Vinay Lal, author and professor of history. Photo: M. Vedhan


Interview with the historian Dr Vinay Lal.

The claim of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh that V.D. Savarkar, the Hindutva icon, had written mercy petitions to the British on the basis of advice from Mahatma Gandhi has stirred a controversy.

Dr Vinay Lal, a Professor of History and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, has repudiated Rajnath Singh’s claim. Vinay Lal is the author of many seminal books on history, including The History of History (2003), Introducing History (2005), and The Other Indians: A political and cultural history of South Asians in America (2008). He spoke to Frontline on the issue and also challenged several existing myths.

Excerpts from a detailed Zoom interview he gave Abhish K. Bose, a journalist based in Kerala:

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s claim that Hindutva icon

V.D. Savarkar had sent a mercy petition on the basis of advice from Mahatma Gandhi has led to a controversy. What is your opinion? What do you think of the role played by Savarkar and other Hindu nationalist leaders in the freedom struggle?

With regard to what Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said, let me say it clearly, loudly and unequivocally: it is a complete falsehood. It is a complete fabrication and there is not the slightest evidence that Mahatma Gandhi ever advised Savarkar to write a mercy petition. Considerable work has been done on Savarkar and his mercy petitions, and there were many of them, before the Defence Minister came up with this claim. For example, there is a book published by A.G. Noorani called Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection (LeftWord Books, 2002). If you go through the appendices of the book, you will find reproduced several of the petitions.

The text of the petition Savarkar filed in 1911 is not available, but the one from 1913, and later petitions as well, are painful to read.

He says: “If the government in their manifold beneficence release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the British Government….”. He suggests to the British government that releasing him would be to their advantage, saying “my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all these misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide, I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like….”

It gets more pathetic as he reaches his conclusion: “The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore, where else can the prodigal sons return but to the parental doors of the Government?” What Savarkar is in effect saying to the British is this, “I will do whatever you want me to do, just get me out of this jail.”

He is asking the government, the mai-baap, to take their son back into their bosom. Gandhi himself was in jail many times. Did he ever write a mercy petition, or a petition asking to be released? In fact, when he was put on trial in 1922 on charges of sedition, and indeed charged under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code, which the present government uses at the drop of a hat, he invited the judge to give him the harshest possible sentence under the law if the judge truly believed that he was guilty of the charges laid against him.

But for those who don’t like Gandhi, let us take the example of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev. Did they ever file a petition for mercy as they were awaiting their execution? On the contrary, when Bhagat Singh’s father pleaded with his son, saying “You’re a young man, your whole life is ahead of you, file a petition of mercy with the British authorities”, Bhagat Singh was outraged and deeply hurt that his father made such a suggestion. In contrast to this, Savarkar filed mercy petitions repeatedly.

Let us go back to the claim that Gandhi advised Savarkar to file a petition with the British authorities that they should offer him clemency.

On January 18, 1920, Savarkar’s younger brother wrote to Gandhi saying that the government had given clemency to other prisoners but not his brother, and enquired whether Gandhi could do anything. Gandhi replied from Lahore on January 25 (the text of this letter is in Volume 19 of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, published by the Government of India): “I have your letter. It is difficult to advise you.”

Where did our honourable Defence Minister get this idea that Gandhi advised Savarkar to file a mercy petition? Is it there in his letter? No. The letter continues: “I suggest, however, your framing a brief petition setting forth the facts of the case bringing out in relief the fact that the offence committed by your brother was purely political. I suggest this in order that it would be possible to concentrate public attention on the case.”

Gandhi meant that Savarkar’s offence was political and he was not jailed for a common crime. This is important, because whatever political differences there were between Gandhi and Savarkar, Gandhi understood that people imprisoned for political offences belonged in a category different from those incarcerated for ordinary crimes. He was underscoring the fact that Savarkar was a political offender.

In 1920, Gandhi wrote an article published on May 26 in Young India, a journal that he edited. It also appears in Volume 20 of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi under the title, ‘Savarkar Brothers’. The article concerns, once again, the release of political prisoners under a royal proclamation of clemency, and Gandhi was once again very clear that the Savarkar brothers were entitled to clemency just as other political prisoners.

