Vinayak Damodar (“Veer”) Savarkar can, with some justice, be described as the inspirational force behind the resurgence of militant Hinduism in contemporary India. His fame has been on the ascendancy since the Hindu right captured power in India less than a decade ago, and lately he has been lionized in the film “Veer Savarkar” by the filmmaker Sudhir Phadke, a fellow Maharashtrian. In May 2002, L. K. Advani spoke glowingly of Savarkar and Hedgewar, the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], as men who had “kindled fierce nationalistic spirit that contributed to India’s liberation.” Savarkar’s advocates view him as a luminous visionary, a supreme patriot who sacrificed much for the defense of Mother India, a great revolutionary and even social reformer; his opponents, who generally do not question his patriotism, nevertheless point to his political conservatism, his support of reactionary movements, and his advocacy of a communal-based politics verging on fascism.
Savarkar was born in Bhagur village in Nasik district of present-day Maharashtra on 28 May 1883 into a Chitpavan Brahmin family. His early exposure to the political activities of the Maharashtrian elite who were opposed to British rule may have come at the hands of his elder brother, Ganesh [Babarao], who is said to have been greatly inspired by the actions of Lokmanya Tilak, the Chapekar Brothers, and other revolutionaries. The Savarkar brothers were active in the Mitra Mela, a secret society formed with the aim of liberating, through the use of armed force, India from British rule. Veer Savarkar attended Fergusson College in Pune: his biographer, Dhananjay Keer, notes that Savarkar gathered around him a group of students who debated European political texts, discussed revolution, and championed swadeshi [self-reliance]. In 1906, Savarkar left for London to get credentialed in law; his passage was paid for by Shyam Krishnavarma, an Indian patriot settled in London who used his journal, The Indian Sociologist, to make a case for Indian independence. The journal was advocating violent revolution by 1909; but before then, in 1907, Savarkar had published a Marathi translation of Mazzini’s autobiography which did very well. By early 1909, according to the senior intelligence officer James Campbell Ker, author of Political Trouble in India 1907-1917 [1917, reprinted 1973 by Oriental Publishers, Delhi], Savarkar had taken charge of India House, the London headquarters of those Indians who claimed revolutionary credentials (p. 177). That year, on July 1, Madan Lal Dhingra assassinated Sir William Curzon-Wyllie at the Imperial Institute. This assassination, less than a month after Ganesh Savarkar was convicted on the charge of sedition and sentenced to transportation for life, is said to have been instigated by Savarkar’s orders; yet Savarkar himself never wielded any arms. His critics, quite rightly, describe this cowardice as typical of Savarkar’s conduct; and it is striking, of course, that nearly 40 years later Savarkar was again thought to have encouraged and instigated Nathuram Godse to murder Mahatma Gandhi, without himself having taken up arms. It is more than likely that Savarkar became a master at manipulating those who looked up to him, and sought to conduct his violent activities without explicitly implicating himself in gruesome deeds of murder.
A steady stream of publications emerged from Savarkar’s pen over a course of five decades, and his first substantial work, the Indian War of Independence, appeared in 1908, or fifty years after the rebellion of 1857-58 had been crushed. Though in this work Savarkar argued that Hindus and Muslims had stood together in resistance to the British, in later works he showed himself much less enamored of Hindu-Muslim unity, and for most of his adult life he would, in fact, become known for his advocacy of the rights of Hindus. Hindu Pad-Padashahi , a treatise on Hindu Kingship, or more particularly on the glories of India under Maratha rule, showed as well the impact of political events on Savarkar’s thinking: both the Khilafat movement, as well as the Moplah Rebellion, doubtless played a part in turning Savarkar against Muslims. However, his signature piece, in this respect, was a “treatise” he penned in 1922, “Essentials of Hindutva”, a more elaborate version of which appeared in 1928 as Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (Nagpur, 1928). Savarkar vigorously set forth the idea that Hindus constituted a nation, bound together by common blood, and that Hindus were united “by the tie of a common heritage we pay to our great civilization — our Hindu culture”. Savarkar eschewed the word “Hinduism”; to him, Hindutva represented the essence of the Hindu way of life. As he wrote, “If there be any word of alien growth it is this word Hinduism and so we should not allow our thoughts to get confused by this new fangled term.” The Hindus’ devotion to their motherland was supreme; indeed, whosoever was devoted to Hindustan, and considered it his or her holy land (punyabhoomi), was a Hindu.
