Born in 1883. Died 1966. He lived 83 years of which he spent 30 years in prison. “He didn’t influence Indian politics much when he was alive and died an unsung hero for some and a hero for most. We are now entering an era where his ideas are coming alive, exactly a century after he wrote his fundamental treatise, which was titled Hindutva. By the time India faces its next elections, Hindutva would have completed 100 years as a political philosophy articulated, codified, and presented before the world, and today it is much more accepted as a political ideology”. With these introductory lines, Varghese K. George, the associate editor and US correspondent for The Hindu launched a discussion on the life of the man whose name would forever mark the foundations of contemporary Indian politics: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, and the man who immortalised him in his book Savarkar: The True Story of the Father of Hindutva, Vaibhav Purandare.
When asked about the character of VD Savarkar, Mr Purandare stated simply that he was an incredibly complex person, and without looking at his entire life, the two halves of which paint two very different pictures of the same man, it is not possible to wholly understand his controversial personality. It is difficult to form conclusions based on the accounts and impressions of other Hindu nationalists and political debaters. In fact, a close friend of his, David Garnett, called him a man of single-minded recklessness. Mr Purandare supported this saying that Savarkar would “often plunge into an activity just simply because he very strongly believed in something”. This even applied to the dynamic change in his ideologies, as in the first half of his life he advocated Hindu-Muslim unity, and in the second half, Hindutva and aggressive Hindu assertiveness. For a man who called the 1857 sepoy mutiny an “outstanding example of Hindu-Muslim unity”, this change came neither easily nor quickly. It took 30 years of inhumane living conditions, torture, and debasing at the hands of Muslim, Pathan, and Baluchi jailors in the Cellular Jail, as a result of which Savarkar underwent a massive intellectual and ideological change. There was both a personal and political transformation towards a predominantly anti-muslim mindset. This was also fortified by the rampant Hindu-Muslim violence in the early 1900s. He, along with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, opposed Mahatma Gandhi’s decision to align with the Khilafat Movement.
Yet, another eminent freedom fighter of that time, Bal Gangadhar Tilak also went to prison, and instead came out a strong advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity, pointed out Mr Varghese. This brings to light the almost opposite and parallel paths that these two men followed. The years of brutality that he had suffered at Kala Pani made of him a changed man.
When it came to martyrdom and sacrifice, however, Savarkar chose a very pragmatic approach. On one hand, he hailed the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh while on the other hand, he filed seven mercy petitions between 1911 and 1920. This fact, said Mr Purandare, only highlights the complexity of the man. “Savarkar, you see, was a person who was convinced that he was a leader of a movement. He was not a mere footsoldier. He felt that his leadership was necessary to guide people, and so he didn’t want to end his own life.”, he said. This was at a point in the history of the struggle for independence when the sacrifice of a man like Bhagat Singh had helped galvanize the entire nation against the British. Savarkar did not wish to die insignificantly within the confines of a jail.
Another contradiction in Savarkar’s increasingly complex personality, noted Mr Varghese, was his aversion to any sort of religious ritualism, especially when it came to funerary rites. He considered the Puranas and the Vedas as tools that could be used to help the lower caste population feel more Hindu. Towards the end of his life, he was completely an atheist. For him, Hindutva was more about regaining Hindu spaces, which had been soiled by the British invaders and the Muslims that desanctified and destroyed them. Even his stance on cow protection has been misinterpreted by most. Contrary to popular belief, his principles of Hindutva condemn the killing of a cow only when it is motivated by spite, not for dietary causes.
While Savarkar certainly excluded Muslims from the ambit of Indian nationhood, he had formed some clear distinctions within the Muslim community. He believed the Khojas and Bohras to be patriotic and the rest to be problematic. With this, Mr Purandare affirmed the ever changing nature of Savarkar’s opinions and stances. Therefore, it is unfair for people to consider him to be only a Hindutva idealogue or a revolutionary. Seeing that they were two very different people whose actions were motivated by contrasting factors, even contrasting Golwalkar’s and Savarkar’s ideologies would be futile. Their directions of evolution, just like that of his and Tilak, were very different.
The final question that Mr Varghese asked Mr Purandare was whether in current politics , the National Register of Citizens and the amendments to the Citizenship Act are fulfilling the vision of VD Savarkar, the reply to which was, “Absolutely, because Savarkar seems to be steering the Indian Government at present because he was very clear that the concept of religion is implicit in the definition of who is an Indian citizen”.
About the Author: Asmi Roy is a lover of all things written and readable and works as a freelancer. She currently writes for TheSeer.