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Looking for the real Savarkar

  • Two recent biographies of V.D. Savarkar explore the legacy of the right-wing ideologue
  • Although the writers are sympathetic to their subject, the man emerges as a bundle of contradictions

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s statue at a memorial dedicated to him in Mumbai. Photo: Alamy
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s statue at a memorial dedicated to him in Mumbai. Photo: Alamy

In 1894, when M.K. Gandhi reached South Africa as a young barrister to represent the interests of Dada Abdulla, a Gujarati Muslim trader in Durban, a young Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was getting enraged reading about the way British authorities were appeasing Muslims, in Kesari (a Marathi paper edited by Bal Gangadhar Tilak). Tilak had been writing against restrictions on Hindu religious processions by the colonial authorities on the ground that the noisy processions played music, sometimes with incendiary lyrics, as they passed mosques, and Muslim clerics had objected, claiming Islam did not permit music. Savarkar saw this as an affront to religious freedom.

Communal tensions were rising. Cow protection societies had been formed in many towns. Around this time, someone tossed a pig’s head in front of a mosque. The Muslims retaliated by slaughtering a cow in a temple. Savarkar led an attack on a local mosque one night, damaging part of it. In his succinct biography of Savarkar, journalist Vaibhav Purandare sees that act as youthful indiscretion. In his more discursive biography (a two-volume compendium, of which only the first has been released), historian Vikram Sampath analyses Savarkar’s psyche, and his seeing in such incidents the need for Hindus to unite. As an adolescent, Savarkar would play-act with other boys, where those playing Hindus would defeat the “Muslims". He nurtured this boyhood fantasy. He believed Hindus needed military training to instil “discipline, rigour, and commitment" and began to think of Hindus and Muslims as being essentially opposed to each other; he would reflect on the two-nation theory long before Mohammed Ali Jinnah uttered those words.

The contrast between Savarkar and Gandhi is instructive—the two were poles apart in every sense. It is necessary to compare the two not because their achievements were similar, but because in an increasingly amnesiac India, Savarkar is being projected as a forgotten hero and Gandhi is being relegated to the nation’s cleanliness instructor. While Savarkar was playing war games with boys in Maharashtra, Gandhi was being evicted from a first-class train compartment in Natal in South Africa, strengthening his resolve to fight for self-respect and oppose injustice by waging a non-violent struggle.

Gandhi would turn to Indian and Western philosophers and religious thinkers. Savarkar too would read Western thinkers but the ideals that inspired him were those of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian nationalists. Later, he would admire Adolf Hitler. Savarkar would outline the concept of Hindutva, asserting a masculinity that Gandhi would shun; Gandhi would write Hind Swaraj Or Indian Home Rule, revealing a romantic (in the European, pre-industrial sense) vision of a syncretic India.

The turn of the 20th century was a radical time in India, bookended by the Chapekar brothers killing a British bureaucrat in 1897 and Madan Lal Dhingra assassinating Sir William Curzon Wyllie in London in 1909. At the time, Gandhi was experimenting with civil disobedience in South Africa.

Savarkar, while still in his teens, had formed a secret society called the Mitra Mela, which would become Abhinav Bharat. As a student in England, he would hobnob with Indian revolutionaries and familiarize himself with European nationalists. Convinced of the need for Hindu unity, he attacked casteism and untouchability. And yet, as both books show, he was curiously attached to casteist symbols.

In the Andaman jail, Sampath notes: “The first thing that one noticed in the jail was the distinction made between the Hindu and non-Hindu prisoners with regard to their religious traditions. On entry into the cell, the first act that was committed for a Hindu prisoner was that his sacred thread was cut off. However, Muslim prisoners were allowed to sport their beards, as were Sikhs with regard to their hair." Savarkar noticed the double standard and his resentment firmed his views on appeasement—an irony of sorts, since one would think an anti-caste Savarkar would have appreciated the removal of the sacred thread.

Sampath delves deeper to explain Savarkar’s anger towards Muslims, linking it not only with his prison experience but also his annoyance with Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat movement to restore the caliphate in Turkey—a cause dear to influential Muslims in India. Gandhi saw it as a tactical move to unite the religions; Savarkar saw it as unnecessary appeasement.

