Pitfalls of Positivist Scholarship

There is near-consensus in the academia that facts and facts alone are sovereign in research,and theories are suspect.This does not prevent reputed scholars to author huge times on ‘the end of ideology’,’the clash of civilizations’,’the mind of Islam’, ‘the fading of the American dream’,and so on.Nevertheless the insistence is reiterated ad nauseam.

It is especially when someone writes something that rubs the academic establishment the wrong way that the obdurate line is re-affirmed.

Facts,such as dates and places resist theorization,but everything else is subject to the author’s interpretation and attempt to see a certain pattern in the congeries of facts.Even dates and places are inert until brought to life by an account that links the facts together.And such a chain of links is discovered by the author through a lens or intellectual bias.And that bias usually has or has to be supported by a general theory regarding the area or field of study.Such theories are open to scrutiny or challenge,and here again the critic falls back on other facts ignored by the author or questions the author’s interpretation of them.Hence theory and facts are bound together,and the best thing to do under the circumstances is to admit the provisional nature of the interpretation or the narrative.

The great intellectual turmoil in the closing years of the twentieth century had been the attack mounted by scholars like Jaques Derrida on the smug notion that structuralism provided a fool-proof method for discovering objective structures of knowledge in every field of learning.Derrida showed that such structures do not actually have unchallengeable and invincible stable centers,but only provisional and unstable centers.While it generated a massive tide of acclaim and emulation,it actually reiterated a truth known since the middle of the nineteenth century:that in social sciences the most rigorous factual enquiry cannot evade bias of some sort.This of course does not absolve the scholar of carefully and painstakingly check and weigh the facts he assembles and chooses.

As against this the dogmatic refusal of theory has been termed ‘positivism’, which prefers to deny the entanglement of theoretical bias in factual research.So when a scholarly work claims it is handling pure,verified facts uncontaminated by any bias or that it has itself rigorously avoided all bias and dealing with facts alone,he opens himself to the question whether he is taking a positivist stand.

Savarkar Sampath CoverVikram Sampath’s enormous tome of a book, “Savarkar: A Contested Legacy (Vol.II)” (Penguin Viking) is undoubtedly a product of energetic,patient and serious study going into a large variety of sources to unearth the life-story and contribution of one of the most controversial figures of modern Indian history.India’s liberal and Marxist scholars have taken a dim view of Savarkar’s life and mission and Sampath seeks to bring the person and his work under a searchlight to bring out both his achievements and failures.In doing so he has juxtaposed the work of his eminent contemporaries with a view to highlighting his better perception of things and his more appropriate interventions in current events of the time.We propose to examine here how far the enormous factual evidence unearthed by him with so much labour compel a major revision of perspective.

Sampath holds that Savarkar is an important historical figure unjustly relegated to the margins thanks to the shadow cast by the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.Sampath apparently believes Savarkar had not been at all involved in it.But the lingering doubts have put a pall on his important role in the decades before independence and left his influence on the course of events buried.Sampath undertakes to bring out the whole truth by examining relevant documents,personal diaries and memoirs,archival materials and contemporary press-reports that bear out his influence.He says he holds no brief for him,in fact disagrees with some of his views strongly,and has only set out to set the records strait.It is undoubtedly a fascinating product of meticulous scholarship and strenuous industry.

On the face of it an unexceptionable project.But once we go beyond appearances,quite a challenging undertaking.For how do we assess ‘importance’.To cite an extreme example Hitler was an important historical figure and left his mark or smudge indeliably on a certain period of modern European and world history.But his importance is associated with the rise and ascendancy of certain most diabolical and barbaric human tendencies.Historians can hardly avoid making a value judgment on him and even an attempt to understand his motives cannot absolve him of his guilt in inaugurating and presiding over one of the gloomiest and most blood-curdling episodes in the history of mankind.

Savarkar himself is obviously not guilty of atrocities like the Nazis,to be sure,but he had considered Hitler’s crimes against humanity necessary and beneficial to the German people.(pp.239-241,pp 270-271)Had he won power to fully execute his only then the true extent of his potentiality for good and evil would have come to light.But his views as expressed in his speeches and writings did have such potentiality,as certain contemporary occurrences under the influence of his ideas,would seem to bear out. There is little doubt that his ideas had a direct bearing on the Gandhi murder,and his admirers face the uphill task of explaining away the stark fact that the murderers had met him shortly before the crime.

