His ideas are leading those who currently lead India. But in popular memory and discourse, Savarkar is still either maligned or ignored.
A new generation of scholars and writers seek to correct this anomaly.
In contemporary Indian history, no one has been made to look as controversial as him. To his admirers, he was a personification of supreme sacrifice. To his detractors, he was a demagogue and someone who appealed to the British for mercy.
He, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, is a leader whom the old establishment wanted the nation to forget. He, and the movement he represented, has today become the force whose time has come on the horizon of India.
Savarkar, when he was only eight, set out to write an epic of his own, never realising that his own life — filled with heroism, pathos and tragedy — would acquire epic dimensions.
The sacrifice of the Chapekar brothers traumatised young Savarkar, who would vow before the family deity, the eight-armed Durga, that he would purge India of the foreign occupation.
His student life and the subsequent revolutionary saga reflected the various aspects of his personality that would blossom later. He was a devout nationalist and at the same time, a pragmatic rationalist.
He had the ability to discern facts and narratives of history and establish alternative narratives. He was a nationalist as well as a global citizen, a poet and propagandist, a social reformer and a vedantic atheist.
Today, with those who honour his legacy being at the helm, it is important we study his life and thoughts critically for their relevance to nation-building and national rejuvenation.
Savarkar is primarily hailed as a freedom fighter, who suffered and survived gruelling and incessant torture for almost a decade and was, even then, given only conditional freedom.
His followers hailed him as a ‘defeater of death’ or mrityunjaya — an epithet alluded to Shiva. This is his principal legacy. Naturally, the political enemies of his ideological heirs today target verily this legacy of Savarkar.
Of late, he has been maligned and branded as a coward for petitioning the British for his release from prison. Both the recent biographies of Savarkar, one by Vikram Sampath and the other by Vaibhav Purandare, have dwelt at length on this calumny heaped on Savarkar.
The picture that emerges of Savarkar from reading both the works is that of a patriotic strategist.
For example, Sampath points out that while the words of his 1913 petition have been quoted repeatedly by anti-Savarkar and anti-Sardar Patel Islamists like A G Noorani, the jail tickets history of Andaman in the months after this petition revealed that on 16 December 1913 he refused to work and was awarded solitary confinement for a month.
On 8 June 1914, he again refused to work and was made to stand for seven days, hand-cuffed.
But on 18 June 1914, he still refused to work and earned 10 days’ crossbar fetters. After all this, in his November 1914 petition, he sought freedom for all the political prisoners, writing, “...then I beg to submit let me not be released at all, with my exception let all the rest be released...”
Three years after this ‘mercy petition’, despite a rapidly deteriorating health, Savarkar, in his 1917 ‘clemency’ petition, asked the government to release all other political prisoners, and said he would be the last to be disappointed if omitting his name from the list of those being released meant liberation for the other freedom fighters.
Vaibhav Purandare in his thorough presentation of Savarkar's latter-day relation with the revolutionaries points out how he always had a soft corner and practical advice for them.
Purandare points out how Savarkar wrote moving articles in support of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev despite knowing that the British could always revoke his conditional release.
It should be noted here that despite Bhagat Singh’s ‘Hindustan Socialist Republican Association’ with a definite pro-Marxist ideological outlook, Savarkar’s Hindutva classic Hindu Pad Padshahi was an important reading material for the revolutionaries of the group along with their study of global revolutionary literature.
Bhagat Singh recorded the passage on ‘resistance to forced conversion’ from the book in his famous Jail Notebook. When the time came, he walked to the gallows as a proud Sikh (rather than as a secular Marxist).
These show that Savarkar’s words helped Bhagat Singh in staying anchored in the nation’s soil rather than get carried away by Marxist internationalism, which often made official Marxists become subversive to national interest.
Savarkar’s role in Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s India National Army (INA) was definitely important and may never be clearly known.
