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A Book That Attempts to Understand, Not Condemn, V.D. Savarkar

In Vinayak Chaturvedi's 'Hindutva and Violence', we see the origins of what we are faced with today and what we will face in the foreseeable future.

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Professor Vinayak Chaturvedi of the University of California at Irvine – named “Vinayak” after Savarkar by Dr. Parchure of Gwalior who furnished Nathuram Godse with the Baretta pistol that killed the Mahatma – has chosen his title with exceptional care.

His is an exposition of the politics that Savarkar played with his version of history, “history in full”, as he described it, aimed, above all, at “the resurrection of Hindu Empires of centuries past”. The purpose, as explained on the title page of Savarkar’s “seminal work”, was emblazoned on the first page of his Essentials of Hindutva (1923): “Hinduize Politics and Militarize Hindudom.” 

‘Hindutva and Violence: V. D. Savarkar and the Politics of History,’ Vinayak Chaturvedi, Permanent Black, 2022.

Chaturvedi makes clear that his is not a biography nor indeed a “hagiographic biography” (as are a spate of recent publications on Savarkar’s life), but rather an engagement with Savarkar’s ideas “for the purpose of examining how they have influenced the making of modern political thought.”

The imperative for this exercise is that while through most of the 20th century, Savarkar’s thoughts mouldered on the margins of the nation’s political discourse, ever since the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat (which left “nearly 2000 killed, 150,00 displaced and 100,000 forced into relief camps”), it is the “threads of his thoughts” that have now become “central to the public debate in India”.

In consequence of Savarkar’s political philosophy, “the violence of Hindutva (has) replaced the non-violence of Gandhi”.

Drawing on the reflections of the Leftist historian, G.P. Deshpande (The World of Ideas in Modern Marathi), Chaturvedi stresses that while “a critique of Savarkar is sorely needed”, such a critique “will have to be directed at (Savarkar’s) world of ideas.

For his part, Chaturvedi is not interested in “condemning” Savarkar as “unpatriotic or a British loyalist – accusations raised by many of his critics”, but in examining, in a detached and scholarly idiom, the “political thought” of V.D. Savarkar.

To do this, Chaturvedi has acquainted himself with Savarkar’s vast body of writings, beginning with Joseph Mazzini (1907), his translation into Marathi of a selection of the writings of his role model, the Italian revolutionary. Savarkar then went on to write The Indian War of Independence (1909), which made him the favourite historian of Indian nationalists, before going on to Essentials of Hindutva (1923), which narrowed his appeal from Indian to Hindu nationalists.

‘Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History,’ V.D. Savarkar.

There followed three books: Hindu Pad-Padshahi (1925) in English; Majhi Janmathep (1927); and, finally, the distillation of his life-long endeavours, Bharatiya Itihasil Saha Soneri Pane (1963, finished on his deathbed), in Marathi. This last has been translated into English under the title Six Golden Epochs in Indian History but Chaturvedi seems to prefer “leaves” or “pages” to “epochs” as the correct translation of Soneri Pane

Savarkar, as a writer, was both prolific and prolix. Balarao, his personal secretary, lists Savarkar’s oeuvre as comprising, besides his books, “3 dramas, 2 novels, ten thousand lines of poetry, 25 short stories” and “hundreds of articles that are compiled in about 20 books”.

These compilations include Hindu Sangathan (1940) and Hindu Rashtra Darshan (1949). Moreover, his writings can be accessed at www.savarkar.org. He wrote in English, Marathi, Sanskrit and Hindi but, adds Chaturvedi somewhat surprisingly, perhaps also in Bengali and Urdu!

When under detention in Ratnagiri district for nearly 15 years after his release, on the strict condition of eschewing all political activity, he wrote under the pseudonyms “An Indian Nationalist” and “A Maratha”, or in the names of his brothers, Ganesh and Narayan, to escape the censor’s eye. 

While the word “Hindutva” seems to have originated in an eponymous 1892 work of Chandranath Basu, a well-known intellectual of Bengal in his time, Hindutva is defined by Savarkar somewhat cyclically as: “Hindutva embraces all depths of thought and activity …of our Hinduness”. His overarching mission was proclaimed on the front page of Essentials in a strident slogan: “Hindus we are, and love to remain so.” But, he also explained, “Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva”- “Hindutva,” he held, “is history”, not a “spiritual or religious history” but “history in full”. 

