK, for instance, has its own Church — the Church of England — whose bishops actually sit in the House of Lords, a position no other religion enjoys in that country. Parliamentary proceedings, invariably and unapologetically, begin with a Christian prayer. The Queen is both the head of state and supreme governor of the Church of England. And the British monarch proudly holds the title of being the ‘Defender of the Faith’. If Britain’s or America’s Christian roots don’t turn them theocratic, how will India’s Hindu identity make it less secular, democratic? Or, does Jaffrelot think Hinduism is a lesser religion and Indians debased people, as Churchill would like the world to believe? As for militarisation, the events leading up to Partition and soon after only vindicated Savarkar.

In his attempt to discredit Savarkar, Jaffrelot goes for the kill, projecting him as “anti-national”. Once that is done, then there’s no redemption for the accused. Following this Left-perfected manual, he writes: “…Mahatma Gandhi was preparing to launch the Quit India movement. Savarkar, as his biographer Dhananjay Keer points out, was against the Quit India movement. His priority was not Independence, it was the fight against Muslims for which Hindus would need to occupy as many posts as they could in the army and in the state machinery.”

On the face of it, Savarkar looks terribly unpatriotic. But scratch the surface, and the fallacy of the entire narrative is evident. The Quit India movement was one of the most ill-timed, strategically and geo-strategically disastrous, and extremely lackluster movements. The British government defused the movement in no time by placing almost all of its top Congress leadership in jail, but the damage was done: This single act turned the Congress into a suspect in the eyes of the British who were then fighting a global war for their survival. The Muslim League used this time to consolidate its position and bring itself closer to the Raj. Maybe the Congress’ myopic stand, along with Nehru’s open flirtations with the communists, made India a suspect in British eyes.

In 2005, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was aide-de-camp to Lord Mountbatten and served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1948 and 1985, came out with The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition. The book, based on the author’s painstaking research in the American and British archives, establishes a crucial link between India’s Partition and British fears about the erstwhile USSR gaining access in the region at the cost of the US-led Western powers. Realising that Indian leaders led by Nehru would not be the West’s ally in the “Great Game” against the Russians, the British settled for the one willing to do so — Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The idea of Pakistan thus caught the British imagination.

Coming back to Savarkar, there’s no doubt he committed mistakes, but it would be unfair to call him names, or to doubt his patriotism. As Vikram Sampath showcases in his two-volume biography on Savarkar that, one, the latter’s clemency plea was hardly unusual and many others too had taken recourse to this mechanism. Instead of rotting in jail and being of no use to the country, it made sense to come out of the prison. Two, the British didn’t trust Savarkar’s petitions either and kept a hawk-like eye on him for over a decade after his release. More importantly, what Jaffrelot doesn’t realise is that the utter demonisation of Savarkar is a recent phenomenon. Indira Gandhi would call him “the remarkable son of India”, but “towards the late 1990s, when the first BJP-led NDA government came to power and it proactively started venerating Savarkar — having his portrait installed in the Central Hall of Parliament or the plaque in his honour at the Cellular Jail — the old generosity towards Savarkar started dissipating”, as Sampth observes.

Finally, if Jaffrelot is truly interested in knowing the ills pervading Indian history and historiography, he should look back at the time of Independence. In fact, in 1937, ten years before India’s Independence, as eminent historian RC Majumdar recalled in Historiography of Modern India (Asia Publishing House, London; 1970), Dr Rajendra Prasad wrote a letter to Sir Jadunath Sarkar, requesting him to become the chief editor for a project that aimed to bring out a comprehensive national history of India.

In his response, Sarkar wrote: “National history, like every other history worthy of the name and deserving to endure, must be true as regards the facts and reasonable in the interpretation of them. It will be national not in the sense that it will try to suppress or whitewash everything in our country’s past that is disgraceful, but because it will admit them and at the same time point out that there were other and nobler aspects in the stages of our nation’s evolution which offset the former.” Prasad heartily agreed with him.

One saw a twist in the tale, less than two decades later. Rajendra Prasad was by then the President of India. In July 1954, he forwarded to Prime Minister Nehru a recommendation that Jadunath Sarkar be awarded the Padma Vibhushan —India’s second highest civilian award. The recommendation had originally come from the then governor of Madras, Sri Prakasa, who had, in fact, sought the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award, for him. Prasad forwarded the recommendation for the Padma Vibhushan because “no formal recommendation for the grant of this (Bharat Ratna) is to be made by a state government as the award is to be made by you (Nehru) alone”. Two years later, the President sent another recommendation, this time for the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian honour. The eminent historian didn’t receive these awards. Ironically, many of his juniors were duly honoured and recognised during those times.

Former diplomat and author TCA Raghavan explains the reason in History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, G.S. Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and Their Quest for India’s Past, “At a time when being politically correct in writing academic history was gaining in importance, Sarkar’s assessment of — and emphasis on — Aurangzeb’s orthodoxy was viewed by many as divisive and negative.” True to his historian self, Sarkar, while writing on Shivaji, didn’t stop him from bringing out a few unsavory truths about the great Hindu warrior. Indian history was yet to become a black-and-white affair, after all.

To sum up, Jaffrelot needs to rediscover India and for that he has to go beyond the set Western-Leftist narrative about this country, its people and its history. He also needs to understand that the history which he is currently vouching for is a stolen one, massively distorted by Marxist historians in cahoots with their Nehruvian masters. The wave of “historical revisionism” that Jaffrelot believes India is currently experiencing, actually took place in the 1960s and ’70s. What we are seeing today is New India’s quest to shed its old edifice of coloniality and “historic wrongs”. In this India, the reverence for Gandhi doesn’t come in the way of respect for Subhas Bose, and the veneration for Sardar Patel never stops one from admiring Savarkar. This is the beauty of New India waking up to its old civilisational roots. If Jaffrelot wants to understand and appreciate this, he will have to take out the ideologically tinted glasses he has been wearing for years now.

The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.

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New India’s admiration for Savarkar doesn’t come in the way of reverence for Gandhi: But this won’t impress Jaffrelot
New India’s admiration for Savarkar doesn’t come in the way of reverence for Gandhi: But this won’t impress Jaffrelot
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