But what he thought about them is very clear from this article, where he wrote: “Both these brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas and that if they were set free they would like to work under the Reforms Act, for they consider that the reforms enable one to work thereunder so as to achieve political responsibility for India. They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British.”

Could there be a clearer expression of the fact that Savarkar was so desperate to be released from jail that he stated that he did not care for India’s independence from the British?

It must be said that the record is very clear and we should not shirk from the truth. Savarkar was not at all the hero that his supporters and bhakts are trying to make him out to be.

He did very little, if anything, for India’s Independence. I would go so far as to say that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha likewise did not do a single thing for India’s Independence during the freedom struggle. They were collaborators of the British.

I would like to recall what B.R. Ambedkar said about the tendency of Indians to hold Mohammed Ali Jinnah responsible for the Partition of India. However, the first exponent of the two-nation theory was not Jinnah; it was Savarkar. How much Savarkar had in common with Jinnah is not commonly realised, but Ambedkar was absolutely clear that it was not Jinnah who was the author of the Partition of India, but Savarkar.

In his book Thoughts on Pakistan (1940), Ambedkar wrote: “Strange as it may appear, Mr. Savarkar and Mr. Jinnah, instead of being opposed to each other on the one nation versus two nations issue, are in complete agreement about it. Both agree… not only agree but insist, that there are two nations in India, one the Muslim nation and the other the Hindu nation.”

Gandhi and cultural capital

Why are the RSS and its affiliates keen on appropriating the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi? Is it because the Sangh Parivar lacks a person of the stature of Gandhiji? What is your view on this?

In some respects you have answered your own question. If you want to lay claim to be an individual or an organisation that has done something worthy for the country, especially with regard to the freedom struggle, it is imperative to show that you are the inheritor of Gandhi’s legacy. Whatever the limitations of Gandhi, and he certainly had them as does every other individual, we can understand what his name means if we turn to a concept proposed by the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, which is the concept of cultural capital.

The name of Gandhi has had cultural capital all over the world. Let me give you an illustration. I have spoken to Indian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1950s and the 1960s, when there were very few Indians in the U.S. (Between 1923 and 1945, Indians were not even permitted within the U.S. because of the 1924 Immigration Act and Asian exclusion laws.) Many came without having any contact in the U.S. When they came here, all they had to say was “we are from the land of Gandhi” and people would open their homes to them. That is what I have been told; and this is, mind you, before the civil rights movement, when Gandhi became even more renowned in the U.S.

Gandhi was, and remains, a world historical figure, and when he died many compared him not to Jinnah or Nehru, but rather to Jesus Christ and the Buddha, among the greatest teachers of humankind. Just look at the work of Indian printmakers at that time. This is what Bourdieu terms cultural capital. The RSS and the BJP are, of course, trying to legitimise their notion of Hindu nationalism by invoking the name of Gandhi. And this is something that must not only be merely questioned but completely rejected. Because, if we do not reject this, [yet] another lie will circulate in the public domain.

Reading Hindutva history critically

There are controversies across the country around the demand in some colleges to study the history of the RSS and its leaders. The move to include the writings of RSS leaders such as Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in the curriculum of Kannur University in Kerala should be seen as part of this move. What is your view? Is it essential to teach the ideologies of Hindutva icons?

I think that it is very essential that we should take a nuanced view on this matter. I, for instance, teach an undergraduate course to students aged between 18 and 21 on contemporary world history—from the time of the Industrial Revolution to the present times. Now, when we get to the 1930s and 1940s we get to the time of Nazi Germany and to Adolf Hitler. Hitler wrote a very large book called Mein Kampf. It is actually a mediocre work… an exceedingly mediocre work. No scholar who has looked at it has been impressed with Hitler’s thinking. This is not to say that he did not have a different kind of political genius—one that let him captivate the country.

