Date: 28 May 2008


The man who saw tomorrow
Ashok Malik
The Pioneer

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar would have been 125 today. In life, 
he was a demonised, marginalised 'political Hindu'. Yet, in contemporary 
India, Savarkar stands vindicated and Savarkarism is more accepted than 
ever before

In 2004, when the historian Ron Chernow wrote his eponymous 
biography of Alexander Hamilton, he was partly impelled by the sense 
that his subject had not been given his due. Hamilton was an American 
nationalist, a votary of federal institutions, a Republican, an advocate 
of limited Government and a patron of the industrial society before 
these terms were coined or at least entirely understood. He was also the 
first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and a widely 
influential figure in the early years of the new republic.

Yet, over the decades, memories of Hamilton's contemporaries 
overwhelmed his legacy. He was America's forgotten Founding Father, lost 
in the crevices between George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. 
Hamilton had opposed slavery even while his great rival Thomas Jefferson 
had kept slaves; yet, it wasn't Hamilton who was remembered by human 
rights chroniclers.

What Hamilton lost in life, Hamiltonism won in history. By the 
20th century, Hamilton's ideas had triumphed. His initial postulates 
continue to define American strategic thinking, foreign policy and 
economic philosophy. Every White House resident in the past 20 years has 
paid homage to Ronald Reagan; Reagan himself often evoked Hamilton.

It is tempting to see Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who would have 
been 125 this morning, as an Indian Alexander Hamilton. By the time he 
died in 1966, he had shrunk to a limited presence. Surrounded only by a 
few devoted adherents and members of the Hindu Mahasabha, his writings 
read mainly by his fellow Maharastrians, his heroic role in the freedom 
movement had been effaced by official historians.

Savarkar was the intellectual equal of Jawaharlal Nehru. Revisit 
the writings of the stalwarts of the pre-1947 period and you will 
encounter few besides these two with a grasp and informed assessment of 
contemporary world affairs. Yet, in the hard, harsh world of politics 
and political ideas, Savarkar, by the 1960s, had lost to Nehru's cult 
and charisma.

There were many reasons why the Left-liberal intelligentsia, most 
of whom are, in some form or the other, pensioners of the Nehruvian 
state structure, despised Savarkar. For a start, he was flesh-and-blood 
refutation of the charge that Hindu nationalism lacked an intellectual 
tradition. Second, he represented a cogent and coherent position that 
believed the political choices India and the Congress had made in 1947 
(or 1950 or 1952, after the first election) were not necessarily 

These were inconvenient truths for Nehruvian fellow travellers, 
Savarkar the inconvenient man. There was astonishing virulence towards 
Savarkar. Some, like the perverse and bigoted Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, 
even mocked the 10 years that Savarkar spent in Cellular Jail, Port 
Blair, in horrific conditions, alone in a tiny cell.

The antipathy to Savarkar has to be seen in a larger context. 
Post-independence, the Congress establishment sought to rewrite history 
in its own image. It determinedly underplayed the role of the early 
Indian elites -- the Poona Brahmins, Bombay's Parsi constitutionalists, 
Calcutta's Bengali and Brahmo activists -- who had dominated public life 
prior to the Mahatma's mass politics.

As the Congress set out to establish that there was no history and 
no freedom struggle before Gandhi, and no politics and no consciousness 
of modern India before Nehru, these pioneer groups became expendable. 
The Marxist historians who actually wrote the textbooks had their own 
theories. For instance, not just was Savarkar demonised, even the 
venerable Bal Gangadhar Tilak was painted in sectarian colours.

Even so, history has a strange way of getting back. Savarkar's 
idea of the political Hindu, of a polity and of political parties that 
would be sensitive to the Hindu cultural mainstay of Indian nationhood, 
that would, while eschewing ritualism and dogma, incorporate robust 
nationalism into policy-making, is more relevant than it has ever been. 
Nehruvianism is in retreat and, even though Savarkar has been dead 42 
years, Savarkarism has never been more alive.

Written in 1923, Savarkar's slim tract, Hindutva, remains a 
remarkably contemporary articulation of organic nationalism. Indeed, it 
anticipates some of the ideas expanded upon by Samuel Huntington in Who 
Are We? (2004).

Leftist historians often divide Savarkar's life into two -- the 
supposedly "acceptable" first part, till the mid-1920s; and, his 
espousal of Hindutva after that. Actually, this division is bogus.

Admittedly, Savarkar's early life was one of a romantic 
revolutionary. As a student in London, he was in touch with Irish, 
Turkish and Chinese dissidents and rebels. In 1907, he wrote The War of 
Independence of 1857. The book was deeply researched and provided an 
interpretation of documents and events from the Indian perspective.

Admittedly, it is not the last word on the Indian Uprising. In 
hindsight, Savarkar could be accused of glossing over the differing 
motivations of the participants of the 1857 war and of being simplistic 
in believing that there was overwhelming consensus in re-establishing 
the Delhi throne as a Maratha protectorate -- as had been the case till 

Nevertheless, this was a passionate young man of 24 writing the 
first non-imperial account of a dramatic struggle. It was passionate and 
pulsating, being smuggled to India wrapped in dust jackets saying Don 
Quixote and Pickwick Papers. The British Government arrested Savarkar 
and sought to send him to India to stand trial. At Marseilles, in a 
dramatic move, he squeezed out of the porthole and swam to the shore, 
claiming asylum from the French Government.

It was refused and he was re-arrested on French soil and handed 
over to the British. This was in breach of international law and among 
those who protested at Savarkar being denied asylum was Jean Longuet, 
French lawyer-editor and grandson of Karl Marx.

Savarkar was heavily influenced by Italian thinkers such as 
Mazzini. He saw Hindutva as an Indian Risorgimeto, conceptualising it as 
a reawakening of the national spirit and of a pride in, and 
understanding of, the territorial frontiers of India. He was not a 
religious sort and did not interpret 'Hindu' solely in terms of worship. 
He was an early opponent of Dalit exclusion, seeing a Hindu 
harmonisation process as essential to national unity.

Savarkar was often impatient with the RSS and it is piquant to 
compare him with MS Golwalkar, 'Guruji' as he is called and the man who 
made the Sangh the all-India institution that it is today. Savarkar was 
a thinker, Golwalkar a do-er; Savarkar was the rare Hindu mind who 
understood statecraft and the importance of state power, Golwalkar 
sought to change society by working bottom-up from grassroots 
communities. For Golwalkar (as for Gandhi), the Hindu was 
ascetic-exemplar; for Savarkar, he was warrior-ideal.

The two streams were not antithetical but clearly complementary. 
When they finally merged, consciously or otherwise, in the late-1980s, 
it changed Indian politics and moved the polity irrevocably to the 
Right. At its best, the BJP is a confluence of Savarkar and Golwalkar.

Savarkar had known it all along. Just before his death, in an 
emotional piece called "This, My Legacy", he had written: "If we are to 
live with honour and dignity as a Hindu nation -- and we have the right 
to do so -- that nation must emerge under the Hindu flag. This, my 
dream, shall come true -- if not in this generation at least in the 
next. If it remains an empty dream, I shall prove a fool. If it comes 
true, I shall prove a prophet. This, my legacy, I bequeath to you."

Savarkar is gone. Let us cherish his legacy, salute the prophet.