June 04, 2023

India: Can There Be A Progressive Uniform Civil Code? | Omar Rashid (May 31, 2023)

Can There Be A Progressive Uniform Civil Code?
What we need is a UCC that is acceptable to all sections of society, gender
and communities
Omar Rashid
31 May 2023
In October 2017, a citizen’s group that included well-known activist
Bezwada Wilson and musician T M Krishna presented a proposal of a model
‘progressive’ Uniform Civil Code (UCC) to the chairperson of the Law
Commission of India, Justice B S Chauhan.
The draft proposed the dissolution of the Hindu Undivided Family and the
repeal of various personal laws of religious communities, including The
Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, The Muslim Personal Law (Sharia) Application Act,
1937, The Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, The Parsi Marriage and
Divorce Act, 1936 and The Hindu Succession Act, 1956. The draft
standardised the process of marriage, partnership, right to adopt, divorce,
custody of child, succession and inheritance in accordance with uniformity
of gender as well as sexuality.
For instance, it proposed that no non-judicial decree of divorce would have
any legal effect. A divorce would be granted by a district court or civil
court on an application by the person seeking it and after hearing the
other spouse. There would be four grounds for divorce—mut­ual consent of
both persons, irr­etrievable breakdown of marriage, physical or mental
cruelty by the spouse or mental unsoundness of the spouse. The draft
outlined an inclusive definition of marriage, as the legal union of a man
with a woman, a man with another man, a woman with another woman, a
transgender with another transgender or a transgender with a man or a woman.
The draft of the ‘progressive’ UCC was based on the premise that personal
laws of all religions were beset with various inequities, especially in the
context of gender. Unless the “discrimination entrenched in all personal
laws” was not eliminated, the values and principles enshrined in the
Constitution could not be truly honoured, the group said in a note to
Justice Chauhan.
In 2016, the law commission had invited suggestions and views from public
and organisations after the Ministry of Law and Justice had asked it to
“examine matters in relation” to the UCC.
A UCC has been a long-held agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
(RSS)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine. In recent elections, both state
and national, the BJP has promised that if elected to power, it would draft
a UCC. In the party manifesto released for the 2019 Lok Sabha election,
which gave Narendra Modi his second term as Prime Minister, the BJP
reiterated its stand to draft a UCC, “drawing upon the best traditions and
harmonising them with the modern times.” The party said it “believes that
there cannot be gender equality till such time India adopts a Uniform Civil
Code, which protects the rights of all women.”
While its contours have not been outlined, the UCC could mean a common set
of laws governing personal matters for all irrespective of gender or
religion. However, despite consistently involving the UCC in its political
and electoral agenda and rhetoric, the BJP is yet to outline a draft for
such a unified code.
What would the BJP’s UCC have in store for the diversity of personal laws
and customs within the Hindu fold? At a time when the Supreme Court is
pressed with the question of legalising same-sex marriage, with the ruling
party opposing it, would the UCC exclude sexuality as a determinant? Would
Hindu women be better able to exercise their right to property, which
according to customs is often bequeathed to sons? Questions are plenty.
On May 15, Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, one of
the few BJP states that have promised to bring in a UCC at the state-level,
said that a committee formed by his government to prepare a draft of the
code had completed 90 per cent work. The committee would submit its
proposals by June 30.
A major section of civil society and Opposition parties have consistently
looked at the BJP’s promise of a UCC with suspicion. They feel that in the
Sangh Parivar’s book, the UCC was a majoritarian means to undermine the
religious identity of minority communities.
But that brings us to the question—can there be a progressive UCC, one that
is acceptable to all sections of society, gender and communities and does
not reflect the ideological prism of the Hindu majoritarianism espoused by
the BJP-RSS?
In the absence of an actual draft or clear-cut goals, public discussion has
so far been limited to speculation. Many experts feel it may not be easy to
implement a UCC that would be acceptable to all communities and groups.
Rather than chasing the utopia of a unified code, they feel, the essence of
an equitable unified code would be achieved if progressive reforms are
brought into the various personal laws.
“Make all personal laws gender just and the laws will cease to be
problematic,” says A Faizur Rahman, secretary general of the Islamic Forum
for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. Rahman has over the years forcefully
argued that a unifying code that was acceptable to all communities was not
possible in a country as culturally and religiously diverse as India. “I
would not even attempt to draft a UCC. It will not be acceptable to all
communities,” he says.
Even those who are theoretically in favour of a unified and equitable code
but not one based on majoritarianism, argue that the process should start
by each community reflecting on their own personal laws and comparing it
with present-day norms of human rights and equality.
Hasina Khan, a well-known feminist activist from Mumbai, advocates for the
removal of gender discrimination in personal laws and making them inclusive
rather than exclusive. What if she had to draft such a UCC? “I would not
use the term UCC but a gender-just law,” she says. This would mean that
anyone, be it one in a live-in relationship or a queer group, heterosexual
group or a couple in companionship of some form, they should have legal
rights and recognition. There should not be any burden of proof for
self-determination regardless of gender identity, she says.
Khan, who as part of her group Bebaak Collective, had approached the Law
Commission for suggestions on UCC, especially with regards to Muslim
personal laws, stresses that polygamy and practices such as halala need to
go. Also, she is in favour of making the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages
Act, 1939 “gender neutral” so that the practice of unilateral talaq (by men
to women) is over.
At present, if a Muslim woman wishes to divorce her husband, she has to
take the trouble of making an application to the court. A Muslim man,
however, can unilaterally divorce his wife under personal laws. Apart from
this, Khan also pointed to the unequal inheritance and property rights
under Muslim personal laws as well as in other religious personal laws. On
the question of succession of property, there is no uniformity under Hindu
laws on the inheritance of agricultural land by women who often face
exclusion. “Few states have given daughters rights at par with sons but
inheritance is a big issue across the country,” says senior lawyer Colin
Gonsalves. He is in favour of a UCC but one based on constitutional values.
“I don’t want a BJP code. I want a constitution law code,” he stresses.
While several commentators often engage in elaborate discussions on a
possible UCC covering various aspects of personal laws, Gonsalves says “we
must deal with the roots first and the branches later.” The key to
achieving a UCC in essence is to simply remove all forms of discriminatory
customs and traditions from personal laws. “If I had to draft a UCC, I
would sum it up in one line. Any custom, practice or tradition which
discriminates between male and female is unconstitutional and henceforth
shall be treated as void,” he says.
The ‘progressive’ draft on succession and inheritance says that
every person, whether adopted or biological, upon the parent’s death, will
have an equal share along with the surviving parent in the property of the
deceased parent, irrespective of their gender, sexual orientation or
religion. Also, non-heterosexual married couples, or couples in partnership
will be equally entitled to legally adopt a child as heterosexual couples
in similar relationships.
Former attorney general of India Soli J. Sorabjee, in a letter to Justice
Chauhan supporting the ‘progressive’ UCC draft, had stated that the
recommendations of the Law Commission need to be far-sighted and
progressive. “The Law Commission should obviate apprehension that anything
uniform, would be majoritarian,” Sorabjee wrote.
In August 2018, in a 185-page consultation paper, however, the law
commission said that the UCC “is neither necessary nor desirable at this
stage.” The commission rather suggested a series of amendments to personal
laws and further codification of certain other laws, particularly with
respect to succession and inheritance.
While stressing that efforts have to be made to reconcile our diversity
with universal and indisputable arguments on human rights, Justice Chauhan
said that the term secularism would have true meaning if discriminatory
practices within a religion did not hide behind the cloak of that faith to
gain legitimacy.
Rahman agrees with the Law Commission’s conclusion on the lack of
feasibility of a UCC. It would be better to reform existing personal laws
of each community and bring them in conformity with modern laws or
constitution, he argues.
For instance, in the law of inheritance, there are so many restrictions in
Muslim personal law which do not give women equal rights. A Muslim woman
can inherit only 50 per cent of what a man inherits. In a recent example, a
Muslim couple from Kerala remarried and got their marriage registered under
the Special Marriage Act to ensure that their daughters get a proper share
of the father’s property.
Under the Muslim personal laws, through which they conducted their first
marriage, the daughters would only get a share of his property. Since he
did not have a male heir, the remaining share would go to his
brothers. In the Hindu marriage act, bigamy is a ground for divorce only if
the first wife complains, says Rahman. On the other hand, if a Muslim man
div­orces his wife through utterance of triple talaq, he can go to jail.
(This appeared in the print as 'Can There Be A Progressive UCC?')

June 03, 2023

India in Seeming Damage Control After installation of Akhand Bharat Mural in its New Parliament Building


India - Gujarat: Over 500 women get training to fight ‘love jihad’ (via Kadva Patidar, Kajal Hindustani) | Damayantee Dhar

Gujarat: Over 500 women get training to fight ‘love jihad’

At a three-day event organised by the caste-based group Kadva Patidar (Patel) Samaj in Kutch, more than 500 women were given daggers (katars) to protect themselves from wolfish men from other religions.

