Advani and Savarkar: The Sangh’s Bid for Heroism via 1857

- Kavita Krishnan

Lal Krishna Advani wrote a piece on May 10, the 150th anniversary of the 1857 war of independence (‘150 yrs of Heroism, via Kala Pani’, Indian Express, May 10). It is well known that the RSS and BJP and their ideological predecessors had nothing to do with the anti-colonial freedom struggle, and rather have a history of collaborating with the British colonizers. What can Advani possibly have to say about 1857?
It soon becomes apparent that Advani, in writing about 1857, is actually grinding quite another axe. Having paid cursory homage to the martyrs of 1857 and their predecessors, he moves on abruptly to talk in glowing terms of Hindu Mahasabha leader and Hindutva’s father figure VD Savarkar. For the Hindutva tradition of the Sangh Parivar and BJP, Savarkar is the lone claim to a place, however dubious and murky, in the freedom struggle. Quite aware that Savarkar’s place in history in tainted by his advocacy of the two-nation theory, his communal fascist view of Hindu Rashtra, his craven apologies to the British and his role in the murder of Gandhi, Advani attempts to use the 150th anniversary of 1857 as an occasion to reinstate Savarkar (and thereby, by the backdoor, the BJP) as patriotic. This claim rests on Savarkar’s magnum opus – The Indian War of Independence 1857, written in 1907 – an admittedly influential work for a generation of revolutionaries in the Indian freedom struggle.         
Advani writes, “Savarkar does not gloss over the long period of Hindu-Muslim hostilities that marked India’s medieval history, but he brilliantly chronicles how 1857 brought the two communities together and made them fight shoulder to shoulder for national liberation.”
Let us at this point pause to take a look at Savarkar’s 1857. The fact that it was the first work by an Indian to reject the term ‘mutiny’ and call 1857 a ‘war of Independence’ was appreciated by many – and it is true that for the Gadar Party, for Bhagat Singh and Madame Cama, and others, it was a source of great information and inspiration. But a close reading reveals various shades of the Savarkar-to-come – the Savarkar of Hindutva and the two-nation theory.  
It is true that the book devotes several pages to recounting the deeds of heroic Muslim patriots and warriors – any book on 1857 could hardly avoid doing so. But Savarkar, in his attempts to reconcile the facts of Hindu-Muslim unity against the British in 1857 with his vision of Indian history as a long saga of Indian (Hindu) resistance to ‘outsiders’ and against ‘foreign Muslim rule’, comes up with tortuous, forced explanations. This is a pervasive thread that runs throughout the whole book. In his Author’s Introduction, he writes, “The feeling of hatred against the Mahomedans was just and necessary in the times of Shivaji, but such a feeling would be unjust and foolish if nursed now…” (The Indian War of Independence: 1857, Rajdhani Granthagar, New Delhi 1970, p IX-X)
Here is yet another passage where Savarkar ties himself in knots over the question of Hindus’ relationship with Muslims and Muslims’ place in the nation: “He (Nana Sahib) also felt that the meaning of “Hindusthan” was thereafter the united nation of the adherents of Islam as well as Hinduism. As long as the Mahomedans lived in India in the capacity of alien rulers, so long, to be willing to live with them like brothers was to acknowledge national weakness…..after a struggle of centuries, Hindu sovereignty had defeated the rulership of the Mahomedans…It was no national shame to join hands with Mahomedans then, but it would, on the contrary, be an act of generosity….Their present relation was one not of rulers and ruled, foreigner and native, but simply that of brothers with the one difference between them of religion alone….” (1857, p 75-76)
None of the leaders of 1857, even the Hindu ones, seem to have needed to offer such defensive explanations for Hindu-Muslim unity. It is Savarkar, not the leaders of 1857, whose imagination is obsessed with a mythical ‘past hatred’, and who therefore is hard put to reconcile it with the historical fact of 1857’s anti-colonial unity.
