Savarkar re-examined

Print edition : April 25, 2003

Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection by A.G. Noorani; LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2002; pages 168, Rs.295.

THERE is a certain serendipity - if that is the right word - in the recent appearance of this book. Although he wrote it much before the installation of V.D. Savarkar's portrait in the Central Hall of Parliament, A.G. Noorani provides enough insights to assess the implications of making Savarkar a national icon. This is probably owing to the fact that the process of iconisation had already begun. Noorani's book was provoked by the renaming of Port Blair airport as Veer Savarkar airport in May 2002. Consequently, at the back of Noorani's understanding of Savarkar lies the question: Is it right to make Savarkar a figure of national inspiration?

The book examines Savarkar's personal behaviour and the implications of his brand of nationalism. But let me enter a qualification here. Putting the themes of the book in the way I have done may actually muffle its hard edge, which comes from its urgent, angry and insistent tone. This passionate excess springs not just from the problem of assessing Savarkar's nationalism, but from the intuition of a question that today we, the readers, can formulate. The question is: Does the placement of Savarkar's portrait (opposite that of Gandhi's) in Parliament signal the second murder of Gandhi? Or, to put it less dramatically, does the acclamation of Savarkar indicate another step in the emergence of a new nationalism - and in the jettisoning of the social ideals of toleration and self-reflection that have marked the relationship between religious communities in our country?

Let me first relate some of the highlights of the fifth chapter of the book entitled "Gandhi's murder", which is, incidentally, its most remarkable part. One can see the lawyer in Noorani delighting in describing the many facets of Gandhi's murder trial. Also, it explains my statement about Gandhi's second murder. The most relevant and exciting revelation made here concerns the report of the Kapur Commission, which was instituted in the mid 1960s to review the evidence regarding Gandhi's murder. Clearly, it was generally felt that the court of Justice Atma Charan, which had let off Savarkar, had not yielded the full truth. Indeed, even before the trial, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had, in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, clearly stated that Savarkar had masterminded the murder. In the court, approvers had testified to the intimate guru-chela relationship between Savarkar and the Godse brothers, but there was no corroborative evidence to nail down Savarkar's assertion that he had had merely formal relationships with them. Consequently, he was released.

The Kapur Commission was in a more fortunate position. It had access to testimonies of Savarkar's aides (including his bodyguard, secretary and so on) and important Hindu Mahasabha functionaries who were not available to the Atma Charan court. And all these testimonies indicated the intimate and inspirational hold of Savarkar on the Godse brothers. The weight of this evidence led Justice Kapur to reverse the conclusions of the court trial and state unambiguously that "all these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group".

Recently, the usually aggressive, righteous chorus of Hindutva propagandists has been claiming that Savarkar's relationship with Gandhi was as innocent as Gandhi's relationship with Bhagat Singh, `Netaji' Subhas Chandra Bose and others who wished to remove the British through violence. Noorani's book puts paid to this defence of Savarkar: the claims of Tarun Vijay and others are clearly based on the version that Savarkar himself offered in court. At the same time the book defines the profound difference between Savarkar and the `violent' anti-colonial nationalists such as Bhagat Singh. The hard fact remains that the latter may have criticised Gandhi, denounced him, but it did not cross their minds to kill him. The reason for this distinction, it may be inferred from Noorani's insights on Savarkar's ideology, is a political one. Hindutva - the grand creation of Savarkar - was an ideology that created an internal enemy and saw it as more dangerous than the external power of British colonialism. War against Muslims was far more necessary than removing the British. It was this political commitment (among other things) that regularly led Savarkar to pledge loyalty to the British (a fact well-documented by Noorani). And it was the paranoia about Muslims that led Godse to say that the reason he killed Gandhi was (striking a note that is amplified today) that the Mahatma appeased Muslims. Of course, this is a far cry from the commitment to India's freedom from the British that had inspired Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekar Azad, Bose and others. They were not paranoid about internal enemies. Consequently, they had no reason to fear Indian leaders or keep themselves alive from the hangman's noose to fight Muslims.