It is instructive to see how personal slights shaped the two men. While his time in the British jail turned Savarkar more communal, Gandhi never lost sight of the imperative for Hindus and Muslims to unite to end British rule. Towards the end of his life, when he was in Noakhali to stop communal violence, a Muslim man attacked him. As he fell, Gandhi recited a sura (verse) forgiving his Muslim attacker; the attacker was stunned and fell at Gandhi’s feet, apologizing. Gandhi’s faith in appealing to every individual’s humanity did not waver.

Savarkar may have responded differently. In a telling example, while praising the freedom fighters who were awarded the death sentence for the Kakori conspiracy, Savarkar named Ram Prasad Bismil, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri, missing out the fourth conspirator, Ashfaqullah Khan. Purandare acknowledges that this opens Savarkar to the charge of being communally biased but underplays it as an honest mistake.

Both Purandare and Sampath are sympathetic to Savarkar. But the man emerges as a bundle of contradictions. He supports meat-eating (he likes fish and doesn’t object to beef) and, unlike Gandhi, doesn’t consider vegetarianism to be virtuous. He ridicules cow worship, and his view is not a million miles apart from Gandhi’s, who spoke of gau seva, not raksha. The cow is the mother of bullocks, not of people, Savarkar says, adding, “If Hindutva is to sustain itself on a cow’s legs, it’ll come crashing down at the slightest hint of a crisis."

Unlike Gandhi, Savarkar is an atheist. He doesn’t take rituals too seriously.When told of a sadhu’s pride in crawling on his stomach from Allahabad to Haridwar, Savarkar points out that all religions consider God to be in the heavens, so who would be closer to God—someone who builds and flies an aeroplane or someone crawling like a maggot? He chides another sadhu who wants to make offerings as an act of appeasing gods, suggesting that he should distribute quinine tablets instead to fight malaria. Gandhi’s anti-modernity annoyed him, and he was more aligned with B.R. Ambedkar’s radicalism, even though he opposed Ambedkar’s rejection of Hinduism.

Savarkar’s vision of Hindutva has found followers in post-Babri Masjid India, mostly with a generation of Indians who have no memory of the freedom struggle and are curious about a past in which the Nehru-Gandhi family does not disproportionately dominate the narrative. Savarkar’s opponents make much of his mercy petitions to the British to get out of jail. His latest champion, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, plumbed a new low when he recently called Savarkar the real hero because he went to jail, adding that he would have called Jawaharlal Nehru a hero too had the latter spent “fourteen minutes" in jail. Nehru spent about nine years in total in jail from the 1920s, but why let facts interfere with rhetoric? One might add that Nehru didn’t write any mercy petitions, nor did many other inmates at the Andaman jail.

The undermining of Nehru is accompanied by an interest in Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar and Savarkar. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s pioneers and icons are all borrowed from the freedom struggle, with the party compelled to appropriate leaders who aren’t called Nehru or Gandhi. And embellish the roles of some whose contribution to the freedom struggle was limited, if not questionable.

What many Indians cannot forgive is Savarkar’s presumed role in Gandhi’s assassination—while he was acquitted, the incident clouded what remained of his contribution to public life. Patel considered Savarkar culpable for Gandhi’s murder. Purandare tries to exonerate him, citing sources friendly to Savarkar. Sampath’s narrative ends in 1924, so we must wait to read what he makes of the rest of Savarkar’s life (Savarkar died in 1966). In any case, some of Savarkar’s supporters probably see his role in the plot to kill Gandhi as a badge of honour. Voters in Bhopal recently rewarded the Nathuram Godse-admiring Pragya Thakur with a thumping parliamentary majority.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi bows to Savarkar’s portrait and Union home minister Amit Shah keeps his photograph in his office, but neither gesture can erase the fact that Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha (HMS) did not have a role in the Quit India Movement. Instead, it took part in elections that the Congress had boycotted, and even joined coalitions in three Indian provinces with Muslim parties. In the open contest in 1937 for the provincial assembly elections, the Congress won in several states; the HMS lost everywhere.

Sampath ends his volume with Savarkar writing about his vision of Hindu nationalism, where he talks of purifying those who had left Hinduism by bringing them back—a precursor to today’s ghar wapsi. Sampath’s next volume will no doubt surprise Savarkar’s supporters and opponents, assuming that it will be read and messages and memes on social media will not have replaced history books by then.

Salil Tripathi is a writer who now lives in New York.

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