Savarkar, Bulbul and the Frog

Abhishek Majumdar

Recently, there has been a lot written about the standard VIII textbook in Karnataka, which claims that a Bulbul visited Savarkar in prison, and he flew out on its wings through solid walls to tour his motherland and return later. On the one hand, this claim was criticized for mystifying Savarkar and feeding children complete flights of fantasy as jingoism. But, in contrast, defenders of right-wing politics have criticized the critics for missing the metaphoric point. And becoming literal about what is a metaphorical passage.

To be fair, the metaphoric reading is not without precedent in Indian history. As far back as AD 399, the Chinese monk Fa-Hien visited India and, in his accounts, wrote about food and dragons in the same tone. It would be preposterous to think that Fa Hien was making up everything about his travels across Buddhist India, for many of his writings have firmly held the test of time. At the same time, I do not think it would be wise to meet dragons. The answer lies in how this kind of history was written in that period of historical writing, where European naturalism and chronological emphasis had not come into history telling. We should also note that Fa Hien most likely did not think of himself as a writer of history. He was writing experience, travelogue and philosophy. His emphasis, like Arab travellers of his time, was on understanding deeper currents of thinking in the people they came across as opposed to directly noting facts. The point here is that the purpose of history telling in such texts differed significantly from the records maintained by official Diwans and ministerial offices on land, taxes, population, crops etc.

The travelogues and other such sources were ways of knowing the world. In contrast, the records were often the ways of noting. Note that none of these writers was writing history as we know it today.

In Indian historical thought, since the dawn of writing, there has been a distinction between Itihasas and Puranas. The Itihasa – Purana tradition distinguishes between stories that are put together by narrating observations of a time in Itihasas. In contrast, the Puranas are said to be told by Brahma and are often about one deity. First, however, we need to note that the Itihasa that is referred to in early Indic civilization is not ‘Itihas’ or natural history as we know it today.

For instance, Ramayana and Mahabharata are Itihasas in the classical sense, but they do not expect us to believe that there are flying monkeys and talking birds. However, they claim that there was a kingdom where the general drift of the time was similar to the Itihasa written. Hence the Ramayana and Mahabharata are more naturalistic than the Kathasaritsagara or the Puranas. This is again a matter of literary method as much as a question of the historical process. Suppose we are to read any text, particularly an epic or an early historical text. In that case, we need to understand the method of creating the text and its possible intentions and find ways to read it.

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Unfortunately, this is where the BJP, the RSS and the overall communal right begin to falter. Let us look at this simple class VIII text itself. The question is, what kind of history telling are we engaged in for students of class VIII? Are they learning natural, chronological, scientific method-based history, or is there a more radical approach that goes beyond reason and, in a highly nuanced manner, draws from cultural and material sources to create a more complex history? Are the students, for instance, reading about the freedom struggle from a chapter that chronologically outlines the critical steps as if it was a linear path or are they intertextually looking at letters from prison? Storytellers wrote accounts of police stations, debates in the British Parliament, stories at that time and other sources to create a sense of how India achieved its Independence.

For instance, in ‘Towards Freedom: Documents on the Movement for Independence in India’ the editors outline the process of achieving Independence through documents that cover a varied spectrum of movements ranging from trade union work to agricultural groups and merchant groups that create a complex picture of the process of achieving Independence. However, an archive of folk stories that were banned during the mutiny that has been part of folklore research suggests that the British were afraid of messages being passed allegorically and hence refused several Indian folk stories and their performances in the period close to 1857. The methods to understand history in both these sources would be completely different. However, it is crucial to note that the process would be consistent with the intention.

This is where most attempts by the saffron parties to tell history to falter. It is not that they lose confidence in what they call the Marxist Scientific, historical method. It is that they lose faith in their method. Examine, for instance, the most prominent by some standards of the modern historians who claim to be undoing the historical damage by left ideological historians. Vikram Sampath has written several books, including the most recent Savarkar biographies. Sampath narrates Savarkar’s life through a larger context of what was happening in the Indian freedom movement at that time and goes on to highlight Savarkar’s desire to create a Hindu united front ‘in response to an exceedingly Muslim united front.

