25 February 2016
On 26 February 2016, it’s the 50th anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s death. Furthermore, this year marks also another anniversary related to the ‘jubilee’, two decades ago the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed its first national government in New Delhi. This date determines a significant bench mark in any elaboration on Savarkar, because the BJP spent substantial efforts to keep him alive in the country’s collective memory and to make sure that he gets an appropriate place in the conception and awareness of Indian history. At the first sight, this might appear as a common undertaking in a relatively young state which experienced centuries of colonial suppression and years of freedom struggle. But when one looks closer, it touches the core of India’s self-perception and the ideational foundation the country is built on. By having said this, one has to be aware that Savarkar is an extraordinary controversial and multi-faceted personality, whose life and literary contribution present various paradoxical phenomena.
Yet controversies about Savarkar, mostly polemical in tone, by Indian as well as foreign scholars have focused only on some particular fragments of his thoughts and action without spending the time and effort to understand his various theoretical concepts in a complex but coherent framework. In this context, more or less all debates on Savarkar have basically two main characteristics: First of all, they are not restricted to the academic world, but are carried out as a public discourse including the political and societal spheres as well. Secondly, the driving actors of the controversy around Savarkar can be divided into two essential camps. On one side are those who see Savarkar and his socio-political thinking and beliefs as the greatest threat to the fundamental principles of India, namely secularism, multiculturalism and democracy. Against this backdrop, Savarkar gets portrayed by his critics as the synonym for an ‘anti-modern regression’, and as the ideological founder of a phenomenon that gets generally been referred to as ‘Hindu-Nationalism’ or ‘Hindu-Fundamentalism’. This side is opposed by a second camp consisting of people who tend to see Savarkar and his considerations about state and society in India as a legitimate and ambitious form of democratic self-determination.
Against this backdrop, it is argued here that all whole Savarkar discourse until now is due to its extreme politicization and polarization distorted and narrowed down and hampers any comprehensive understanding of Savarkar’s thinking and action.
Historical Context: Independence Movement, Hindutva, and Missing out the Political Grip
Savarkar (1883-1966) became the object of attention and the centre of academic as well as public controversy in past and contemporary India because of his militant activism and nationalism during the struggle for independence. As such, one can state that Savarkar was a child of his time. Born in Maharashtra, the second son of a family of Chitpavan-Brahmans, Savarkar was already as a youth influenced by a nationalistic thought and felt himself to be obliged to an extreme and militant form thereof. He was inspired by the idea of a violent liberation of India from the British colonial power. Even during his school and college university years, he founded the first organisations, such as ‘Unions of friends’, the Mitra Mela (this group was later renamed in Abhinav Bharat Society), whose members, would not forsake the use of violence to achieve the India’s independence. Savarkar drew the first public notice of him in 1906 with the burning of imported British items at his college in Pune. A first high point of his extremist activities occurred with of the India Office during his university years in London (1906-1910). In result, Savarkar got convicted and banned to the Andaman Islands until his conditional release in 1923. After arriving again mainland India, he was put under ‘house arrest’ with the obligations not to cross the borders of the district called Ratnagiri, and also that he not engages himself in political activities. After his ultimate release in 1937, Savarkar quickly had to realize that the essential moves in the direction of Indian independence were being determined by other forces, and that it was no longer possible for him to convince and mobilize large numbers of people in favor of his own concepts and strategies. Nevertheless, he got politically active by taking on the presidency of the political party Hindu Mahasabha (HMS) to promote his visions of a future independent India.
