Review of Janaki Bakhle’s Savarkar and the Making of Hindutva: The politics of exclusion

Through his writings, Janaki Bakhle explores Savarkar’s ideas, and how he shaped the Hindutva blueprint

Updated - May 29, 2024 02:33 pm IST

Published - May 24, 2024 09:03 am IST

The room of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, known as Veer Savarkar, at Fergusson College, Pune.

The room of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, known as Veer Savarkar, at Fergusson College, Pune. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Noted historian Janaki Bakhle’s book, Savarkar and the Making of Hindutva, was supposed to be a quick follow-up to her earlier work, Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition, but it got delayed for all the right reasons. A dozen of her friends and intellectuals read and weighed in on her manuscript and this undoubtedly added multiple layers, ensuring the book stands out as probably the most detailed and dispassionate analysis of the ideals of Savarkar.

People beside a huge rangoli of Savarkar, in Mumbai.

People beside a huge rangoli of Savarkar, in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Many may disagree with some of her denunciations and conclusions. Yet, though Savarkar has received abundant belated attention in books and cinema, Bakhle’s work considerably enriches the discourse, going beyond the usual binaries associated with Savarkar.

Premise of hate

The book opens with a detailed account of Savarkar’s extradition from England. It is an interesting springboard to dive into the life of the man who considered the Revolt of 1857 as the First War of Independence yet did nothing to hide his animosity towards Muslims. Bakhle recounts his escape from London: “On July 20, 1910, The (London) Times reported a daring escape by a young Indian law student being extradited to India to stand trial on charges of treason and abetment to murder. When the SS Morea docked near the port of Marseilles, the student squeezed himself out of a porthole near the ship’s bathroom and swam to the shore. He requested asylum as a political prisoner but was returned to the British detectives in charge of him... The twenty-seven-year-old student was then brought to India, where he was tried and sentenced to an unprecedented two life terms of banishment to a penal colony... His name was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an Indian revolutionary nationalist who believed uncompromisingly that armed struggle was the only way for India to free herself from British colonial rule.”

While he was deported from England for supplying pistols for political assassinations back in India, Savarkar had found himself on the wrong side of the law early in his life. He made no attempt to hide his hatred for Muslims under the euphemism of prejudice. After his release from the Andamans, in 1928 he began penning Majhya Athavani (My Recollections) and wrote without a trace of remorse about the fight he had engineered with Muslim children in Bhagur, his ancestral village. Savarkar, born in 1883, once wrote, “Between 1894 and 1895, in Bombay, Pune, etc, in a number of places, there were terrible riots between Hindus and Muslims. In Kesari, Pune Vaibhav we would be so eager to read the news, we would wait for them to arrive by mail for hours... When Muslims initiated riots and defeated Hindus, we would be dejected... Suddenly, Hindus reacted and defeated Muslims and our elation would reach the skies.”

A view of a plinth bearing the busts of Veer Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in New Delhi.

A view of a plinth bearing the busts of Veer Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In boyhood itself, Savarkar decided to avenge a perceived insult to the community by organising a band of Hindu boys. Savarkar wrote, “I gathered my boyhood friends and decided that in Bhagur we would avenge this national insult and was there any better way to do that than to attack the only mosque located outside the village boundaries... One evening, like the stealth of enemies, we staked out the mosque. There was not a single person there... so we ransacked and vandalised it to our heart’s content.”

Birth of an ideology

He lived with the same persistent hatred for anything non-Hindu, particularly, Muslims. In 1923, he demarcated Essentials of Hindutva under the pseudonym A. Mahratta. It was, as Bakhle writes, a “celebration of the Indian territorial nation”, and was to go on to become the blueprint for exclusionary Hindu nationalism that we often hear about today. This essay added the term Hindutva to Hindu right-wing ideology, and was the first attempt to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens on the basis of religion.

To Savarkar only those whose ‘pitrabhumi’ (fatherland) and ‘punyabhumi’ (sacred land) were within the geographical confines of India were its natural inhabitants. Thanks to this value system, he saw support for the Khilafat Movement in 1919 as a repudiation of love for India. Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the Khilafat stir greatly upset him.

The exclusionary ideology was to reach its peak in 1937 when Savarkar, much like many politicians today, claimed, “Hindus had been cruelly tortured and massacred for not embracing Islam”. By this time, as Bakhle points out, “he seemed far more concerned with Muslims than the British”. Which was a pity considering Savarkar was much more than a politician or even a Hindu nationalist. He was a poet, a playwright, a polemicist who fought many a battle with the might of his pen.

It is to Bakhle’s credit that she uses her knowledge of Marathi to dig into primary literature on and by Savarkar. As she writes in the book, “I am not writing a story of Savarkar’s life, nor am I writing the first intellectual biography of Savarkar. I am, however, writing a book that brings both English and Marathi sources into conversation to tell a story through Savarkar about the foundational political ideas that have become central in... Indian political life.”

A portrait of right-wing ideologue Veer Savarkar at Central Hall of Parliament House, in New Delhi.

A portrait of right-wing ideologue Veer Savarkar at Central Hall of Parliament House, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Three categorisations

So was Savarkar the father of Hindu majoritarianism? Bakhle isn’t telling. She does, however, explain, “Savarkar’s Muslims fell into three stereotypical groups, ungrateful liars who demanded and received special treatment from the Indian government; violent and base Muslims so monstrous that they routinely raped and murdered Hindu women and children; and Muslims who walked all over Hindus who endured this treatment because over the centuries they had allowed themselves to be emasculated by Muslim men.”

If Savarkar wore his hatred for Muslims as a badge of honour, this book is a remarkable exercise to present a well rounded view of the times in which Savarkar lived, the man he was, the leader he could have been.

Savarkar and the Making of Hindutva; Janaki Bakhle, Princeton University Press, ₹999.

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