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‘Savarkar: A Contested Legacy, 1924-1966’ review: Hindutva’s biggest ideologue

The erasure of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar from public life and memory has been astounding, given the interest in historical figures such as Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and others who mobilised Hindu and Muslim identities during the anti-colonial struggle. Irresponsible and often uninformed references to Savarkar’s Hindutva politics and advocacy of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ are drawn attention to, along with his mercy petition to the British government (while incarcerated in the Andamans), and his role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (from which he was exonerated). These have been enough reasons for historians, scholars, and successive governments to ignore a political figure whose ideas continue to influence contemporary society and politics.

Comprehensive attempt

Vikram Sampath’s two-part biography on Savarkar is one of the first comprehensive attempts to document and contextualise the life of the biggest ‘Hindutva’ ideologue and a highly polarising figure in history, who has invited either eulogies or condemnation.

Part one, released in 2019, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924, explores his childhood influences, political activism, Kalapani imprisonment, and eventual release in 1924.

The newly launched second part, Savarkar: A Contested Legacy, 1924-1966, looks at his reform works in Ratnagiri after his release; his work with the Hindu Sangathans such as Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during the freedom movement; his mentoring of young members of the Mahasabha, including Narayan Apte and Nathuram Godse (who later jointly conspired to kill Gandhi); further consolidation of his ideas around Hindu society and caste politics; his opposition to Gandhi’s non-violence and pacifism (also perceived as capitulating to Muslim demands and appeasement); his implication and acquittal in Gandhi’s assassination and its overall impact on his contentious legacy.

Sampath’s narrative illustrates how Savarkar’s desire for Hindu unity and consciousness grew stronger as a response to what he perceived as Muslim identity politics and separatism, along with the vitiated environment of communal riots in the country. The conversation between Savarkar and Maulana Shaukat Ali (leader of the Khilafat Movement) is a valuable insight into how the ideas of Hindu unity and shuddhi (reconversion) were positioned by Savarkar vis-a-vis Muslim identity, conversions and the Khilafat Movement. Savarkar believed that Congress under Gandhi took Hindus for granted, never taking on Muslim communalists, not even criticising Muslim atrocities perpetrated on Hindus. Savarkar’s strident critique of Gandhi and Nehru made him persona non-grata within the Indian centrist politics.

Myth of Hindu unity

Savarkar’s Hinduism was a modernist creed that relied on nation, nation-state, nationalism, and citizenship. People could eat what they wanted (including meat and fish), and he was not a proponent of cow worship.

The most significant takeaways in this second volume are Savarkar’s beliefs and advocacy about abolishing untouchability and doing away with the pernicious caste system, which met the approval of B.R. Ambedkar. He also understood its fine nuances, and pointed out that caste discrimination was pervasive and practised by lower castes too, which needed to change for greater Hindu unity. Sampath debunks a popular myth that Savarkar and the RSS always worked in tandem for Hindu identity politics. In fact, the internal differences within the putative Hindutva umbrella were quite sharp, and Savarkar did not enjoy any great affinity with either the RSS founder Hedgewar or his successor Golwalkar. Moreover, Savarkar’s petulance and envy were on display during the rise of Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee as his successor in the Hindu Mahasabha.

His cosmopolitan beliefs in the European nation-state and enlightened/ reformist religion were closer to Nehru’s ideas, and these, along with his militant nationalism, were antithetical to Gandhi’s more orthodox and ritualistic faith that believed in cow protection, varna system, non-violence and satyagraha. Savarkar did not share a good relationship with either of these architects of the freedom struggle. Ironically, Nehru became the Prime Minister of independent India, while Gandhi, who enjoyed both mass popularity and an exalted legacy, was anointed ‘Father of the Nation’.

Hardline foreign policy

Savarkar’s take on geopolitics and the conduct of foreign affairs stands out in the book; he propagated a hardline instrumentalist approach to foreign policy where national interests would override any ideological affiliations.

Savarkar’s views on geopolitics found appreciation from Rash Behari Bose; it is imperative to underline that another famous Bose, Netaji Subhas Chandra, also held similar views about India’s foreign policy. Sampath attributes the failure of the Hindu Mahasabha in capturing popular public support to Savarkar’s reluctance to forge a broad-based political affiliation and his aversion to active public mobilisations. No wonder that Savarkar was consigned to the Hindutva camp alone, or as Ashis Nandy says, he became the ‘disowned father of the nation in India.’

The book is not just about Savarkar and his contested legacy. It is also a lesson on how to understand and treat ‘differences’, and appreciate the context and nuances of the lives of contested figures like Savarkar in times of ‘cancel culture’ and intellectual intolerance.

Sampath equips readers with all the necessary insights and details to revisit and re-evaluate existing opinions about Savarkar — the atheist/ Hindutva ideologue, the freedom fighter/ revolutionary, the prisoner/ survivor, the amateur historian/ poet, the modernist/ nationalist reformer, the hardline political activist/ theorist. He wore many hats in his lifetime and influenced many individuals and events. Sampath brings out the contradictions, complexities and complicities that have shaped his legacy, and this intellectual commitment deserves acknowledgement and appreciation.

Sampath is not your average historian, whose craft has been honed in the ideological settings of institutions or through patronage from the established and recognised ecosystems of knowledge production and intellectual discourse. Although not always possible for a popular book of this length, it would have been helpful for readers, especially students of history, to get a sense of the research methodology and trajectory that have informed the text. This is only briefly captured in the acknowledgements but deserved a chapter of its own — an evaluation of the sources used, the translations undertaken and the difficulties in accessing archives.

This book is a must-read for all students of history and politics, for everyone else who wants to understand the angst of contemporary times, simmering identity politics, and the struggles of postcolonial India as reflected in the life stories of figures such as Savarkar. Disagreements and informed arguments are fine; erasures and labels are not.

Savarkar: A Contested Legacy, 1924-1966; Vikram Sampath, Penguin Random House India, ₹999.

The reviewer is Professor at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden. She tweets @swatipash


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