India: New Parliament Building Inauguration or Coronation | Ram Puniyani


New Parliament Inauguration Mimicked Coronation Ceremonies of Yore

Ram Puniyani |
Installing a ‘sceptre’ amounts to reviving divine right as the source of political authority.
PM, not President, Inaugurating New Parliament Building is at Odds with Constitution

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

On 28 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a new and more lavish Parliament building. Most Opposition parties boycotted this function as they argued President Draupadi Murmu should have inaugurated it. As per Article 79 of the Constitution of India, the President, Rajya Sabha, and Lok Sabha constitute Parliament. Thus, the President is a part of the legislature. Keeping her out indicates Modi’s appropriation of centrality in all public matters and legislative affairs.

But, equally importantly, the inauguration was marked by two other significant events. One was the presence of many holy men, including priests and the heads of many religious establishments. Invocations of Hindu gods and deities such as Shiva and Ganesha rang aloud. Hindu religious rituals seemed at the event’s core, undermining the secular nature of our State and Constitution. The all-faith prayer, which was also conducted, was hardly noticed, talked about, or shown, especially on TV channels.

The Prime Minister was handed over a sengol, a kind of sceptre, by the Thiruvaduthurai Adheenam, a Shaivite establishment near Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu. Accompanied by the representatives of other Adheenams of Tamil Nadu and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister installed this sceptre in the new building and even referred to it in his speech.

The argument goes that this sceptre symbolises the transfer of power. It is said to have been a part of the tradition of the Chola Empire, in which a sengol was presented to a new king to symbolise his authority and power. The symbolism was to demonstrate the ruler derived his powers from god through the divine agency of a priest.

Therefore, the Prime Minister installing a sceptre in Parliament amounts to an attempt to revive the “glorious” tradition of divine sanction for rulers.

It is also being asserted that at the time of Independence, this particular sceptre was passed from the last viceroy of India, Albert Mountbatten, to the first Prime Minister of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a symbol of the transfer of power. This is a totally concocted work of fiction. Congress party leader and former minister in the previous United Progressive Alliance government, Jairam Ramesh, informed over a popular social media platform that “A majestic sceptre conceived of by a religious establishment in then Madras province and crafted in Madras city was indeed presented to Nehru in August 1947… There is NO documented evidence whatsoever of Mountbatten, Rajaji & Nehru describing this sceptre as a symbol of the transfer of British power to India. All claims to this effect are plain and simple—BOGUS. Wholly and completely manufactured in the minds of a few and dispersed into WhatsApp and now to the drum-beaters in the media. Two of the finest Rajaji scholars with impeccable credentials have expressed surprise.”

Nehru possibly received the sceptre from the Shaivite establishment as a marker of respect. However, the first Prime Minister found a place for it within The Allahabad Museum. It is totally false that he treated it as a walking stick, and it has been established that it was also not characterised as one at any point. Nehru and all significant leaders of the freedom movement did not uphold kingdoms or kings. They conceived India as a democracy where power flows from the people and participatory democracy is established through the universal adult franchise.

Sovereignty in India belongs to the people and does not flow from god, divine forces, or religious figureheads. The democratisation of Indian society created these values, and the Prime Minister or President are not king, emperor or ruler. They do not claim accountability or authority to religious authorities or traditions. India has no ‘Raj Guru’ or royal priest but the people and the Constitution.

Incidentally, CK Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, wrote a scathing commentary opposing the gift of the sengol and the Shaivite body’s effort to represent it as a symbol of the transfer of power. He writes, “You know they must get rid of it to pave the way for the blossom of democracy. The heads of the mutts [religious organisations], who are afraid that you might seek to implement what you have learnt, will not only give a golden sceptre but even a sceptre embedded with ‘navaratnas’ to protect themselves.”

However, Hindu ritualism has been a part of the agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offshoot, the Bharatiya Janata Party. They sought to undermine the plural nature of India and impose the Hindu nationalist view in its place. This view is part of the norms that emerged from Hindu kings and princes, who later joined with ideologues to articulate the Hindu-nationalistic vision of India. It is no coincidence that the inauguration of the new Parliament building was planned on the 140th birth anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an ideologue of Hindu nationalism and quite possibly the first to articulate this view in his book, Hindutva or Who is a Hindu. In this book, he justifies religion as the basis of nationalism, and it is the first text to advocate the two-nation theory’s core beliefs openly.

Through the spectre spectacle, Modi signalled the primacy of faith over the Constitution. He proclaimed, “Today, India is turning once again to that glorious stream of ancient times”. What were the values of those allegedly glorious ancient times? They had authoritarian rulers presiding over societies filled with caste and gender hierarchies, as the Manusmriti enunciates. Constitution writer and first law minister Dr BR Ambedkar burned Savarkar’s book. He believed the ancient scriptures established the secondary position of Dalits and women in society.

RSS ideologues glorify the inaugural event by claiming it revives a glorious Hindu tradition that places dharma above political power. According to them, the king is duty-bound to abide by dharma, and the sengol represents that. The government argues the sceptre reflects a continuity of tradition by embodying sanctified sovereignty and the rule by dharma. RSS’s Ram Madhav has written in the Indian Express that as the sengol reaches the new Parliament House, its “real significance as the ‘Dharma Dand’—the Indian civilisational tradition of ethical-spiritual authority over mere political authority—must be the point of debate rather than the nitpicking over its historicity.”

He also wrote that in the Indian civilisational tradition, monarchs and kings were never considered the supreme authority. “Irrespective of whatever regalia were used, like crowns or sceptres or orbs, the royals were always reminded by the court priests at the time of the coronation that Dharma, the ethical-spiritual order, is the only supreme authority,” he wrote.

In a way India took another step in the direction of Hindu Rashtra on 28 May. The event showed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has monarchical ambitions. The events presented a kingdom’s values in modern garb and used religion to cover for suppressing democratic values. It parallels other fundamentalisms in the name of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or any other faith. The subtle subversion of democracy was more than evident during the inauguration ceremony. After all, less than two kilometres away, the police brutally attacked protesting wrestlers and their supporters who had been protesting in the most genuinely democratic way.

The author is a human rights activist. The views expressed are personal.


June 01, 2023

India: Mockery of history, say Netaji, Khudiram kin after actor's tweet on Savarkar biopic (Subhro Niyogi & Sujoy Khanra - TOI)

The Times of India

Mockery of history, say Netaji, Khudiram kin after actor's tweet on Savarkar biopic
Subhro Niyogi & Sujoy Khanra / TNN / Updated: Jun 1, 2023, 01:43 IST

Family members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Khudiram Bose have dismissed as "mockery of history" and "cheap publicity stunt" any suggestion that Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had a role in inspiring the freedom fighters.
Their reaction follows a tweet by actor Randeep Hooda, who plays Savarkar in the biopic "Swatantrata Veer Savarkar". "The most wanted Indian by the British. The inspiration behind revolutionaries like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose," Hooda had tweeted.
Netaji's daughter Anita Bose Pfaff said perhaps the only thing common between her father and Savarkar was their religion. "Netaji was a devout, religious man. One can also say that he was a devout Hindu. At the same time, he had great respect for all other religions," she told TOI. "Like Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji was opposed to the divisiveness based on religious differences. Let Sarvarkar's followers join Netaji in his vision for India and not hijack him for views that certainly were not his," Pfaff said

 [ . . . ]


May 31, 2023

India: Counter-insurgency in Manipur led to ethnic identity politics


Selected articles by B. Jeyamohan, Vinay Lal, Pavan Kulkarni on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar



How Did Savarkar, a Staunch Supporter of British Colonialism, Come to Be Known as 'Veer'?

Not only did Savarkar pledge his allegiance to the British in return for being released from prison, his propagation of Hindutva hurt the freedom movement by dividing society along sectarian lines.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) – mythologised in popular imagination as ‘Veer Savarkar’ – not only refrained from participating in the freedom struggle after the British released him from prison on account of his relentless pleas for mercy, but also actively collaborated with the English rulers to whom he had declared his loyalty.

Pavan Kulkarni

[Note: This article was first published on May 28, 2017, and is being republished on August 15, 2022, after PM Modi mentioned Savarkar in his Independence Day speech, along with Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose and B.R. Ambedkar as those “who spent life on the path of duty.”]

At the time when Subhas Chandra Bose was raising his Indian National Army to confront the British in India, Savarkar helped the colonial government recruit lakhs of Indians into its armed forces. He further destabilised the freedom movement by pushing his Hindutva ideology, which deepened the communal divide at a time when a united front against colonial rule was needed. Post independence, Savarkar was also implicated in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder.