Now, one of the things I have my students do is read around 10 pages from Mein Kampf. Am I therefore promoting anti-Semitism if I am asking the students to read Hitler? Not at all. It is part of a critical pedagogy to understand texts that are obviously misleading and that may even be dangerous. If we are going to be thoughtful and reflective human beings, we cannot read only books that present a portrait of humankind in the most flattering terms. It is also essential to understand what role a text played in society at that time, especially when a text is pernicious.

I think some students should have access to what Savarkar or other RSS ideologues wrote, but there is a risk in doing so. Students have to be guided by teachers who are sensitive and reflective, who have some moral compass; part of that critical pedagogy may necessitate requiring the student to also read something critical of the views associated with Savarkar and his kind.

Savarkar and Golwalkar are, as thinkers, extremely mediocre, although Savarkar was in some respects, though not many, a very talented and gifted person. We must concede that. For example, he was evidently gifted as a writer of Marathi because he was writing poetry from the age of 10 and he wrote what became a very crucial (and controversial) book in the reinterpretation of the rebellion of 1857-58. This is a very interesting book.

By the way, it is a misleading idea that he gave birth to the idea of Hindutva. A man called Brahmabandhav Upadhyay, who was a Vedantic scholar and Bengali convert to Christianity, first wrote on Hindutva—but that’s a different story.

If you want to understand Savarkar’s idea of ‘punya bhoomi’, holy land or sacred geography, it is essential that we have to read some pages from the book. But these have to be read critically. We do not do any service to students if we do not work with texts that are difficult and sometimes actually offensive to others.

Although I personally think that Golwalkar and Savarkar are not at all interesting thinkers, I think that small extracts from these books can be taught in order to illustrate some of the most pernicious consequences of Hindutva ideology. In the case of Golwalkar the case is even more clear. If you go through A Bunch of Thoughts, or his other book, We, Or our Nationhood Defined, we can see the great debt that he owed to the Nazi ideologues.

Golwalkar was practically speaking as a Nazi. Golwalkar was a great admirer of Nazis and he said it very clearly that what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Germany, we can take a lesson from that in India. And I need not explain who he had in mind when he said that some people can be treated in India the way the Jews are being treated in Nazi Germany. This is important to underscore.

Regarding Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the present government of India has done much to promote his work and name. Before 2015 the government had released one stamp in his honour, but then they released one in 2015, and another in 2016, and yet another in 2017. What is the principal idea that Upadhyaya had? It is an idea that he called ‘integral humanism’. This idea is what Jayaprakash Narayan also had. J.P. is a bit more of an interesting thinker, but his idea is not radically different from Upadhyaya’s. The difference is that we see a far more ecumenical approach on the part of J.P. with regard to the question of Muslims in particular, and with respect to the question of how we can actually forge a movement dedicated to the idea of sarvodaya or welfare of all. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya was going somewhat in that direction, but some of his views are, to put it bluntly, wholly contaminated with a certain partisanship on behalf of the Hindus.

Rewriting history

The absence of opposition to the moves to rewrite history is apparent nowadays. Many historians swearing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar attempt to rewrite history. Attempts in this vein are evident in the move to term ‘Harappan civilisation’ as ‘Saraswati civilisation’. The previous attempts to make changes in the syllabus of the National Council of Educational Research and Training were noticeable in the late 1990s. Why is there no opposition against this in the country?

Let me answer this question first in the broadest terms. Let us not be surprised by the attempts to rewrite history. Unfortunately, this is the prerogative of those who are in power. This is true not only in India, but all over the world. I have been writing about this question for many years. In 2003, I published a book called The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2003). This book is about the politics of the writing of history.

The attempt to rewrite history is something that we are invariably going to associate with those who see it as their prerogative when they acquire power. There are debates about the contents of history textbooks in almost every country. One of the problems with how we think about these things in India, if I may be permitted to say, and indeed one of the problems with Indian journalism, is insularity. Our journalists don’t look at what is happening in other parts of the world. There are a lot of debates happening in Japan about the contents of Japanese history textbooks. Why? Because of questions about the role of Japan in the Second World War. What should Japan do? Should the Japanese apologise the way Germany has apologised for the atrocities it committed in the Second World War?