But more is involved than this distinction. At one point Noorani observes that while Hindutva ideologists may "denounce Nehru", their "real target is Gandhi". Unfortunately Noorani does not elaborate this point explicitly. But he does offer a plethora of observations and insights elsewhere that provide clues to light up this formulation. This concerns Savarkar's resentment of Gandhi's Hinduism. Now, it is true that Savarkar was an atheist; at any rate, the political-cultural ideology of Hindutva is distinct from the many beliefs and practices that make up Hinduism. But it is also true that Hindus provide the ideological constitutency of Hindutva. A crucial aim of Hindutva is to transform Hindus into an aggressive, martial `race' with blazing eyes and swollen chests, ever ready to extract two eyes for one. Above all, it wishes to cultivate a supremacist attitude in Hindus towards other religious communities, to make Hindus believe in their destiny as lord and master of other religions. For the Hindutva technicians of Hindu `character', Gandhi's doctrine of ahimsa, of moral introspection rather than retaliation, of humility and stress on the `feminine', devotional aspects of Hinduism, posed the main hurdle to making Hindus `potent'. He had to be surgically removed.

Noorani's monograph also allows some speculations on Savarkar's mindset. Noorani may be right in calling Savarkar's Hindutva an ideology of hate, hitting the nail on both psychological and moral counts. Nevertheless the characterisation seems insufficient. A perplexing feature of Savarkar was that he shifted from a commitment to a composite national culture in which different communities would play equal parts (his early aspiration was to form an United States of India) to communal nationalism (a description that is justified by Savarkar's recommendation that Hindus must be `communal' in their nationalism). He made this change during his incarceration in the Andamans, where he wrote the bible of Hindutva (in the book of the same name). In jail he decided to start a suddhi (`reconversion') programme and fashioned his unquenching resentment of Muslims. Why, it may be asked, did Savarkar's political conversion take place in jail? There is little documentation of this period. But we could speculate on a psychologically plausible scenario. Prison is a condition of absolute disempowerment, where the rules of the world are pared down to the most basic elements of domination and subordination. Other things - social relationships, bonds of affection, ideas of forgiveness and so on - could seem pale and pathetic realities in the face of this overwhelming condition. It is a condition that could encourage a nationalist to tell himself, "look, let's face it, the main thing in existence is power; without power there can be no freedom and national power can only come from complete, unconditional unity. We are helpless - my condition testifies to that. There can be no power for our country unless differences between our peoples are erased and people begin to believe passionately in their oneness and not just in coexisting with others." And if the hypothetical prisoner was also an ex-terrorist, he could continue: "This may not be achieved by simply worshipping the nation; the terrorists have failed despite their reverence for Mother India. We also need to acquire the sense of power that comes from dominating an intimate enemy. Power is, after all, the ability to dominate." Such a vision would, it may be observed, be profoundly distrustful of political systems such as democracy that allowed coexistence of different beliefs, with its messiness of conflict and debate, pragmatic solutions of accommodation and compromise and apparent slowness in showing results.

But it is worth noting that prison vision may not yield only this illumination. There are scores of other prison memoirs that indicate that prison life could equally reaffirm/generate a belief in solidarity, fraternity and the need for the messiness of human connections. It is thus plausible to see that jail simply helped Savarkar to articulate clearly and intensify his submerged proclivities. Noorani does point out from Keer's hagiographical study of Savarkar that as a boy he had led a party of communal rioters. But there is also another incident from his jail life which reveals a more general attitude to prison life itself. Noorani draws upon a little known memoir of a revolutionary terrorist and fellow prisoner of Savarkar's in the Andamans by the name of Trailokyanath Chakravarty. Chakravarty recalls that he, along with other prisoners, were encouraged by Savarkar and his brother Ganpat to call a strike in jail. But when the time came to join the strike, Savarkar cried off, claiming that he was too old for solitary confinement, which would be the inevitable consequence of this strike. Noorani notes that there were other senior prisoners who remained without food for over three weeks. This little incident suggests that Savarkar lacked faith in human solidarity, a lack that he filled with visions of national oneness built on the abnormal conditions of worship and hate. Incidentally, the hunger strike was successful.

NOORANI'S book displays the many facets of a superbly skilful lawyer. A strong sense of evidence, hard investigative work, isolation and analyses of patterns of behaviour and regularities in the mass of evidence, backed up by a strong argument and purpose. Such skills are extraordinary but not uncommon in a profession that commands the best brains and the fanciest prices that these can fetch. But Noorani offers more than the common fare - however uncommonly sumptuous it may be in his profession. For, he combines legal skills with something much more rare, that is, a moral passion. Noorani's argument is one in which law and morality inform each other. Even when Noorani upholds the importance of procedures, for instance the importance of corroborative evidence (owing to a lack of which Savarkar was discharged), he is acutely aware that the deeper moral problem of the credibility of the witness is not really answered. But there is something else to which I wish to draw attention. This is the passion that drives Noorani's argument against Savarkar in the first place. It stems from the exasperation of one who firmly believes that Savarkar should not become a moral exemplar for the country. I may add that reading this book has persuaded me that this is an important enterprise because there is a common sense that has obscured assessments of Savarkar by, according him, a heroic aura. What sadder proof of this is needed after the decision to instal the portrait was taken by a parliamentary committee, which included members of the Opposition?