Such is the man who was declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be “the true son of Mother India and inspiration for many people”, in his Twitter salutation to Savarkar on his birth anniversary on May 28 last year. In 2015, commemorating Savarkar on his 132nd birth anniversary, the prime minister bowed before a portrait of the Hindutva icon in remembrance of “his indomitable spirit and invaluable contribution to India’s history”.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley was quick to follow up on the act. “Today, on birth anniversary of Veer Savarkar, let us remember & pay tribute to this great freedom fighter & social-political philosopher,” he tweeted. And somewhere in the stream of Twitter accolades from numerous BJP ministers that followed, the TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai joined the chorus, albeit with a caveat. While he disagreed “with his ideology”, Sardesai said he honoured Savarkar’s “spirit as freedom fighter”.

A freedom fighter he definitely was, for a certain period in the first decade of the previous century, long before he’d begun articulating the notion of Hindutva. Savarkar was then an atheist and a rationalist, who had started out on a revolutionary road to rid India of her colonial yoke, asserting:

    “whenever the natural process of national and political evolution is violently suppressed by the force of wrong, the revolution must step in as a natural reaction and therefore ought to be welcomed as the only effective instrument to re-throne Truth and Right.”

On sailing to England to study law in 1906, Savarkar founded the Free India Society to organise Indian students studying in England to fight for independence. In a famous declaration before the society, he said:

    “We must stop complaining about this British officer or that officer, this law or that law. There would be no end to that. Our movement must not be limited to being against any particular law, but it must be for acquiring the authority to make laws itself. In other words, we want absolute independence.”

However, when the time came to pay the price for being a revolutionary under an oppressive colonial government, Savarkar found himself converted and transformed into “the staunchest advocate of loyalty to the English government”, to use his own words. This was after he was arrested and sentenced to serve 50 years in the infamous Cellular Jail on the Andaman islands after he was found guilty of supplying the pistol that a member of the Abhinav Bharat Society used to assassinate the then collector of Nasik, A.M.T. Jackson, in 1909.

‘Veer’ Savarkar pleading with the British for mercy

Barely a month into the hardships of prison, Savarkar wrote his first mercy petition, which was rejected in 1911. The second mercy petition, which he wrote in 1913, starts with bitter complaints about other convicts from his party receiving better treatment than him:

    “When I came here in 1911 June, I was along with the rest of the convicts of my party taken to the office of the Chief Commissioner. There I was classed as “D” meaning dangerous prisoner; the rest of the convicts were not classed as “D”. Then I had to pass full 6 months in solitary confinement. The other convicts had not… Although my conduct during all the time was exceptionally good still at the end of these six months I was not sent out of the jail; though the other convicts who came with me were.

    …For those who are term convicts the thing is different, but Sir, I have 50 years staring me in the face! How can I pull up moral energy enough to pass them in close confinement when even those concessions which the vilest of convicts can claim to smoothen their life are denied to me?”

Then, after confessing that he was misguided into taking the revolutionary road because of the “excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-1907”, he concluded his November 14, 1913 petition by assuring the British of his conscientious conversion. “[I]f the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me,” he wrote, “I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of… loyalty to the English government (emphasis added)”.

“Moreover,” he went on to say, making an offer which few freedom fighters could even think of making, “my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious.. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the paternal doors of the government?”

In his fourth mercy petition, dated March 30, 1920, Savarkar told the British that under the threat of an invasion from the north by the “fanatic hordes of Asia” who were posing as “friends”, he was convinced that “every intelligent lover of India would heartily and loyally co-operate with the British people in the interests of India herself.”

After reassuring the colonial government that he was trying his “humble best to render the hands of the British dominion a bond of love and respect,” Savarkar went on to exalt the English empire: “Such an Empire as is foreshadowed in the Proclamation, wins my hearty adherence”. “But”, he added:

    “if the Government wants a further security from me then I and my brother are perfectly willing to give a pledge of not participating in politics for a definite and reasonable period that the Government would indicate… This or any pledge, e.g., of remaining in a particular province or reporting our movements to the police for a definite period after our release – any such reasonable conditions meant genuinely to ensure the safety of the State would be gladly accepted by me and my brother.”

Finally, after spending ten years in the cellular jail and writing many mercy petitions, Savarkar, along with his brother, was shifted to a prison in Ratnagiri in 1921, before his subsequent release in 1924 on the condition of the confinement of his movements to the Ratnagiri district and his non-participation in political activities. These restrictions were lifted only in 1937.

Self-glorification of a defeated man

One might have argued in 1924 that the promises he made about his love and loyalty to the British, about his readiness to serve the government in any capacity required and so on were a part of a tactical ploy – perhaps one inspired by Shivaji – employed to make his way out of prison so that he could continue his freedom struggle. However, history has proven him to be a man of ‘honour’, who stood by the promise he made to the colonial government. How then, one might wonder, did Savarkar acquire the title ‘Veer’?

A book titled Life of Barrister Savarkar authored by Chitragupta was the first biography of Savarkar, published in 1926. Savarkar was glorified in this book for his courage and deemed a hero. And two decades after Savarkar’s death, when the second edition of this book was released in 1987 by the Veer Savarkar Prakashan, the official publisher of Savarkar’s writings, Ravindra Ramdas revealed in its preface that “Chitragupta is none other than Veer Savarkar”.

In this autobiography masquerading as a biography written by a different author, Savarkar assures the reader that:

    “Savarkar is born hero, he could almost despise those who shirked duty for fear of consequences. If once he rightly or wrongly believed that a certain system of Government was iniquitous, he felt no scruples in devising means to eradicate the evil.”

Without mincing words in the name of modesty or moderating the use of adjectives in the name of literary minimalism, Savarkar wrote that Savarkar “seemed to possess no few distinctive marks of character, such as an amazing presence of mind, indomitable courage, unconquerable confidence in his capability to achieve great things”. “Who,” he asked about himself, “could help admiring his courage and presence of mind?”

Perhaps in polite society, we ought to quietly look the other way with an embarrassed smile when an ex-revolutionist, after breaking down in prison, indulges in self-glorification under the cover of a pen name after his release. And, indeed, no one who did not suffer the conditions the inmates of that infamous prison on the Andaman islands had to endure, can claim the right to castigate Savarkar for refusing to contribute to the freedom movement after he was released from jail.

But his purporting of an ideology which destabilised the freedom movement by deepening the divisions along sectarian lines and his active rendering of support to the British government – which was determined to subdue the anti-colonial struggle – was a betrayal that must be hard to forgive, especially for a ‘patriot’ and a ‘nationalist’.

Derailing the freedom movement with his Hindutva ideology

The sectarian mindset, which eventually culminated into the articulation of Hindutva ideology, was evident – as Jyotirmaya Sharma has demonstrated in Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism – in the early Savarkar, that too from a tender age. Only a boy of 12, Savarkar, leading a pack of his schoolmates, attacked a mosque in the aftermath of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay and Pune in 1894-95. Holding back the Muslim boys of the village using “knives, pins and foot rulers”, Savarkar and his friends mounted their attack, “showering stones on the mosque, shattering its windows and tiles”. Recollecting the incident, he later wrote, “We vandalised the mosque to our heart’s content and raised the flag of our bravery on it.” When the news of Hindus killing Muslims in the riots and its aftermath reached him, little Savarkar and his friends “would dance with joy”.

The sectarian nature of Savarkar’s social and political thinking not only bred in him a deep-rooted resentment against Muslims but also clouded his understanding of historical events, leading him to perceive the 1857 War of Indian Independence as retaliation by Hindus and Muslims against Christianity, in response to Britain’s efforts to Christianise India. In his 1909 book, The War of Independence of 1857, published during his revolutionary days, years before he had declared his loyalty to the British government, Savarkar wrote, quoting Justin McCarthy, “The Mahomedan and the Hindu forgot their old religious antipathies to join against the Christian.”

What was to stop the British government, which had passed a law against the practice of Sati (widow burning), from meddling further with Hindu customs by passing a law against idolatry, he asked. After all, “[t]he English hated idolatry as much as they did suttee.” Describing a process he perceived to be the destruction of Hinduism and Islam in India, Savarkar wrote in his book::

    “The Sirkar (government) had already begun to pass one law after another to destroy the foundations of the Hindu and Mahomedan religions. Railways had already been constructed, and carriages had been built in such a way as to offend the caste prejudices of the Hindus. The larger mission schools were being helped with huge grants from the Sirkar. Lord Canning himself distributed thousands of Rupees to every mission, and from this fact it is clear that the wish was strong in the heart of Lord Canning that all India should be Christian.”