Be that as it may,’contested legacy’,sub-heading of the book’s title,hardly gives the reader any inkling of such dark potentialities lurking behind cold logic and passionate rhetoric that marked Savarkar’s political life.

That many of his renowned contemporaries had friendly relations with him does not change the picture.Consider Bhagat Singh (150-153)and Subhash Bose.Both were averse to the influence of Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence and his faith in the efficacy of persuasion and admonition.It was solely on this point they expressed agreement with him or regard for him.The other major planks of his message,like nationhood based on religious identity,found no support from them.Bhagat Singh treasured his book on Indian War of Independence of 1857 where he had emphasized Hindu-Muslim unity,but did not care for his book on Hindutva.So this particular piece of evidence is at best partial and inconclusive.

There’s a lot of noise today among some circles about Savarkar’s bold radical stand on untouchability and his cordial relations with Ambedkar.But the reforms initiated by Savarkar were cosmetic.Like some inter-dining events.His actual attitude came out during the tumultuous temple-entry movement blessed by Gandhijee.Savarkar apparently supported rights of untouchables to enter temples.But in a newsletter he assured orthodox Hindus(“my Sanatani friends”) that he supported entry rights of untouchable “to the extent that ancient scriptures allow”.

He openly expressed his profound admiration for MANUSMRITI,the canonical text of Brahminical Hinduism sanctifying cruel suppression of the Shudras which Ambedkar excoriated and later publicly burned. Hence his support for abolition of untouchability appears to have been only a politic concession in the interest of Hindu mobilisation.

The other rather unsavoury side of the story is that his contemporaries were unaware of the contents of his mercy petitions to the British government and his open avowal of a desire to serve the British government upon release.This sensational detail of his relations with British rulers had been under the wraps for decades and was certainly unknown in the decades before independence.

These commitments are nowadays sometimes explained away as tactical moves to effect his release so as to find time and scope for his great patriotic mission.But the long and short of it is that he had been until independence under constant observation of the colonial rulers,and they would not have hesitated to put him behind bars again and release to the press the damning mercy petitions if they feared any threat from him..But the kind of fanatical communalism that he propagated served British administration’s interests extremely well and they let him wreak havoc on Gandhijee’s efforts for communal peace and harmony.

Sampath cites press and police reports to show that Gandhijee had failed to gauge the extent of Muslim culpability in the communal riots and communal intransigence,and held out expectations of Muslims that were unrealistic whereas Savarkar understood things in their true proportions.But this ‘realism’ actually gives in to a colonial discourse driven by several decades of relentless colonial policy including communal electorate and ‘reforms’ promoting bitter Hindu-Muslim rivalry for limited power.Gandhijee on the other hand made incessant efforts to get around this deeply divisive poisonous rivalry.

But he too had been frustrated by the fixation of Muslim leaders on their communal identity.I had dealt elsewhere in detail with the very formation and fostering of these two basic identities and proposed that they had been far from the natural original identities that they are now taken for,but products of deep colonial design and strenuous,patient and elaborate promotion.In pre-colonial times there had been only ethnic and regional identities and there was no bar to ‘Hindus’ serving in armies of rulers of Muslim faith and ‘Muslims’ serving in armies of monarchs from a broad spectrum of ‘Hindu’ faith.Both Shivajee and Rana Pratap had ‘Muslim’ generals in their armies,though they are hailed today as crusaders for Hindu faith. Savarkar was thus trying to seal a final version of Hindu nationhood that had been propounded by fits and starts from the middle of the nineteenth century from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay of Bengal downwards.The colonial rulers not only promoted it but also strengthened it constantly in order to perpetuate their imperial hegemony over all political forces in the country.