What is the source of Savarkar’s discomfort? It arises from a theoretical confusion – from a tendency to conflate religion with nation. His first chapter title says it all – “Swadharma and Swaraj”, in which he asks, “In what other history is the principle of love of one’s religion and love of one’s country manifested more nobly than in ours?” He makes no mention whatsoever of colonialism and its impact on the lives of peasantry or common people; the horrors of British rule, for him were all about the humiliation of “foreign” rule. And foreignness is also much to do with religion - he asserts that for “orientals”, “Swaraj without Swadharma is despicable and Swadharma without Swaraj is powerless.” (1857, p 9-10) Savarkar strives to read back his theory of religious nationalism into 1857, and that is what blinds him from perceiving the true significance and content of 1857. Full of his imaginary vision of “Hindu-sthan” (a term he uses in this early work well as the later ones), he is unable to see the Hindustan envisioned by the warriors of 1857.  
1857 happened precisely because British rule was so qualitatively different from that of the Mughals or any other previous rulers. The Mughals may have arrived from a different geographical terrain and culture, but their rule was simply not perceived as ‘foreign’. Mughal rule did not involve a huge drain of wealth to other shores; it was no more or less oppressive than that of various Hindu rulers before them. Further, there was no major difference in the lives of ordinary Hindus and converts to Islam. And above all, there simply was no sense of ‘national’ identity – not even a sense of ‘Hindu’ identity. True, some kings who happened to be Hindu, did war with the Mughals, but so did Hindu kings do war with other Hindu kings. There were Hindu generals in the Mughal armies and Muslim generals in Hindu armies. And among the common people, there is no historic evidence of the kind of undying communal hatred that Savarkar assumes should have been there! This is in fact revealed by Savarkar’s comment that to live like brothers with Muslims was “national weakness”; Savarkar did in fact buy into the orientalist theory that the Hindus were “weak and effeminate” because they did for the most part live like brothers with Muslims.  The links between this idea of Hindu ‘weakness’ and Savarkar’s later writings can be seen clearly: “…because of the then prevalent perverted religious ideas about chivalry to women, which ultimately proved highly detrimental to the Hindu community, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa could do such wrongs to the Muslim women.” (Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, P. 461, Delhi, Rajdhani Granthagar, 1971)
Savarkar is able to accommodate 1857 in his historic schema by making it seem like a temporary truce, fancifully decreed by the motherland. Describing five days of the 1857 war, he writes, “These five days will be ever memorable in the history of Hindusthan for yet another reason. Because these five days proclaimed…the end for the time being at any rate of the continuous fight between Hindus and Mahomedans, dating from the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni. …Bharatmata who was, in times past, freed from Mahomedan yoke by Shivaji, Pratap Singh, Chhatrasal, Pratapaditya, Guru Gobind Singh and Mahadaji Scindia – that Bharatmata gave the sacred mandate that day, ‘Henceforward you are equal and brothers; I am equally mother of you both.’…”  (1857, p 126)      
He also feels compelled to offer a contorted apologia for the restoration of Bahadur Shah Zafar to the throne of Delhi: “…the Mogul dynasty of old was not chosen by the people of the land. It was thrust upon India by sheer force…by a powerful pack of alien adventurers and native self-seekers…It was not this throne that was restored to Bahadur Shah Zafar today…it would have been in vain that the blood of hundreds of Hindu martys had been shed in the three or four centuries preceding. …For more than five centuries the Hindu civilization had been fighting a defensive war against foreign encroachment on its birthrights. …the conqueror was conquered and India was again free, the blot of slavery and defeat being wiped off. Hindus again were masters of the land of the Hindus…” (1857, p 283-84)
Savarkar’s narrative begs several questions. Which regime in ancient or medieval India can be said to have been “chosen by the people”? Weren’t they all “thrust upon the people”? Clearly for Savarkar India is after all the “land of the Hindus”, and Muslims are of foreign origin – an 1857 is merely a truce.      
