The most provocative commentary on Indian history

Review By M. V. KAMATH

It is true that an unending war raged between the Hindus and Muslims in India from 1192 when the Muslims defeated the Hindu king of Delhi, Prithviraj Chauhan. However, it is also true that this war ended with the death of the last great Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, in 1707. This paved the path for a real Hindu-Muslim synthesis that developed in the 18th century, finally culminating in Hindus and Muslims becoming blood brothers as they fought and died in the defence of their common national sovereign, Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857.

Who said this? Few will guess correctly. The writer is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who is simultaneously revered as a hero of the freedom struggle as well as reviled as a brain behind the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.

What was Savarkar like? And Mahatma Gandhi, probably the most revered of Indian leaders in the 20th century? And what is the role played by others in India's freedom fight? What was that fight like? Did the Mahatma's approach really improve communal harmony or did it only serve to exacerbate it? Were the British the legitimate successors of the Mughal Empire or were they illegal usurpers? Who betrayed India in the end?
These and many other questions are answered in this remarkable work by a young engineer, Pankaj Phadnis who spent five full years on research to produce what turns out to be the most provocative history of India's independent movement, to date. Few people and institutions are spared. The Mahatma comes in for detailed analysis. And yet the book makes no attempt to provide life sketch of any one individual, however exalted. The author admittedly is harshly critical of the Mahatma, but the latter is not vilified. In fact this work neither glorifies nor vilifies anyone, though due emphasis is given to the roles played, for instance by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, V. D. Savarkar and Subhas Chandra Bose. There is thus no identifiable hero or even a despicable villain, though, one supposes, Britain is not spared, Indeed, what Britain did to India from 1803 onwards and especially with the beginning of the Second World War has to be noticed to be believed. And Phadnis has a lot to say on the subject. His research is nothing if impressive. And his findings are enough to make one weep.

His criticism of the Congress is sharp. He writes: The Congress has a lot of explaining to do to the nation. First, the criminal delays from the resolution at Ramgarh in March 1940 to finally launching Quit India Movement in August 1942. Two and a half wasted years. Then from November 1945 to August 1947. What was the Congress waiting for?'' Phadnis describes the scene: ``Tilak whose memories even Jinnah now cherished, was no more. Savarkar was ailing and did not command popular backing. Netaji who could have effectively united the two warring nations, had been removed from the national scene. The seeds of a gigantic tragedy were being sown.'' Phadnis notes that the British had become aware that they could not hold out any longer. As he puts it: It was clear to them that the days of the Raj were over.(for them) the choice was only between a dignified retreat, making a virtue out of necessity or an ignominious ejection.''

But what did the Congress do? It scared Jinnah away. Nehru's conduct, writes Phadnis, was the proverbial last straw on the camel's back for Jinnah. He was never again to trust the Gandhi Congress. The Congress could have ignored the Cabinet Mission and re-ignited the Quit India Movement or it could have accepted the Mission proposal of 6th June 1946. Writes Phandis: Now was the opportunity to make a common front and defeat the British intentions. What the Congress did was unforgivable: instead of conspiring against the British it chose to sabotage the League acceptance''. Further on he writes: What seemed to have irked Jinnah the most is the capacity of Gandhi and Nehru to be legally correct but devilishly encroaching on the rights of others. Nor was Jinnah the only one to be so angered. What the Congress did in that fateful summer of 1946 was unforgivable. If it had the courage of conviction, it should have had nothing to do with him. Either of this would have been far more preferable. It did neither. It let the British escape out of a tight corner''. One has to read this book to shed copious tears. According to Phadnis, in 1946 India was capable of throwing the British into the seas %u2013 lock, stock and barrel. The Congress threw away the opportunity.

But to understand the full trend of Indian history, one must start from the very beginning. The story begins with the defeat of Prithvi Raj Chauhan; the next chapter deals with the Battle of Plassey, and the birth of a new nation. This is followed by an account of how India lost independence on 16th September 1803 when Shah Alam, the nation's sovereign accepted the protection of an alien power, Britain. The author then discusses the end of Hindu-Muslim War in 1707 and the historical role of Shivaji. Then he discusses the Hindu- Muslim synthesis between 1707 and 1803 and the role of the Maratha. This is followed by detailed study of the period between 1803 and 1920, the time Gandhi arrived on the national scene in India. By then Tilak had made Indian independence an explosive issue which was to force the British to offer constitutional concessions. More importantly he had confounded the British by concluding a Hindu-Muslim pact with Jinnah. Came Gandhi on the scene.

Of Gandhi's work says Phadnis, it is a sad story of a truly outstanding individual leading the country into an abyss from 1920 to 1939. Gandhi's biggest error was to lead a mass movement against the British for the restoration of the Turkish Caliph.'' Of that the author says: Not even his (Gandhi's) devoted followers have been able ever to satisfactorily explain the manner in which the independence of India would have been furthered by the restoration of the Ottoman Empire''. Describing the last days of the British Empire, the author says: Partition was rushed through in less than three months' time. Nehru end Patel got their power. The British got their commercial benefits. And the people of Indian sub-continent got the communal orgy of violence that continue to haunt them even today''.

This is a book to be read and re-read and re-re-read and digested. It carries a moral. The author concludes that the path to the future lies on the road to Sindhutva: equality of all, appeasement of none, based on Savarkar's famous dictum: If you come, with you; if you do not, without you; if you oppose despite you.

There have been scores of books on India's history of the last two hundred years. But this book dares to think differently; it tugs at the heart and shakes one's very being. It challenges all Indians to think again and to make peace with the past. Says Phadnis : If enough Indians and Pakistanis embark on that journey, reconciliation between them can be brought about.

A very significant observation.