The sepoys, according to Savarkar, were the primary targets in this mission to spread Christianity in India. “[I]f any Sepoy accepted the Christian religion he was praised loudly and treated honourably; and this Sepoy was promoted in the ranks and his salary increased, in the face of the superior merits of the other Sepoys!”

“Everywhere”, he argued, “there was a strong conviction that the Government had determined to destroy the religions of the country and make Christianity the paramount religion of the land”. By thus giving religion an unwarranted centrality in his analysis of the causes of the rebellion, Savarkar, says Jyotirmaya Sharma, expressed jubilation in his accounts of the rebellion “at every instance of a church being felled, a cross being smashed and every Christian being ‘sliced’.”

While the seeds of communalism had been sown in his mind at a very young age, the poison fruit of Hindutva ideology was to blossom only in his late 20s, after Savarkar’s will to fight the British (or the Christians, as he often referred to them in his book on the 1857 uprising) had been defeated during his imprisonment. It was during his last few years of imprisonment that Savarkar first articulated the concept of Hindutva in his book, Essentials of Hindutva, which was published in 1923 and reprinted as “Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?” in 1928. This ideology was a deeply divisive one which had the potential to distract attention from the British and cast it on Muslims instead.

While he was careful to specify that Hindutva, or ‘Hinduness’, was different from Hinduism and encompassed a wide range of cultures including, among others, the “Sanatanists, Satnamis, Sikhs, Aryas, Anaryas, Marathas and Madrasis, Brahmins and Panchamas”, he nonetheless made it a point to warn that it “would be straining the usage of words too much – we fear, to the point of breaking – if we call a Mohammedan a Hindu because of his being a resident of India.”

“Mohammedan or Christian communities”, he argued, “possess all the essential qualifications of Hindutva but one and that is that they do not look upon India as their Holyland”. A cohesive nation, according to Savarkar, can ideally be built only by those people who inhabit a country which is not only the land of their forefathers, but “also the land of their Gods and Angels, of Seers and Prophets; the scenes of whose history are also the scenes of their mythology.”

The love and loyalty of Muslims, he warned, “is, and must necessarily be divided between the land of their birth and the land of their Prophets… Mohammedans would naturally set the interests of their Holyland above those of their Motherland”. One might wonder whether this line of reasoning implies that Muslims cannot be nationals of Pakistan or Afghanistan either, because they would place the interests of Saudi Arabia, wherein lie Mecca and Madina, above the interests of their own country.

Back in the 1920s, the damage that could be done to the freedom movement by his ideology did not fail to come to the notice of the colonial government. Even though Savarkar was released on condition that he should not participate in political activities, he was allowed by the British to organise the Ratnagiri Mahasabha, which undertook what is in today’s lingo called “Ghar Wapsi” and played music in front of mosques while prayers were on.

He was also allowed to meet K.B. Hedgewar, a disillusioned Congressman, who, inspired by his ideology of Hindutva, intended to discuss with him a strategy for creating a Hindu Rashtra.
A few months after this meeting, in September 1925, Hedgewar founded the RSS, a communal organisation which, like Savarkar, remained subservient to the British.

In spite of the blanket ban on political participation, Shamsul Islam pointed out:

“The British rulers naturally overlooked these political activities as the future of colonial rule in India rested on the communal divide and Savarkar was leaving no stone unturned in aggravating the Hindu-Muslim divide.”

Collaboration with the colonial government

Savarkar was elected as the president of Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, the year when the Indian National Congress won what we today call a landslide victory in the provincial elections, decimating both the Hindu Mahasabha and that other communal party, the Muslim League, which failed to form a government even in Muslim-majority regions. But just two years later, the Congress relinquished power in protest when, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, declared India to be at war with Germany without any consultation.

In September 1939, the working committee of the Congress declared that it would render support to Britain’s war efforts in her time of crisis only if the colonial government recognised India’s independence and “the right of her people to frame their constitution through a constituent assembly”. When dominion status was the last concession Linlithgow was willing to grant to India, the ministers of the Congress resigned in protest.

Quick to grab the opportunity, the very next month, Savarkar, in his capacity as president of the Hindu Mahasabha, met Linlithgow. In the report about the meeting sent to secretary of state, Linlithgow wrote:

    “The situation, he [Savarkar] said, was that His Majesty’s government must now turn to the Hindus and work with their support…. Our interests were now the same and we must therefore work together… Our interests are so closely bound together, the essential thing is for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends and the old antagonism was no longer necessary. The Hindu Mahasabha he went on to say favoured an unambiguous undertaking of Dominion status at the end of the war.”

Two months later, addressing the Mahasabha’s Calcutta session, Savarkar urged all universities, colleges and schools to “secure entry into military forces for youths in any and every way.” When Gandhi had launched his individual satyagraha the following year, Savarkar, at the Mahasabha session held in December 1940 in Madura, encouraged Hindu men to enlist in “various branches of British armed forces en masse.”

In 1941, taking advantage of the World War, Bose had begun raising an army to fight the British by recruiting Indian prisoners of war from the British army held by the Axis powers – efforts which eventually culminated in his invasion of British India with the help of the Japanese military. During this period, addressing the Hindu Mahasabha session at Bhagalpur in 1941, Savarkar told his followers:

    “..it must be noted that Japan’s entry into the war has exposed us directly and immediately to the attack by Britain’s enemies…Hindu Mahasabhaites must, therefore, rouse Hindus especially in the provinces of Bengal and Assam as effectively as possible to enter the military forces of all arms without losing a single minute.”

In reciprocation, the British commander-in-chief, “expressed his grateful appreciation of the lead given by Barrister Savarkar in exhorting the Hindus to join the forces of the land with a view to defend India from enemy attacks,” according to Hindu Mahasabha archives perused by Shamsul Islam.

In response to the Quit India Movement launched in August 1942,  Savarkar instructed Hindu Sabhaites who were “members of municipalities, local bodies, legislatures or those serving in the army… to stick to their posts,” across the country. At that time, when Japan had conquered many Southeast Asian countries in India’s vicinity, Bose was making arrangements to go from Germany to Japan – from whose occupied territories the INA’s assault on British forces was launched in October the following year.

It was under these circumstances that Savarkar not only instructed those serving in the British army to ‘stick to their posts’, but had also been involved for years in “organising recruitment camps for the British armed forces which were to slaughter the cadres of INA in different parts of North-East later.” In one year alone, Savarkar had boasted in Madura, one lakh Hindus were recruited into the British armed forces as a result of the Mahasabha’s efforts.

Even though the British Army, with which Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha were collaborating, managed to defeat Bose’s INA, the subsequent public trials of INA officers at the Red Fort roused in the Indian soldiers of the British armed forces a political conscience, which played a crucial role in triggering the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny in 1946, after which the decision was made by the British to leave India.

In coalition with the Muslim League when Pakistan resolution was passed

That Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha actively collaborated with the British may not be difficult to comprehend, since it is widely known that the Hindutva groups regarded Muslims, and not the British, as their primary enemies. What is likely to raise more eyebrows today is the collaboration of the Hindu Mahasabha with the Muslim League.

When the Congress leaders were arrested during the Quit India movement, the Hindu Mahasabha, still presided over by Savarkar, entered into a coalition with the Muslim League to run the governments in Sindh and Bengal – a move Savarkar justified as “practical politics” which calls for “advance through reasonable compromises”.

After all, in spite of the deeply-held conviction by Savarkar and his party that the Muslims – whose holy land lies in a foreign country – cannot be regarded as Indian nationals, the Hindu Mahasabha nevertheless had a great deal in common with the Muslim League. Both parties made no contribution to the struggle for independence from the colonising empire and both were communal parties whose ideologies antagonised the prospects of India remaining undivided after independence.

Even after the Sindh Assembly passed a resolution in 1943 demanding that Pakistan be carved out of India as a separate state for the Muslims, the Mahasabha ministers continued to hold their positions in the coalition government. Not entirely surprising, given that Savarkar had put forth his two-nation theory “a clear sixteen years before the Muslim League embraced the idea of the Hindus and the Muslims as two distinctive nations and demanded the division of India.” And when India was eventually partitioned, Savarkar blamed Gandhi for allowing Pakistan to break away from India, an accusation that stoked the fires of hatred against Gandhi among many of his close devotees, including his ‘lieutenant’ – Nathuram Godse.

Pavan Kulkarni is a freelance journalist.

 ‘Savarkar did very little for India’s independence’

Interview with the historian Dr Vinay Lal. 

Published : Nov 22, 2021 06:00 IST
Abhish K. Bose

The claim of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh that V.D. Savarkar, the Hindutva icon, had written mercy petitions to the British on the basis of advice from Mahatma Gandhi has stirred a controversy.

