The controversial legacy of Vinayak Savarkar

Both his followers and critics are responsible for reducing him to caricatures

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The expanding footprint of the Bharatiya Janata Party has spurred some scholars to probe deeper into the roots of the party’s Hindutva ideology. The 51st death anniversary (on Sunday) of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the man who popularized the term “Hindutva”, provides an opportune moment to look at his controversial legacy. Janaki Bakhle of the University of California, Berkeley contends that Savarkar’s influence in modern India rivals that of M.K. Gandhi. She places Savarkar among the four most important anticolonial nationalists along with Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.

If that is the case, why has Savarkar remained so understudied? Bakhle has an answer: “Given the stunning success of Gandhi, the long hand of the nation has reached back into the entire period of colonial rule and adjudicated a set of Indian nationalists as worthy of study and those on the wrong side of the nation as worthy of condemnation.” Does Savarkar deserve the ostracization he has been subjected to? The former president of the Hindu Mahasabha is often recognized as an early exponent of militant Hindu nationalism. Many also continue to hold him responsible for the assassination of Gandhi despite his acquittal in the case.

But Savarkar, the Hindutva ideologue, had a tenuous relationship at best with the Hindu religion. He condemned the irrational practices of religious rituals and advocated a strong embrace of science in what he described as the yantra yug, or the age of machines. His use of religion in political life was highly tactical—to unify people for the cause of Indian independence. Gandhi too used rich imagery drawn from Hinduism to mobilize public opinion. Moreover, Gandhi’s challenge to outdated religious practices was much more muted than Savarkar’s.

Savarkar’s use of “Hindutva” rather than Hinduism was an attempt—as Siegfried O. Wolf of Heidelberg University has noted—to overcome social and political grievances among the Hindu community. He believed in a democratic and secular state where every individual has the same rights irrespective of caste, creed, race or religion, as he mentioned in his several presidential speeches at the Hindu Mahasabha. But Savarkar entered contentious territory while defining Hindutva. To him, Hindutva, which helped forge a uniform national identity, was predicated on individuals locating both their pitrabhu (fatherland) and punyabhu (holy land) within the territorial confines of the Indian state. This definition created a dilemma for India citizens of religious denominations that originated outside India—primarily Islam and Christianity.

Savarkar could never reconcile his idea of a secular nation with his definition of Hindutva; B.R. Ambedkar duly pointed this out in his book Thoughts On Pakistan. Moreover, his rhetoric against Muslims grew harsher after his return from the Cellular Jail in the Andaman islands. His changed perspective could be attributed to the treatment meted out to the prisoners in the Cellular Jail as well as to the rising tide of Muslim separatism after the Khilafat Movement. He later wrote about the practice of forced religious conversions he claimed to have witnessed in the Cellular Jail.

Savarkar was a modernist. He was an unabashed advocate of science and technology for the progress of mankind. A believer in strong and unified states, he was drawn towards leaders like Giuseppe Mazzini of Italy, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey and Vladimir Lenin of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Savarkar was opposed to the non-violent doctrine of Gandhi but there is no record of him personally resorting to violence. He deployed fiery rhetoric to incite rebellion against the colonial masters.

Savarkar was well read and he also wrote extensively in both English and Marathi. The running theme in his writings of—as Bakhle puts it—“territorial India as an antique land populated by mytho-historical people” was a formidable challenge to “mainstream” Indian nationalists, particularly Gandhi and Nehru. Both of them tried to respond in their own ways. Many scholars argue that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj was a direct response to Savarkar. Both Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who Is A Hindu? and Nehru’s The Discovery Of India—in the words of young scholar, Julia Johnston Kelley-Swift—“devote a lengthy portion to developing a history of India as a way of leading to some definition of what it means to be Indian”.

Savarkar’s has been a largely misunderstood legacy. Both his followers and critics are responsible for reducing him to caricatures – one of an unyielding patriot and saviour of Hinduism, and the other of a bigoted individual who brought out, irrevocably, the militant instincts of Hindu religion. His ideology is often confused with those of K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar, the early leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing organization Savarkar was never a part of. On the other hand, prominent members of the old left like M.N. Roy, Hirendranath Mukherjee and Shripad Amrit Dange held him in great admiration.

Many of Savarkar’s ideas on social and religious reforms, embrace of science, and building a stronger state continue to be relevant for India. His controversial position on Hindutva also continues to inform current political debates. It is time that a wider set of scholars began to engage with Savarkar’s ideas—including controversial ones. Shunning him is no longer a feasible option.

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