Advani tries to separate Savarkar’s subsequent ‘problematic’ views from his views on 1857. The question for us is: what lessons did Savarkar take from 1857? Did the facts of the united Hindu-Muslim resistance to colonial rule teach him to rethink the notion that Muslims in India were essentially ‘foreign’; did he change his historically inaccurate view of centuries-long Hindu-Muslim antagonism? Far from it – he instead went on to write: “…there are two antagonistic nations living side by side in India … the solid fact is that the so-called communal questions are but a legacy handed down to us by centuries of cultural, religious and national antagonism between the Hindus and Moslems ... India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” (V.D.Savarkar, Samagra Savarkar Wangmaya Hindu Rasthra Darshan (Collected works of V.D.Savarkar) Vol VI, Maharashtra Prantik Hindusabha, Poona, 1963, p 296
We wonder why Advani does not see fit to tell us which views of Savarkar’s are “problematic” in the BJP’s eyes? Was it is his repeated apologies to the British, his promises to “become the staunchest advocate … of loyalty to the Government”; his active collaboration with the colonial rulers against the freedom fighters? Or is it his theory of Hindutva on which the Sangh and BJP are founded? His admiration for Hitler? His role in the murder of Gandhi? His antipathy to the dalit movement and BR Ambedkar? Not all Advani’s piety nor his wit can wash out a word of Savarkar’s rabid communal fascism and his pro-British record. It is just impossible to clean him up enough to include him in the pantheon of ‘freedom fighters’.
For Advani, there are other questions too. He trusts Savarkar not to “gloss over” Hindu-Muslim hostilities of centuries past. How does he explain the fact that Savarkar’s 1857, in an entire chapter as well as several other long passages devoted to Ayodhya, makes no mention of there ever having been any Ram mandir demolished by a Babri masjid there? Advani suggests a national park in UP to commemorate 1857. He is willfully unaware of the fact that Ayodhya itself is the most remarkable site of this war, and which was the home of the legendary guerrilla warrior Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah. The Sangh’s mandir campaign is the worst insult that can be offered to that legacy of united Hindu-Muslim resistance to colonialism. Savarkar’s book describes the martyrdom of Peer Ali in Patna in 1857 in glowing terms. The park which marks his martyrdom site is now named after Sangh leader Deen Dayal Upadhyay - will Advani suggest to the JD(U)-BJP Government of Bihar that this park be renamed in memory of Peer Ali, as it fitting?    
Advani tries to secure credibility for Savarkar by referring to the fact that Bhagat Singh and the Gadar Party read his 1857. But for these revolutionaries, 1857 had a very different significance. Savarkar’s book is haunted by the spectre of the revolution against “foreign” rule turning against oppression within. He writes, “The heroes who start out for overthrowing foreign rule, soon get into the habit of overthrowing all rule.” This, in Savarkar’s view “makes men disorderly and anarchical”. He warns thereby: “In wiping out foreign misrule, care must be taken to discourage, by all possible means, internal disorder. In smiting down foreign rule and foreign authority, one’s own rule and authority should be worshipped as sacred.” (1857, p 348) Savarkar was not alone in his anxiety – peasant militancy in the Indian freedom struggle caused such anxieties in most of the ruling class leaders, including Gandhi. For Lala Hardyal, Bhagat Singh, Madame Cama and for today’s revolutionaries, however, 1857’s significance lay in its inspiration for revolutions and for peasant militancy against oppression of all hues, against the hunger, land grab and loot imposed by imperialism – be it by white sahebs, or by the brown sahebs who yearned to take their place. India’s ruling class across parties are eager to turn 1857 into empty spectacle, into a sarkari parade – precisely because in Telengana and Naxalbari, in Nandigram and the anti-POSCO struggle, this spectre of the “habit of overthrowing all rule” continues to haunt them.  

This is why Advani too never once refers to the anti-imperialist content of 1857 – referring to the British merely as a “foreign power”. The Congress too, like Advani, refers to British rule and 1857 as something past, the stuff of museums – and strives to drown out the clarion call that the peasant warriors of 1857 make to the anti-imperialist movements of India today. To allow that call to be heard would be to admit anarchy, ‘disorder’, to invite an 1857 against the rulers of today.