New Delhi, Feb. 26: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was fiercely criticised today for describing Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as a "true patriot", with many ordinary tweeters joining Congress members in asking him not to distort history.
"Remembering Veer Savarkar on his punya tithi (death anniversary). He was a true patriot who envisioned a strong and developed India," Modi had tweeted last evening.
Savarkar did have a vision for a "strong and developed India" but the Prime Minister came under fire for calling him a "patriot" and referring to him as "Veer", a sobriquet meaning "hero" that is often attached to Savarkar's name.
Some "nationalists" have always celebrated Savarkar, proponent of a Hindu rashtra (nation), while others see him as a bigot who, unlike a hero or patriot, repeatedly begged for mercy when the Raj jailed him during the freedom struggle.
Modi has often been accused of assiduously trying to hijack national icons, from B.R. Ambedkar to Vallabhbhai Patel, but he had so far avoided locking horns with political and ideological rivals on the merits of Sangh parivar luminaries.
As usual, the Prime Minister had remained silent on February 22, the birth anniversary of former Sangh chief M.S. Golwalkar. Although the Modi government has laboured to secure intellectual legitimacy for ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya, it hasn't tried to debate the virtues of other Sangh stalwarts.
The way common people lambasted the Prime Minister's tweet today, going to his Twitter handle to vent their anger, showed how challenging any project of publicly sanctifying Sangh idols can be.
Prerna Bakshi, an author, wrote: "Savarkar was a coward and a bigot who begged for mercy on multiple occasions and pledged allegiance to the British rule."
She added: "Savarkar was the biggest coward there ever was, he justified the idea of rape... as a political tool."
To try and back her charge, she posted a passage from a book Savarkar had written in Marathi a few years before his death in 1966.
While BJP supporters merely endorsed Modi's views instead of providing counter-arguments, the critics repeatedly rebutted the presumption of Savarkar's bravery.
Dwaipayan Mitra wrote: "His biggest patriotic act was licking the Britishers' boot."
Rahul Lad tweeted: "Sir, you don't teach wrong history to our fellow citizens. You are in the chair of PM, not RSS."
Abdullah Maidumoole said: "What did Veer Savarkar do for India? Other than sowing seeds of hatred?"
Modi did receive some support. A man named Anand Gupta wrote: "There is no parallel in history to the torture Savarkar suffered. Nehru and Gandhi didn't take a single lathi."
Harish Joshi tweeted: "He sacrificed his youth for the nation. Can an old man fight with the enemy?"
Jailed at 27, Savarkar was released at 40.
Congress activist Gaurav Pandhi had triggered the controversy by posting the text of Savarkar's apology along with this message: "Savarkar bowed in front of the British, wrote mercy petitions, assured won't work against them, received pension from the British."
He recalled how Savarkar had appealed to Hindu youths to join the British army during World War II instead of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Fauj.
Savarkar had fought the British as a young man and several tales of his bravery are known. But he earned ridicule by apologising to the British to get out of the notorious Cellular Jail in the Andamans, where he had been sentenced to spend 27 years.
He wrote in his petition: "If the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress.... I am ready to serve the government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?"
Savarkar faced trial in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case and was listed in the chargesheet as Accused No. 8. He was released for want of clinching evidence.