Vikram Sampath is among the younger Indian historians who have breathed new life into the country’s rich and increasingly contentious past, by writing about events in an accessible manner. Each generation benefits from taking a fresh look at the past, and reinterpretations are important. A personality such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar presents specific dilemmas because some of his views—such as on Hindutva and the position of Muslims in India—go against the central core of the Indian republic’s founding philosophy but some of his other views—on rituals and religiosity—are so rational that if he is read at all by the contemporary adherents of Hindutva, they would declare him to be an anti-national and tear him down.
Sampath has been scrupulous in presenting his account in a tone that attempts balance but in the adjectives he uses, and the words he selects, he gives the game away. This is the second of his two-volume biography of Savarkar, and in drilling deep into Savarkar’s ideas, he leaves enough clues for those who admire him blindly to become sceptical, and for those stunned by his being equated with the founding fathers of India’s freedom struggle, to build stronger arguments against his ideas.
During the years when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, Savarkar’s portrait was unveiled in Parliament (he was never elected to any public office) and the airport in Port Blair was named after him, as if India was commemorating a forgotten hero. But that idea is preposterous: It was during the Congress years, at the Centre and in Maharashtra, that a major thoroughfare in Mumbai was named after him, a postage stamp was issued in his honour in 1970, and the epithet “Veer” was attached to his name by admirers before independence.
Volume 1 of Sampath’s biography, published in 2019, took us till Savarkar’s jail term in the Andamans. We learnt about his early years and the milieu in which he grew up, imbibing lessons that made him see the Muslim in India as an outsider, the “other”. In the second volume, we see Savarkar’s ideas harden, his prose turn more colourful and his nationalism, narrower.
In an age when complex arguments about history are discussed in a cavalier fashion, Savarkar has become the butt of criticism because of his famous mercy petitions, viewed as evidence of Hindu nationalists’ non-participation, or lack of courage, in the freedom struggle. There is no doubt that Savarkar felt strongly about liberating India; the more relevant question is what kind of India he wanted to liberate. He was, unquestionably, jailed in the Andamans but so were many others, and few among them pleaded for mercy.
Sampath makes light of Savarkar’s grovelling prose in the petitions he wrote (the first within months of being jailed) because he suggests that such language was necessary to seek release from prison. He compares it with a bail petition. It is worth noting, for context, that in 1922, during his sedition trial in Ahmedabad, Mohandas Gandhi urged the British judge to give him the “highest penalty… I do not ask for mercy”. And before his execution in 1931, Bhagat Singh asked the British that he be shot dead, and not hanged, since the British considered him a war prisoner. Seeking relief is one thing; the kind of language used matters, and the language used by these three men—all seeking India’s freedom—is revealing.
The terms Sampath uses to describe historical events are also instructive. We know a massacre is not a pogrom and a pogrom is not genocide. Under international law, genocide has a specific meaning. As Philippe Sands shows in East West Street, his magnificent account of the genesis of the word, Raphael Lemkin coined the term during World War II, uniting genos, the Greek word for a group or race, and cide, the Latin term for killing. He knew about the Ottoman atrocities against Armenians and was witness to the Nazi horrors, of Hitler’s Germany seeking to annihilate the Jewish population. The UN Genocide Convention of 1948 defined it as killing members of a group, deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction in whole or in part, preventing births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of that group to other groups. Bangladesh has made it an offence to describe the mass killings in 1971 by Pakistani armed forces as anything less than genocide.
Sampath uses the term only a dozen times, and it is interesting to read what he describes as genocide. It is the carnage in Noakhali in Bengal (blamed on Gandhi’s “pusillanimity”), the 1948 killings of Maharashtrian Brahmins after Gandhi’s assassination (stories Sampath acknowledges he has collected via social media queries), the Malabar rebellion of peasants (which Hindu nationalists portray along communal lines because many victims were Hindu), and the mass violence in Kolkata and elsewhere after the Muslim League called for “direct action”. In each instance, the victims are Hindus or non-Muslims; in each instance, the perpetrators are Muslims or others who aren’t Hindu nationalists. That selectiveness is instructive and telling.
Sampath addresses Savarkar’s arrest in the Gandhi assassination case and reminds us that he was acquitted due to insufficient evidence. He notes that Savarkar refused to socialise with the other accused during the trial and recalls his reverential tone in addressing Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. But Savarkar’s civility contrasts with his more acerbic criticism of Gandhi’s politics, in particular on communal harmony, and his outrage over what he considered to be Gandhian appeasement towards Muslims.
Of greater value is Sampath highlighting the Savarkar ideas that place him at odds with the nascent adherents of Hindutva. Savarkar sees a cow only as a utilitarian animal, not worthy of veneration; he supports eating meat; he disdains Gandhian religious rituals. Savarkar wants to strengthen Hinduism by discarding debilitating practices such as the caste system and the indignities to which women are subjected. In a recent interview, Sampath has said Savarkar’s ideas would not be welcome in any Indian political party today, including the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Savarkar respected Narasimha, the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Vishnu, because Narasimha would slay demons. It is that virile, masculine, macho Hinduism that Savarkar defines as Hindutva (the ideology, and not Hinduism, the faith). It is the single biggest challenge to the inclusive Nehruvian idea, where India is that ancient palimpsest “on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously,” as Jawaharlal Nehru put it. Savarkar believed such mingling diluted India.
Sampath is right in noting that Savarkar was a patriot. But whether patriotism is a virtue is a separate question. Samuel Johnson famously called it the last refuge of the scoundrel, referring to William Pitt’s appropriation of that term. Blind patriotism can be unthinking, a point G.K. Chesterton notes in his 1901 essay: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober’.” Savarkar’s love for India leads him to challenge Nehru’s foreign policy—in particular, the appeasement of China, even as it gobbles up Tibet. He sees sagacity in British cartographers who tried to limit a weakened imperial China, although how fair the frontier between India and China is, is being disputed and tested even today. To be sure, China is a predatory state which disregards minority rights. But what could India have done to protect Tibet in the late 1950s?
Sampath recounts the occasions when Savarkar criticises Gandhi for ignoring Muslim violence, or when Gandhi refuses to urge Muslim leaders to condemn violence. That reveals Savarkar’s one-track mind, of seeking evidence to blame Muslims for what undermines his vision of India. It defines a narrower, mean-spirited India, preventing it from becoming more inclusive. Revealing that aspect of Savarkar may not have been Sampath’s intent—but that is the effect.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.