THE LIFE AND WORKS of VD Savarkar (1883- 1966) make for a contested terrain in the history of our Republic. His leadership of the Hindu Mahasabha from the late 1920s and his alleged role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi remain prominent features of public narrative and debate despite the decades that have elapsed. The early Savarkar is not without controversy. Convicted for his role in the murder of a British official, he was sentenced in 1910 to imprisonment for life and transportation to the Andamans. It is said that he apologised to the Government and swore future loyalty to it. In return, it is claimed, he was returned to Maharashtra for the rest of his jail term. If this is another aspect of his legacy that is disputed, the fact also remains that he spent over a decade in jail in the Andamans.
It is Savarkar’s political philosophy, however, which is either most admired or objected to. His book Hindutva or Who is a Hindu (1923) remains a seminal text for his followers and admirers. In it, Savarkar listed three criteria for confirming the ‘Hindutva’ of a person: (i) Geographical, (ii) Racial, and (iii) Cultural. Religion, if at all, was important only for its cultural connotations. Thus, what united Hindus was ‘the tie we bear to our common fatherland, and by the common blood that coursed through our veins and also by the tie of a common homage we pay to our great civilization or Hindu culture’. In essence, this triple criterion reduced itself to a single one: a Hindu was one who followed a religion which had originated in India. Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, etcetera, were Hindus while Muslims (and Christians) were obviously not. Such a definition carried the implication that the primordial loyalties of the country’s Muslims were not towards India since their religion was foreign.
This was frequently stated by Savarkar as president of the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1930s. Addressing the 19th Session of the All India Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, he had said: “The Mohammedans are likely to prove dangerous to our Hindu nation and to the existence of a common Hindu state even if and when England goes out. Let us not be stone blind to the fact that they as a community still continue to cherish fanatical designs to establish Muslim rule in India.” Elsewhere in the same address, he was to say, “There are two antagonistic nations living side by side in India,” a position he had held for some years.
As the 160th anniversary of the great national revolt of 1857 draws to a close, it is of use to see its afterlife in the 20th century. That is, after all, the true measure of any event of importance: its memory passes on from one generation to the next even as the meaning of that memory may change. In this context, it is interesting to probe deeper into Savarkar’s early life as he entered public life and debate in the first decade of the 20th century. One of his best-known works, The First Indian War of Independence, was researched and written during his stay in London as a law student. Originally written in Marathi, it was translated into English and proscribed by the Government of India even before it was printed. According to Dhananjay Keer, Savarkar’s authorised biographer, the book was finally published in Holland in 1909 and copies then smuggled into India, where it quickly became a nationalist text of significance. Jawaharlal Nehru, writing some three decades later inThe Discovery of India, described it as an Indian account in contrast to the ‘great deal of false and perverted history’ written about the events of 1857. Nehru wrote, ‘Savarkar wrote… some thirty years ago but his book was promptly banned and is banned still.’
Savarkar saw in the past both conflict and insecurity—yet, to him it was still swaraj; he was to characterise the pre-British age as being one of Muslim tyranny and Hindu resistance
While still in London, Savarkar was arrested and then sent back to India for his role in the murder of a British officer in India. His arrest in England, a daring escape in France while being shipped back to India, his re-arrest and extradition, and finally his trial in India all made for prominent news stories at the time and added to his lustre and image as a committed fighter for freedom. He was sentenced to transportation for life and by mid-1911 was in jail in the Andamans. There he remained till 1923, when he was brought back to Maharashtra and conditionally released.
Re-reading The First Indian War today, its most striking feature, especially in the context of Savarkar’s later works, is the absence of any sense that Muslims were any less as co-sharers in the liberation struggle. As its title suggests, it was an ‘Indian’ rather than a Hindu or a Muslim war of independence. Savarkar wrote to seek inspiration for himself and others from the events of 1857. ‘The spirits of the dead seemed hallowed by martyrdom and out of the heap of ashes appeared forth the sparks of a fiery inspiration.’ The struggle for independence then had a meaning that overrode all others. Savarkar wrote: ‘The feeling of hatred against the Mohammedans was just and necessary in the times of Shivaji but such a feeling would be unjust and unnecessary now, simply because it was the dominant feeling of the Hindus then.’ This was not because the 1857 rebellion was devoid of religious motives. To Savarkar, every revolution had necessarily possessed some ‘all moving or fundamental principle’; 1857 could not be explained, he felt, by conjunctural or incidental factors such as the undermining of the taluqdars or the use of greased cartridges. The real causes, deeper and ‘more inward’, were the principles of swadharma and swaraj. The mutiny, then, was as much to protect religion as to gain independence. Savarkar does not regard these two aims as contradictory: ‘The Eastern mind has maintained that there are no vast barriers between heaven and earth but the two are ends of one and the same thing. Our idea of swadharma is not contradictory to that of swaraj.’ The use of the term ‘eastern mind’ suggests that Savarkar accommodates both Hindus and Muslims in his premises and he saw the principles of swadhrma and swaraj as important to both Hindus and Muslims. ‘The sepoys would take the water of the Ganges or would swear by the Koran that they would live only to achieve the destruction of the English rule.’
Referring to a critical period of the uprising in Delhi in May 1857, Savarkar wrote:
The five days will be ever memorable in the history of Hindusthan! Because these five days proclaimed by beat of drum the end of the continuous fight between the Hindus and Mahomedans dating from the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni and on these days it was proclaimed first that the Hindus and the Mahomedans are not rivals, not conquerors and conquered, but brethren. …. Bharatmata pronounced the sacred spell of these days. ‘Hence forward you are equal and brothers. I am equally the mother of you both!’