Also read: The Call to Ban Savarkar and Golwalkar from the Classroom Reflects Culture of Intolerance

It is this “history in full” that Chaturvedi unveils, annotates and explains in the “trajectory of (Savarkar’s) interpretation” of Hindutva from Essentials of Hindutva (1923) to its culmination, forty years later, in Bharatiyil Itihaasil Saha Sone Pane (Six Glorious Epochs in Indian History, 1963, translated by S.T. Godbole into English posthumously, 1971). Savarkar’s principal conclusion, in Chaturvedi’s words, was that “Hindus had not only existed in a state of war in the past, but they also needed to embrace permanent war as part of their future” for “Hindus understand themselves as Hindus through acts of violence”.

Savarkar claimed that he “abhorred” violence, especially when directed against the weak. Yet, his Essentials is a paean of high praise to the Aryan “conquest and colonization of lands and tribes” in the Sapta Sindhu area after which “the Aryans (as conquerors) and the tribes (as the conquered) came together to form the national and cultural unity reflected in the term ‘Hindu’.”  

It seems that where Gandhi and Nehru were exposed to Western thought through education in English and thus came to admire the values of liberty and liberalism championed by the likes of John Stuart Mill, Savarkar, who too was similarly exposed, was more impressed with the manner of expansion of British imperialism and its racist mission civilisatrice. He admired the “brutal takeover of territory, in which large armies devastated the landscape by burning it to the ground and massacring the local people” during the Aryan invasion of India. For Savarkar, the Aryan expansion as “a process of colonization was not simply a conquest of land, it was also cultural imperialism…a dialectical process in which the colonizer and the colonized both became ‘Hindu’.”

Lord Ramchandra’s “victory over the king of Lanka, Ravana, represented the final stage in the colonization of land that started with the entry (into Hindusthan) of Aryan tribes”. The violence was justified, even lauded by Savarkar because, as he argued, it “actually brought the whole land from the Himalaya to the Seas under one sovereign sway”, knitting Aryan and Anaryan “together under the classification ‘Hindu’.” This was the creation of a unified nation of Hindus, marking a territory that was finally conquered by Hindus, and a holy place in the world meant only for Hindus” (emphasis added). Savarkar’s thrust was to portray “the history of Hindus (as) both a history of conquest over large populations and a history of such populations becoming Hindu.”

Savarkar’s point “was to argue that violence was at the centre of the formation of the Hindu as a Hindu”, “a foundational characteristic of the very meaning of ‘Hindu’”, a celebration of “acts of violence through colonization”, and hence constituted “the nationalist history” (emphasis in original), in opposition to the nationalist history expounded by others, particularly Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress, who extolled “non-violence”.

Given these hosannas to violence and acts of war, it is hardly surprising that Savarkar finds Buddhist teachings to be “the opiates of universalism and non-violence…disastrous to national virility and even the existence of the (Hindu) race”, an “existential threat to all Hindus” and the “ultimate negation of Hindutva”. In his view, Asoka’s “turn to Buddhism meant that the land of the Hindus could not defend itself”. The first “Glorious Epoch” was thus Alexander’s retreat from the Indus. (“Alexander,” exclaims Savarkar, “was a conqueror! But not a world-conqueror! Conqueror of India he never was!” – the exclamation marks are all Savarkar’s).

Before his death, Alexander appointed satraps to govern his conquests. These included Seleucus Nicator in Bactria. Asoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, with strategic military advice from Chanakya (Kautilya), then defeated Seleucus in battle and took his niece for a wife. Thus the “heroes” of the first ‘Golden Epoch’ are Chandragupta and Chanakya (but curiously not Porus who confronted Alexander on the battlefield).

A ‘victory coin’ of Alexander, minted in Babylon c. 322 BC, following his campaigns in the Indian subcontinent. The reverse shows Alexander attacking king Porus on his elephant. Photo: Wikipedia/ (CC0 1.0)

However, Chandragupta’s grandson, Asoka, “abandoned a theory of warfare in favour of non-violence”. For Savarkar, “this encouraged new imperial ventures into India starting with the invasions of the Kushanas, the Sakas and the Huns, culminating in the invasions by Muslims and Christians.” It is in militarily repulsing these invasions with valour and violence that Savarkar discovers his ‘Golden Epochs’. Note that his Golden Epochs do not refer to the periods when Hindus attained the heights of civilization in spiritual thought, philosophical reflection, art and architecture, poetry and literature, mathematics, science and astronomy, or political and military theory (as in The Discovery of India), but the episodes in which “bloodshed and vengeance” on the part of Hindus are demonstrated as “parts of Nature”. As Savarkar sees it, “Asoka’s non-violence was antithetical to being a Hindu and thus ultimately also unnatural in the sense of being against Nature”

The hero of the second Golden Epoch is Pushyamitra whose heroism lies in beheading his Buddhist Emperor, Brihadrath Maurya, “abandoning the principle of non-violence, resuming warfare against foreign invaders and defending Hindu territory”. This shows that “Hindu history is always a history in which Hindus annihilate foreign aggressors and then assimilate survivors as Hindus” (although everyone knows that Kanishka, the greatest Kushana emperor, was a Buddhist!)

