Shorts In The Dark

Veer Savarkar's sunrise moment

There are times one feels closer to Savarkar's ideas than Gandhi's.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  4-minute read |   02-11-2019
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When I mentioned to a liberal friend that I was thinking of writing a column on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, he categorically said: "Don't write that article." I found this problematic.

Another friend went ahead and wrote not a piece but a tome on Savarkar. He then went and got the book and himself photographed with the PM. This too, I found problematic. It's one thing to write a biography on a subject, another to become a sarkari Savarkar hagiographer. 

Polarising figure

The intolerance of liberals towards Savarkar stems from a single bloody event — the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse and Savarkar's role in it. This prevents them from seeing Savarkar as a fascinating historical figure in his own right.

The BJP's quest for fantasy fulfilment means that it ignores chunks of Savarkar's writings that sit at odds with its professed beliefs. While Savarkar's book, Hindutva, gave them a coinage and nomenclature, it's also true that they choose to conveniently ignore aspects of his radical thought (the ones I admire) that run counter to their current cut-and-paste ideological thrust. This selective appropriation is further in evidence in the lionisation of Sardar Patel, the 'iron man'.

The truth is that in February 1948, Patel wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru: "I have kept myself almost in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu's assassination case. It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through."

What the BJP admires about Patel is the strongman who managed the integration of princely states in India, especially the bloody takeover of Muslim-administered Hyderabad in 1948.

Operation Polo took five days; around 40,000 lives were lost.

Almost all that I admire in Savarkar is disregarded by the Hindu Right. If he is awarded the Bharat Ratna, I'd say: "Right man, but for all the wrong reasons."

There are times one feels closer to Savarkar's ideas than Gandhi's. He, like me, was an atheist. Hindutva is a cultural idea, nothing to do with belief. Like me, he believes that India needs to industrialise and give up its overt religiosity if it has to progress. Orthodox Hindus of the time despised his reformist views. He advocated the eating of beef and criticised Hindus who advocated the worship of cow as mother, the belief that crores of gods reside in the cow. Here too, I felt a kinship with Savarkar: The first thing I did on arriving in England as a student was to have a Big Mac.

A patriot

Savarkar fought for the entry of untouchables into temples, advocated co-dining to break the shackles of caste and fought for the abolishment of the caste system. He questioned Hindus who consumed cow urine but wouldn't accept a glass of water from BR Ambedkar. Savarkar's tales of daring are the stuff of adventure stories, from getting a British civil servant bumped off in London (then defending the assassin in a court of law), to jumping into the sea at Marseilles in a failed attempt to escape the British who were transporting him back to India, not to mention his incarceration in the Andamans.

One of the most-awaited books on Savarkar, an intellectual history, is being authored by Vinayak Chaturvedi, associate professor of history at the University of California Irvine. In an interview to Jacobin, Chaturvedi fleshes out the era that Savarkar was a part of, and quoting Chris Bayley, calls it "a fluid intellectual economy." Intellectuals of the time read each other, engaged with each other.

Savarkar, as an anti-imperialist figure, had the public support of leading anarchists and socialists in the West. In India, in the 1920s, Bhagat Singh expressly stated that to become a member of his Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, individuals needed to read The Life of Barrister Savarkar. MN Roy, one of the founders of the Mexican Communist Party, described himself as an admirer of Savarkar; when the latter was released from prison in 1937, Roy touched his feet.


To understand this fluid intellectual economy, think of Indian Independence as a sealed barricaded house. Everyone was trying to find a way in. The approaches were many: Gandhi believed in non-violence; Savarkar, of a different temperament, wasn't averse to it, while Roy was hobnobbing and debating with Lenin in Russia. Yet others were looking to European fascism. Everyone's goal was the same: India should be in charge of its own destiny.

Today's India needs to reclaim this fluid intellectual economy. The either/or Savarkar trap is dangerous and simplistic. As Girish Kuber wrote in an op-ed: "Neither 'Hindutvavadi' nor an 'anti-Hindu approach' will take us anywhere." Vinayak Chaturvedi invokes late Marxist playwright and academic GP Deshpande: "Time has come for the Left to have a 'Savarkar moment,' to really engage with his ideas as a way to counter the political movement of Hindutva that is taking place today."

The Hindu Right's ideas about cultural hegemony are functional and democratically effective on the ground. The real problem with both the Hindu Right, and its ideological father, Savarkar, lies in the marginalising of and unbridled animosity towards Muslims.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: What fuels the hatred towards Veer Damodar Savarkar


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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