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Savarkar, Modi’s mentor- The man who thought Gandhi a sissy

The controversial mentor of the Hindu right

IN 1906, in a lodging house for Indian students in Highgate, a pleasant area of north London, a young lawyer called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi dropped in on a law student called Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who happened to be frying prawns at the time. Savarkar offered Gandhi some of his meal; Gandhi, a vegetarian, refused. Savarkar allegedly retorted that only a fool would attempt to resist the British without being fortified by animal protein.

The meeting is said to have begun hostilities between the two young Indian nationalists; whether or not the story is apocryphal, there were real reasons for antipathy. The two men had very different approaches to the struggle against Britain. Gandhi, who became leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), was a pacifist with an inclusive attitude towards Muslims and Christians. Savarkar, who would lead the Hindu Mahasabha, was a right-wing majoritarian who spawned the idea of hindutva, or Hindu-ness—the belief that the Hindu identity is inseparable from the Indian identity. Congress eclipsed the Mahasabha and, since history belongs to the victors, the story of India’s independence movement became one of non-violence. But the strand of thought that Savarkar represented was more important than is generally recognised, and is enjoying a revival.

A member of the Mahasabha broke away to form the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or national volunteer organisation, in 1925, modelled, some say, on the British army. A social rather than explicitly political organisation, it presented itself as the world’s largest non-governmental group, in which like-minded, khaki-uniformed men could gather for dawn calisthenics. It recruited boys at an impressionable age, as the Jesuits did, the better to inculcate them with discipline and with passion for the cause. One such was the eight-year-old Narendra Modi. The future prime minister (pictured, above, at a memorial to Savarkar) attended training sessions with the RSS, was subsequently inducted as a cadet, and in 1985 was assigned by the RSS to its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which he rose to lead.

Mr Modi is India’s strongest leader since Indira Gandhi, and its most controversial. The source of controversy is his failure in 2002, when chief minister of Gujarat, to avert a massacre of Muslims, which opponents attribute to a hostility to Muslims born of the ideology that Savarkar spawned. Mr Modi has never apologised for the massacre, though he said last year that he felt regret over them, as he would at seeing a puppy run over in the street. Nor has he made any attempt to distance himself from the RSS.

The RSS, meanwhile, is becoming more overtly political. Mohan Bhagwat, its current leader, is somewhat in the mould of Savarkar, paraphrasing his beliefs and promoting Hindutva. In August this year Mr Bhagwat directly echoed Savarkar by saying all who live in “Hindustan” are in fact Hindus, whatever Muslims, Christians or secular Hindus might say. More striking, the RSS leader has switched the organisation’s methods. Now, far from eschewing party politics, the group has become an enthusiastic and effective actor within it. The RSS’s millions of members and volunteers (no one knows just how many active ones there really are) played a big role in electing the BJP by a landslide in 2014. At least 19 ministers in government, including Mr Modi, have a background in the RSS. Its leaders are seconded to senior posts in the party too. So the ideas of the man who inspired the RSS matter more than ever before.

The naked jumper

The lawyer described by a British official in 1906 as “a small man with an intelligent face and a nervous manner” does not sound like the muscular hero that Indian nationalists crave, but Savarkar clearly had a certain dash. In 1910, while he was in London, he was charged with conspiring to wage war against the king and with providing weapons used to assassinate a Briton in the Indian civil service, sentenced to two life terms—50 years—in jail and sent back to India. While the steamship “Morea” was berthed in Marseille harbour, he slipped away from his guards, leapt, almost naked, into the sea and swam ashore. Unfortunately for the eulogists, he was promptly caught by French police and bundled back to the ship.

His daring did, however, win him fame, and also created legal history. France’s government, annoyed that Britain had overseen an arrest on its territory, wanted Savarkar returned. Britain refused so the matter went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. It ruled his arrest was indeed “irregular”, but decided Savarkar might as well stay in India. The case was one of the earliest heard by the tribunal.

Savarkar’s next stop was the Andaman Islands—a group of islands in the Bay of Bengal. This palm-fringed tropical paradise served as a penal colony for the British. Cellular Jail in the capital, Port Blair, is now a memorial for freedom campaigners. In a park opposite stands a row of statues of independence heroes. One is of a slender man with a pinched face behind round spectacles. A pen protrudes from his jacket pocket, one hand rests on a part-furled umbrella and the other wags a finger at the sky. You might mistake him for a prissy bank manager, but a plaque identifies him as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The park is named after him.

Ranjit Savarkar, his great-nephew, who runs the Savarkar trust, says that he showed great fortitude in jail. A trained yogi, he overcame thoughts of suicide. Other inmates nicknamed him “Barrister Babu”, for his London legal training. Already a published historian and poet, he used Cellular Jail to work on his writing—literally: he wrote on its walls. He spent a decade there before being moved to the mainland in 1921. He was subsequently freed, after pledging to keep out of politics—a promise which the ideology he was developing in jail suggests he did not intend to keep.