Dr Vinay Lal, a Professor of History and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, has repudiated Rajnath Singh’s claim. Vinay Lal is the author of many seminal books on history, including The History of History (2003), Introducing History (2005), and The Other Indians: A political and cultural history of South Asians in America (2008). He spoke to Frontline on the issue and also challenged several existing myths.

Excerpts from a detailed Zoom interview he gave Abhish K. Bose, a journalist based in Kerala:

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s claim that Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar had sent a mercy petition on the basis of advice from Mahatma Gandhi has led to a controversy. What is your opinion? What do you think of the role played by Savarkar and other Hindu nationalist leaders in the freedom struggle?

With regard to what Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said, let me say it clearly, loudly and unequivocally: it is a complete falsehood. It is a complete fabrication and there is not the slightest evidence that Mahatma Gandhi ever advised Savarkar to write a mercy petition. Considerable work has been done on Savarkar and his mercy petitions, and there were many of them, before the Defence Minister came up with this claim. For example, there is a book published by A.G. Noorani called Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection (LeftWord Books, 2002). If you go through the appendices of the book, you will find reproduced several of the petitions.

The text of the petition Savarkar filed in 1911 is not available, but the one from 1913, and later petitions as well, are painful to read.

He says: “If the government in their manifold beneficence release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the British Government….”. He suggests to the British government that releasing him would be to their advantage, saying “my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all these misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide, I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like….”

It gets more pathetic as he reaches his conclusion: “The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore, where else can the prodigal sons return but to the parental doors of the Government?” What Savarkar is in effect saying to the British is this, “I will do whatever you want me to do, just get me out of this jail.”

He is asking the government, the mai-baap , to take their son back into their bosom. Gandhi himself was in jail many times. Did he ever write a mercy petition, or a petition asking to be released? In fact, when he was put on trial in 1922 on charges of sedition, and indeed charged under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code, which the present government uses at the drop of a hat, he invited the judge to give him the harshest possible sentence under the law if the judge truly believed that he was guilty of the charges laid against him.

But for those who don’t like Gandhi, let us take the example of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev. Did they ever file a petition for mercy as they were awaiting their execution? On the contrary, when Bhagat Singh’s father pleaded with his son, saying “You’re a young man, your whole life is ahead of you, file a petition of mercy with the British authorities”, Bhagat Singh was outraged and deeply hurt that his father made such a suggestion. In contrast to this, Savarkar filed mercy petitions repeatedly.

Let us go back to the claim that Gandhi advised Savarkar to file a petition with the British authorities that they should offer him clemency.

On January 18, 1920, Savarkar’s younger brother wrote to Gandhi saying that the government had given clemency to other prisoners but not his brother, and enquired whether Gandhi could do anything. Gandhi replied from Lahore on January 25 (the text of this letter is in Volume 19 of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi , published by the Government of India): “I have your letter. It is difficult to advise you.”

Where did our honourable Defence Minister get this idea that Gandhi advised Savarkar to file a mercy petition? Is it there in his letter? No. The letter continues: “I suggest, however, your framing a brief petition setting forth the facts of the case bringing out in relief the fact that the offence committed by your brother was purely political. I suggest this in order that it would be possible to concentrate public attention on the case.”

Gandhi meant that Savarkar’s offence was political and he was not jailed for a common crime. This is important, because whatever political differences there were between Gandhi and Savarkar, Gandhi understood that people imprisoned for political offences belonged in a category different from those incarcerated for ordinary crimes. He was underscoring the fact that Savarkar was a political offender.

In 1920, Gandhi wrote an article published on May 26 in Young India , a journal that he edited. It also appears in Volume 20 of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi under the title, ‘Savarkar Brothers’. The article concerns, once again, the release of political prisoners under a royal proclamation of clemency, and Gandhi was once again very clear that the Savarkar brothers were entitled to clemency just as other political prisoners.

But what he thought about them is very clear from this article, where he wrote: “Both these brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas and that if they were set free they would like to work under the Reforms Act, for they consider that the reforms enable one to work thereunder so as to achieve political responsibility for India. They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British.”

Could there be a clearer expression of the fact that Savarkar was so desperate to be released from jail that he stated that he did not care for India’s independence from the British?

It must be said that the record is very clear and we should not shirk from the truth. Savarkar was not at all the hero that his supporters and bhakts are trying to make him out to be.

He did very little, if anything, for India’s Independence. I would go so far as to say that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha likewise did not do a single thing for India’s Independence during the freedom struggle. They were collaborators of the British.

I would like to recall what B.R. Ambedkar said about the tendency of Indians to hold Mohammed Ali Jinnah responsible for the Partition of India. However, the first exponent of the two-nation theory was not Jinnah; it was Savarkar. How much Savarkar had in common with Jinnah is not commonly realised, but Ambedkar was absolutely clear that it was not Jinnah who was the author of the Partition of India, but Savarkar.

In his book Thoughts on Pakistan (1940), Ambedkar wrote: “Strange as it may appear, Mr. Savarkar and Mr. Jinnah, instead of being opposed to each other on the one nation versus two nations issue, are in complete agreement about it. Both agree… not only agree but insist, that there are two nations in India, one the Muslim nation and the other the Hindu nation.”

Gandhi and cultural capital

Why are the RSS and its affiliates keen on appropriating the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi? Is it because the Sangh Parivar lacks a person of the stature of Gandhiji? What is your view on this?

In some respects you have answered your own question. If you want to lay claim to be an individual or an organisation that has done something worthy for the country, especially with regard to the freedom struggle, it is imperative to show that you are the inheritor of Gandhi’s legacy. Whatever the limitations of Gandhi, and he certainly had them as does every other individual, we can understand what his name means if we turn to a concept proposed by the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, which is the concept of cultural capital.

The name of Gandhi has had cultural capital all over the world. Let me give you an illustration. I have spoken to Indian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1950s and the 1960s, when there were very few Indians in the U.S. (Between 1923 and 1945, Indians were not even permitted within the U.S. because of the 1924 Immigration Act and Asian exclusion laws.) Many came without having any contact in the U.S. When they came here, all they had to say was “we are from the land of Gandhi” and people would open their homes to them. That is what I have been told; and this is, mind you, before the civil rights movement, when Gandhi became even more renowned in the U.S.

Gandhi was, and remains, a world historical figure, and when he died many compared him not to Jinnah or Nehru, but rather to Jesus Christ and the Buddha, among the greatest teachers of humankind. Just look at the work of Indian printmakers at that time. This is what Bourdieu terms cultural capital. The RSS and the BJP are, of course, trying to legitimise their notion of Hindu nationalism by invoking the name of Gandhi. And this is something that must not only be merely questioned but completely rejected. Because, if we do not reject this, [yet] another lie will circulate in the public domain.

Reading Hindutva history critically

There are controversies across the country around the demand in some colleges to study the history of the RSS and its leaders. The move to include the writings of RSS leaders such as Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in the curriculum of Kannur University in Kerala should be seen as part of this move. What is your view? Is it essential to teach the ideologies of Hindutva icons?

I think that it is very essential that we should take a nuanced view on this matter. I, for instance, teach an undergraduate course to students aged between 18 and 21 on contemporary world history—from the time of the Industrial Revolution to the present times. Now, when we get to the 1930s and 1940s we get to the time of Nazi Germany and to Adolf Hitler. Hitler wrote a very large book called Mein Kampf . It is actually a mediocre work… an exceedingly mediocre work. No scholar who has looked at it has been impressed with Hitler’s thinking. This is not to say that he did not have a different kind of political genius—one that let him captivate the country.

Now, one of the things I have my students do is read around 10 pages from Mein Kampf . Am I therefore promoting anti-Semitism if I am asking the students to read Hitler? Not at all. It is part of a critical pedagogy to understand texts that are obviously misleading and that may even be dangerous. If we are going to be thoughtful and reflective human beings, we cannot read only books that present a portrait of humankind in the most flattering terms. It is also essential to understand what role a text played in society at that time, especially when a text is pernicious.

I think some students should have access to what Savarkar or other RSS ideologues wrote, but there is a risk in doing so. Students have to be guided by teachers who are sensitive and reflective, who have some moral compass; part of that critical pedagogy may necessitate requiring the student to also read something critical of the views associated with Savarkar and his kind.

Savarkar and Golwalkar are, as thinkers, extremely mediocre, although Savarkar was in some respects, though not many, a very talented and gifted person. We must concede that. For example, he was evidently gifted as a writer of Marathi because he was writing poetry from the age of 10 and he wrote what became a very crucial (and controversial) book in the reinterpretation of the rebellion of 1857-58. This is a very interesting book.

By the way, it is a misleading idea that he gave birth to the idea of Hindutva. A man called Brahmabandhav Upadhyay, who was a Vedantic scholar and Bengali convert to Christianity, first wrote on Hindutva—but that’s a different story.

