Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
Snapshot
  • One of the hallmarks of an original thinker is that his ideas can neither be predicted nor boxed into neat compartments. By that criterion, Savarkar was arguably the most original thinker from India in the last century.

During the famous Union budget of 1991 that ushered in liberalisation, the then finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, referred to Victor Hugo’s quotation "no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come".

While that is certainly true, in the arena of political narratives, the lack of patronage can definitely hold an idea back and hinder its advent.

In the present political times, there is little doubt that since the Indian National Congress (INC) was in power for most of independent India’s lifetime, the central governments were not too eager about most people of the country gaining knowledge about notable leaders of the freedom struggle who were not associated with the Congress, particularly with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

But in the beginning of the late 1980s the political arena of India, like the Indian economy, was witnessing a kind of liberalisation that was slipping from the clasp of Nehruvian socialism.

Although historians were displaying a renewed interest in revisiting the lives of several national leaders such as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Babasaheb Ambedkar, there was little or no mention of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

The last name in the list is important to understand the political condition that India found itself in, particularly from 1989 to 2019.

However, ever since his name entered the political sphere, the bulk of our eminent historians subjected Savarkar to one-sided criticism, sometimes even outright demonisation.

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Though Savarkar does have his fervent followers and biographers, who have dedicated hagiographies praising him profusely, he has more critics slamming him as a weak-spirited communal bigot.

Being one of the most divisive ideologues of the twentieth century, Savarkar’s image underwent massive changes throughout his life: a young freedom fighter, chief of the Hindu Mahasabha and, most controversially, an accused in the murder of Gandhi.

As a result, the significance of his ideas was largely overtaken by these aspects of his life. But it is this writer’s opinion that many of his assorted ideas are relevant not just to present India but to a certain extent, global politics. The purpose of this article is to give a concise sketch of some of the notable ones.

Power Of The Silver Screen

Whether it was during 2014 or 2019 elections, a common trend was the alleged split the Narendra Modi campaign had caused in the film world (in this context Hindi cinema) creating a pro-Modi and anti-Modi camps.

Some political observers have said how people from the film world have been at best indifferent to political occurrences. The reactions by patrons of the present political dispensation to the support or opposition of the film world to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and specifically Modi, has been varied: from ignoring to mocking them.

One often hears that cinema is being treated by a section of the right wing circle with either indifference or irritation. How then, one may ask, did the most famed ideologue of Hindutva treat it? In his words:

The movies are one of the beautiful gifts of the 20th century. This is the machine age. We are surrounded by things that have been made with the help of machines. The world of entertainment cannot be an exception to this rule.

In this context, one can also see how, regardless of political affiliations, there has been numerous attempts to control narratives shown on the silver screen, whether in the form of censoring certain scenes or going as far as they did in the days of Emergency, banning a film altogether.

One would expect the so-called Hindu fascist ideologue to advocate similar measures, but again in his words:

I dislike any restrictions on the innovative spirit of the human mind. That is because modern progress and modern culture have emerged out of innovation. The very essence of the progress made by humanity over the past many years in science and knowledge can be found in contemporary cinema. There is no better example of the use of modern technology than the movies, and that is why I will never back any restrictions on them.

It is not surprising that, as someone who was proficient in using his creative skills as a poet and a writer to spread the message of independence and nationalism, he was aware of how the film industry should focus on the positives of the country, and was in favour of utilising cinema for the betterment of the country.

The validity of Savarkar’s arguments can be seen in recent cinematic works like URI, and Mission Mangal.

Universalism Versus Nationalism

Since the last three to four years, globally there has been a reappearance of what many people call ‘popular nationalist’ sentiments.

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Whether it was the ‘Brexit’ referendum, Trump presidency, or the anti-immigration movements all over Europe, political scholars are taking care to analyse what they see as the ‘globalism versus nationalism’ debate.

With its growing influence on the global economy, it is expected that the perspectives of Indian thought leaders be taken into account. With most global attention being given to Mahatma Gandhi, not surprisingly his most notable ideological foe gets scarce attention.

But with a Hindu nationalist premier at the helm, what was the thought process of the primary Hindu nationalist thought leader?

The short answer would be a bit of both. It would be interesting to take note of his ‘universalist’ view as seen in this letter written to well-known British communist leader, Guy A Aldred, when Savarkar was living in London:

I hold that although Mankind must march on through nationalism and federalism, through larger incorporations to their ultimate political goal is not and cannot be nationalism but Humanism, neither more nor less. The ideal of all political science and art must be a Human State. The earth is our Motherland, mankind our Nation and a Human Government based on equality of rights and duties is or ought to be our ultimate political goal.
Letter written to well-known British communist leader, Guy A Aldred, by Savarkar.

A further extension of this view can be seen in his most famous tract, Essentials Of Hindutva:

There is throughout the world but a single race---the human race, kept alive by one common blood, the human blood. All other talk is at best provisional and only relatively true. Nature is constantly trying to overthrow the artificial barriers you raise between race and race. Sexual attraction has proved more powerful than the commands of all the prophets put together.
Savarkar in the Essentials Of Hindutva.

One may ask how did this ideal ‘universalist’ become what critics call a hardened Hindu nationalist? The answer can be found in the following long quotation in the same work:

It may be that at some future time, the word Hindu may come to indicate a citizen of Hindusthan and nothing else; that day can only rise when all cultural and religious bigotry has disbanded its forces pledged to aggressive egoism, and religions cease to be “isms” and become merely the common fund of eternal principles that lie at the root of all that on which the Human State majestically and firmly rests. But as even the first streaks of this consummation, so devoutly to be wished for, are scarcely discernible on the horizon, it would be folly for us to ignore stern realities.
Savarkar in the Essentials Of Hindutva.