The early Savarkar’s unequivo cal advocacy of a Hindu-Muslim unity can be gauged from the reasons he gives for the failure of the mutiny. It was not due to inadequate preparation. The main cause was that ‘though the plan of the de structive part was complete, its creative power was not attractive enough’
Such statements are in obvious contrast to Savarkar’s later position: Muslims would never participate in the freedom struggle, as their primordial loyalties were not to India. The early Savarkar’s unequivocal advocacy of a Hindu-Muslim unity can also be gauged from the reasons he gives for the failure of the mutiny. The failure was not due to inadequate preparation; ‘The preparations that existed in 1857 were not usually found in successful revolutions.’ The main cause for defeat was that ‘though the plan of the destructive part of the revolution was complete, its creative power was not attractive enough. Nobody was against destroying English power but what about the future? If it was only to establish the same state of affairs as before, the same Moghuls, the same Marathas, and the same old quarrels—condition being tired of which the nation in a moment of mad folly had allowed foreigners to come in—if it were only for this, the more ignorant of the populace did not think it worthwhile to shed their blood for it.’ Even more striking was the judgement he passed on the ‘more ignorant of the populace’ who did not participate in the mutiny since it meant going back to a period of insecurity: ‘The whole sins of this defeat lies on the head of the traitors,’ the glory belonging to ‘those heroes who thoroughly understood that foreign domination is worse than swaraj—democratic or monarchial or even anarchical’.
Savarkar was not painting a picture of a pre-British golden age. He saw in the past both conflict and insecurity—yet, to him it was still swaraj; in later years, he was to characterise the pre-British age as being one of Muslim tyranny and Hindu resistance. Yet in 1909, he described as sinners those who were apprehensive of restoring the state of affairs which had existed prior to the British, ‘idle, effeminate, selfish und treacherous’. His treatment of the insurrection in Faizabad and of the leadership of Maulvi Ahmad Shah is also instructive: ‘He fought for the honour of his nation and on behalf of the millions of his countrymen.’ The Maulvi offered ‘as dogged a resistance to the foreigner as he could’ and sought towards the end the help of Jagannath Singh, the Raja of Powen, who had him killed. Jagannath Singh, Savarkar wrote, was ‘fat and unwieldy in body, lazy and sloth in action and crazy and dull in intellect… as treacherous as he was cowardly’ and the ‘fat brute of Powen was rewarded with fifty thousand Rupees for this, his nefarious act of treachery!’.
About Moulvi Ahmad Shah in contrast, Savarkar writes: ‘It is impossible to find a character who has illumined the life of this nation with more noble patriotism than this hero. The life of this brave Mahomedan shows that a deep faith in the doctrines of Islam is in no way inconsistent with, or antagonistic to, deep and all-powerful love of the Indian soil! That a Mahomedan dominated by an uncommonly spiritual impulse, can, at the same time, nay, by the very fact of his being so dominated, be also a patriot of the highest excellence, offering his very life blood on the altar of Mughal India, so that she might [raise] her head as an independent and free country; and that the true believer in Islam will feel it a pride to belong to, and a privilege to die for, his mother country.’
Savarkar’s later historical works, and in particular Hindu Pad Padashahi or A Review of the Hindu Empire of Maharashtra (1925), show a different focus and orientation. The glory of the Maratha empire, although not all India in character, still lay in its reflecting ‘the history of Hindudom as a whole’. This was because the Hindus ‘are an undivided entity and so the achievement of a section necessarily reveals the potential of the whole race’. In the early 1960s and towards the end of his life, Savarkar revisited the history of 1857 and his reading of its history now is more consistent with his view in the 1920s and the 1930s. The Partition of India in 1947 was the result of the British wanting to reward ‘those Muslims who had consistently and treacherously helped the British throughout the Indian War of Liberation ever since 1857…’
How unusual is this change? It marks to some extent the turbulence in India of the early decades of the 20th century. Sri Aurobindo moved from being a revolutionary to a mystic and philosopher. Subhas Chandra Bose, the committed Gandhian of the early 1920s, was, in concert with Japan, to form and lead an army against Britain, to the frontiers of India to liberate it. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was described as the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity with the Lucknow Pact of 1916 but ended up as the spirit behind the Pakistan Resolution of 1940. The Jinnah analogy merits a pause. He had stayed away from the group of Muslim notables who had formed the Muslim League in 1906. In the second decade of that century, his stated ambition was to “become the Muslim Gokhale”. Sarojini Naidu’s description of him was that there was something ‘symbolic in the Khoja parentage’, of someone who was ‘an embodied symbol’ of Hindu Muslim unity’.
Savarkar was in the cellular jail in the Andamans from 1911 to 1923. Did some particularly embittering experience there lead to this change in view? Or was it a return to the highly polarised atmosphere in India in 1923 and what followed the termination of the Non-Cooperation Movement as the Khilafat agitation petered out and communal rioting came to the fore? Or could it be that while writing 1857, Savarkar was deeply affected by the experience of living in London, the imperial metropolis, and saw himself through the prism of being the governed Indian rather than as Hindu or Muslim? In any event, 1857 remains a landmark in the historiography of nationalism in India as equally to provide a contrast with the later Savarkar.
Savarkar wrote history with a specific purpose: ‘The nation that has no consciousness of its past has no future.’ The past he first wrote about was one when Indians had jointly waged ‘a war of independence’ and we are left wondering about the young revolutionary who so passionately inquired from those who had participated in the events of 1857: ‘Whisper on to us by what magic you had caught the secret of union. How the firanghee rule was shattered to pieces and the swadeshi throne set up by the common consent of the Hindu and the Muslims.’