If you want to understand Savarkar’s idea of ‘punya bhoomi’, holy land or sacred geography, it is essential that we have to read some pages from the book. But these have to be read critically. We do not do any service to students if we do not work with texts that are difficult and sometimes actually offensive to others.

Although I personally think that Golwalkar and Savarkar are not at all interesting thinkers, I think that small extracts from these books can be taught in order to illustrate some of the most pernicious consequences of Hindutva ideology. In the case of Golwalkar the case is even more clear. If you go through A Bunch of Thoughts , or his other book, We, Or our Nationhood Defined , we can see the great debt that he owed to the Nazi ideologues.

Golwalkar was practically speaking as a Nazi. Golwalkar was a great admirer of Nazis and he said it very clearly that what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Germany, we can take a lesson from that in India. And I need not explain who he had in mind when he said that some people can be treated in India the way the Jews are being treated in Nazi Germany. This is important to underscore.

Regarding Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the present government of India has done much to promote his work and name. Before 2015 the government had released one stamp in his honour, but then they released one in 2015, and another in 2016, and yet another in 2017. What is the principal idea that Upadhyaya had? It is an idea that he called ‘integral humanism’. This idea is what Jayaprakash Narayan also had. J.P. is a bit more of an interesting thinker, but his idea is not radically different from Upadhyaya’s. The difference is that we see a far more ecumenical approach on the part of J.P. with regard to the question of Muslims in particular, and with respect to the question of how we can actually forge a movement dedicated to the idea of sarvodaya or welfare of all. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya was going somewhat in that direction, but some of his views are, to put it bluntly, wholly contaminated with a certain partisanship on behalf of the Hindus.

Rewriting history

The absence of opposition to the moves to rewrite history is apparent nowadays. Many historians swearing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar attempt to rewrite history. Attempts in this vein are evident in the move to term ‘Harappan civilisation’ as ‘Saraswati civilisation’. The previous attempts to make changes in the syllabus of the National Council of Educational Research and Training were noticeable in the late 1990s. Why is there no opposition against this in the country?

Let me answer this question first in the broadest terms. Let us not be surprised by the attempts to rewrite history. Unfortunately, this is the prerogative of those who are in power. This is true not only in India, but all over the world. I have been writing about this question for many years. In 2003, I published a book called The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2003). This book is about the politics of the writing of history.

The attempt to rewrite history is something that we are invariably going to associate with those who see it as their prerogative when they acquire power. There are debates about the contents of history textbooks in almost every country. One of the problems with how we think about these things in India, if I may be permitted to say, and indeed one of the problems with Indian journalism, is insularity. Our journalists don’t look at what is happening in other parts of the world. There are a lot of debates happening in Japan about the contents of Japanese history textbooks. Why? Because of questions about the role of Japan in the Second World War. What should Japan do? Should the Japanese apologise the way Germany has apologised for the atrocities it committed in the Second World War?

I am not going to speak here about the politics of apologies. What I am simply saying is that these kinds of debates about the contents of the history textbooks, and the fact that people in power will attempt to rewrite them, is par for the course. Now having said this, this doesn’t mean that we just sit back and say, “This is what people in power do.” Of course not, because if textbooks are being rewritten in ways that can be substantiated by historical evidence, by powers of reasoning, or by reasonable inference—we have to look at the totality of what we have—then we have to look seriously at such attempts.

What is this whole argument regarding Saraswati civilisation about? Why is the Hindutva brigade so attached to this idea? One of the many reasons is, they want to dismiss the idea that Aryans were foreigners; they, in fact, want to claim that India is the source of all Aryan migrations, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that. But let’s get to the bottom of this. They want to say, “Muslims are foreigners in India.” To which I would say, “What does it mean to call Muslims foreigners in India? How long have the Muslims been in India? For over a thousand years. At what point will they cease to become foreigners, I want to know.”

If one then said that the Aryans themselves were foreigners, that becomes an even greater problem. I’m not saying the debate is entirely about this. I’m saying this is a characteristic move. This is what we can call an act of displacement; an argument appears to be about one thing but is actually about something else.

Why do you think that the opposition is not taking any measures to counter it? Why is the intelligentsia of the country being silent on this?

I don’t think that the intelligentsia of the country is silent. The problem is that this current government does not tolerate dissent, it has shut down the avenues of dissent. Look at what is happening in the universities of the country. Look what is happening at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The Hindutva people will tell you that JNU is a bastion of communists. That is absurd. Of course, they have some left-wing historians and sociologists as they do at any half-decent university. But look at what is happening at JNU now. You mentioned the controversy at Kannur in Kerala last month or so.

Recently, in JNU they introduced a course on terrorism and counter-terrorism as an optional paper. It states clearly that if you are going to study terrorism and devise counter-terrorist strategies, all one has to do is study Islamist jehadism, which means that practically speaking, Islamist jehadism alone is synonymous with terrorism and we need to know nothing else. Nothing more. This is the primordial and primary example of terrorism and that’s that. Who has approved this? It has been approved by the academic council and the vice chancellor. It is frankly a completely suspect course.

Indian universities are becoming the laughing stock of the world, unfortunately. The serious dissenters are being marginalised and silenced at Indian universities. Now there are web portals such as the Wire and Scroll, but they speak to a largely anglicised audience, preaching as it were to the choir. I have to say that I’m very glad that a few years ago the Wire started investing seriously in producing material—even videos—in Hindi.

If you say to me, however, that no one is protesting against these changes to the curriculum across the country, that is not really the case, but there is a problem with regard to what happens to people who speak out loud. There are trolls everywhere—in the U.S., too, as I know very well—but the trolls in India are vicious, absolutely vicious and most of them are unlettered; they are not accustomed to reading or reflecting, but they have understood the power of the social media that they use. And this is one of the risks of such media; it can lead to not just democratisation but also to authoritarianism.

There are reports that the government is in the process of forming a single common academic curriculum for all academic institutions of the country. What is your view on this?

I have heard about it. But I don’t know enough about it at this point as to comment on it. There is also speculation that there are ongoing moves to glorify 10,000 years or more of India’s history, whatever those 10,000 or 15,000 years of history may be, considering that the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilisation can be dated back only to 3000 BCE. What I will say is this: if there is a programme for a common academic curriculum for all the academic institutions of the country, it would be a disaster. Because that will be the end of free inquiry.

The idea that some central agency should dictate a common curriculum for all the academic institutions of the country is complete anathema to the life of the mind and to free inquiry. A little footnote: When I teach history courses even for undergraduates, I do not even use a textbook. I have my students read dozens of articles and primary sources. I do not use a textbook and this goes back to the question of history textbooks, because a textbook is a way of homogenising knowledge.

What a common curriculum would do is multiply that problem by a factor of 10, or 20. If we are going to have a common curriculum, we are going to end up producing a country of robots. That’s what’s going to happen. If that is what the fight for swaraj was all about, then why have swaraj at all? There may even be greater freedom in slavery than in this kind of swaraj .

There are allegations that in many universities the books of eminent historians are purposefully being avoided in the reference section, such as books of Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, and Romila Thapar. What is your view?

Are you telling me that the books by Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, perhaps D.N. Jha, and other such scholars are being removed from university bookshelves? Well, if that is the case, that is why some people are saying that the analogy with an authoritarian state, or worse, may not be incorrect. We are moving in that direction. How is this really different than the burning of books? What happened at Kristallnacht , the night of shattered glass, when Jewish synagogues and businesses were set on fire—all this culminated, we could say, in the Final Solution. Books were also burned that night; the Nazis made bonfires of books they considered degenerate.

If the works of these historians are being no longer made available, or are being thrown out of university and public libraries—if that is happening, it is not simply a problem of censorship, it is a much graver problem. A culture that begins to burn or bury books is going down the wrong path, a very dangerous path.

Rich Medieval period

There are also moves in many universities to not teach the medieval history of the country. Allegedly, there are instructions to not teach it.

Again, if that is the case, we have yet another problem. Of course, if this is true, or if it is beginning to happen, we know why that is the case, because the medieval period is synonymous with the period of Muslim rule—the Muslim conquests, the Muslim invaders, and Muslim rule. In the north you have the Delhi Sultanate, in the south the Deccan or Bahmani Sultanates, and then, of course, the Mughal empire.

If all of this is not taught, the students obviously will not have an understanding on what happened in this period, they will be gasping for some understanding. But the problem is not merely that a huge chunk of India’s history is eradicated, so to speak. It is a much more fundamental problem that we have to think about. The problem with the RSS and BJP people who are now beginning to manage our universities and institutions is that they have this idea that our medieval period is like the Dark Ages or Middle Ages of Europe. What they do is they take the template of European history and they just plant it on to India.

