V. Chaturvedi: Hindutva and Violence

Hindutva and Violence. V. D. Savarkar and the Politics of History

Chaturvedi, Vinayak
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Suyash Barve, School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London

Vinayak Chaturvedi’s Hindutva and Violence, V.D. Savarkar and the Politics of History is a fascinatingly prescient examination of the literary works of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, "the most controversial Indian political thinker of the early 20th century" (p. 1, emphasis original). Vinayak Savarkar’s persistent and disturbing influence on contemporary Indian politics can hardly be missed. He is widely remembered as a revolutionary, freedom fighter, social reformer, and a key architect of Hindu nationalism.[1] While he is commonly referred to as "Veer Savarkar"[2] this hero-worship is notwithstanding his close involvement in the assassination of M.K. Gandhi and expressions of willingness to declare loyalty and cooperate with the British Empire in exchange for clemency of two life terms in prison (p. 134). More recently, Savarkar’s conception of establishing a Hindu nation by inflicting historically justified violence on the invaders and occupiers of sacred Hindu geography has loomed large in the aftermath of Hindu violence following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat pogroms in 2002 (p. 6). Yet as this book premises, Savarkar’s voluminous output of "3 dramas, 2 novels, ten thousand lines of poetry, 25 short stories, 4 books on history and hundreds of articles [compiled in] 20 books" according to his personal secretary Balarao (p. 14) has been seldom read or critiqued by his supporters or detractors.

Acknowledging the formidable challenges in writing about such a difficult figure, Hindutva and Violence departs from both hagiographic accounts celebrating Savarkar’s life and political rebuttals of his polarising theorisation of Hindu identity and acquiescence to the British. Instead, Chaturvedi tries "to make it thinkable that Savarkar contributed to political thought" (p. 27) drawing from Savarkar’s key works published mainly in English and Marathi spanning five decades between 1909–1964. The book argues that "perhaps Savarkar’s greatest innovation was to link Hindutva with Being. For Savarkar [Hindutva] was not the ontological Being; rather, in his view Hindutva may best be described as the entity by which Being could be understood" (p. 9, emphasis original). In presenting an intellectual history of Savarkar’s engagement with political, philosophical and religious debates of his times, the book follows Marxist historian G.P. Deshpande’s call for a more thorough engagement with Savarkar’s ideas "in order to contest, challenge, and resist the new hegemonic forms of institutional and cultural power in India that are motivated and inspired by the principles of Hindutva" (p. 392).[3] While the "epistemic refusal to engage with Savarkar’s ideas has not prevented the growth and spread of Hindutva in India and elsewhere" as Chaturvedi argues reading Savarkar "is necessary [for] examining how they have influenced the making of modern political thought writ large" (p. 28). The strategies, techniques, methodologies, modalities, dialectics, references, and narratives in Savarkar’s work that encode the motives, actions, identities, ontologies, and histories of the Hindu spirit is at the core of Chaturvedi’s analysis over four chronological parts.

"Part I – London (1906–1910) Principles of History" concerns Savarkar’s early work while on a scholarship in Britain, on Giuseppe Mazzini (1907) the Italian nationalist and The Indian War of Independence of 1857 (1909) a revisionist history of the 1857 armed rebellion in India against British rule. Here, the author argues that these texts and several other essays which concern episodes in European history serve as precursors to Savarkar’s later writings on Hindutva noting how "Savarkar modified concepts by turning to vernacular ideas that added complexity to Mazzini’s formulations [and] used vernacular terms to interpret [European] history while also being inspired by (religious texts like) the Bhagvad Gita" (p. 113).

"Part II – Port Blair-Pune (1911–1923) Hindutva is History" focuses on "Essentials of Hindutva" (1923) Savarkar’s most well-known treatise composed during his rigorous incarceration in the Cellular Jail on the Andaman Islands and Yerawada Jail in Pune. In this part, Chaturvedi analyses the ways in which Savarkar uses conceptual histories of geography, blood, and civilisation to frame his ideas of the Hindu nation (p. 37). The author states how for Savarkar "the very idea of a Hindu nation can only be understood within his own articulation that the (Aryan) Hindus were the original colonisers of the land" (p. 123). This reflects Savarkar’s cultural imperialistic ambitions of a Hindu nation whose genesis entailed a violent process of colonisation over the indigenous non-Aryans. This Hindu nation Savarkar proclaimed was in a permanent state of war against invading foreign armies.

"Part III – Ratnagiri (1924–1937) Modes of Hindu History" in two sections covers Savarkar’s autobiographical, reflexive and vaguely pseudonymous biographical works authored after his release from prison and restriction to the Ratnagiri district. The first section "Maratha History as Hindu History" details Savarkar’s explanations and expansions on his methods and concepts in arguing for "the importance of writing histories of pan-Hindu unity" beginning with his history of the Maratha empire (p. 37). The second section shifts focus on the extended correspondence between Savarkar and the British who were closely monitoring his work for political references, and Savarkar’s subversion of surveillance by adopting the genre of autobiography that "provided [him] a way to write about the ‘self’ as a strategy of ontological integrity [to] narrate his life within the same parameters he used in examining the lives of past historical characters" (ibid).

"Part IV – Bombay (1937–1963) The Impossible History" considers Savarkar’s literary and political efforts to put into practice his vision for the Hindu nation which analyses Six Glorious Epochs in Hindu History, his only major work produced in independent India. Although Savarkar was acquitted for lack of evidence in the assassination trial of Gandhi he was largely shunned from public life till his death in 1966. This part analyses how Savarkar envisioned rewriting history as the main tool in the permanent struggle for defending the Hindu nation.

The book’s coda delves into Chaturvedi’s curious and personal motivations that led him to write about Savarkar on finding out he was named "Vinayak" after Savarkar by Dr. Dattatrey Parchure after being treated by him as a sick child in 1969. Parchure was a close aide of Savarkar, similarly convicted in the assassination of Gandhi who named several children coming to him for treatment in honour of his guru. Chaturvedi poignantly captures the crisscrossing of his personal destiny with Savarkar’s enduring legacy reflecting the latter’s deep entrenchment in Hindu male consciousness.

Chaturvedi’s analyses of the prolific and prolix juxtaposition of religion, philosophy, politics, and autobiography in Savarkar’s work is meticulous and piercing. It investigates the connections between Savarkar’s conceptualisation of Hindu and Heidegger’s notion of 'Being' although there are no cross references between their work. In partially rejecting positivist historiography and drawing from oral traditions, the book interprets Savarkar’s work as "against the grain" of the contemporaneous hegemonic orientalist history of India. While there are questions on Hindu nationalism that lie beyond this excellent yet singular analysis of Savarkar’s works, the book offers a generative intellectual context for historians and researchers to understand the economic, political, and cultural conditions framing the rise of Hindu nationalism in postcolonial India. Insightfully, this book casts light on how the (re)inscription of history is the core of the Hindu nationalist project Savarkar inspired which is being relentlessly pursued in contemporary India.[4]

[1]https://twitter.com/narendramodi/status/868737958001623040 (02.07.2023).
[2]https://thewire.in/history/veer-savarkar-the-staunchest-advocate-of-loyalty-to-the-english-government (02.07.2023).
[3] Govind Purushottam Deshpande, The world of ideas in modern Marathi. Phule, Vinoba, Savarkar, New Delhi 2009.
[4]https://indianexpress.com/article/india/no-one-can-stop-us-rewriting-history-free-distortions-amit-shah-8288780/ (02.07.2023).

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