The last few years have seen a revival of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s ideology, with much post-truth reinterpretation adding to the myth that is his legacy. SHUBHAM SHARMA writes about Savarkar’s contributions to Hindutva, including some of its more obscure aspects, and the threat to Constitutional secularism that the problematic efforts to cleanse his ideological narratives pose in an already polarised India.
UNFORTUNATELY, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has become the talk of the town. The intellectual turf of India seems to be divided between those who defend Savarkar’s legacy and the left-liberal intelligentsia, who believe he displayed cowardice in his mercy petitions, and that he had his hands in the despicable murder of Mahatma Gandhi.
The former group is being led by Vikram Sampath who has written a two-volume biography on Savarkar. The latter group are historically in the right in their denunciation of Savarkar, yet Sampath appears to be receiving a patient and passionate hearing on various platforms. In my opinion, the reason behind this is that the left-liberals of India are missing the wood for the trees. They tend to be on the defensive when Sampath brings to the table the fact that Savarkar was not the only one who had petitioned the British for mercy, and that many others did the same.
The contours of the title ‘Veer’
The Andaman Islands were a horrific place to be held prisoner. Cut off from the mainland, it was the most stringent penal colony, where those gaoled, either lost their minds, or became afflicted with long term illnesses. Savarkar too, suffered there at the hands of the British, and wrote mercy petitions to them. Given the circumstances, it was perfectly understandable. But the question that arises then, is why he has been designated the title of ‘veer’ or brave.
It is unjust to call him ‘veer’ not just because he filed mercy petitions, but because the standards of ‘veerta’ or bravery have been raised to such heights by the Indian revolutionary tradition, by people such as Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar, and Shivaram Rajguru, that Savarkar is simply dwarfed when compared to these brave hearts.
Moreover, Savarkar wrote his first petition, pledging loyalty to the British, less than two months after his transportation to the Andamans in August 1911. Compare this to the sixty three-day hunger strike by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) demanding better treatment for prisoners. Jatin Das gave up his life while on strike. With this, it is left to the readers to decide whether the glorious epithet, ‘veer’, is a perfect fit for Savarkar or not.
Deficiencies in the liberal argument
Now let us examine the weaknesses of the left-liberal position. They have failed to sufficiently highlight the most potent venom that Savarkar injected into the Indian body politic – Hindutva. Savarkar was not the first one to coin the term; Chandra Nath Basu used the term as the title of his book, published by Gurudas Chatterjee in 1892 in Bengal, and gave it a theoretical finesse.
On the other hand, in his 1923 essay, Essentials of Hindutva, Savarkar argued that all those who exclusively regarded the space between Indus and the Indian ocean as pitrabhumi (ancestral homeland) and punyabhumi (sacred land), constituted the nation. Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains met the qualification easily, while Muslims were forced to reconsider their extraterritorial holy places.
This deliberate sleight of hand was used to discount Muslims from the Indian nation. Savarkar’s logic is bogus on two grounds. Firstly, his heuristics of punyabhumi and pitrabhumi fail to offer a universally acceptable theory or definition of nationalism. If his scheme of things is applied by a student of social sciences, no country in Europe or Northern America would be considered a nation because the main holy lands of the Christians are situated in the Middle East. Similarly, no Muslim country outside the Arabian Peninsula could claim nationhood for itself because of its geographic distance from the sites of Mecca, Medina and Karbala.
By this logic neither Indonesia, the 72 million strong five central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, nor Malaysia or the Maldives are nation states. In short, all those who live in these lands are invaders and the ‘real’ dwellers await their own Savarkars.
Secondly, the idea of punyabhumi rebels against the idea of a civic and secular nationalism, which is the foundational idea of the Indian Constitution. By placing religion as a criterion of nationhood, Savarkar fails to acknowledge other cultural traits such as language, a long history of continuous stay, and amicable communitarian co-existence as markers of nationalism.
Learning from Pakistan, a product of religious nationalism
The sordid nature of religious nationalism could well be gauged from the conditions of our western neighbour, Pakistan, a country that was built on the idea of religious nationalism.