A fierce nationalist, he adored Guiseppe Mazzini, who fought for the unification of Italy, writing about him in the hope of inspiring resistance to the British in India. Savarkar believed that India is really composed of, and must only be run by, Hindus. In his 1924 book, “Hindutva”, he drew on cultural, philosophical and religious practices of ancient Hinduism, a rich faith that allows immense variety in how it is followed. But he also distinguished the ideology of hindutva—an attempt to unite disparate Hindus in a political project—from the religion. He himself was an atheist, and disapproved of aspects of traditional Hindu belief, dismissing cow worship as superstitious—a stance that would upset many today. He was an early outspoken opponent of caste discrimination. In the 1920s and 1930s others among the emerging Indian political elite opposed “untouchability”, the rejection as sub-human of those considered “below caste”. But Savarkar went further, saying modern India should drop altogether the idea of dividing people by caste.

His attitude towards Muslims, who made up a quarter of the population before partition, and other non-Hindus was less liberal. He regarded them as alien and separate, in effect not as real Indians. He was fiercely opposed to the formation of Pakistan and what his great-nephew calls the “appeasement” of Muslims. He believed that they, along with the Europeans, had crushed Hindus for a millennium—a sentiment echoed by Mr Modi in an address to parliament after his election this year, when he spoke of ending “1,200 years of slave mentality” in India.

Aside from his view of Muslims, the big difference between Savarkar and the nationalists in the INC lay in their contrasting attitudes to violence. He also wrote one of the first Indian accounts of the uprising in 1857, centred in Delhi. Known as the “Mutiny” to the British, it is referred to by many Indians as the “first war of independence”—echoing the title of Savarkar’s book, “The Indian War of Independence”. It was a gruesome episode, in which hundreds of thousands were killed, but Savarkar was untroubled by the violence, and seemed to justify the murders of British women and children. His works are steeped in a desire for revenge against those who have humiliated Hindus, and his frustration with the passivity of his co-religionists: “I want all Hindus to get themselves re-animated and re-born into a martial race.” In his early years, he circulated manuals on bomb making. He approved of—and probably assisted in—the assassination of colonial administrators. He was suspected, for example, of encouraging a student radical who shot dead Sir Curzon Wyllie, a government official, one summer night on a Kensington street in 1909.

Rewriting history

Today, some Indians adulate him. On the day your correspondent called in at Cellular Jail, a party of jovial men in their 80s and 90s, an official “Eminent Committee of Freedom Fighters”, was also visiting. Among the last surviving veterans who battled the British in the Quit India movement in the 1940s, they raised gnarled fists to chant “Jai Hind”, posed for pictures and praised Savarkar as strong. The local MP called veer (brave) Savarkar a “ferocious, dangerous man who frightened off the British”. Rashida Iqbal, the jail’s curator, assessed him as “one of the most important freedom fighters”. Port Blair’s airport, like the park, bears his name. Some 2,000km away, in his native Maharashtra, a street and a park in Mumbai also each carry his name. (In London a blue plaque identifies his former home in Highgate.)

Savarkar’s enthusiasm for violence sits uncomfortably with conventional ideas of how India got its independence. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and then the Congress party (successor to the INC) promoted a pacifist narrative of history, the idea that Gandhi and the likes of B.R. Ambedkar, a social reformer who inspired the Modern Buddhist Movement, triumphed through non-violent resistance. That meant downplaying the bloodshed of 1857, in which atrocities were perpetrated by both sides, and also the roles of Savarkar, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel.

Bose, the Bengali leader of an Indian National Army against the British in the second world war and an ally of Hitler and imperial Japan, led some 40,000 soldiers against the British. (He didn’t get far, though the Japanese briefly handed him control of the Andamans.) Patel, the “Iron Man of India”, had the Bismarckian task of uniting the country. He oversaw the integration of 562 princely states into India, threatening and using military force. Operation Polo in 1948, a five-day conquest of Hyderabad, a wealthy and Muslim-run state in the south, was bloody indeed. Official estimates, only made public in 2013, suggest the fighting and subsequent Hindu-Muslim clashes there killed between 27,000 and 40,000 people. Some historians claim the real toll might have been five times higher.

The way the story of Indian independence is told is beginning to change. Mr Modi and the BJP are keen to celebrate muscular, nationalist figures. Patel is likely to have a much higher profile in future: in the national budget, in July 2014, the government set aside $32m to erect a statue of him in Gujarat, twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, by 2018. And while Mr Modi frequently invokes Gandhi’s name and beliefs, he refers almost as often to Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century nationalist who revived Hinduism and promoted it abroad. Mr Modi is said to be named after him (the swami was originally called Narendra Nath Datta) and frequently poses before his photograph. Vivekananda’s ideas on invigorating Hinduism foreshadowed Savarkar’s hindutva project.

Savarkar’s profile is lower, but is also rising. Educational comics, hagiographies and patriotic films retell parts of his life story. In 2008 Mr Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, inaugurated a website (savarkar.org) that promotes a man “largely unknown to the masses because of the vicious propaganda against him and misunderstanding around him that has been created over several decades”, and in 2012 he launched a Gujarati-language biopic. A previous BJP-led government put Savarkar’s portrait in parliament. On his birthday this year, May 28th, the prime minister paid homage to him there. Mr Modi tweeted about Savarkar’s “tireless efforts towards the regeneration of our motherland”. Ranjit Savarkar’s group plans various events to mark the 50th anniversary of Savarkar’s death in 1966. (Aged 83, he submitted to what he called atmaarpan—refusing both food and medicine in order to die. It took 20 days.)