But the fact remains that Savarkar and Rash Behari Bose did communicate during the advent of the Second World War. Savarkar advocated that the Indian youth make use of the opportunity and join the army in large numbers.
Savarkar also held that Indian nationalist forces should not take ideological stands but make full use of the miseries the British government faced.
Purandare states that Rash Behari Bose gently 'rebuked' Savarkar, requesting him that he should not accept “even independence if it would involve India in a war with which she has got nothing to do” as “fighting on the side of England in a war in which Britain is sure to lose, would mean for India all that accrues from a military defeat”.
However, in the same message, Rash Behari Bose acknowledges an important fact:
"By asserting that India's foreign policy must be formed irrespective of ideological complications, you have again proved your mettle as a leader of great calibre. By asserting that England's foe must be regarded as India’s friend, and her friend as India’s enemy, you put the whole foreign policy of present day India in a nutshell. Then credit also must be given to you for having preached another formula of late, which is nothing but that ‘England’s difficulty is India’s opportunity’.”
A close look at the entire working of the INA will reveal that its creation was inspired by the policies put forth by Savarkar. However, Savarkar too was not entirely convinced about the Axis powers.
He had sent a telegram to the then US president Franklin D Roosevelt with respect to the famous 'Atlantic Charter' which spoke about “respecting the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” as well as the restoration of “sovereign rights and self-government”.
Savarkar had asked if the rights of Indians were included in this and if not, it was just “another stunt like the War aims of the last Anglo-German war”.
In other words, Savarkar was drawing parallels between European nations subjugated by Nazis and the Indian nation subjugated by the British.
Apart from being a freedom fighter, one of the most striking qualities of Savarkar is his role as a historian.
He marshalled facts from various sources, including the British records, to weave a coherent narrative of the great uprising of 1857 as the First War of Indian Independence.
In his last major work, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, he was able to view through the course of history the survival and evolution of the Hindu nation.
Mainstream historians of his time like Jadunath Sarkar considered the historiography of Savarkar as biased and inferior.
However, with the advantage of hindsight one can say that the view of history that Savarkar held and the narrative he had woven today stands vindicated by the events of history which have unfolded since then.
Savarkar’s conception of the history of India as the struggle for survival of an age-old spiritual civilisation has to be treated as a serious framework for viewing the subject.
He was also emphatic about certain vital points. He states in his Hindu Pad Padshahi, that while the historic enmity between Islamist aggression and Hindu resistance should not be projected into current normal Hindu-Muslim relations, the lessons from history, however, should not be forgotten.
The lessons from history which he brought to the notice of current Hindu society included the rejection of birth-based varna system and body-based honour of women.
Thus, Savarkar quotes Chandragupta Maurya:
“More than any of you, nominal caste-born Kshatriyas, who bowed your heads to the Milechas, the Greek emperor and his commanders, I, a 'peerless' Chandragupta, have a greater claim to being a Kshatriya in as much as with my sword I have completely vanquished those very Milechas in every battlefield.”
In this work, Savarkar considers the caste system and the concept of bodily pollution as well as various food taboos as perversions. For him, these are all impediments in attaining sanghatan or union. In an astonishing parallel in his book Thoughts on Pakistan (1941), Dr B R Ambedkar comes to a similar conclusion.
Calling the caste system and untouchability as phenomena of social stagnation, he terms appeasement of Islamist aggression as a vice similar to social stagnation.
“This policy of appeasement,” Dr Ambedkar warned, would place the Hindus “in the same fearful situation” in which those who appeased Nazis then found themselves, and described appeasement of Islamism as “another malaise, no less acute than the malaise of social stagnation”.
Savarkar had his limitations too. Yes, Savarkar at times used intemperate language. At times, he was taken over by the heat of partition politics in which he saw Hindus becoming orphaned — politically, initially and existentially, ultimately.
Some of his observations, for example that there was actually not much difference between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, have now, however, been proved more accurate than they were thought to be when they were made.
