Inventing Hindu Supremacy

Mihir Dalal in Aeon: To understand Narendra Modi’s India, it is instructive to grasp the ideas of the Hindu Right’s greatest ideologue, the world of British colonial India in which they emerged, and the historical feebleness of the present regime.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was a polymath who read law in London, enjoyed Shakespeare, admired the Bible, wrote important historical works, and became an accomplished poet and playwright. His lifelong obsession was politics.

Savarkar took up political activity in his teens and became a cherished anti-British revolutionary. While serving a long prison sentence for inciting violence against the British, he transformed into a Hindu supremacist bent on dominating Indian Muslims.

Vinayak Savarkar ridiculed Gandhi, preaching that anti-Muslim violence was the only means to unite India into a nation.

His pamphlet Essentials of Hindutva (1923), written secretively in jail, remains the most influential work of Hindu nationalism. In this and subsequent works, he called for Hindus, hopelessly divided by caste, to come together as one homogeneous community and reclaim their ancient homeland from those he considered outsiders, primarily the Muslims. Savarkar advocated violence against Muslims as the principal means to bind antagonistic lower and upper castes, writing:

Nothing makes Self conscious of itself so much as a conflict with non-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.

Savarkar has proven prescient if not prescriptive. Over the past four decades, the Hindu Right’s violence against Muslims has indeed helped Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cement a degree of Hindu political unity long considered unattainable.

Some of Savarkar’s views on Hindus and their religion embarrass the Right. An agnostic, Savarkar declared that Hindutva – his construction of Hindu nationalism – was bigger than Hinduism, the actual religion of the Hindus. Later in life, he railed against Hindus and urged them to become more like Muslims (or his perception of them). Writing about Muslims in the medieval period allegedly raping and converting Hindu women any chance they got, Savarkar characterised it as ‘an effective method of increasing the Muslim population’ unlike the ‘suicidal Hindu idea of chivalry’ of treating the enemy’s women with respect. He wrote disparagingly about cow worship and other Hindu practices, and refused to discharge the funeral rites for his devout Hindu wife. Although Savarkar’s Hindutva helped inspire the launch of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a century ago, he was disdainful of its decision to avoid direct political participation. ‘The epitaph for the RSS volunteer will be that he was born, he joined the RSS and he died without accomplishing anything,’ he reportedly said.

Until Modi became prime minister in 2014, Savarkar was known to few Indians, and those few knew him as a minor freedom-fighter. Since then, the BJP-RSS have placed Savarkar at the centre of their efforts to rewrite Indian history from a Hindu supremacist perspective. Today’s BJP positions Savarkar as a nationalist icon on a par with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, if not greater. If Savarkar’s ‘repeated warnings against the Congress’s appeasement politics’ had been heeded, India could have avoided Partition, the separation of Pakistan from India, writes Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief.

In fact, this invocation of Savarkar disguises a much more complicated history that the Right is desperate to suppress.

avarkar was born in 1883 to a Brahmin family near Nashik, a city in western India. In the first part of Vikram Sampath’s extensive, hagiographical biography of 2019, Savarkar is presented as a child prodigy who loved reading and lapped up Hindu epics, books, newspapers and political journals in Marathi – his mother tongue – and English. A newspaper ran one of his Marathi poems when he was 12; another published an article of his on Hindu culture.

The second of four siblings, Savarkar lost his mother to cholera when he was nine, and his father to the plague seven years later. Still in his teens, he formed a secret society of young revolutionaries against the British. According to Sampath, he found the constitutional methods of the Indian National Congress – an organisation gently pushing local interests – unappealing, and instead drew inspiration from the few revolutionaries who assassinated British officials. Savarkar would give speeches on historic nationalist movements to his secret society and extol the 19th-century European nationalist revolutionaries Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, who exercised considerable influence on his thought. After his marriage to a Brahmin girl was arranged by his uncle, Savarkar enrolled in college in 1902 for a major in the arts. He studied widely, reading Sanskrit and Greek classics, English poetry, international history and biographies of revolutionaries.

After graduation, Savarkar moved to London to read law but also to continue his political activity in the enemy’s bastion. He stayed at a boarding house for Indian students, where he met many co-conspirators, not a few of whom he helped to radicalise. Abhinav Bharat, Savarkar’s secret organisation, would smuggle arms and bomb-manuals to India; in 1909, the group assassinated William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, an aide to the Secretary of State for India, in London. Savarkar had already worried the British enough that, by the time he arrived in London in 1906, they had put him under surveillance. In 1910, he was arrested and deported to India to be tried. By this time, India had endured British colonial rule for more than a century. Colonial narratives greatly influenced the worldviews of Savarkar and other Indian nationalists.

Over a 70-year period starting in the 1750s, the British East India Company defeated both European and local rivals and turned the Mughal dynasty that had ruled India for more than 200 years into its puppet. Britain’s barbaric traders carried out their conquest through loot and rapacity, while its scribes, missionaries and historians provided the moral justifications by portraying India as a degenerate civilisation that British rule might redeem. Some European thinkers, Orientalists and Romantics valorised ancient Hindu India as the cradle of civilisation, but they too lamented its decay.