“Notwithstanding his…broad heart, the Mahatma has a very narrow and immature head,” wrote Savarkar

Yet Savarkar remains immensely divisive. He was a fiercely outspoken critic of Gandhi, still India’s top national hero: he called Gandhi weak, a “sissy” and far too willing to collaborate with Britain. Gandhian talk of man’s common humanity he regarded as utopian to the point of naivety. In articles from the 1920s to the 1940s Savarkar lambasted Gandhi as a “crazy lunatic” who “happens to babble…[about] compassion, forgiveness”, yet “notwithstanding his sublime and broad heart, the Mahatma has a very narrow and immature head.” Gandhi promoted ahimsa, a Buddhist rejection of violence which Savarkar called “mealy-mouthed”. He said Gandhi was a hypocrite for supporting violence by the British against Germany in the first world war. Nor did he cheer Gandhi’s prominent backing for the Ottoman Caliphate Movement, designed to win Indian Muslims to oppose British colonial rule.

Over the years, Savarkar was eclipsed by his rival. During the 1920s and 1930s, the INC benefited from its ability to claim plausibly that it spoke for Muslims as well as Hindus, which made it a more credible interlocutor with the colonial authorities. Perhaps more important, it had an impressive organisation and, in Gandhi and later in Nehru, accomplished political leaders.

By the mid 1940s Savarkar and his supporters in the Mahasabha (which he led until his death) had a new gripe against Gandhi. They were enraged at the prospect of Pakistan seceding from India. Gandhi, in their eyes, did nothing to stop that “vivisection”. Worse, he seemed to favour Pakistan when it sent forces to violently seize Kashmir, evidence to Savarkar that warlike Muslims were again crushing passive Hindus. When Nehru applied economic sanctions on Pakistan (refusing to pass on its share of central-bank funds from before independence), Gandhi launched a fast in protest and forced him to back down. To Savarkar’s followers in the Mahasabha, that constituted national betrayal.

Savarkar (back row, second left) was arrested and tried as a plotter in Gandhi’s murder. He was acquitted

On January 30th 1948 Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi. The killer, Nathuram Godse, was a member of the Mahasabha, edited its newspaper and was an associate of Savarkar’s. Godse’s explanation of his actions echoed Savarkar: he said he murdered Gandhi for his “false notions of Hindu-Muslim unity” and in fury over the secession of Pakistan. Savarkar was arrested and tried as a plotter in the murder. He denied all and was acquitted. That did not convince everybody. As the leader of the Mahasabha, who had praised the efficacy of violence and railed against Muslims, it was reasonable to suspect he had at least inspired Gandhi’s killer. A.G. Noorani, author of a book on Savarkar and Godse, goes further. He draws a parallel to the Kensington murder of Wylie in 1909, saying the elder man had twice pressed others to pull the trigger. “I would definitely call him complicit in the assassination of Gandhi,” he concludes. He points, too, to an official commission of inquiry into Gandhi’s death, in the late 1960s, which drew on testimony unavailable at the original trial. It found the evidence was “destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group”. Following Gandhi’s murder the RSS was also banned, for a year. Yet the final reason why Savarkar should remain unacceptable in modern India goes beyond suspicion over Gandhi’s murder. It lies in his attitude to his fellow, non-Hindu, Indians. In his own writing he relates joyfully how as a 12-year-old boy he led a gang of schoolmates to stone his village mosque and smash its windows and tiles, in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim riots. Relating how “we vandalised the mosque to our heart’s content”, he adds that when confronted by Muslim boys, he and his pals wielded knives and sticks and chased them away.

Throughout his writing he sets out Muslims as savage, immoral, sensual and eager to destroy the Hindu way of life. In 1937 he wrote of there being “two antagonistic nations living side by side in India”, an idea that relies on using religion as the defining characteristic of any Indian, one utterly against the secular constitution of India. And while he occasionally wrote admiringly of the political and religious fervour of Islam, or rather of Muslim political leaders, he did so to encourage his fellow Hindus to match or exceed it.

In India today the fear of communal clashes—between Hindus and Muslims—should not be overblown. But it is never far away. Especially before elections, parties exploit religious tensions. Those who promote hindutva and echo Savarkar whip up stories of “love jihad”, alleging that Muslim men convert large numbers of Hindu women by seducing them. Earlier this month a BJP parliamentarian praised Godse as a “patriot” equal to Gandhi. Members of the increasingly influential RSS feel emboldened. Such majoritarian politics, when a larger religious group sets out to absorb or flatten a minority, is utterly destructive. One need only look at the failure of Pakistan as a reminder of that. Sarvarkar could be a brilliant, eloquent and progressive leader. He could also be extremist, violent and divisive. If his influence grows, India’s tolerance and moderation will be at risk.


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