One important inference that can be drawn from the speeches of the 30th August 2019 rally of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), is that the recent bust controversy will be a pivotal issue in the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) election scheduled to be held on 12 September. The dispute will not cease with the announcement of election results. In the late night of 20-21 August 2019, the DUSU President of ABVP installed the ‘Trimurti’ (three busts) of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Shaheed Bhagat Singh at the main gate of the Faculty of Arts in the North Campus of Delhi University. The task was done fraudulently in the dark of night. Fierce opposition ensued thereafter from other student organizations on this incident. As a protest the Delhi state president of the National Students Union of India (NSUI) defaced the statue of Savarkar. This too was done in the dark of night.
Some scholars and journalists also took notice of this incident and wrote that associating Subhash Bose and Bhagat Singh with Savarkar is an insult to both the former freedom fighters. Realizing the escalation of the controversy, ABVP as an organization separated itself from the incident of installation of busts, saying that no statue should be installed in the university campus without the permission of the university administration and other affiliated bodies. On the night of 22-23 August, the DUSU leaders removed the busts saying that the same will be installed after the DUSU elections with the permission of the university administration. It was reported that NSUI had lodged an FRI in the local police station to protest against this illegal act of ABVP. But no action has reportedly been taken by either the police or university administration in the matter.
It is to be noted in this incident that everything, from the installation of busts to defacing Savarkar’s face and removing the busts – happened in a clandestine manner. Universities are havens for openness, transparency and fraternity. It is a matter of concern that both, the university administration and the major student organizations have not shown prudence in this matter. The DUSU president of the ABVP, who installed the busts, said that he had written to the university administration about this in November last year, in which there was a demand to rename the DUSU office in Savarkar’s name. According to him, the university administration did not heed to their demands despite repeated requests. But this inaction on the part of the administration does not allow the DUSU president to install the bust in an arbitrary manner. At the same time, the university administration should understand that the modus operandi of delaying or covering up matters can lead to a quagmire in which the university finds itself at the moment. The university administration should have settled the matter in time in a transparent and neutral manner.
What the DUSU president did in this case was in keeping with Savarkar’s style. Savarkar used to justify his policy of violence and deception by alluding to Lord Krishna. His competition was actually with Gandhi’s policy of non-violence and transparency. The goal of the DUSU president was also to eventually install a statue of Savarkar in the premises of DUSU office. The busts of Subhash Bose and Bhagat Singh were installed alongside in order to impart legitimacy to Savarkar among the youth. If ABVP wins in DUSU election, then it will definitely try to install Savarkar’s statue in DUSU office. But the defamation of Savarkar’s bust by the president of NSUI in the dark of night is also unwarranted and against the philosophy of Subhash Bose and Bhagat Singh. By doing this he, in fact, has strengthened the ABVP’s agenda and has partaken in Savarkar’s style. The reason for this is understandable. Contrary to the values of the country’s Constitution and the values of the Independence Movement, the ruling class of India, which is running neoliberal policies, cannot continue this without deceit. This trickery has been going on for the last nearly three decades, in which Congress and BJP are the biggest actors. At a time when the BJP is riding high on the tides of majoritarianism with an absolute majority in the parliament there will be an increase in these types of incidents.
Savarkar has been controversial figure as a revolutionary. He obtained his release in 1924 by writing a number of mercy petitions from the Cellular Jail for his revolutionary activities. After his release, he remained loyal to the British rule as the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. Some people became informers in the revolutionary movement, some were dissuaded from the movement and some were diverted to spiritual path like Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. But only Savarkar took the path of loyalty to the British regime. It is a known fact that the Court admitted his involvement in Gandhi’s assassination, but granted acquittal for lack of evidence. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) endorses him as its icon for his concept of ‘Hindutva’ and the doctrine of ‘Hindu-Rashtra’ and defends him in the case of Gandhi’s assassination. That is why the coalition government of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had installed a portrait of Savarkar in the Central Hall of Parliament in 2003. The portrait was unveiled by President APJ Abdul Kalam. Senior Congress leaders Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil were also on the panel that allowed Savarkar’s portrait to be installed in the Central Hall of Parliament, along with Somnath Chatterjee, senior leader of the Communist Party (CPM). The BJP-led government was defeated in the 2004 general elections. Since then, only BJP leaders along with the Lok Sabha Speaker used to pay ritualistic tribute to Savarkar on his birth anniversary and death anniversary. LK Advani once condemned this attitude of leaders of other parties. After becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi paid tribute to Savarkar in the Central Hall of Parliament.
Dr. Lohia has insisted that the statue of any leader should be installed only after 100 years of his death. Perhaps he had a world scenario in front of him, in which statues of leaders and thinkers were being used extensively in propaganda politics. The present phase in India is such that we compete to resort to various icons’ statues to plug in our intellectual hollowness. A life-sized statue of Vivekananda is already installed in Delhi University. ABVP has a patent on it. This should be sufficient for all student organizations. In case a process of installing more statues will begin, then there will be no shortage of icons in this era of identitarian mobilization. There would be a demand to install statue (s) in the South Campus as well. With the passage of time every college would like to install one or the other statue. Such demands may also arise in various departments of the university. This practice may affect other universities as well.
It was the duty of Delhi University administration to call the leaders of ABVP, who were eager to install the statue of Savarkar, to tell them that the university is not a place where only one idea/thinker is taught. True national spirit/consciousness can be inculcated by adopting the ideas/ideals of national heroes in a critical manner. University administration can still do this work, so that the dispute does not escalate and the environment of the university does not deteriorate. Student organizations should also limit themselves to student interests, so that they can play their role more effectively. In the current era, there is a rapid attack of privatization on the entire education system. Only students and teachers organizations can put up an attack on these matters. ABVP and NSUI are a resource-rich student organizations affiliated with big political parties. If they are determined then they can stop their parties and governments from taking decisions to privatize education. Their role will be more useful than installing statues of leaders on campus.
(The author, a former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, teaches Hindi in Delhi University)