Three Headed Bust-Up at Delhi University – Who Benefits?
We compete to resort to various icons’ statues to plug in our intellectual hollowness
One important inference that can be drawn from the speeches of the August 30 rally of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, is that the recent bust controversy will be a pivotal issue in the Delhi University Students Union election scheduled to be held on September 12.
The dispute will not cease with the announcement of election results. Late night on August 20, the DUSU president who is from the ABVP installed the ‘trimurti’ or 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 performed fraudulently in the dark of night. Fierce opposition ensued from other student organisations thereafter. In protest, the Delhi state president of the National Students’ Union of India, the Congress party’s student wing defaced the statue of Savarkar. This too was done in the dark of night.
Some scholars and journalists took note, observing that it was an insult to associate the freedom fighters Subhash Bose and Bhagat Singh with Savarkar.
Having realised the escalation of the controversy, the ABVP as an organisation distanced itself from the midnight installation of busts, saying that no statue should be installed on campus without the permission of the administration and other affiliated bodies.
On the night of August 22 the DUSU leaders removed the busts, saying they would be installed after the DUSU elections with the permission of the university administration. It was reported that the NSUI had lodged an FIR in the local police station to protest against the ABVP’s illegal act, but no action was taken by either the police or the university administration.
It is worth noting that everything here, from installing the busts to defacing Savarkar’s face to removing all three, happened in a clandestine manner.
Universities are havens for openness, transparency and fraternity. It is a matter of concern that neither the university administration nor the major student organisations showed prudence in the matter.
The DUSU president of the ABVP, who installed the busts, said he had written to the university administration about this in November last year, and had also voiced the demand to rename the DUSU office after Savarkar. According to him the university administration did not heed to the ABVP’s demands despite repeated requests.
But this inaction 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, such as the one the university finds itself in 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 transparency and non-violence. The goal of the DUSU president was 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 the ABVP wins the DUSU election, it will definitely try to install Savarkar’s statue in the DUSU office.
But the defamation of Savarkar's bust allegedly by the NSUI president in the dark of night is also unwarranted, and against the philosophy of Subhash Bose and Bhagat Singh. By doing this, he has in fact 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 to manage capital, cannot continue doing this without deceit. Such trickery has been going on for the last nearly three decades, in which the biggest actors are the Congress and the BJP.
At a time when the BJP is riding high on tides of majoritarianism, with an absolute majority in Parliament, there will be an increase in incidents of this sort.
Savarkar has been a controversial figure as revolutionary. He obtained his release in 1924 by writing a number of mercy petitions from the Andaman Cellular Jail asking forgiveness for his revolutionary activities. After his release, he remained loyal to the British rulers 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 the 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 Savarkar’s involvement in Gandhi’s assassination, but granted acquittal for lack of evidence. The RSS endorses him as its icon for his concept of ‘Hindutva’ or Hindu-ness and the doctrine of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or a Hindu State, and defends him in the case of Gandhi’s assassination.
This is why the coalition National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee 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 so installed, along with Somnath Chatterjee, senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
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 and death anniversaries. L.K.Advani once condemned this attitude of the leaders of other parties. After becoming prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi paid tribute to Savarkar in the Central Hall of Parliament.
Long ago, Rammanohar Lohia insisted that the statue of any leader should be installed only after a hundred years have passed since his death. Perhaps he had a world scenario in front of him in which the 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 other student organisations.
In case a process of installing more statues begins, there will be no shortage of icons in this era of identitarian mobilisation. There would be a demand to erect statues in DU’s South Campus as well. With the passage of time every college would like to install one or other statue. Such demands may also arise in various departments of the university, and the practice may affect other universities as well.
It was the duty of the Delhi University administration to call the leaders of ABVP who were eager to install the statue of Savarkar, and to tell them that the university is not a place where only one idea or thinker is taught. A national spirit or consciousness can only be inculcated by adopting the ideas or ideals of national heroes in a critical manner.
The university administration can still do this work, so the dispute does not escalate to the deterioration of the university environment.
Student organisations 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 privatisation on the entire education system. Only students and teachers’ organisations can put up an attack in these matters.
The ABVP and NSUI are both resource-rich student organisations affiliated with big political parties. If they are determined, they can stop their parties and governments from taking decisions to commercialise education. In this their role will be far more useful than forever installing and removing the statues of leaders on campus.
Prem Singh, a former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, teaches Hindi at Delhi University.