Why resurrecting Savarkar is necessary for the RSS
Away from the dust of political battlefields and the expediencies of electoral arithmetic, it may be worth our while to understand the implications of Savarkar being slowly moulded—by design as it were—into a national icon.
The recent clamour to confer the “Bharat Ratna”—India’s highest civilian honour—to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has died down somewhat, now that the election season is over. The BJP led NDA, the ruling regime in both Maharashtra and Haryana had made this demand into an electoral issue, perhaps hoping to cash in on Savarkar’s popularity amongst a section of voters, especially in his home state of Maharashtra. The election results in both states have surprised many as most polls had suggested a clean sweep for the BJP—these assembly elections coming close at the heels of a national election which catapulted Modi to an unprecedented victory and a rare second term in office. The BJP has managed to claw its way back to power in Haryana, though not in the manner it might have hoped for; most probably it will do the same in Maharashtra, after the unseemly scramble with the Shiv Sena—its perpetually estranged ally—for the spoils of war is over.
Away from the dust of political battlefields and the expediencies of electoral arithmetic, it may be worth our while to understand the implications of Savarkar being slowly moulded—by design as it were—into a national icon. The RSS has for long been invested, since its inception, in fashioning an alternative iconography—a canonical pantheon of imagined heroes constituting the kernel of a frenzied, aggressive, masculine, expansionist, and exclusivist national consciousness, all of which is encapsulated in the notion of what might be described as “Hindutva”. One can justifiably argue that Savarkar is the indisputable father of this particular social psychology, having himself coined the word “Hindutva”; he also wrote an influential book, now widely read, bearing the same title. In a manner of speaking, Savarkar is the original ideologue of “Hindutva”and his ideas greatly influenced Hedgewar—his great admirer—who founded the RSS in 1925.
The RSS lives on borrowed oxygen. With no heroes in its marquee—understandably so, as the RSS was largely absent during the struggle for independence, or connived with the British when it could—it has mischievously sought to appropriate and poach from other tents shamelessly. Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Rana Pratap, Shivaji and many more have been craftily remade and successfully reimagined—as “Hindus”—in the notorious “bauddhikas” of the RSS shakhas for decades. This was deliberately done to lend some dignity to its skewed understanding of nationalism which was and continues to be based on exclusion. This relentless propaganda has finally brought a rich harvest to the Sangh Parivar. The ideological ambiguity of the Congress and a weak opposition has made the RSS narrative tempting to a large section of the population. The resounding electoral wins of the BJP in the last decade are partly the fruits of this persistence.
A secular constitution with liberal values has never enticed the RSS or ever claimed its allegiance. While it has continued to pay lip-service to the ideals of the constitution, as a tactic perhaps, the stark truth is that it chooses to interpret the constitution only with a Hindu lens. The RSS has, over the years, perfected the hermeneutics of doublespeak, allowing it to evacuate the constitution of all its intended meaning and yet speak in its name. Thomas Hobbes, the brilliant English political theorist, sprang a similar surprise in the seventeenth century when he employed the old, known, phraseology of the Bible in his masterpiece “Leviathan” but infused it with a fresh meaning—heralding the secularisation of politics in Europe. The RSS has been able to do just the opposite by skillfully deploying the idiom of rights, equality, social justice, law, and even secularism—or, in other words, the language of the constitution—in the service of resurrecting a majoritarian, regressive state based on a narrow religious conception of nationalism. Such an ingenious dissimulation has flummoxed the opposition, leaving it bereft of the clarity with which to launch a necessary counter-offensive, and at the same time, the people—a large section of them at any rate—have been hoodwinked into internalising the “Hindutva” discourse. The Hindutva view of history, nationalism and religion is now fast emerging as the dominant world-view, the “endoxa”, as Aristotle would call it, of the multitude. The battle for the hearts and minds of the Indian people has surely taken a decisive turn, with scales now finally tipping in the favour of the Hindu Right.
However, this tectonic shift on the terrain of Indian politics that is now delivering dividends and winning power for the Hindu Right still needs an institutional veneer—acceptance by the state of new icons and heroes who played a prominent part in imagining the tenets of “Hindutva” and fashioned political Hinduism. A beginning was already made in 2003 when the Vajpayee government unveiled the portrait of V D Savarkar in the hallowed Central Hall of our parliament, thus etching him on the saga of India’s republic in perpetuity. We must realise that the restoration of Savarkar to national prominence—now including the proposal to award him the “Bharat Ratna” posthumously—is not just a transient electoral ploy, but rather it is key to the project of legitimatising the “Hindutva” ideology. The rise of the BJP, the political limb of the RSS, to national prominence has emboldened the Sangh Parivar to resurrect the likes of Savarkar—who was previously relegated to the margins by successive Congress regimes—as national icons and expedite the fruition of long-suppressed desires held in abeyance in the unfavourable political climes of the decades following independence. Savarkar’s ghost had always loomed large; his ideas were always relevant to his ardent followers as “Hindutva” for all intents and purposes, has been the definitive ideological stance of the RSS. Yet, it is the “Bharat Ratna” the Sangh Parivar hopes, that would signify the state approval of Savarkar’s ideology, ensure for him a respectability that transcends ideological divide, and transform him into a national hero.
But what does this mean? Savarkar has never enjoyed popular acceptance; his alleged role in Gandhi’s assassination—even though he was let scot-free for want of evidence by the court—had left a slur that tainted his memory for a long time. Also, his unambiguous apology to the British in his famous mercy-petition had dented his image beyond repair. The epithet of “Veer” prefixing Savarkar’s name, as has been argued by many, is therefore somewhat of a misnomer, and a veritable betrayal of the facts of history. Savarkar stood for a majoritarian polity and a restricted, narrow idea of nationalism. He is arguably the most virulent of all anti-muslim ideologues. He maintained that Muslims can never be part of the Hindu nation as their “punyabhumi” did not overlap with their “pitrabhumi”. He justified rape, plunder and pillage. Savarkar is in many ways the mirror-opposite of Gandhi. His bigotry did not spare even the Buddhists. In his book the Six Glorious Epochs of History, Savarkar excludes the Buddhist period as he considers it a period of degeneration. Quite surprisingly, he holds Buddhism responsible for the rise of untouchability in India. To honour such a divisive figure can only mean that India has fundamentally changed and departed from the vision of its founding fathers. It would mean that “Hindutva” has now begun to inhabit not just the “matter” but also the “form” of our Republic. The RSS understands that the resurrection of Savarkar, the fiercest votary of “Hindutva”, symbolises the ushering in of the “Hindu-Rashtra” and that is why the bestowing of the “Bharat Ratna” on him—when it happens—will be a great victory.