Remember that Europe had a medieval period which was known as the Dark Ages or Middle Ages. In India, this so-called medieval period was an enormously rich period. The literature in nearly all Indian languages flourished at this time; it was also the period of the ‘bhakti movement’. If you look at the period from 1000 to 1700, India produced a storehouse of devotional literature which is unmatched anywhere in the world. In the north we are familiar with figures such as Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Kabir, Nanddas; in Maharashtra, we are familiar with Tukaram, Eknath, Narsinh Mehta, and, much earlier, in the 13th century, Jnaneshwar; in the south, of course, poets such as Basavanna, the Virasaivas, and much more; in Bengal, Chaitanya and Chandidas; and so on. I’m just naming some 15 people who come to mind immediately. Now, whether they were all working to create a single vision, or can retrospectively be interpreted as such—there is a lot of discussion about this, about whether one can speak of a bhakti movement, whether it was not itself in some ways a creation of the nationalist movement that was trying to think of the cultural unity of India. Those are questions that are properly addressed when we are looking at the scholarship on bhakti.

I am simply saying that this period was, in fact, a very rich period; just because Europe had its Dark or Middle Ages, it doesn’t mean that our so-called Middle Ages were also Dark Ages. Europe lost contact with its own intellectual and cultural inheritance; this is the meaning of the Dark Ages. It is well known that it is through the Arabs that Greek thinkers such as Aristotle were rediscovered in the West. There are thousands of books on this subject. We in India swallowed this idea that we too had our Dark Ages—and, quite conveniently, this is the period of Muslim dominance in India.

This whole idea of even carving up the study of history into three large chunks—ancient, medieval, modern—is a European idea and there is no reason to even think of history along those lines. Let me also say that an Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis developed in north India that is unmatched in the world, except perhaps in Moorish Spain.

I would be the first to admit that there are some serious historians who do not accept this idea of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, or Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis, but nevertheless it is possible to advance an argument about such a synthesis. And we should also look at the Deccan, at the Bahmani sultanates; courts at places such as Bijapur were very cosmopolitan. So, in short, removing this entire period from our history books, apart from all the other problems I’ve described, would be a catastrophic failure of intelligence and imagination.


Vinayak Damodar Savarkar: Fountainhead of fundamentalism in India 

Published : May 28, 2023 11:40 IST

“Savarkar was a fundamentalist. In a word, he was a “Hindu Wahhabi”.  ”

    Jeyamohan argues that Savarkar was a Hindu nationalist leader who advocated for Hindu supremacy and violence against Muslims.

Savarkar’s views were incompatible with the ideals of the Indian freedom struggle. He was a supporter of British rule and even collaborated with the Raj during World War II.

Savarkar is often portrayed as a hero of the Indian independence movement, but this is a myth.

To the venom that Savarkar was, we only find an antidote in Gandhi,

B. Jeyamohan (translated from the Tamil original by Iswarya V.)

Popular discussions about Vinayak Damodar Savarkar tend to either be hagiographic or vilify, depending on the speaker’s political, religious, or caste affiliations. In contemporary political discourse, every argument is reduced to a one-line snippet, a monolithic stance, a catchy sound bite stripped of all nuance. The opponent’s side is painted as “all evil” while one’s own side is seen as the paragon of virtue; and this simplistic black-and-white worldview, in turn, forces others to play the same game. You do not need a writer to tell you that. I always try to present a comprehensive picture in the belief that every debate should be approached within a holistic frame of certain fundamental questions that underpin the subject.

Amid attempts to whitewash Savarkar’s image as an unsung hero, today we also see others belittling his role in the Indian freedom struggle, particularly ridiculing his clemency petitions to the British. To set the record straight, I wish to aver that Savarkar undoubtedly suffered torture and did so for the sake of Indian independence. He was neither cowardly nor selfish. Denying his sacrifice only exposes a mean-minded approach that favours a complete dismissal of, and contempt for, the other side. I shall try to approach Savarkar here within a wider historical context.

Violent rebels and democratic protesters

Those who defend Savarkar claim that Gandhi and Nehru received far better treatment in prison. This ridiculous comparison even extends to asking if Ambedkar ever went to jail. Before making such comparisons, it is important to grasp that historically, all governments make a clear distinction between armed insurgents and democratic protesters. Weapons communicate a very clear message: there is no room for any negotiation or compromise; the only possible outcome is the equilibrium that emerges in the aftermath of a violent clash of arms.

When you choose the path of violence, you provide the justification for any violence unleashed against your own side. After making such a choice, there is no use complaining about how violently the enemy retaliated. Nothing is more absurd than claiming one’s own violence as virtuous while the opponent’s as immoral.

Any government naturally tries to suppress armed insurgency against it—be it the British government or the present-day Indian government. To dress up one’s defeat in such an unequal struggle as a sacrifice is both logically fallacious and morally reprehensible. The first ethical question that arises is: “If you had won, would you not have done to them what they did to you?”

Savarkar called for an armed rebellion against the British and made preparations for it. He was not grounded by a sense of either reality or history. He had no understanding of the power of the great administrative machinery of the British or their massive army. Lacking a sense of history, he failed to see that the British government drew its power from the popular acceptance it had gained from the millions of Indian people it ruled over.

How the British came to rule India

For context, the British came to power in India after the fall of the Mughal empire in an environment of utter chaos and anarchy. When they arrived, India was perishing in hundreds of petty wars. Armies had been disbanded and turned into bandit groups. The British brought about civil peace, created an orderly administration, and established a common law; therefore, the people of India accepted their rule. The situation at Savarkar’s time was that if a movement opposed the British without neutralising the popular acceptance the latter enjoyed, it would never gain mass appeal. Unfortunately, Savarkar did not grasp any of this.

The evil of the British rule lay in its ruthless economic exploitation of the country, which they unleashed through the local zamindars. In fact, the great famines that resulted from this exploitation caused a hundred times more deaths, destruction, and displacements than had occurred during the anarchic phase in India’s history. It was Gandhi, who, by highlighting this economic exploitation and demonstrating its practical effects on the nation, put forward a serious critique of the British regime among the Indian populace. Only after Gandhi’s intervention did the Indian freedom struggle become a people’s movement.

Violence versus democratic resistance

Before the advent of Gandhi, during Savarkar’s era, some “intellectuals” believed that the British could be driven out using violent means. Once a violent struggle was initiated, they thought people would join in the riots to destroy the British. Fifty years later, tragically, the naxalites too shared the same belief and modus operandi. Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, and Subhash Chandra Bose were all people with a similar misapprehension of history. Their rebellion was a childish effort completely based on their belief in violence and a misbegotten sense of personal adventure. Their misplaced confidence came from imagining themselves to be extraordinary men capable of determining history. Essentially, it stemmed from a lack of faith in the great power of the people.

The British successfully suppressed violent uprisings in India thanks to their experience in doing so across the world. Savarkar was imprisoned; others were killed. A thoughtful person today might understand the sentiments of rebels such as Savarkar and even respect their cause. After all, they were freedom fighters too. That regard does not in any way justify their views or methods. High-strung demagogues may obscure this distinction, but a discerning public must not lose sight of it.

What Gandhi and Nehru spearheaded was a democratic resistance. Gandhi argued that a British life mattered no less than an Indian life. He claimed to be fighting on behalf of the working class in Britain as well. Whenever he went to Britain, he stayed with the poorest there; history shows that the blue-collar British flocked to the harbour to welcome him.

Gandhi meticulously avoided violence at every turn. He was always open to negotiation. He also maintained close personal ties with some of the great names in the British empire who, in turn, held him in high esteem. He insisted that his struggle was for the basic democratic rights of Indians and was not a war against the British. He repeatedly declared that none of the British people were his enemies and reiterated the same message to the people of India. He envisioned his movement as one that would catalyse India’s turn towards democracy, which was anyway historically inevitable. In the dialectic of history, he saw the British and his side only as two forces propelling India in the same direction.

Gandhi emerged as a leader through his involvement in public demonstrations like the Champaran satyagraha which grew organically. He proved to the world that political success can be achieved by democratic means. He had the strong conviction that common people must not be made scapegoats in political struggles. He was the first political leader in history to exhibit such an extraordinary sense of responsibility. That is why crores of Indians stood behind him attesting to his power as a great leader of the people. The world took notice of him, and his every word gained the attention of the media. Even before he returned to India in 1918, he was already a world-renowned non-violent protestor.

If Gandhi or his follower Nehru had been dealt with violently, the British claim of faith in democracy and an impartial rule of law would have been exposed as a lie in the eyes of the world. The world’s belief in the fairness of the British judiciary and administration and in their professed democratic values is what had propped up public support for British rule in all the Eastern countries. The British were not prepared to lose that support base by subjecting Gandhi to torture. They knew better than that.

