There Is Much To Learn From Savarkar’s Work As A Historian, If Only We Would Bother To Read

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
  • Even though not formally trained as a historian, Savarkar’s interventions would count amongst the most important landmarks in Indian historiography

The nation that has no consciousness of its past has no future. Equally true it is that a nation must develop its capacity not only of claiming a past, but also of knowing how to use it for the furtherance of its future.

—Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

28 May, 2017, will be the 134th janmatithi of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (28 May, 1883 - 26th Feb, 1966). Formally qualified to be a lawyer, he shone bright as a freedom fighter, orator, poet , author, social reformer and a historian with profoud knowledge of, and insights into, the country's history.

Savarkar was not only conversant with Indian history, but also with Europe’s, and indeed it had a profound effect on his thinking.

Pertaining to Indian history, he produced two seminal works - Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History (first published in Marathi as सहा सोनेरी पाने) and 1857 - The Indian War of Independence (first written in Marathi as १८५७ चे स्वातंत्र्य समर ).

You might wonder whether Savarkar was a qualified historian. Well, he was not. Nonetheless, what is important in the two books is the approach he adopts towards the discipline and the subject of the books. Although the books do not boast of any ground breaking original research, they challenged the contemporary prevalent narratives forcefully.

I do not consider myself an expert on Savarkar and his work, but have an avid interest in India’s history. In that capacity, Veer Savarkar’s books are among my favourites when it comes to ‘the way history is told’.

This article is not a review of Six Glorious Epochs and 1857, rather it is about showing how Savarkar’s approach was grounded on a firm footing of nationalism and clarity of thought regarding how modern Indians should view their place in history. The books themselves are quite freely available for anyone wishing to read them.

Even today, the two bugbears of our history syllabi are - the long list of "conquests" by invaders and the unidimensional narrative of our freedom struggle. As early as 1909 (book on 1857) and much later the Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History had shown a fresh outlook towards these two questions. He wrote a third book - Hindu Padpaadshahi which concentrated on the Maratha Empire. Savarkar had also completed writing a book on the history of Sikhs, the manuscript of which was unfortunately lost before a single copy could be printed.
Given his fiery and inspiring style of writing, and the paucity of non-Punjabi literature on Sikh conquests, it would have been, like the other two books, something to treasure.

1857 - Indian War of Independence

This book grew out of an essay penned by Savarkar around 1908. The essay itself was a retort to the British Empire’s version of the 1857 rebellion. On the basis of just one chapter "Swarajya and Swadharma" which found its way to the intelligence department, the Marathi edition of the book was banned even before it was published. The British ensured that even the English edition could not come out in London or Paris. Eventually it would be published in Netherlands, and shipped to India disguised in covers of classics such as Don Quixote and Pickwick Papers ! The ban stayed for some forty years.

All of 24 years old when he wrote it, it was Savarkar's first foray into writing history. Till that point, the first war of independence in 1857 had been derisively referred to by the British as a " Sepoy Mutiny", which had been swallowed whole by many Indians. And hence, '1857' by Savarkar was a radical departure from the the dominant narrative. The Indian War of Independence talked of how the events were about a coordinated uprising against the British Empire on the strength of arms. It was an appeal to all Indians, Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor to rise and shake off the yoke of the Empire, something which their forefathers had been martyred in trying to do. The British government gave the best review possible to the book - they banned it. Banned it even before it was published.

Why indeed such harsh treatment for a book on a subject which had happened fifty years ago, at the time of writing? The British knew very well what they had to undergo to save their Indian Empire in 1857 and every effort since then had been to prevent the same explosive scenarios from coming to again in India. A second 1857-type situation might well have ended the British Raj in India.

Whether it was truly a "national uprising" is a topic that has been debated over and over again ever since, but what Savarkar achieved was to bring into public consciousness events that had truly shaken the British empire in 1857. Like all his other works, the book is about an idea and getting it across to people, rather than be a mere collection of facts. The book became a sort of bible for Indian revolutionaries, with multiple editions coming out. It was extremely popular with the INA and even Bhagat Singh printed two thousand odd copies. Thus, Savarkar showed that the events of 1857 were far more inspiring than what the British made them out to be.

A " chaotic sepoy mutiny" was a derisive term. " Indian War of Independence" turned this narrative on its head.

Cutting to the present, independent India has also more or less ignored the events of 1857, making our understanding of the British empire and their hold on India deficient. Perhaps because it does not fit into the narrative that a "nonviolent struggle led to freedom". And why just blame the British ? At a recent visit to the Red Fort , which was a focal point in 1857, I spotted a painting at the museum. A simple computer printed label was affixed to it - “ Sepoy Mutiny” !

Six Glorious epochs of Indian history

Now, to the other important book, Six Glorious epochs of Indian history. This book, in fact, is a good guideline on how we should go about reading India's history. Frankly, the book is a narrative in itself, diametrically opposite to the Delhi Sultanate-Great Mughals-British Empire narrative that is fed to us. It is perhaps even more relevant today than it was when it came out first many years ago. Again, like 1857, the central idea here is what is important in the book. If the prevalent narrative was about Bin Qasim, Mahmud of Ghazni, Babur, British Empire et al, Savarkar's Six Glorious Epochs takes a parallel route along similar timelines. The books shows how Indian rulers countered successive waves of invaders, and names such as Chandragupta, Pushyamitra Shunga, Yashodharman, Bappa Rawal are given their due place. This rendition of history by Savarkar, like his other works, is inspiring, and leads to a sense of pride about our past, rather than the despondent recollection of defeats which formed the core of popular knowledge back then, and continues to do so today.

It addresses another hallmark of our secular renditions - that of relegating histories of various regions of India into regional slots. So Sikh history is never heard of in rest of India away from Punjab , the west doesn't read about the east, and the north hardly reads about Cholas and Pandyas of the south. Every minor and obscure ruler of Delhi is extolled though, no matter what his influence on rest of the country. Similar comments can be made about the history of Nepal, again something never touched upon.

This book showed the scope and range of Savarkar's understanding of Indian history. For it is impossible to pen such a document without going through scores of books and reading on everybody from Alexander down to the British empire. Savarkar also addresses the reasons behind some of the defeats of Indian history, pointing to social and cultural constructs which prevented victories from being full and comprehensive, and in some cases preventing a fight back in first place (injunctions over crossing the Indus and the high seas) . He realised fully well that there were social ills within society, such as the caste system, which had caused a lot of damaging fallouts, like failure to effectively counter combating invaders. He wrote extensively against it and in fact brought this into practise. Savarkar actively took part in social reforms in Ratnagiri, the district to which he was confined on his return from the Andamans. He established temples for people of all castes to pray in and a café where all castes would dine together. (This rather unknown facet of his life will be covered in another article).

There are certain parts of the book which are not really neutral in their language, and hence perhaps it has not become as popular as it should have been. Be that as may, it is the approach that counts and the book is a good guide to the various aspects of Indian history from Porus to Partition, and is so in a manner that would be impossible under the current narrative. For example if you would have never of Bappa Rawal, so how would you go about wanting to find out more?

A history syllabus, even if loosely based on Six Glorious Epochs, will cause a paradigm change in our outlook towards our own history. This brings us back to the lines quoted in the beginning:

The nation that has no consciousness of its past has no future. Equally true it is that a nation must develop its capacity not only of claiming a past, but also of knowing how to use it for the furtherance of its future.

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