Right from the beginning, minorities within Islam faced the wrath of religious nationalism. The worst affected were the Ahmadiyas.
Since the new State of Pakistan was confused about the nature of religious nationalism, it appointed a Commission under the chairmanship of Justice Mohammad Munir in 1953 to investigate the anti-Ahmadiyya pogroms and the feasibility of an ‘Islamic’ Pakistan. The Commission produced a 387-page report after exhaustive hearings, which concluded early in 1954. It interviewed almost all leading clerics and found that they often considered each other’s beliefs incompatible with Islam.
And although all Islamists wanted Pakistan to become an Islamic State, their visions of such a State differed significantly.
They seemed to agree only on their contempt for and opposition to non-Muslims. Moreover, their definitions of ‘non-Muslim’ often extended to members of other Islamic sects with whom they had doctrinal differences.
The Justice Munir Commission conducted 117 sittings of which ninety-two were devoted to the hearing and recording of statements of various parties. Its record consists of 3,600 pages of written statements and 2,700 pages of evidence. It formally exhibited 339 documents and went through a huge number of books, pamphlets, journals, and newspapers. After such painstaking research, the judges on the Commission wrote a comprehensive report that pointed out the problems Pakistan faced by allowing religion to become part of the business of the State. The commission further noted:
“[N]either Shias nor Sunnis nor Deobandis nor Ahl-i-Hadith nor Barelvis are Muslims and any change from one view to the other must be accompanied in an Islamic state with the penalty of death if the government of the state is in the hands of the party which considers the other party to be kafirs (infidels).”
All clerics united in their denunciation of a composite civic nationalism. As Pakistani journalist, politician and policy analyst Farahnaz Ispahani wrote in her book ‘Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’:
“Maulana Abul Hasanat, Sayyid Muhammad Ahmad Qadri, Maulana Ahmad Ali, Mian Tufail Muhammad and Maulana Abdul Hamid Badayuni were among the clerics and Islamist leaders who admitted before Justice Munir and his colleagues, that non-Muslims could not have the same rights as Muslims. Each one of them repeated the orthodox position that non-Muslims could not have any say in law-making, could not be involved in administering the law and did not have the right to hold public offices, except when allowed by Muslims.”
The commission dejectedly concluded, “if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulema, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim [scholar] but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else.”
Unfortunately, the Commission’s warnings were shunned, and Pakistan officially became an Islamic country, first under the 1956 Constitution, and then under the 1962 Constitution. And what became of Pakistan since then is for all of us to see. It became an inhospitable place for religious minorities both within and outside Islam.
India would have gone a similar way had it been declared a Hindu rashtra (nation) as envisaged by Savarkar.
It would have been a criminal injustice towards those patriotic Muslims who did not give in to the Muslim League’s communal program and chose to stay back in India, which they considered their real home. Moreover, the minorities within Hinduism, i.e., persons from lower castes, would have felt the full brunt of Hindutva, as the concept would have been defined by the upper castes according to the precepts of Brahmanism.
Savarkar’s perverse exhortation of sexual violence as a form of revenge
Another sordid dimension of Savarkar’s ideas that has evaded attention is his open exhortation of rape as a weapon of revenge. He argued that forced conversions and systematic rape were the two main ways in which Muslims took Hindu women into their fold to increase the numerical strength of their community. He wrote, “it was a religious duty of every Muslim to kidnap and force into their own religion non-Muslim women.” By arguing that Muslims rape Hindu women to increase their population and to satisfy their perverse sexual desires, and that they have an insatiable appetite for this, Savarkar sought to affect a unique ‘sexual othering’ of the Muslim male. After making a count of atrocities, Savarkar concluded that “in the event of a Hindu victory our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women.”
To further lend a religious halo to his fiendish argument, Savarkar evoked the Ramayana, considered to be one of the most revered scriptures of the Hindus. He describes Ravana’s abduction of Sita and when some conscientious subjects warn the demon king of the dire outcomes, he quotes Ravana as saying, “to abduct and rape the womenfolk of the enemy, do you call it irreligious?” In saying this, Savarkar provided the ultimate moral sanction to rape as a legitimate form of revenge in the struggle between Hindu and Muslim men.