In similar vein, the heroes of the Third and Fourth ‘Golden Epochs’ are identified by Savarkar as Vikramaditya and Yashodharma for taking on the Sakas and the Huns. More correctly than with the Kushanas, he says of the Sakas that they “not only learned Sanskrit and sanskriti, most also converted to the Vedic religion”. The Huns too “took over willingly to Indian religions and languages and customs and within a generation or two merged so completely with the Hindus that they could never recollect their Hunnish extraction”.

It is when we come to the Fifth Glorious Epoch that one begins to appreciate the importance the author, Vinayak Chaturvedi, gives to Pane being translated as “pages” or “leaves”, rather than “epochs”. For Savarkar has as little to say about the civilisational legacy of the Indo-Muslims as he has had little to say of the civilisational achievements of the Hindus or the Indo-Buddhists. For him the Hindu-Muslim encounter (spread over more than a millennium) is a mahayuddha or “Epic Hindu Muslim War”. His intention is not to give “a detailed account of the continuous, long-drawn, fierce and gigantic Hindu-Muslim struggle” but to “examine thoroughly and from the Hindu standpoint this epic struggle”.

Savarkar sees the millennial interaction of Indians with a series of Muslims of diverse Afghan, Iranian, West Asian, Turkish and Turkic Central Asian origin, as the consequence essentially of Hindus “accepting Buddhism rather than eradicating it from India”. So, “Muslims, who aspired to both religious and political power, now dominated battlefields against the Hindus. Not only were Hindus defeated, but millions were converted to Islam. Moreover, Muslims were impervious to assimilation by Hindus”. And this was aggravated by the arrival of “Christian nations” like the “Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British…who had their own objective of religious and political conquest along the pattern set by the Muslims”. 

Also read: The Strange Irony of Roping in Mahatma Gandhi To Establish Savarkar’s Nationalist Credentials

This was the kernel of Savarkar’s view of the Fifth Golden Epoch, in which Muslims (and, later Christians) are portrayed as a single homogenous entity, no distinction being made between Mahmood of Ghazni repeatedly invading the country but invariable returning to his home in Afghanistan and Mohammed Ghori being invited by the Raja of Kannauj to bring his forces from Afghanistan to India, then seeing that the throne of Delhi was empty, sitting on the empty throne in 1192 and starting a Sultanate that lived out its life in the country, never even seeking to return to their original homeland. Nor giving any particular weight to Muslim potentates fighting off internal and external challenges from other Muslims but concentrating on “select Hindus (who) regularly rebelled against Muslims”. 

I am reminded of High Commissioner ‘Mani’ Dixit’s wry comment when the Pakistan President, after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, affirmed that Hindus were avenging themselves on Muslims for their defeat at the hands of Babar, reminded the Pak President that Babar had defeated not a Hindu but Ibrahim Lodhi, a fellow-Muslim, at the first Battle of Panipat, in 1526!

Savarkar sees Hindu heroism in the resistance of the Hindus who fought off Ghazni in Somnath even after King Bheem of Saurashtra “shamefully fled” the battlefield “leaving fifty thousand Hindus” dead in battle – “the Hindu heroes,” says Savarkar, “exemplifying the Hindu spirit”. Curiously, Savarkar makes no mention, as Jawaharlal Nehru does, of the Hindus who attacked the rear of Ghazni’s train in the deserts of Rajasthan and took away so much of Ghazni’s loot from Somnath that Mahmood Ghazni never returned to India again. 

Savarkar also makes no distinction between an integrationist like Akbar and a destructive force like Allauddin Khilji, nor between Jehangir and Shahjehan, on the one hand, and Aurangzeb, on the other. Nor between the “minor” Mughals who fell rapidly in murderous succession to their Muslim relatives or advisers, or to Muslim conquerors like Nader Shah and Abdali who vandalized the Muslim Mughals’ treasury, and a gentle poet-Emperor like Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’. All are lumped into one category – the despised Muslim. So also, with the Christians. 