Hindutva – The Essence of Savarkar’s Thinking and Action
If one wishes to concern oneself with Savarkar’s social- and political considerations on the organization of state and society, then one must be continually aware of the ‘spirit and tone’ of the time for such an analysis. The necessity for a historical contextualization of his actions is shown in two factors: First, his promotion of the use of violence for the liberation of India when there is no (peaceful) political option possible to make the British ending colonial rule. Second, his occupation with his societal-political project, which he expressed in his concept called Hindutva. Savarkar’s overall puzzle was how to build an Indian nation which is strong enough to ensure its independence (Swaraj, or “self-rule”) in the international competition of nations. From his point of view Indian history had witnessed various attempts to build up a national entity but all had failed because of the inherent heterogeneity of Hinduism as the socio-cultural and religious system of the majority. Here, he identified a ‘perverted notion of tolerance’ which leads to a lack of common accepted norms (identity) as well as disintegration of the (Hindu) people. To counter this, a homogeneous community of the Hindus (Hindu-Sangathan) had to be built up in which all heterogeneous elements were to be excluded. To create such a society the establishment of a Hindu state (Hindu Rashtra) was necessary, including the socio -economic and political transformations in all spheres of national life. Therefore, the most crucial step is the definition of citizenship. In other words, the puzzle of who is a Hindu must be understood in the context of the definition of which person is a legitimate citizen. To operationalize this, he suggested a set of criteria consisting of three main elements Rashtra (common land), Jati (common blood) and Sanskriti (common culture) which should be used as guidelines in distinguishing between Hindu and non-Hindu. In essence, to be a Hindu (Regarding Savarkar understood as future citizen of independent India) one had to be born in India, one needed Indian (Hindu) parents, and one had to accept and internalize the Hindu culture. However, the ‘moral pathos’ with which Savarkar brought forth his views was incompatible with the conceptions of the independence movement under Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi’s leadership and the Indian National Congress (INC) that arose later on under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty regarding a future social and political order in India.
With his comprehensive work Hindutva. Who is a Hindu?, Savarkar reacted first of all to the tense relationship that had build-up between his own Hindu-Sangathan (‘Hindu Unity’) movement and the ‘Congress movement’ under the growing influence of M.K. Gandhi. The incompatibility of the two positions was shown in a first meeting in 1906, and later in a second one in 1909 between Savarkar and Gandhi [As a reaction to the confrontation with Savarkar and like-minded persons (of the extreme wing of the independence struggle) in London, Gandhi was convinced of the necessity to produce a counter-statement paper (called Hind Swaraj) to lay down his own basic vision for India’s future course].
There was a minimum agreement that the system of rule of the British Raj, the colonial power, must be gradually dissolved. But there were major disagreement regarding precisely how this dissolution should take place and what India’s future social and political systems should look like. So, according to Savarkar’s perception, the independence movement was stamped by the de-constructive effects of two opposing forces that hampered each other.
In sum, with the establishment of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as leading figures on the political landscape, and at the least, with the attainment of India’s independence in 1947, the person Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has been far less the topic of discussion. The HMS has become a shadow of its former self. Only in isolated instances was it able to achieve some electoral gains in local elections. In fact, politics in India on the national or regional level were predominantly dominated either by the INC directly or by local allies. Even in Savarkar’s home district Mumbai (at that time Bombay), it was unable to gain a seat. This marginal political significance got flanked by the fact that Savarkar’s political ideas were hardly ever a topic of public discourse in India at his life time and next three decades beyond. When Savarkar died in 1966, the event drew only rudimentary notice. Far away from the mainstream of Indian politics and the centre of power in New Delhi, Savarkar -seen as a leading thinker and visionary of Hindu-Nationalism- spent the last years of his life un-spectacularly and little recognized.
It was only in the 1990s with the establishment of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level and the consolidation of a Hindu-Nationalist government under then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee that the ‘public ban’ on Savarkar was broken. By observing this phenomenon, one had to note that over the first decades of post-colonial India, Savarkar’s ideas were more vivid than the political and academic realms were capable of imagining.
Extraordinary steps were taken by the BJP to position Savarkar within the ‘pantheon of freedom fighters’, understood as the founding fathers of an independent Indian nation. This ‘enthronement’ got legitimized by the argument that Savarkar was an eminent freedom fighter but his contribution to the liberation of the country from the ‘British yoke’ was minimized by partisan historians. Regarding this rationale, latter ones did so because of a distorted perception of history and a restricted ideological philosophy by certain political parties and/or political influential families. Consequently, in order ‘to give justice’, the BJP initiated a policy of ‘rehabilitating Savarkar’. A first attempt to make Savarkar socially accepted failed, by trying to nominate Savarkar unsuccessfully for the prestigious Bharat Ratna, India highest civilian award.