Briefly put, the common sense about Savarkar (with which Hindutva propagandists continually thump their chests) is one that says he was a brave and heroic revolutionary terrorist, who made a daring escape from a ship and later underwent immense hardship in the Andamans before his release. This is a version that has commanded respect from even the political opponents of Savarkar. Noorani endorses this version. But he also suggests that there is another larger, hidden story behind the recounting of the bare facts of heroism and this is the one that he uncovers with concentrated precision. The most important element of this submerged story is a repeated pattern of behaviour that shows Savarkar instigating a conspiracy and then, after imprisonment or investigation, pledging loyalty to the authorities against whom the plots were hatched. Noorani provides repeated instances in which Savarkar pledged loyalty to the British Crown, beginning from 1911, the year he was confined to the Andamans. Savarkar had been implicated in the murder of two British civilian officials and later testimonies indicate that he had directly instigated them. Within a year of his incarceration in the Andamans (Savarkar had surrendered after the incident of his daring escape) Savarkar dispatched a "petition for clemency". Savarkar refers to this in his 1913 petition (which is still preserved) where he applauds the British by acclaiming that "the Mighty alone can afford to be merciful" and tells them that he was a "prodigal son" presumably waiting to be swept back into the arms of the colonial bureaucracy. This is only two of the several instances where Savarkar uses a rhetoric of pleading that is far in excess of what is apposite to a self-respecting plea for pardon. But there is also something else that is interesting. This concerns not Savarkar's capacity for mendicancy but something related to it, that is, his habit of denial. Noorani relates a significant incident. The setting is the Gandhi murder trial at Red Fort. Savarkar sits with the accused, including the Godse brothers, for whom he has been a figure of intimate inspiration. But throughout the trial Savarkar studiously ignores Nathuram. Interestingly, Godse seemed less hurt by Savarkar's labelling of him and the others as criminals than by the fact of Savarkar's cold rejection. Inamdar, a lawyer-admirer of Savarkar, records: "How Nathuram yearned for a touch of Tatyarao's [Savarkar] hand, a word of sympathy, of at least a look of compassion in the secluded confines of his cell." It may help to recall that Godse was facing certain death at this point for a crime in which Savarkar was also implicated to deduce the obvious facets of Savarkar's character.

This book is a valuable addition to the growing corpus of knowledge about Hindutva and its practitioners. Indeed, this may well be the first non-hagiographical biography of an important Hindutva leader: it certainly is the first such on Savarkar. I have already dwelt upon the considerable merits of the book. In fact if there is a problem with the book it stems from a job being done too well. Noorani's argument is tenacious and while registering the contrary features of Savarkar it possesses the qualities of a brilliant legal brief that effectively demolishes the myth of Savarkar, the nationalist icon. However, one does not get the sense of a living self emerging from these pages. One wishes for a bit more stress on the inconsistencies in Savarkar's behaviour, more personal details and much more by way of placing him in social and political contexts. This book would have been far richer if it had negotiated with many more conventions of the biographical genre.

But these are merely qualifications. They must take a place secondary to the importance of the question that the book asks. With the installation of Savarkar's portrait one can see yet another step by which the dominant notion of nationalism is being shifted from anti-colonialism to Hindu sentiments. This initiative to redefine nationalism is not surprising since it comes from a government that has outdone all others is selling off the assets of the country and demonstrated its considerable skills in playing Radha to the United States' government's Krishna. A government that has even lost the nerve to straightforwardly condemn the most unpopular and publicly unjust war in history, a war that tells all nations today that you may be the next target after Iraq. But this only means that some of the patterns of communal nationalism evident in the national movement of substituting an internal enemy for a powerful, external one, are repeating themselves in a different form in the age of U.S.-dominated globalisation. To confront the problem of Savarkar in the present, therefore, is also to reckon with a debate that was unresolved in the course of the freedom struggle. How do we define ourselves as a country, as Hindus/Muslims or as people fighting - with others in different lands - for a shared freedom? In being able to suggest directions to questions it had yet to confront, I can only express gratitude to Noorani's book.

Pradip Kumar Datta teaches in a multi-disciplinary position at the Department of Political Science, Delhi University.

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