The most elaborate legend, vigorously promoted by Savarkar’s friends and admirers, has developed around his supposed bravery. In 1910, as Savarkar was being taken to India after a warrant had been issued for his arrest on charges of sedition and treason, he escaped as his ship docked at Marseilles. Upon being recaptured, Savarkar challenged the legality of his arrest in France, but the international court at Hague, though it took the view that an illegality had been committed when Savarkar was handed over to the British police, nonetheless ruled against Savarkar. Savarkar was, at his trial in Bombay, sentenced to imprisonment for life, and transported to the Andamans. In 1922, he was sent back to India, but confined to Ratnagiri District until 1937. Yet, to put it mildly, there are serious reasons to doubt whether Savarkar was deserving of the epithet of “Veer” [brave] that was bestowed on him. The indisputable fact remains that throughout his political life, Savarkar showed himself perfectly capable of not merely negotiating with the British, but serving as an active collaborator. When confined to jail in the Andamans, Savarkar negotiated with the British to have himself set free. Moreover, when Congress refused to form a government in the Central Provinces and Bengal, the Hindu Mahasabha under Savarkar’s guidance opted to collaborate with the British. He thought it a God-given opportunity for the Mahasabha to flex its muscles while the Congress was in hibernation. Similarly, though the Congress declared itself opposed to offering the British any assistance during World War II, Savarkar was keen that Hindus should acquire experience in the use of firearms. Savarkar saw in World War II an opportunity for Hindus, who had been emasculated (in Savarkar’s view) by centuries of oppression under Muslim and British rule, and rendered incapable of even elementary knowledge in the discharge of firearms by virtue of legislation that forbid ownership of guns among Indians. to become versed in fighting strategies. Not only did the Hindu Mahasabha, whose presidency Savarkar assumed in 1937 upon the rescission of the order which confined him to Ratnagiri District, not oppose the British position in World War II, but the Mahasabha played no role in the Quit India movement and indeed even assisted the British in its suppression.
In the last analysis, Savarkar appears as an extraordinary embodiment of utter mediocrity. In the large corpus of his writings, there is barely anything to suggest a creative mind at work, and one searches in vain for any original idea. Savarkar imbibed the worst of Western political and social traditions, and his warped ideas about race superiority, the survival of the fittest, and the nation as a “blood entity”, so to speak, were derived from the most objectionable strands of Western thinking. In his avid desire to militarize the Hindus, he showed himself hostage to crude notions of realpolitik. He perfected the art of assassination and political intrigue by remote control, and his true disciple in this respect is Bal Thackeray. It is no surprise that he should appeal to the leadership of the present generation of Hindu extremists, who are similarly bereft of intellectual ideas, moral sentiments, and the barest standards of truth in public life, and whose idea of bravery entails murderous onslaught upon religious minorities. If Savarkar is at all to be remembered, let it not be forgotten that as Nathuram Godse plotted to take Mahatma Gandhi’s life, Savarkar blessed him and wished him success in his God-given task.
Keer, Dhananjay. Veer Savarkar. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1966.
Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. The Indian War of Independence, 1857. New Delhi: Rajdhani Granthnagar, 1970; 1st ed., 1908.
Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Nagpur, 1928.
Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. Hindu Rashtra Darshan: A Collection of Presidential Speeches Delivered from the Hindu Mahasabha Platform. Bombay: Khare, 1949.
Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History. Trans. and ed. S. T. Godbole. Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1985.
Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. My Transportation for Life. Trans. V. N. Naik. Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1984; 1st ed., 1949.
This article first appeared on southasia.ucla.edu