Under British colonialism, elite Hindus often accepted the British narratives for colonial rule. They were especially tortured by the question: how could a vast nation like India be conquered by a distant island a fraction of its size and population? Such musings about Indian or Hindu history furthered the development of Indian nationalism. By assuming that a ‘national’ Hindu-Indian identity had existed since time immemorial (it hadn’t), elite Hindus felt driven to recover their Hindu-Indian identity in the present. In fact, until British rule, people in the subcontinent hadn’t seen themselves as Hindu (or Muslim) in the modern sense. They balanced various identities, including those of place, caste and family lineage; religion merely provided one among several, as the political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj and others have written. However, in the 19th century, some upper-caste Hindus, awed by the power of Britain’s military and industrial superiority, launched vigorous movements to ‘purify’ their religion and make it more like Christianity. They moved to cast off what they saw as the appendages dragging down Hinduism – the inegalitarian caste system, the large diversity of gods, sects and practices – believing this reformation would make India great again.

British historical narratives portrayed Hindu-Muslim enmity as a fundamental, self-evident feature of Indian history. In reality, religious pluralism and toleration – not fanatical religious hatred – had been the norm among people of various religions in South Asia. In The Loss of Hindustan (2020), the historian Manan Asif Ahmed writes that, before British rule, many elite Hindus and Muslims had thought of Hindustan as a homeland not only of the Hindus, but of the ‘diverse communities of believers’ including Muslims and Christians. British colonialism constructed a different narrative, one in which Hindus had been subjugated in their home for 1,000 years by Muslim invaders. This distorted the South Asian experience of Hindustan into claims of immutable enmity between Hindus and Muslims.

The British census aggregated Hindus and Muslims across India into homogeneous groups and facilitated the creation of solidarity – and belligerence – among them. Towards the end of the 19th century, colonial influences combined with what the historian Christopher Bayly in 1998 called ‘old patriotisms’ to contribute to the invention of a pan-Indian Hindu nationality, and a more inchoate Muslim nationality.

orking in this legacy, Savarkar made his first lasting contribution to Indian politics in 1909, with the publication of a historical work, The Indian War of Independence of 1857. In 1857, large numbers of Indian soldiers and gentry in northern and western India had risen under the banner of the fading Mughal dynasty in the largest armed uprising against the British Empire by a ruled people. British historians had played down this war as a ‘sepoy mutiny’, restricted to disgruntled soldiers rather than a polity – a view Savarkar set out to correct. In Hindutva and Violence (2021), an authoritative work on Savarkar, the historian Vinayak Chaturvedi shows that Savarkar was a master at reclaiming Indian history from the British by reading colonial records and works of scholarship ‘against the grain’. Drawing inspiration from the French and American revolutions as well as the ultranationalism of Mazzini, Savarkar reconstructed 1857 as the ‘first war’ for Indian independence. To this day, 1857 is understood as such in India. His passionate, romantic account glorified Indian war heroes with the intent of inspiring a revolution against the British.

In the book, Savarkar introduced the central motif in his historical works: violence as mystical unifier. He held that Hindus and Muslims had become united for the first time ever during the war through the means of violence. The literal ‘shedding of [British] blood’ together had forged the Hindu-Muslim bond, as the political theorist Shruti Kapila characterises Savarkar’s idea in Violent Fraternity (2021). Savarkar’s conception of Hindu-Muslim history had been partly shaped by the long tradition of religiopolitical enmity against the Mughals in his homeland of Maharashtra, as the historian Prachi Deshpande shows in Creative Pasts (2007). But Savarkar, always the innovative thinker, borrowed only what suited his purposes. He wrote that, since Hindu kings had avenged centuries of Muslim oppression by defeating the Mughals in the 18th century, the ‘blot of slavery’ had been ‘wiped off’. Having re-established their ‘sovereignty’ at home, they could now fraternise with Muslims. And finally, such was the power of the violence in 1857 that India now became ‘the united nation of the adherents of Islam as well as Hinduism’. Indian War and its author were admired across the political spectrum.

The book was the high point of Savarkar’s youth. Soon he lost his infant son to smallpox, and his elder brother was arrested for treason. In 1910, Savarkar himself was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Andamans, a brutal penal colony in the Bay of Bengal. He had become notorious on account of the violent activities of his secret society. But more than this, it was his ‘seditious’ writings with their potential to sow widespread disaffection that had threatened the British, the historian Janaki Bakhle wrote in 2010.

Prison broke Savarkar. In his autobiography, Savarkar writes about frequently suffering from dysentery, lung disease and malaria. He was put in solitary confinement for months, and for eight years was denied permission to see his wife. The Irish jailor was sadistic, and Muslim warders were cruel to Hindus. Nearly driven to suicide, he filed mercy petitions, abjured revolution, and promised to serve the empire (the issue most debated about Savarkar today). The petitions were rejected but in the early 1920s Savarkar was moved to a less harsh prison in western India.

By then, Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian National Congress had revolutionised Indian politics. His religiosity and asceticism attracted the masses to the independence movement, which had been limited to a tiny section of educated Indians. But, unusually, Gandhi emphasised nonviolence, ethical conduct, social reform and Hindu-Muslim unity as much as political independence. He also often upset fellow nationalists. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, some Indian Muslims launched a movement to compel the British to preserve the institution of the Islamic Caliphate, a symbol of international Muslim solidarity. Gandhi encouraged Hindus to join in, even though they had no stake in the cause.

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