Nevertheless, Savarkar’s ‘renaissance’ began on 4 May 2002 in Port Blair on the Andaman Islands with the renaming of the local airport after him. In this context, it is important to note that the goal of promoting Savarkar was not only his ‘societal rehabilitation’ but also to lay claim to the sole representation of his political ideas. Savarkar’s ‘political comeback’ was facilitated at his day of death in 2003, through the revealing of his portrait in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament. This was an extraordinary symbolic gesture since the Central Hall is perceived as the ‘heart and soul’ of Indian democracy. Subsequently, this act created massive protest among the parliamentarians of INC and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In this context, some critics were describing the portrait of Savarkar as the personified image of just what Indian democracy does not want to represent.
Through numerous other measures, attempts were made to ‘bring Savarkar back to life’. Some of the more remarkable ones were the organization of an exhibition on Savarkar, the publishing of a bibliographical pamphlet, and the governments support for the film project ‘Veer Savarkar’ by Sudhir Phadke.
Final Thoughts – The Misreading of Savarkar
Generally one can state that the ‘revitalization campaign’ of Savarkar and related debates are staying in a sharp contrast to an adequate understanding of his personality and beliefs, for several reasons:
Firstly, it enforced the trend to focus only on certain aspects of Savarkar’s thinking and action on his potential contribution to the independence movement. The fact that he was imprisoned during some of the most decisive years of the liberation struggle underlines the limited value of such an endeavor. Additionally, it portrays him in a way he did not saw himself. Actually Savarkar identified his role rather as an ‘organizer of the Hindu Society’ than as a ‘freedom fighter’ (especially in his later years). Latter aspect was just a logic consequence of the first one.
Secondly, it ignores Savarkar’s engagement in social thought and reforms. Regarding his perception the build-up of a strong Indian state is not possible without the achievement of a ‘Hindu-Unity’. Therefore, it would be crucial to carry out a substantial reformation of the social structure of the Hindu-Society. His main focus was on the abolishment of the caste system based on birth, the removal of untouchability, restrictions on inter-caste marriage, eating and occupations among others. Savarkar was convinced that even if the country obtains independence, the people will be not able to consolidate their political freedom when they continue to life under the conditions of social-religious atrocities implicated by the excesses of the Hindu social structure. Therefore, according to Savarkar, the first aim is to make the socially and politically fragmented Hindu society united, organised, and progressive through the eradication of certain social practices which he perceived as backward and harmful. It does not come by surprise, some of his social reform ideas provoke resistance not only among the protagonists but also among the antagonists of his political thoughts, expressed in Hindutva. Especially the traditionally Hindu Orthodoxy turned either against Savarkar or distanced itself from him.
Thirdly, it does not take into account the philosophical tenets underlying Savarkar’s social and political thoughts. In this context, one must emphasize that his philosophy and worldview was deeply inspired by European thinkers. Nevertheless, there are numerous occasions in which people are stating that Savarkar’s thinking is based on a strong affection towards Hinduism. There are no doubts that Savarkar uses ‘religious language’ to formulate a political agenda. But he was neither a religious man nor an atheist; he did not abandon religion but accepted nothing that was irrational. Metaphysical statements and theological debates concerning religious beliefs were of no interest to him. As such, one should rather describe him as a ‘strategic agnostic’.
To summarize, Savarkar got not only politically side-lined from the mainstream of the independence movement. His thinking and action got either ignored or for partisan purposes misinterpreted. A major reason therefore is that he never wrote substantially and coherently on one issue of his concerns, like social reforms. His notions are rather scattered over his writings, which are not only numerous but also quite different in nature, including political statements, historically accounts, or theater plays. The fact that he changes his political position in certain themes, for example the give up of his initial believe in Hindu-Muslim Unity as expressed in his book 1857 and the subsequent adaption of a remarkable antipathy against (Indian) Muslims, made it easy to utilize Savarkar for partisan political goals.
Savarkar’s personal link with people implicated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and his breaching of religious sentiment have made him an object of unquestioned judgments in the public as well as in the academic sphere. The 50th Anniversary of his death might be the occasion to make him finally the object of renewed analytical and scientific study apart from India’s party political arena.
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