And it is this belief that he held even in his later days as a political leader, as can be seen in the statement he made as the head of the Hindu Mahasabha:

The fact is that all Patriotism is more or less parochial and communal and is responsible for dreadful wars throughout human history. No movement is condemnable simply because it is sectional. So long as it tries to defend the just and fundamental rights of a particular nation or people or community against the unjust and overbearing aggression of other human aggregates and does not infringe on an equal just right and liberties of others, it cannot be condemned or looked down simply because the nation or community is a smaller aggregate in itself. But when a nation or community treads upon the rights of sister nations or communities and aggressively stands in the way of forming larger associations and aggregates of mankind, its nationalism or communalism becomes condemnable from a human point of view.

As can be inferred from the excerpts, Savarkar’s insightful arguments regarding universalism and nationalism and the gradual progression in his thought process is pertinent to the present global political scenario.

Socio-Political Unity Of Hindus

During the run-up to the Karnataka assembly polls, one burning issue capturing headlines was the state’s dominant Lingayat community demanding inclusion in the list of ‘religious minorities’ officially recognised by the government of India.

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In other words, the demand is for ‘legal’ recognition as minorities. The bulk of the BJP leadership saw it as an attempt by the Congress to split the Hindu community for vote bank politics. Many in the support base of the BJP thought the same.

For all the unwarranted labelling levelled against him, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was an incisive thinker. At the time when Savarkar wrote his tract on Hindutva, there was the issue of separate electorates that was causing a lot of unrest among the Indian political leadership. Taking the example of the Sikhs, Savarkar elucidated:

Sikhs, to guard their own interests could have pressed for and succeeded in securing special and communal representation on the ground of being an important minority as our non-Brahmins and other communities have done without renouncing their birthright of Hindutva.... Let the Sikhs, the Jains, the Lingayats, the non-Brahmins and even, for the matter of that. Brahmins press and fight for the right of special and communal representation, if they honestly look upon it as indispensable for their communal growth. For their growth is the growth of the whole Hindu-society.

Although the Lingayat issue fizzled out, the arguments made by Savarkar showed a level of socio-cultural autonomy various communities could enjoy without dissociating themselves from the wider umbrella of Hindutva.

It is to be noted that while framing those to whom the Hindu Code Bill would apply, Dr Ambedkar used the same definition of ‘Hindu’ that Savarkar had used.

On Religion

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One notable change post 2014, at least in terms of visuals, was the overt display of religiosity by the Prime Minister without any qualms.

Many of the usual critics were fuming at Modi’s religious bravado and were further dismayed when the Congress also started imitating him, with the face of the party, Rahul Gandhi, visiting temples and publicly participating in religious rituals.

This trend has made a lot of India’s secular elite claim that Nehru’s India is now going to be eclipsed by Savarkar’s India. So it is necessary to see how Savarkar saw the role of religion in the state. He appears an ardent atheist, even Epicurean when he made the following statement:

To hope that God will do what is good for me; to say that I shall perform Satyanarayana Puja if God blesses me is downright silly and utterly false. For if it is god whom we thank for saving us from a calamity, who brought that calamity upon us in the first place? The same Satyanarayana, the same god!

So was Savarkar an absolute atheist? No.

To quote Julia Kelley-Swift:

Indeed, it is this strange juxtaposition of the secular and religious in Savarkar’s view of Hindutva that separated him so distinctly from the majority of his contemporaries.

This can be seen in his treatment of the sacred scriptures. He revered classical texts like the Brahma Sutras, Sankhya Karikas, Yoga Sutras, explicitly commending the Yoga Vashista as the best work on the Vedanta philosophy.

According to Savarkar, the puranic scriptures were a fine combination of philosophy and poetry by the seers to comprehend nature using just the five senses in the absence of modern technology:

Given the primitive times then, this very idea of using the five senses was a veritable leap of human ingenuity! They developed this thought process to call the five senses representatives of the Pancha Maha Bhootas (The Five Great Elements), namely Pruthvi (Earth or the solid state of matter), Aap (Water or the liquid state of matter), Tej (Fire, light energy or radiations), Vaayu (Wind, air or gaseous state of matter) and Aakash (Outer space, vacuum or the Great Void). Spiritually, they theologized that whatever conversation or dialogue we humans could have with the God of this universe was also through these five senses, hence they even developed the concept of the five-headed deities, like Pancha Mukhi Mahadev, Pancha Mukhi Hanuman or Pancha Mukhi Ganesha.

Yet in his view anything in scriptures that does not stand the test of scientific utility ought to be dispensed with. He prioritised the utility and not the sanctity of traditions to alter society.

Savarkar argued that the school of utilitarianism originated in the Mahabharata with Lord Krishna being its finest proponent. It can be argued that to Savarkar, religion was part and parcel of India’s heritage and should be treated with reverence but not accorded absolute adherence.

While religion and spiritualism were to him private, individual matters, science and technology were cornerstones of development at the national level. As his appeal to the Muslim community shows:

Just as it is my duty to repeatedly tell the Hindu nation to abandon its silly religious customs, observances and opinions in this age of science, so I will also tell Muslim society, which is an inevitable part of the Hindustani nation, that it should abandon as quickly as possible its troublesome habits as well as religious fanaticism for its own good… The only question today is what is essential for national advancement in the light of modern science.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar attempted to mould concepts like utilitarianism and universalism in the Indian context with elements drawn from classical Hinduism giving the best of orient and occident.

But the question can be asked: in the end was he a universalist or a nationalist or a utilitarian?

The answer merits closer scrutiny. However, one answer was given by Savarkar, while defending the dichotomy and contradiction in the life of Lord Krishna, arguing that life itself was an accumulation of tensions and contradictions.

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