Hence an ‘objective’ scholar needs to steer his course through these choppy waters with caution.Should he surrender his judgment to the apparent compulsions of the imbroglio he is likely to be seduced by colonial design.The leaders of the freedom movement had sincerely intended to resolve this ingrained weakness of nationhood through united struggle for independence and after independence through energetic effort,but were too caught up in a web of unforeseen challenges to spare much time and energy for this project.Today there is at work a sequence of planned moves and events to deepen and widen this division.So Savarkar had been at the forefront of the long campaign to drive a wedge between two communities that had themselves been products of colonial design.He was one of a long line of important native Indians who assiduously collaborated with the colonial project.Thus wittingly or unwittingly he played a significant part in the imperialist strategy to thwart and deflect the surging movement for national liberation.This is not an angle that finds even the ghost of an allusion in the massive volume.

We are obliged to linger a while longer on the conventional but fraught Hindu-Muslim question.Both communities today consciously identify with and are committed to these identities,so that disputes arising out of some purely local and contingent issue also get reported in press and are accepted by the public as one more instance of Hindu-Muslim conflict.

Gandhijee had hoped that the course of united collective struggle would in the long run forge unity between them and in the process create a superior national identity.There was a definitely utopian element in the hope but not necessarily unviable and impractical. Unfortunately he did not seem to have any idea of the sinister imperialist intrigues and underhand designs to divert and frustrate the tremendous popular movements inspired and led by Gandhijee.His motto of loving the enemy and appealing to his good sense did not work with die-hard imperialism determined to batten on India’s poverty and misery.It follows that the Muslims were not the main enemy in the contention though they had become for people like Savarkar the obvious candidate for that role.

An oblique light is thrown on Savarkar’s ideology by the fact that while he was sympathetic to the cause of Arya Samaj and the contribution of its founder Dayananda Saraswati,he appears to have had little interest in Vivekananda an undoubtedly eminent figure in the ‘Hindu revival.’ The reason may be Vivekananda’s more open and liberal attitude to Islam and his notion that it was much more important to purge Hinduism of its debilitating superstitions than to drum on threat from Islam.

In this connection it is pertinent to discuss the issue of Maratha heritage that was one of the great passions of Savarkar and an integral part of his mission.While Savarkar extended his admiration for Shivajee to the rule of the Peshwas,it was undoubtedly Shivajee that dominated the great Maratha revival as a cultural project.It was Balgangadhar Tilak who initiated the movement but it found a quite powerful response in far-off Bengal.In fact Ramesh Chandra Dutta ICS,and a leading figure in the Bengal Renaissance authored two historical novels significantly titled Rajput Jibon Sandhya(Sunset of Rajput Vitality) and Maharashtra Jibon Prabhat( Dawn of Maharashtra Life).These two themes follow closely colonial Indian history project with the sub-text of Muslim and Moghul rule as a dark interregnum.A Shivajee Festival was organized and celebrated with great pomp and enthusiasm in Calcutta that actually re-inforced the binary driven by an imperialist master plan.That Shivajee actually had altogether different ideas and motives,as shown by Govind Pansare in his little book,was not a perspective welcome in this construction.(Pansare fell to a Hindu fanatic’s bullet for his pains.)Thus here too,though perhaps unconsciously, Savarkar played according to the rules of the imperialist game.Both Savarkar and the supporters of Maratha revival in Bengal disregarded the actual role of Maratha armed hordes under the Peshwas.These marauding forces took advantage of the anarchy that was setting in during the decline of the Moghul dynasty and were pillaging the countryside at will.They apparently had no intention of carrying Shivajee’s message to different parts of the country.In fact they had spread terror and widespread panic in prosperous Bengal with their atrocities and are remembered as dreaded ‘Borgis’ in Bengali folklore.

This historical perspective was intimately connected with his vision of India’s future.Though Savarkar did not apparently confine himself to anti-Muslim tirades and propaganda,he also,as Sampath shows,publicly denounced British rule and declared his commitment to freedom of the country.He also seems to have taken an interest in miscellaneous clandestine attempts to overthrow British rule through terrorist method.But I have insisted throughout that the question of how that was to be achieved was a matter of crucial importance.And Savarkar had no well-formulated plan for winning freedom.Besides,there is the fateful question of freedom for what?

Germane to this question is the central issue of the future social and economic form of free India.Gandhijee gave deep thought to it as his numerous writings on it show.The progressive wing of the Congress led by Nehru and Bose had their own plans for the future economy with planning as its prominent feature and equal development for all as the main aim.But in both agendas the improvement of the lot of the poor millions and their empowerment was to be the guiding principle.

