Review: Books on VD Savarkar by Vikram Sampath and Vaibhav Purandare
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, described variously as a rhetorician, revolutionary, militant, and nationalist, was a key figure in the first half of India’s twentieth century. He was part of a generation that represented an array of ideological positions, where men and women wrote as if it seemed possible to remake the world on entirely different terms. He was at once at odds with the British, who kept a close watch on his activities and output, and with Mohandas Gandhi, who transformed the anti-colonial struggle in ways that Savarkar or others could scarcely imagine, let alone achieve.
Though long marginalized in the public life of modern India, Savarkar has become the subject of increased interest, attention, and admiration. In this context, two recent books on the man by Vikram Sampath and Vaibhav Purandare could not be more timely. Both books provide a useful historical narrative and paint a trajectory of Savarkar’s life. They provide helpful summaries and clarifications of his life, underline his experiences in Cellular Jail, and speculate on the reasons for his ideological transition to Hindu nationalism. If Vikram Sampath’s work is written with considerable detail, especially in its account of Savarkar’s harrowing time in prison, Purandare’s shorter contribution is more thoughtful, both in its attention to Savarkar’s extremist and medieval views and to his complex relationship with the Raj.
This is hardly the site to re-summarize Savarkar’s life. But the books provide us with an occasion to inquire into Savarkar’s place in our intellectual life and in our political imagination. Understanding that place calls on us to notice, in the first instance, that the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century witnessed a shift in emphasis among India’s most prominent political actors and thinkers. From a prior interest in how a great and glorious land like India could have fallen under the rule of a foreign force, attention now turned to the means by which alien rule could come to end and to the entity and character of the new nation that would come into being.
The proposals on this latter question were remarkably diverse; conceptions of freedom mushroomed and they ranged across themes from the role and location of the state to the challenge and possibility of political representation. It is in this context that Savarkar’s contribution is most significant. His key analytic move was to colonize politics by the question of identity. For him, the nation was to be defined and understood in terms of the people who constituted it, and this character was to govern the structures of power and the principles of association. The emphasis was on belonging and on association, on loyalty and allegiance.
The specific identity in question was Hinduism, though it was framed less through a religious, theological doctrine and more through a sense of shared practices and loyalties. This notion was pre-modern in the following sense. In the modern age, if one uses the description normatively, one imagines the state as an artificial construct that is formed through collective self-will. For Savarkar, however, the emphasis was not on rule through mutual consent and the construction of the people through voluntary actions. Rather, it was on some fixed if inarticulate idea of the people who exist prior to the state. In other words, the focus on was not agency and individual freedom but on some perceived inherent and unchangeable social reality. Here, as Sudipta Kaviraj has put it in his recent work, the idea of the nation “names the people who stand behind the state”.
Savarkar’s thorough lack of interest in institutions – in contrast to figures ranging from Jawaharlal Nehru to Madan Mohan Malaviya – is linked to his pre-modern stance. Because the people are not the product of a voluntary arrangement, where we come together and aggregate our individual preferences into some kind of collective will, the importance of institutional mechanisms that serve to change and alter our reality fade into the background. The key feature of this way of thinking is not how modern politics can be a site for transformation but rather how it can be used to express an already existing conception of the nation. As a consequence of such an outlook, an interest in how institutions can shape and impact our world, how they can transform our behaviour and our actions, is somewhat beside the point.
The primary text associated with Savarkar is Essentials of Hindutva, a piece of work that has come to symbolize a grand political adventure where the territory that constitutes the Indian nation-state is unburdened by non-Hindu identities. As Janaki Bakhle has carefully shown, though Savakar unambiguously sought to characterize all those within the territory of India as Hindus and thereby tried to address the problem of the “other” by denying their presence – underlying the central role of territory in forming a conception of nationhood – there is more to unpack in the Essentials of Hindutva.
By way of emphasizing the words Hindu and Hindutva and through claims and assertions, Savarkar tried to unify a range of disparate cultural, social, and historical practices. The overall objective was the creation of consciousness around a specific political community. Whereas differences between members of the Hindu community were conveniently erased – through the use of “blood” as the concept that sets the terms of belonging – those with regard to others, notably Muslims, were highlighted. The inclusionary/exclusionary dynamic was unavoidable if one chose to frame the question as Savarkar did.
This feature of Savarkar’s thought allows us to distinguish him not merely from some figures in the Hindu nationalism pantheon – figures who addressed the force of institutions – but also from Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Unlike Savarkar, Jinnah displayed a striking awareness to institutional dynamics in framing permutations and combinations over how power would be exercised in federal and unitary schemas in an independent India. But this difference merely hides a far more profound similarity.
Read more: India reshaped, to Savarkar’s will | Opinion
Purandare notes that Ambedkar viewed Savarkar and Jinnah as offering the same kind of argument, as both being two sides of the same coin. Ambedkar was right. For both Savarkar and for Jinnah, the construction of identity did not take place in the crucible of politics. It was instead some prior notion that would permanently govern the politics that might unfold. In other words, both figures retained the stubborn belief that politics could only be conducted on such terms. We could not see ourselves as free agents who could come up with a new principle by which we might associate with one another.
Savarkar’s orientation stood in sharp contrast to the character of Indian nationalism. By the 1920s, the nationalist movement had taken on a non-violent stance and had begun to mobilize Indians on inter-communal terms (as exemplified by the Khilafat movement). As the years progressed, Savarkar’s political failures only magnified and his political irrelevance only increased. If Gandhi was able to imagine a very different kind of anti-colonial struggle to that which Savarkar desired, Nehru was able to imagine a modern democratic state whose foundations were very different to those that Savarkar held. Ultimately, Savarkar’s failure in his time lay not in imagining a land and a community into existence. It lay in terms on which he chose to do so.
Madhav Khosla is the author of India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy, forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2020.