Savarkar did not stop at this. His thuggish mind had deeper recesses and deadlier devils residing in them. In his ill-researched book, ‘Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History’, he castigated Muslim women for aiding and abetting in the crimes of their male counterparts against Hindu women. He wrote, “a Muslim woman did everything in her power to harass such captured or kidnapped Hindu women… they enticed and carried away young Hindu girls, locked them up in their own houses, or conveyed them to the Muslim centres in Masjids and Mosques.” Which Muslim women did so? He does not say or specify. These were figments of his jaundiced imagination. However, in doing so, he weaves a myth of meek Hindu women vis-à-vis immoral Muslim women.
In short, he also drove a roughshod over the idea of a conjugated struggle of women under the banner of post-enlightenment feminism. For him the question of women under patriarchy would have to first pass the test of religion, and a conscious account would have to be made as to which religious category of women suffered most in the past at the hands of both men and women of the counter posing religion.
A communalism long simmering
Savarkar’s communalism did not begin with his release from the Andamans. The seeds of it could well be found in his famed book on the Revolt of 1857.
He appreciates the role of the Muslims, not because he was reconciled with the fact that Hindus and Muslims were inseparable constituents of India, but because no history of the Revolt of 1857 could be written without the due acknowledgment of the fact that it marked the most formidable collaboration of the two communities against a foreign enemy.
Later in his book, Savarkar resorts to historical jugglery to drive his communal agenda home when he writes:
“[A]s long as the Mahomedans lived in India in the capacity of rulers, so long, to be willing to live with them like brothers was to acknowledge national weakness. Hence, it was, up to then, necessary for the Hindus to consider the Mahomedans as foreigners. But this rulership of the Mahomedans, Guru Govind Singh in Punjab, Rana Pratap in Rajputana, Chhatrasal in Bundelkhand, and the Marathas, by even sitting upon the throne at Delhi, had destroyed; and after a struggle of centuries, Hindu sovereignty had defeated the rulership of the Mahomedans and had come to its own all over India. It was no national shame to join hands with Mahomedans now, but it would, on the contrary, be an act of generosity.”
His argument that rebellious Hindu rulers had cleansed the Muslim rule forgets the fact that many of his heroes such as Rana Pratap of Rajputana were defeated by Raja Man Singh, the most trusted Rajput general of Akbar. The Marathas, too, never claimed rulership over the Mughal throne in Delhi. The besieged Mughal ruler Shah Alam was in deep trouble as a result of the Afghan occupation in Delhi, and sent a secret message to the Maratha chief, Mahadji Scindia for help, promising to pay INR 40 lakhs. When Scindia came to meet the Mughal emperor, instead of the imaginary Hindu bravado bandied about by Savarkar, the former confirmed to the Mughal etiquette and prostrated himself before the emperor.
Scottish historian William Dalrymple in his last book, ‘The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire’, records the meeting as such, “(Mahadji) laid his head at the (Mughal) emperor’s feet, who raised him, clasped him to his bosom and praised him.” Therefore, Savarkar’s nationalist brotherhood was premised on an imaginary and unhistorical construct of his own. This tradition of imputing modern concepts such as nationalism to the pre-modern feudal age was the cornerstone of Oriental historiography, which did more harm than good to modern Indian historiography.
Above all, Savarkar’s ideas and his new defenders pose the greatest threat to the secular fabric of India and its Constitution. A secular and democratic India should have no space for his ideas and their new interpretations. Already, the ruling dispensation of India has clawed at the Preamble of the Indian Constitution by attacking secularism from all possible quarters. The intellectual rehabilitation of Savarkar would be the last nail in the coffin of constitutional secularism. The morticians are swiftly at work; defenders must interrupt them immediately.
(Shubham Sharma is a research scholar with the Department of World History, University of Cambridge. The views expressed are personal.)