In contrast Savarkar was evidently addicted to monarchical and feudal arrangements as his attitude to princely states indicates.He had held up Nepal as an ideal Hindu state,ignoring the simmering discontent of the great majority of the people of Nepal.Recent accounts of the conspiracy to murder Gandhi show the links between the Prime Minister of a Hindu kingdom to the Hindu Mahasabha and the conspirators.The basic anti-democratic thrust of the ideology propounded by Savarkar had only a blurred view of the lot of millions of his fellow-countrymen.His social and economic views did not seem to have moved away from obsolete and oppressive ideas of feudal rule as long as these bore the ‘Hinndu’ stamp.

Savarkar had met Gandhijee only once after the latter had become the undisputed leader of the Congress and a charismatic figure with unrivalled influence on the masses all over the country. That also was the last time he had met Gandhi and hold a serious discussion with him on the direction and strategy of the freedom movment.They parted on a friendly note but without any agreement on fundamental issues.

Later Savarkar became a bitter critic of Gandhijee and systematically attacked him on choice of methods of struggle,its ends and the ‘flip-flops’ in his decisions during critical moments prompted by intuition rather than rational calculation.Sampath takes some pains to examine the comparative merits of their judgements and leadership and concludes that Savarkar had been more realistic and sound on such occasions.

Inevitably in such comparisons the attitude of the Muslims towards such struggles,their own sectarian aims,and their reactions at various stages crop up,and Sampath tries to show that Savarkar had been far nearer than Gandhijee on such occasions.But in spite of the constant and quite sardonic criticism by Savarkar and other critics the broad masses of the country did not lose faith in Gandhijee’s leadership.

So there must be something more to Gandhijee’s hold on the masses than blind faith and calculation of results.They believed firmly that their future was safe in his hands.A large section of Muslims had not however made the compromises that unity against imperialism called for.

The real reasons need looking into rather than giving in to the conventional wisdom dismissing Muslims as inveterate communalists.

For his part Savarkar did his utmost to give a definitive systematic shape to the inchoate ideas of Hindu Mahasabha,and also transform its loosely united membership to a disciplined and efficient organization capable of exerting some influence on the country’s political life.For a crucial period it became the instrument of his ideas.He won considerable popularity among urban middle-class crowds in Maharashtra(rather Bombay Presidency,a much larger area) and some other regions and became an eloquent champion of the ’cause of the Hindus’ in the eyes of a section of Indians at that time.

But his rejection of territorial nationhood and preference for what is nowadays called ‘cultural nationalism’ had been from the begining enmeshed in some confusion.By departing from the modern idea of nationhood he not only stretched its compass beyond the borders of the country but also left a question-mark on the territory that his definition will cover.Can the country be free if his version of the nation is allowed to gain pre-eminent position inside it over others clouding the issue of actual political sovereignty of the country?Fulminations against the British did not quite settle it

Further,since there is no evidence that he had revised his concept of nationhood for India and acknowledged it in public, the danger of diluting and eventually junking it remains.Unlike Gandhijee who proceeded in his thinking from his grassroots experience of diversity as a fact of India’s social life,Savarkar moved top down from an abstract definition.He thus attempted to fit a kind of straitjacket on the people that would ultimately need force to fit things into.Diversites are to be eliminated,not accommodated.One wonders if we are witnessing such thinking in operation today.

True, Savarkar mooted a constitution where the Muslim is to be granted equal rights as a citizen.(p.397-398)But following Savarkar’s logic,since the Muslim definitely has his sacred sites and places of pilgrimage outside the country,grant of citizenship to him will in some sense be in perpetual doubt.Thus this appears to have been an expedient and transient concession to win over liberal Hindus rather than a logical consequence of his actual convictions.

Considering all such aspects of the argument and its rather inconclusive force,it has to be said that while Vikram Sampath’s book brings to light a formidable array of facts hitherto ignored in histories of the freedom struggle,these are not enough to alter the outlines of the big picture.That is,these facts,however challenging, are barely enough to cause a major revision of received history or of the character of our freedom movement and its vision of a free democratic republic.

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator

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