He writes in narrative prose about how Savarkar was anti-caste, much like Ambedkar and how Savarkar influenced an open brand of Hindu nationalism committed to ousting the English.

The difficulty with this entire two-volume saga is that there is no method. Nothing elaborates on credible sources, and he takes no pride as a historian in telling his audience what supports his claims. Instead, he writes prose like a novelist and calls it history with a fledgling bibliography that would not get past a preliminary committee of a history M.A department.

I do not want to pick on Sampath because he is, in many ways, the saving grace in a clique where people claim much more ludicrous nuggets of fantasy as facts. However, I do want to point out that the bulbul story is not at all inconsistent with the ‘method’ per se of Sampath’s books.

The entire history telling is retrofitted. Savarkar has suddenly started to have nuanced reasons to ask for forgiveness from the British without being a coward. He is not Casteist despite his entire force being openly Brahmin and anti-Dalit, he is pro Independence despite not participating in the Quit India movement, and in some years, we will find his photograph draped in the Tricolor despite the RSS openly decrying the Tricolor for the Saffron flag.

The right-wing historian should take comfort in that they do not need to defend Savarkar on all fronts. During the Quit India movement, even Ambedkar was opposed to Gandhi’s strategy. Once India had its Independence, the Samajwadi parties were taking out marches in the country, claiming that this was not Independence until there was social equity. Savarkar may have been a deep-rooted bigot, but he was not unique symptomatically. From the outside, one can stop feeling the need to resurrect him.

The fundamental problem with the bulbul story is that it is born of the same inferiority complex that drives the entire right-wing Hindutva movement. And this complex stems from a lack of originality. They are trying to find a Nehru; hence, the model on which Savarkar will be resurrected is essentially that of a statesman. Savarkar has to live up to their fantasy in hindsight because how far can one go with Golwalkar and Nathuram Godse?

The Amdekarite movement does not have to apologize for Ambedkar’s unwillingness to participate in Quit India Movement because Ambedkar had a morally sustainable method. Moreover, he came from a place of social equity and eventually framed one of the most complex constitutions of the world for one of the most diverse populations to have ever been governed together in the planet’s history.

The Samajwadi do not have to apologize because they have gone on to add immense value to the land rights and anti-caste movement. So again, their method is morally kosher.

The problem with the right wing is that its fundamental premise is that of the frog in the well. An animal assumes that the entire world exists within that well and claims its supremacy. Right-wing historians should stop apologizing and writing about Savarkar in heroic terms but look at ordinary heroes of their movement.

I am sure there are several good Samaritans who, despite being Hindu Supremacists, have helped the poor, the destitute and the needy, who have fought for the country at the borders and lost their lives or who have, in their fervent nationalism, gone on to affect India’s foreign policy as in the case of Vajpayee.

The trouble is that matching Vajpayee to Nehru will need real work. A consistent method will need to be used because not much can be invented. However, with Savarkar, the field is open. One can seamlessly move between dates and fantasies to tell the story of Savarkar.

The method can swap between Itihasa and Purana at will.

And one of the key reasons for all fascist movements to be Anti-intellectual is the lack of method. They exist because they believe some people are higher than others by birth which has no sensible takers in the world. Hence the attack is on sense.

As a fellow writer who often works on historical subjects, my humble advice to colleagues trying to resurrect Savarkar is that one cannot claim a method because one exists.

‘There isn’t enough about Savarkar, and now I am writing something ‘does not automatically qualify the writing as history. Existence is a fair condition to be unique only in the caste system. But, unfortunately, in writing, it is not so. As a writer, being a bigot can be a choice, but being lazy isn’t.

Coming back to the Bulbul, I am all for an allegory for children. Children should be liberated from the tyranny of mugging up dates and names of kings and battles to test if they know history.

In my view, whoever has written the Bulbul story would have done excellent service to history writing for children if only they had not written this history from the perspective of the frog.

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