I am not going to speak here about the politics of apologies. What I am simply saying is that these kinds of debates about the contents of the history textbooks, and the fact that people in power will attempt to rewrite them, is par for the course. Now having said this, this doesn’t mean that we just sit back and say, “This is what people in power do.” Of course not, because if textbooks are being rewritten in ways that can be substantiated by historical evidence, by powers of reasoning, or by reasonable inference—we have to look at the totality of what we have—then we have to look seriously at such attempts.

What is this whole argument regarding Saraswati civilisation about? Why is the Hindutva brigade so attached to this idea? One of the many reasons is, they want to dismiss the idea that Aryans were foreigners; they, in fact, want to claim that India is the source of all Aryan migrations, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that. But let’s get to the bottom of this. They want to say, “Muslims are foreigners in India.” To which I would say, “What does it mean to call Muslims foreigners in India? How long have the Muslims been in India? For over a thousand years. At what point will they cease to become foreigners, I want to know.”

If one then said that the Aryans themselves were foreigners, that becomes an even greater problem. I’m not saying the debate is entirely about this. I’m saying this is a characteristic move. This is what we can call an act of displacement; an argument appears to be about one thing but is actually about something else.

Why do you think that the opposition is not taking any measures to counter it? Why is the intelligentsia of the country being silent on this?

I don’t think that the intelligentsia of the country is silent. The problem is that this current government does not tolerate dissent, it has shut down the avenues of dissent. Look at what is happening in the universities of the country. Look what is happening at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The Hindutva people will tell you that JNU is a bastion of communists. That is absurd. Of course, they have some left-wing historians and sociologists as they do at any half-decent university. But look at what is happening at JNU now. You mentioned the controversy at Kannur in Kerala last month or so.

Recently, in JNU they introduced a course on terrorism and counter-terrorism as an optional paper. It states clearly that if you are going to study terrorism and devise counter-terrorist strategies, all one has to do is study Islamist jehadism, which means that practically speaking, Islamist jehadism alone is synonymous with terrorism and we need to know nothing else. Nothing more. This is the primordial and primary example of terrorism and that’s that. Who has approved this? It has been approved by the academic council and the vice chancellor. It is frankly a completely suspect course.

Indian universities are becoming the laughing stock of the world, unfortunately. The serious dissenters are being marginalised and silenced at Indian universities. Now there are web portals such as the Wire and Scroll, but they speak to a largely anglicised audience, preaching as it were to the choir. I have to say that I’m very glad that a few years ago the Wire started investing seriously in producing material—even videos—in Hindi.

If you say to me, however, that no one is protesting against these changes to the curriculum across the country, that is not really the case, but there is a problem with regard to what happens to people who speak out loud. There are trolls everywhere—in the U.S., too, as I know very well—but the trolls in India are vicious, absolutely vicious and most of them are unlettered; they are not accustomed to reading or reflecting, but they have understood the power of the social media that they use. And this is one of the risks of such media; it can lead to not just democratisation but also to authoritarianism.

There are reports that the government is in the process of forming a single common academic curriculum for all academic institutions of the country. What is your view on this?

I have heard about it. But I don’t know enough about it at this point as to comment on it. There is also speculation that there are ongoing moves to glorify 10,000 years or more of India’s history, whatever those 10,000 or 15,000 years of history may be, considering that the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilisation can be dated back only to 3000 BCE. What I will say is this: if there is a programme for a common academic curriculum for all the academic institutions of the country, it would be a disaster. Because that will be the end of free inquiry.

The idea that some central agency should dictate a common curriculum for all the academic institutions of the country is complete anathema to the life of the mind and to free inquiry. A little footnote: When I teach history courses even for undergraduates, I do not even use a textbook. I have my students read dozens of articles and primary sources. I do not use a textbook and this goes back to the question of history textbooks, because a textbook is a way of homogenising knowledge.

What a common curriculum would do is multiply that problem by a factor of 10, or 20. If we are going to have a common curriculum, we are going to end up producing a country of robots. That’s what’s going to happen. If that is what the fight for swaraj was all about, then why have swaraj at all? There may even be greater freedom in slavery than in this kind of swaraj.

