The fulsome tributes to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as India’s unparalleled freedom fighter on his birth anniversary on Thursday could leave a serious student of Indian history in doubt. How could Savarkar, who aligned with the British regime and asked for clemency, be an epitome of valour and counted among the “bravest freedom fighters”?

The Sangh Parivar has no room for such questions. In its idea of India, there is no doubt that Savarkar, the original Hindutva ideologue, president of the Hindu Mahasabha, a fierce proponent of a Hindu-majoritarian India, and a supporter of the Nazis is worthy of reverence – and more. Supporters of the Sangh complain that Savarkar ought to have been a dominant national hero but was denied his rightful place in the pantheon by hostile Congress governments and biased historians.

The mainstreaming of Savarkar gathers momentum every time a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is steering India’s destiny. For Hindutva groups, this project is, in many ways, more significant than that of their efforts to alter the profile of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose allegiance to the Congress cannot be easily revised.

Plaques and portraits

Under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s watch in May 2002, Savarkar’s name was bestowed on the Port Blair airport in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where he was incarcerated for 10 years from 1911.

In 2003, Savarkar’s portrait was unveiled in the Central Hall of the Parliament amidst a raging controversy and boycott led by the Congress, which was then in opposition.  President APJ Abdul Kalam unveiled the portrait placed right across the alcove that bears a painting of Mahatma Gandhi.

The National Democratic Alliance in its first avatar succeeded in lodging Veer Savarkar in the national consciousness. With every step that the Hindutva ideologue was mainstreamed, a piece of his controversial life fell by the side. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, Project Savarkar has naturally received a boost.

Among his first few tweets as Prime Minister was Modi’s tribute to Savarkar on May 28 last year.

BJP president Amit Shah tweeted on Thursday:

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis also joined in.

On Thursday afternoon, the hashtag #VeerSavarkar was trending at the number one spot but it should be discounted by the large presence of Hindutva supporters on the social media site. Shah’s Facebook post translating a stanza from Savarkar’s poem-song Jayostute attracted nearly 5,000 Likes by 4 pm.

Contentious role

The compliments sit at odds with the historical record about Savarkar’s role during India’s freedom movement. Of course, his public role began as a passionate man who wanted to overthrow the British regime. In May 1904, he started the Abhinav Bharat on the lines of an Italian organisation. While in England, he founded the Free Indian Society and described the 1857 uprising – then known as the Sepoy Revolt – as The Indian War of Independence.

But sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andamans, he appealed to the British for clemency. In a letter of November 14, 1913, Savarkar said:
“...if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress...The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the government?”

Hindutva groups claim that this was a ruse by Savarkar ruse to slip his fetters so that he could resume his activities for India’s freedom. But his alignment with the British later refutes the explanation. The volte-face has been explored by Indian historians and writers.

Savarkar, historians have noted, told Lord Linlithgow, in October 1939:
“…But now our interests were so closely bound together, the essential things was for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends…The Hindu Mahasabha favoured an unambiguous undertaking of Dominion Status at the end of the war."

Later, in August 1942 when Gandhi launched the Quit India movement and asked Indians to renounce their government jobs, Savarkar instead said:
“I issue this definite instruction to all Hindu Sanghatanists in general holding any post or position of vantage in the government services, should stick to them and continue to perform their regular duties.”

On the official site dedicated to Savarkar’s life and legacy, this troubling aspect of clemency and affiliation with the British have been explained as “clever political stratagems”. They have been equated with his icon and Maratha warrior Chhatrapati Shivaji’s tactics against the Mughals and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s Communist leader who “rescued himself from Kuomintang prison” in a similar manner.

There’s more. When India finally threw off the British yoke, Savarkar did not celebrate. Instead, “the Hindu Mahasabha declared August 15, 1947, as a day of mourning,” write historians Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan, in The Hindu Communal Project. “It refused to accept the national flag, upholding the bhagwa jhanda as the only flag worthy of veneration. The Congress, as the ruling party, was repeatedly pressurised to declare the state a Hindu rashtra .”

The Gandhi murder trial  

Savarkar was a trenchant critic of Gandhi and his politics, especially aspects that the Hindutva ideologue saw as “appeasement of Muslims”. The two-nation theory fit beautifully into his concept of the Hindu rashtra. “I have no quarrel with Mr Jinnah's two-nation theory,” he wrote in Hindutva. “We, Hindus, are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations.”

He was accused in the Gandhi murder and stood trial, but was acquitted on technical grounds. To eulogise Savarkar should have been as troublesome as attempting to rehabilitate Nathuram Godse as a hero, but the Sangh has it easy with the Hindu Mahasabha leader. It is helped by the acquittal.

However, in the whitewashed narrative of Savarkar as a valiant hero of the freedom movement, this disturbing chapter of Savarkar’s life story finds no mention at all.  It sits uneasy with a government that is trying hard to also appropriate Gandhi’s legacy.

Conspiracy trial

Savarkar was the political guru of Godse and Narayan Apte, who were executed for their role in Gandhi’s murder; his Hindu Mahasabha had close links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, according to those who deposed before the Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry into the Gandhi murder conspiracy. “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group,” concluded the Commission.

In the court, Savarkar was exonerated “for lack of evidence to corroborate the testimony of the approver, a technical point in criminal law,” write the historians in The Hindu Communal Project. Two of Savarkar’s close associates, AP Kasar and GV Damle, who had not testified during the trial, spoke up before the Kapur Commission because Savarkar had died by then, they add.

The Hindu Mahasabha issued a disclaimer about its links with the Gandhi murder, as did the RSS. In response, Sardar Patel wrote to Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee in May 1948:
“…we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of members of the Hindu Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy [Gandhi’s assassination] and distributed sweets. On this matter, reliable reports have come to us from all parts of the country…[This] could not but be regarded as a danger to public security”.

In the years to come, the Sangh Parivar’s Savarkar Project will undoubtedly gather steam, his name will adorn more auditoriums, roads and airports, his portrait hung in public offices even, but the revision – or recrafting – of history does not change the historical record.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and columnist, tweets as @urjourno.