Unveiling Savarkar: Picture Imperfect

“But because of the then prevalent suicidal ideas about chivalry to women, which ultimately proved highly detrimental to the Hindu community, neither Shivaji nor Chinaji Appa could rape Muslim women.”

-- V.D. Savarkar, The Six Golden Epochs of Indian History, p.71

Savarkar, the first person to ‘theorise’ Hindutva and to advocate rape as a necessary component of Hindutva nationalism, has been honoured with a portrait in Parliament Central Hall. Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament is a symbol of BJP’s blatant assertion of its model of poisonous, distorted “hate nationalism” – the model that killed Gandhi, that held Gaurav Yatras to celebrate the rape and killing Muslim women by saffron mobs in Gujarat.

Also, the RSS-BJP, which has no history of participation in the freedom movement, is desperate to hunt for someone from the Hindutva ranks, whom they can claim as a freedom fighter. And Savarkar is the only one whom they can prune and touch-up to fit the slot! But Savarkar’s ‘nationalism’, too, is hardly an unadulterated legacy; Savarkar blotted his record of patriotism by his own actions. It is true that Savarkar, in his youth, was a fiery patriot. He was the founder of Abhinav Bharat Society, which was a revolutionary terrorist group which organized attacks on British authorities. He was also the first, ever, to boldly challenge the British denigration of 1857 as a ‘revolt’ or ‘mutiny’, and to assert, in a book published in 1908, which was banned by the British, that 1857 was India’s First War of Independence.

Unfortunately, Savarkar himself washed his hands off this history. He was arrested for abetting the murder of the Collector of Nasik. He managed to escape from captivity through a ship’s porthole: the daring escape for which he earned the ‘Veer’ title. But the brave ‘Veer’ facet evaporated rapidly after his re-arrest and trial, when he was taken to the Andamans in 1911. Before spending even a single year there, he sent a petition begging for release. In a letter dated November 24, 1913, he repeated this petition, promising to mend his ways, and become “the staunchest advocate … of loyalty to the Government … where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?” Again in 1925, he sent a petition begging for release, and promising not to engage in politics “without the consent of the Government”. By then, of course, he had produced his essay on Hindutva (1923), and had emerged as a proponent of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and his targets, in his writings as well as his politics, become the Muslims rather than the British.

There are those who want to believe that Savarkar’s ‘apologies’ were simply intended to trick the British into releasing him from jail so that he could again play an active role in the freedom struggle. But even if we keep aside the fact that thousands like Bhagat Singh scorned the idea of applying for clemency, such illusions about Savarkar’s motives are belied by the fact that he never again took any part in the freedom movement. Instead his new-found ‘Hindutva nationalism’ made it easy for him to keep his promises of cooperating with the British. He met Viceroy Linlithgow on October 9, 1939, as a leader of Hindu Mahasabha, and offered to collaborate with the British; this was the same month when Indian ministers in the provinces were resigning in protest. Linlithgow responded warmly, “Our interests were now the same and we must work together. Even though now the most moderate of men, he had himself been in the past the adherent of a revolutionary party … But now that our interests were so closely bound together the essential thing was for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends, and the old antagonism was no longer necessary.”(see A.G. Noorani’s article in Hindustan Times, March 3)

In his treatise on 1857, Savarkar had hailed the role of the brave Muslim Maulvi Ahmadullah as an example of how “there is no contradiction between Islamic faith and deep love for the Indian motherland”. Later, as a theorist of Hindutva, Savarkar argued that even those Muslims born in India could never be truly Indian, because their punyabhu (holy land) lay outside India.

Savarkar, presiding over the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, advocated that “there are two nations, in the main, the Hindus and the Muslims”; thus advocating the infamous “two nation theory”. In his fascist project of creating ‘enemies within the nation’, his targets were not solely Muslims. Provoked no doubt by the campaign of conversion to Buddhism led by the dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, Savarkar’s Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History also targets Buddhists. He refers to the “ancestral treachery of Buddhists”, and explains that “Pushyamitra (Shunga) and his chieftains had to hang Indian Buddhists for anti-state activities, and had to destroy their Sanghas which had become centers of anti-state activities. This was the just punishment for treachery and joining hands with enemies, required to safeguard the Indian empire and its independence. This was not religious persecution” (p. 85). The saffron fascists’ habit of justifying communal pogroms by accusing non-Hindu minorities of being ‘anti-national’ and their madarsas etc … of being ‘dens of anti-national activities’ is obviously not limited to modern India. Savarkar’s theory of cultural nationalism embraced by the RSS-BJP, allows him to find the equivalents of ‘ISI agents’ even in ancient India, and to defend the Shungas’ persecution of Buddhists using the same logic that the Sangh does to defend the Gujarat genocide or POTA today.

In the same treatise, he refers to Ambedkar as a person who “hates the Hindu religion”, and writes: “I repeat that Buddhists have encouraged rather than weakened untouchability … Untouchables must keep this incontrovertible fact in mind, and must endorse what is beneficial to them” (p.131). Of course, his most venomous propaganda in this treatise are reserved for Muslims, whom he stereotypes as lustful rapists and aggressors. Here he spends many pages in constructing the mythology of how Muslims have raped Hindu women, and builds a case for why Hindu males must shed their ‘perverse, distorted’ hesitations, and must be ready to rape Muslim women.

Also, history and India’s memory will never forgive his role as one of the key conspirators in the plot to assassinate Gandhi. Savarkar was acquitted in the Gandhi murder case only on the technical ground that the witness D.R. Badge’s statement was not independently corroborated, though the judge found him to be “straight-forward”. Badge had heard Savarkar tell Godse and Apte to “be successful and come back”. Sardar Patel wrote to Nehru on February 27, 1948, “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that (hatched) the conspiracy (to assassinate Gandhi) and saw it through”. After Savarkar’s death in 1966, both his close aids testified to the Kapur Commission. After studying the evidence, Justice J.D. Kapur confirmed “the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group”(see Noorani).

Savarkar’s story is a sad example of how the ‘Hindutva’ model of hate-nationalism can distort and destroy the patriotic vision, integrity and bravery of an individual. It is shameful that Savarkar who gave up the path of nationalism in exchange for release from a British prison, and embraced the path of communal hatred instead, is being honoured in Parliament, while the same Central Hall of Parliament carries no portrait of Bhagat Singh, who smilingly gave up life rather than give up his commitment to a free, socialist India.

It is also a sad commentary on the bankruptcy of the “secular” parties of the mainstream Parliamentary Opposition. Shivraj Patil and Pranab Mukherjee of the Congress, as well as CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee were all on the panel that had approved of the portrait in a meeting held on 5 December 2002. Now these parties are condemning the fact that Savarkar’s portrait has been put up opposite that of Gandhiji’s. But the fact is that they are “putting on their gloves after the bout is over”, as the editorial of the Hindustan Times put it. Comrade Chatterjee admits that he was guilty of “a mistake and an oversight”.

If the Sangh’s communal fascist agenda is to be defeated we must put up an uncompromising challenge to it on all fronts – its symbols, its language, its ideas and each of its acts of actual and symbolic violence needs to be vigilantly combated at every step.

— Kavita Krishnan