This smoothens the path to Savarkar coming to his favourite “page” of Hindu history: the Hindu Pad Padshahi of the Marathas in which “despite a thousand years of Muslim invasions, Hindus still emerged victorious”.

It put me in mind of a question posed to us in my IAS exam: “The British took India from the Hindus, not the Muslims. Discuss.”

The uncomfortable fact is that while some of the Maratha heroes, notably Shivaji, did in fact inflict numerous defeats on Mughal forces, ultimately the Hindu Pad Padshai of the Peshwas was like a comet streaking through the skies. It did not last, it soon split up, and most of its most important clans became satraps of the British colonial authority. This is why, in the Fifth Golden Epoch that lasted more than a thousand years, “the thoughts and actions of Hindus appear to have disappointed Savarkar”. He comes to the doleful conclusion that only Arjuna and Lord Ram have emerged as “true” Hindu heroes in “Hindu history”. There is perhaps a third hero, Savarkar himself, who, in Majhi Janmasthep, had “compared himself to Arjuna and Ramchandra”.

A statue of Chattrapati Shivaji. Photo: Rahul Bulbule/Flickr Creative Commons

The Sixth Glorious Epoch “is short, and his book ends abruptly”, held up forever against the light of history as the “mighty Empire” that disappeared “so very suddenly and speedily, so very completely” – but only after dividing the nation in two. Gliding over the uncomfortable fact that it was centrally Gandhi and his non-violence that had won us Independence, with Savarkar giving short shrift to even revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and the armed struggle of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, the annulling of Partition becomes the central task of the Hindu now. This requires, says Savarkar, a two-pronged strategy: first, Hindus should “control” India; second, only thereafter could they “re-establish Hindu unity over lost territories”. To this end, the Hindu should remember that as “the Hindu became Hindu in the act of violence in the past”, “this would continue in the future – guided by the Hindu spirit”. What remains is him, Savarkar, “the maker of Hindu history”, as he urges his readers to study his autobiography “to understand the Sixth Glorious Epoch” for it is in this Epoch that he himself emerges as both the “writer” of history as also “the maker of history”. “The act of writing a Hindu history was Hindutva; so too was the act of making Hindu history”. This is what in his view, sets him, Savarkar, apart. He, in his own eyes, is the one true hero of the Sixth Glorious Epoch.

Also read: Savarkar, Gandhi and the Truth About the Partition of India

An early critic of Savarkar’s Glorious Epochs was J. Petrocinio de Souza, who dismissed the work as “a curious melange of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy…selecting sources that suit his argument about Hindutva and Hindu history”. His goal ever remained the establishment of “Hindu hegemony” over the whole world for, claimed Savarkar, ‘the only geographical limits of Hindutva are the limits of the earth”.

For decades after 1947, Savarkar found as little national endorsement as was displayed to his thoughts in the decades before Independence. But now that the BJP under Modi has become the dominant political force and is likely to indefinitely remain so, as Zoya Bhatti remarks in a recent piece for The Print, “From behind the books windows of…Delhi’s Full Circle Bookstore and the age-old Bahrisons Booksellers..a familiar bespectacled face wearing a round black cap stares at you – Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Paperbacks to hardcovers, the books bear a name that now stands resurrected, larger than many still alive”. 

To this horde is now added Professor Vinayak Chaturvedi’s scholarly book under review. Chaturvedi cites the historian, Sumit Sarkar, as saying, “For state-of-the-art historical understanding anywhere in the world where South Asian history is being studied, the assumptions of Savarkar…would appear to be so absurd as hardly worth refutation or debate”. Yet, rues Chaturvedi, “Hindutva cannot be ignored” because of the “fundamental thought” that “Hindutva is not a word but a history”. The present concatenation of events marks “the continuation of that struggle”.

The horrific consequence of this, as the author notes, is that “the poor, marginalized, and subordinated sometimes resort to violence, often genocidal in nature – at times in collaboration with the state, in other instances independent of it – in order to stake a claim within… to make history as killers in the name of Hindutva” (emphasis added).

That is the danger of our existential present.      

I would urge all readers of this review to dig for a thousand rupees into their pockets and get this sober, scholastic, deeply researched, “straight-from-the horse’s-mouth” account of the origins of what we are faced with today and into the foreseeable future. I repeat that the author seeks not to “condemn” but to “understand” a contribution to political thought that was largely sidelined in its time but, 60 years after Savarkar’s passing away, has been resurrected as the seminal source of our current establishment’s political thought. 

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former minister for petroleum and natural gas, a former member of the Lok Sabha, and a member of the Congress party.