At the same time, he was not dictatorial, even if he was blunt. Many of his lieutenants had openly criticised some of his stands.
Historian Dr Pragati Chatterjee, in her thesis on the communal politics of Bengal between 1929 and 1947, draws attention to one such point of difference.
During the Bengal famine, the Khaksars, a ‘Hitlerian’ Islamist movement, whose declared aim was “to regain rule of the entire India that once belonged to the Muslims”, used the famine for its proselytising activities.
Their targets were particularly the Hindu destitute children whom they would transport outside Bengal. This infuriated Savarkar. He wanted famine relief work by Hindu Mahasabha to be provided only for the Hindu destitute.
However, the Bengal Hindu Mahasabha leader Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee rejected this approach. Though Dr Mookerjee reconverted many such destitute Hindus and also stopped the transport of Bengali Hindu children outside by Khaksars, he directed the famine relief activities to be non-sectarian.
Similarly, N C Chatterjee was critical of Savarkar’s approach to the ‘Quit India’ movement.
The Hindutva movement itself has in it many streams that differ with Savarkar.
For example, Savarkar placed Indian national interest above any moralistic stand in the Second World War. On the other hand, Sri Aurobindo, who is venerated in the Hindutva ecosystem as a maharishi, took a moralistic stand opposing Nazis as forces of darkness.
In the Kakori conspiracy case, Savarkar, while praising the patriots left out the name of Ashfaqulla Khan either out of mistake or intentionally. In the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ecosystem, Ashfaqulla Khan is heralded, and in one of the book series published by the Sangh, one of the most popular biographies is of this Pathan martyr.
Savarkar’s approach to religion alternated between that of a rationalist and a ‘vedantist’. He had imbibed the non-dualist traditions. His conception of a godhead was impersonal — an underlying unity that is worthy of adoration by human intelligence.
But at the same time, he was aware of the emotional need of humans for looking up towards a personal deity. But when objective claims of the supernatural were made, Savarkar mercilessly rejected them. In this, he joined the tradition of great thinkers like Adi Shankaracharya, Baruch Spinoza, Swami Vivekananda and Albert Einstein.
While most of the ideologues of the post-Aurobindo freedom movement (Mahatma Gandhi being an interesting and enigmatic exception) tried to secularise the Indian polity with borrowed concepts from the West like Marxism and Fabian socialism, Savarkar toiled to understand the events of history and dynamics of society through its core spiritual values.
Here, what distinguishes Savarkar and Gandhi, both original thinkers, is a rational and scientific attitude to religion that Savarkar envisioned — particularly with respect to what he considered as the greatest spiritual gift of India to the human species — kundalini.
To him, in kundalini, “Hindus have perfected a science based on experiment which can be termed as the highest blessing on human life”. And this is the science of yoga. It is to him “the highest means of the full development” of human potential.
So, this science, which was discovered by the Hindu nation, but the experience of “this supreme joy or bliss” being common to “all human beings… be he a Hindu or a non-Hindu (Muslim, Christian or Jew), i.e, believer or non-believer, citizen or forester”, became for him the quintessential symbol of the Hindu nation.
Here, it should be noted that this is an important part of Savarkar’s worldview. Already in his treatise on Hindutva, Savarkar had proclaimed the oneness of humanity at the level of biology.
In the early years of 1920s, when even the most eminent humanists of the West would have hesitated to reject the notion of race as biological entity, Savarkar had categorically declared that pole-to-pole humanity is but one, and the blood of every so-called race flows in every human.
To him, claims of genetic and racial purities are just that — claims. For Savarkar, a Hindu at his finest would cease to be Hindu and consider the universe as his native place.
So, at both the spiritual and biological levels Savarkar was convinced of human oneness. India thus exists as a civilisation to take human potential to the maximum. And in that maximising of the potential of human self, there existed no difference between nations, ideologies, races and gender.
Paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, one can say, this then is the Torah of Savarkar, everything else is commentary.