There are allegations that in many universities the books of eminent historians are purposefully being avoided in the reference section, such as books of Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, and Romila Thapar. What is your view?

Are you telling me that the books by Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, perhaps D.N. Jha, and other such scholars are being removed from university bookshelves? Well, if that is the case, that is why some people are saying that the analogy with an authoritarian state, or worse, may not be incorrect. We are moving in that direction. How is this really different than the burning of books? What happened at Kristallnacht, the night of shattered glass, when Jewish synagogues and businesses were set on fire—all this culminated, we could say, in the Final Solution. Books were also burned that night; the Nazis made bonfires of books they considered degenerate.

If the works of these historians are being no longer made available, or are being thrown out of university and public libraries—if that is happening, it is not simply a problem of censorship, it is a much graver problem. A culture that begins to burn or bury books is going down the wrong path, a very dangerous path.

Rich Medieval period

There are also moves in many universities to not teach the medieval history of the country. Allegedly, there are instructions to not teach it.

Again, if that is the case, we have yet another problem. Of course, if this is true, or if it is beginning to happen, we know why that is the case, because the medieval period is synonymous with the period of Muslim rule—the Muslim conquests, the Muslim invaders, and Muslim rule. In the north you have the Delhi Sultanate, in the south the Deccan or Bahmani Sultanates, and then, of course, the Mughal empire.

If all of this is not taught, the students obviously will not have an understanding on what happened in this period, they will be gasping for some understanding. But the problem is not merely that a huge chunk of India’s history is eradicated, so to speak. It is a much more fundamental problem that we have to think about. The problem with the RSS and BJP people who are now beginning to manage our universities and institutions is that they have this idea that our medieval period is like the Dark Ages or Middle Ages of Europe. What they do is they take the template of European history and they just plant it on to India.

Remember that Europe had a medieval period which was known as the Dark Ages or Middle Ages. In India, this so-called medieval period was an enormously rich period. The literature in nearly all Indian languages flourished at this time; it was also the period of the ‘bhakti movement’. If you look at the period from 1000 to 1700, India produced a storehouse of devotional literature which is unmatched anywhere in the world. In the north we are familiar with figures such as Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Kabir, Nanddas; in Maharashtra, we are familiar with Tukaram, Eknath, Narsinh Mehta, and, much earlier, in the 13th century, Jnaneshwar; in the south, of course, poets such as Basavanna, the Virasaivas, and much more; in Bengal, Chaitanya and Chandidas; and so on. I’m just naming some 15 people who come to mind immediately. Now, whether they were all working to create a single vision, or can retrospectively be interpreted as such—there is a lot of discussion about this, about whether one can speak of a bhakti movement, whether it was not itself in some ways a creation of the nationalist movement that was trying to think of the cultural unity of India. Those are questions that are properly addressed when we are looking at the scholarship on bhakti.

I am simply saying that this period was, in fact, a very rich period; just because Europe had its Dark or Middle Ages, it doesn’t mean that our so-called Middle Ages were also Dark Ages. Europe lost contact with its own intellectual and cultural inheritance; this is the meaning of the Dark Ages. It is well known that it is through the Arabs that Greek thinkers such as Aristotle were rediscovered in the West. There are thousands of books on this subject. We in India swallowed this idea that we too had our Dark Ages—and, quite conveniently, this is the period of Muslim dominance in India.

This whole idea of even carving up the study of history into three large chunks—ancient, medieval, modern—is a European idea and there is no reason to even think of history along those lines. Let me also say that an Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis developed in north India that is unmatched in the world, except perhaps in Moorish Spain.

I would be the first to admit that there are some serious historians who do not accept this idea of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, or Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis, but nevertheless it is possible to advance an argument about such a synthesis. And we should also look at the Deccan, at the Bahmani sultanates; courts at places such as Bijapur were very cosmopolitan. So, in short, removing this entire period from our history books, apart from all the other problems I’ve described, would be a catastrophic failure of intelligence and imagination.