Savarkar: the ideologue of a Hindutva idea of India
A prominent freedom fighter in his earlier days, Savarkar went on to become a key ideologue of Hindu nationalism, deeply suspicious of Muslims and Islam in India
Twitter was replete with posts either paying tribute to or demonising Vinayak Damodar Savarkar on his 136th birth anniversary on Tuesday.
The interest was expected. For, Savarkar was one of the prime ideologues of Hindutva, a term that his 1923 text, bearing the same name, popularised.
Days back, India saw the first genuine Hindutva electoral sweep in its history–a verdict much more unequivocal about its core ideological leaning s than the one in 2014.
To understand the Hindutva idea of India, it is necessary to understand Savarkar.
Savarkar was one of the key figures of modern India whose career can be seen in two distinctive phases. Ironically, much like Jinnah, he shifted from a mainstream, inclusive, anti-colonial nationalism to a communitarian nationalism that could not care to see colonialism as the prime enemy.
The early Savarkar was a conventional, anti-colonial, nationalist with a revolutionary orientation. He was the first to see the Revolt of 1857–which had seen Hindu-Muslim participation–as the First War of Indian independence.
In this phase, he was a mentor to a galaxy of young Indian nationalists at Shamaji Krishnavarma’s India House in London.
A succinct account of his influence on young revolutionaries is found in Emile Clark Brown’s biography of Har Dayal, the Ghadr Party revolutionary.
This was the first decade of the 20th century and Savarkar mentored revolutionaries, delivering sharp speeches to them at India House.
Brown relates an interesting anecdote. A young, carefree, Punjabi youth called Madanlal Dhingra was converted by Savarkar in a dramatic manner.
When he saw a group of young Indians sitting in a secluded corner meant for Indians at a public place, Savarkar walked up to the group and admonished it for accepting such humiliation and having a nice time despite it.
Dhingra was moved and began to visit India House, getting converted to the anti-colonial cause. Eventually, he shot dead British official William Curzon Wyllie and was tried and sentenced to death. Asked whether he would like to say something, Dhingra said in the British courtroom that he as an Indian believed in rebirth and would want to die for his country, in the same manner, in each birth.
British authorities began to track Savarkar, who moved to Paris. He was arrested on March 13, 1910, tried to escape by jumping from a ship, reached the French coast but was arrested before his revolutionary comrades like Bhikaji Cama could rescue him.
What followed was incarceration in the cellular jail in Andaman, beginning 1911. His work My Transportation For Life sheds light on what he depicts as his bad experience with Muslim prisoners, who were made to extract work from Hindu prisoners. The hardening of Savarkar’s attitude to Islam and Muslims may have something to do with this experience: which is also an instance of the jail authorities playing prisoners against one another on grounds of religion.
Documents came to light less than two decades back that Savarkar had tendered apologies in jail, pledging loyalty to the British empire if he was released. The revelations generated much buzz, as the sole freedom fighter of some consequence with a right-wing background fell from grace, in the eyes of many.
By the time Savarkar was released in 1921, he was a changed man. He authored the text Hindutva, which defined a Hindu as someone whose fatherland and holy land lay in India, and saw Hindu-ness as central to Indian-ness. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains were thus integral to his construct, while Muslims and Christians were excluded from it.
In many ways, Savarkar became a key ideologue of an idea of India that saw Hindus as central to the modern Indian nation. Even before him, Bhai Parmanand, Col UN Mukherjee and Lal Chand had made such pleas. After him, MS Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak of the RSS, did mark Muslims, Christians and Communists as “internal threats” in a book, Bunch of Thoughts, attributed to him.
However, Savarkar’s Hindutva did provide the most important concept to the lexicon of Hindu nationalism.
The idea of India, a cliché that has been used for decades by liberal scholars, traditionally meant something between a Gandhian and Nehruvian sense of India. All Indians were part of the nation-building project within this idea, and Indian culture was seen as a composite whole of Hindu and Muslim influences.
India was, in other words, enriched by diverse cultural influences within this idea of India -- a creative project Congress nationalists invested in to counter the British policy of Divide and Rule and the colonial characterisation of India as a congeries of communities historically at war with one another.
Savarkar’s idea of India, however, placed Hindu-ness at its core. The nation was foundationally Hindu. And the minorities were looked upon with suspicion. The nation needed to not just defend itself from external enemies but be acutely conscious of internal enemies.
“Militarise Hindu-dom; Hinduise all politics”–this slogan captured the aggressive pitch of Savarkar, who led the Hindu Mahasabha for long after his release from prison. He gave up on the freedom struggle and dedicated himself to the Hindutva cause.
He was also accused of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, being listed as conspirator number-seven. However, he was acquitted.
Savarkar’s desire to Hinduise politics had another dimension: bringing Hindus across caste together. In the years of his confinement in Ratnagiri, after the release from Andaman, he opposed Untouchability and pushed for inter-dining, temple entry and even inter-marriage across caste – an agenda that was socially radical for its times.
In this, Savarkar and Gandhi were on the same page, both making a Dalit outreach to attract deprived sections of ‘Hindu society’ to their vision of the nation.
This competitive outreach to the downtrodden remained a feature of the politics of both the composite culture nationalism of the Congress and Hindu nationalism–an outreach that Dalit activists advocating autonomy have been suspicious of. For, they have seen such overtures as attempts at making Dalits ‘Hindu’ and binding them in a relationship of patronage.
The BJP has today breached the Dalit and OBC constituencies in a significant way, something that explains the massive surge of the party in the 2019 and 2014 general elections.
This surge also brings to the fore a Hindu-centric idea of India, where at least the symbolic primacy of Hinduism as the fulcrum of Indian civilisation is asserted.
A return to Savarkar’s life and writings is crucial for an understanding of what this idea of India–which has become pivotal to the polity today–means.