VEER SAVARKAR IS NO MORE, NOR IS THE HINDU KING OF NEPAL.
Date: 28 May 2008
The man who saw tomorrow
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar would have been 125 today. In life,
he was a demonised, marginalised 'political Hindu'. Yet, in contemporary
India, Savarkar stands vindicated and Savarkarism is more accepted than
In 2004, when the historian Ron Chernow wrote his eponymous
biography of Alexander Hamilton, he was partly impelled by the sense
that his subject had not been given his due. Hamilton was an American
nationalist, a votary of federal institutions, a Republican, an advocate
of limited Government and a patron of the industrial society before
these terms were coined or at least entirely understood. He was also the
first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and a widely
influential figure in the early years of the new republic.
Yet, over the decades, memories of Hamilton's contemporaries
overwhelmed his legacy. He was America's forgotten Founding Father, lost
in the crevices between George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Hamilton had opposed slavery even while his great rival Thomas Jefferson
had kept slaves; yet, it wasn't Hamilton who was remembered by human
What Hamilton lost in life, Hamiltonism won in history. By the
20th century, Hamilton's ideas had triumphed. His initial postulates
continue to define American strategic thinking, foreign policy and
economic philosophy. Every White House resident in the past 20 years has
paid homage to Ronald Reagan; Reagan himself often evoked Hamilton.
It is tempting to see Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who would have
been 125 this morning, as an Indian Alexander Hamilton. By the time he
died in 1966, he had shrunk to a limited presence. Surrounded only by a
few devoted adherents and members of the Hindu Mahasabha, his writings
read mainly by his fellow Maharastrians, his heroic role in the freedom
movement had been effaced by official historians.
Savarkar was the intellectual equal of Jawaharlal Nehru. Revisit
the writings of the stalwarts of the pre-1947 period and you will
encounter few besides these two with a grasp and informed assessment of
contemporary world affairs. Yet, in the hard, harsh world of politics
and political ideas, Savarkar, by the 1960s, had lost to Nehru's cult
There were many reasons why the Left-liberal intelligentsia, most
of whom are, in some form or the other, pensioners of the Nehruvian
state structure, despised Savarkar. For a start, he was flesh-and-blood
refutation of the charge that Hindu nationalism lacked an intellectual
tradition. Second, he represented a cogent and coherent position that
believed the political choices India and the Congress had made in 1947
(or 1950 or 1952, after the first election) were not necessarily
These were inconvenient truths for Nehruvian fellow travellers,
Savarkar the inconvenient man. There was astonishing virulence towards
Savarkar. Some, like the perverse and bigoted Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar,
even mocked the 10 years that Savarkar spent in Cellular Jail, Port
Blair, in horrific conditions, alone in a tiny cell.
The antipathy to Savarkar has to be seen in a larger context.
Post-independence, the Congress establishment sought to rewrite history
in its own image. It determinedly underplayed the role of the early
Indian elites -- the Poona Brahmins, Bombay's Parsi constitutionalists,
Calcutta's Bengali and Brahmo activists -- who had dominated public life
prior to the Mahatma's mass politics.
As the Congress set out to establish that there was no history and
no freedom struggle before Gandhi, and no politics and no consciousness
of modern India before Nehru, these pioneer groups became expendable.
The Marxist historians who actually wrote the textbooks had their own
theories. For instance, not just was Savarkar demonised, even the
venerable Bal Gangadhar Tilak was painted in sectarian colours.
Even so, history has a strange way of getting back. Savarkar's
idea of the political Hindu, of a polity and of political parties that
would be sensitive to the Hindu cultural mainstay of Indian nationhood,
that would, while eschewing ritualism and dogma, incorporate robust
nationalism into policy-making, is more relevant than it has ever been.
Nehruvianism is in retreat and, even though Savarkar has been dead 42
years, Savarkarism has never been more alive.
Written in 1923, Savarkar's slim tract, Hindutva, remains a
remarkably contemporary articulation of organic nationalism. Indeed, it
anticipates some of the ideas expanded upon by Samuel Huntington in Who
Are We? (2004).
Leftist historians often divide Savarkar's life into two -- the
supposedly "acceptable" first part, till the mid-1920s; and, his
espousal of Hindutva after that. Actually, this division is bogus.
Admittedly, Savarkar's early life was one of a romantic
revolutionary. As a student in London, he was in touch with Irish,
Turkish and Chinese dissidents and rebels. In 1907, he wrote The War of
Independence of 1857. The book was deeply researched and provided an
interpretation of documents and events from the Indian perspective.
Admittedly, it is not the last word on the Indian Uprising. In
hindsight, Savarkar could be accused of glossing over the differing
motivations of the participants of the 1857 war and of being simplistic
in believing that there was overwhelming consensus in re-establishing
the Delhi throne as a Maratha protectorate -- as had been the case till
Nevertheless, this was a passionate young man of 24 writing the
first non-imperial account of a dramatic struggle. It was passionate and
pulsating, being smuggled to India wrapped in dust jackets saying Don
Quixote and Pickwick Papers. The British Government arrested Savarkar
and sought to send him to India to stand trial. At Marseilles, in a
dramatic move, he squeezed out of the porthole and swam to the shore,
claiming asylum from the French Government.
It was refused and he was re-arrested on French soil and handed
over to the British. This was in breach of international law and among
those who protested at Savarkar being denied asylum was Jean Longuet,
French lawyer-editor and grandson of Karl Marx.
Savarkar was heavily influenced by Italian thinkers such as
Mazzini. He saw Hindutva as an Indian Risorgimeto, conceptualising it as
a reawakening of the national spirit and of a pride in, and
understanding of, the territorial frontiers of India. He was not a
religious sort and did not interpret 'Hindu' solely in terms of worship.
He was an early opponent of Dalit exclusion, seeing a Hindu
harmonisation process as essential to national unity.
Savarkar was often impatient with the RSS and it is piquant to
compare him with MS Golwalkar, 'Guruji' as he is called and the man who
made the Sangh the all-India institution that it is today. Savarkar was
a thinker, Golwalkar a do-er; Savarkar was the rare Hindu mind who
understood statecraft and the importance of state power, Golwalkar
sought to change society by working bottom-up from grassroots
communities. For Golwalkar (as for Gandhi), the Hindu was
ascetic-exemplar; for Savarkar, he was warrior-ideal.
The two streams were not antithetical but clearly complementary.
When they finally merged, consciously or otherwise, in the late-1980s,
it changed Indian politics and moved the polity irrevocably to the
Right. At its best, the BJP is a confluence of Savarkar and Golwalkar.
Savarkar had known it all along. Just before his death, in an
emotional piece called "This, My Legacy", he had written: "If we are to
live with honour and dignity as a Hindu nation -- and we have the right
to do so -- that nation must emerge under the Hindu flag. This, my
dream, shall come true -- if not in this generation at least in the
next. If it remains an empty dream, I shall prove a fool. If it comes
true, I shall prove a prophet. This, my legacy, I bequeath to you."
Savarkar is gone. Let us cherish his legacy, salute the prophet.