The British consistently projected themselves as true democrats and went to great lengths to show the world that their treatment of Gandhi, Nehru, and others, as well as of the Indian freedom struggle as a whole was in accordance with the letter and spirit of their laws. Gandhi, too, avowed faith in their law, administration, and democratic principles; he only opposed their dominion over India and the economic exploitation of Indians. The freedom movement itself was thus an elaborate bargain in which both sides foregrounded their democratic credentials.

That is not the case with Savarkar, who was not well-known even within India. He was only the leader of a small violent sect. The moment he chose to resort to violence, he gave the British the right to deal with him harshly. The British government quelled by force all those who chose the path of violence—be they petty princes and zamindars who rose against them, or later, educated youth who took part in armed rebellion.

The British were waiting for violence to occur in Gandhi’s demonstrations, as can be seen in all the British newspapers and government reports of the day. Had there been the slightest spark of violence, the British Army—the world’s most powerful army at that time—would have been deployed. Gandhi and Nehru would have been crushed. The Indian freedom struggle would have been awash in blood. Gandhi was adamant that the British should never be given that opportunity. He assumed responsibility for even minor skirmishes. He apologised for them and punished himself.

History reveals how many millions of civilians have been the casualty in various political struggles and civil wars during the past hundred years and how many have become refugees, losing their livelihoods. Set against such destruction, Gandhi’s sense of caution and responsibility, his far-sighted vision, his compassion for the common people, can be seen for the rare new phenomenon it is in all of human history. It is not for nothing that our great poet [Bharathi] sang of “Gandhi the life-giver”.

In short, it may be said that Gandhi encountered the civil face of the British government, engaging primarily with their diplomats. On the contrary, Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, and Subhash Chandra Bose came face to face with the military might of the British. Gandhi chose a democratic, non-violent path, thereby forcing the government, too, to meet him on his terms. This is the difference.

The thrill of adventure and a sense of history

There is a common yet dangerous mindset that we need to guard ourselves against. Living in a peaceful society, we often tire of our mundane middle-class lives and begin to long for the thrill of rebellion. We go looking for whipped-up emotional highs; we artificially create pretexts to feel outrage, to scream, and to shed tears. Through these gestures, we construct our own self-images as serious and authentic. This thrill and exhilaration we seek, in fact, comprise self-loathing and false bravado in equal measure. Such silliness, akin to the vicarious pleasure we derive from watching adventure movies, is forgivable until perhaps the age of 20. Anyone who is not free from this folly beyond their teens is not fit to participate in any serious discourse.

When we begin to approach politics and history through our immature emotional excesses, we feel inclined to participate in hero worship by turning individuals into icons. With such an attitude, it is the adventurers and martyrs who naturally appeal to us as heroes. We valorise them by repeating the tales of their brave deeds. When a violent man eventually falls due to his own reckless self-indulgent adventurism, lack of historical awareness, and mindless truculence, we immediately make him out to be a martyr; we turn all the hardships he suffered into lamentable tragedies.

It is this collective folly that has led to the rise of phony leaders throughout history. Someone who has no understanding of history, no respect for the people, and no leadership qualities, goes to jail for violence; if he comes back after enduring torture in jail, he would be canonised as a martyr. Diminutive intellectuals would celebrate the brave “sacrifices” made by the hero and the middle class would be mesmerised. If he cashes in properly on that collective hypnosis, the hero would be accepted by the people and become their leader. Many men throughout history have risen to positions of leadership by inciting public sentiments thus. Every single one of them has been a brutal dictator. Such “heroes” have inevitably led their own nations to disaster.

The early phase of the Indian freedom struggle saw the rise of many belligerent rebels. Later when it became a popular movement, their life stories were turned into sentimental sagas in order to appeal to the masses. These men were deified as iconic leaders of the freedom movement. Their populist appeal lay in the fact that democracy was still a novel concept and very few people appreciated the value of democratic leadership. However, hero worship had a two thousand year old legacy and therefore heroic tales of valour easily moved the public. All over India, heroic martyrs of the freedom struggle were identified and stories spun about them.

In today’s democratic setup, however, we need to move past those exhilarations of hero worship. These “heroes” ought to be understood within their historical contexts. The violent rebels belonging to the early phase of India’s freedom struggle can be seen in the perspective of the global political situation of their time. Back then, the idea of democratic protests had not taken deep roots anywhere in the world. It was just then emerging in Europe and beginning to achieve a few modest successes in practice. Therefore, all those who wanted to bring about social or political change at any level anywhere in the world believed that violence was the only means to attain their end.

Until that point in history, the prevalent form of government was monarchy. Any resistance against the monarch was naturally a militant uprising. Later periods witnessed several minor insurgencies against the ruling powers of the time, followed by the communist revolutions across different parts of the world. All these forms of rebellion replicated in their own way the original tactics of violent riots against monarchical power. It is no wonder then that Bhagat Singh, Savarkar and Subhash Chandra Bose subscribed to the same model.

A few significant non-violent protests had nevertheless succeeded even during the heydays of monarchic rule. The Reformation (which led to the birth of Protestantism) in Europe had gained popular support and established itself through non-violent struggle. It served as the model for all the later democratic movements across Europe. Exposure to this mode of resistance was the reason the European Christians could appreciate Gandhi’s methods when he staged his satyagraha. Post-Reformation, many such popular resistance movements took place in Europe. Gandhi modelled his democratic ways on their example as well as on the Endurance-and-Sacrifice-based protests carried out by Jains in India.

The final fatal fall of Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose was historically inevitable since they lived in an age that did not fully grasp how resistance can be non-violent or where the true power of a modern state lies; Savarkar, too, belonged to their time and shared the same beliefs. There have been thousands like them throughout history: rebels who embraced violence and eventually perished. There have also been outstanding intellectuals and brave heroes among such rebels, and a few animated by a truly great vision. They just happened to be on the losing side of history, that is all.

We need to think why so many of us sympathise with those who attached themselves to a lost cause. Why do we strive to make martyrs and icons out of such men? Why do we not reflect on the reason for their failure, and the destruction and misery they caused to others through their failures? In my view, India would have been led to annihilation if any of these three men—V.D. Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, or Subhash Chandra Bose—had won popular support and come to power. Through their misapprehension of history, they would have caused the same devastation wreaked by Ayatollah Khomeini, Josef Stalin, and Adolf Hitler respectively in their own nations.

Of course, Savarkar, Bose, and Singh suffered brutality at the hands of the British. However, their suffering is in no way a testimony to their character, but only an inevitable consequence of their own violent actions. If we idolise such violent rebels and turn them into cult leaders simply out of middle-class guilt or boredom with our mundane lives, we shall pave the way for our own destruction. In fact, we must understand that it is absurd to judge leaders by a tally of their great “sacrifices”. The key questions to decide the merit of leaders is to ask what their understanding of history amounted to, what methods they chose and what the ultimate consequences of those choices were. Leaders should always be judged on these counts alone.

I quote V.D. Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, and Subhash Chandra Bose as three examples of men who chose different forms of violence. Despite their conflicting ideologies, they all chose the same means to achieve their ends. All three fell but are today celebrated by different political parties as heroic martyrs. In contrast, I would name Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedkar as those who chose the democratic path. They, too, often differed in their views, yet their methods were always democratic. I choose to follow their path.

I hail them not merely as great Indian leaders. Among all the world leaders of their time, they stood out on account of their clearsighted view of history and thorough understanding of democracy. In fact, it is our good fortune that our nation has been shaped by their vision.

Was Savarkar a coward?

Today, Savarkar’s clemency petitions have become a talking point in politics. The subject could be easily brushed aside if a low-level Congress party functionary were to raise the point. However, leaders or policymakers must adopt a broader and more nuanced view of history.

During the period when Savarkar went to jail, organised political activity was largely absent in India. The Congress was no more than a gathering of the elite that tended to make appeals to the British government. Savarkar belonged to an impatient generation. He was fascinated by the ideas of seizing power by means of insurrection and the concept of “cultural nationalism”—both prevalent in Europe at the time. Therefore, he was impelled to form an armed sect and initiate violent rebellion.

It is worth noting that when Savarkar sought to seize power through armed fighter groups, Lenin shared the same beliefs in Russia in 1910. He converted the armed insurrection he was heading into a military rebellion at a certain historical moment. By exploiting the Russian army’s discontent with the Czar, he gained the Russian military support, overthrew the Czarist Empire and seized power. His ascent inspired armed groups around the world to fight against their own governments, but such groups managed to succeed only in a few countries like Cuba. In other countries like India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Congo, Spain, and Bolivia, such militant groups were completely crushed.

Savarkar might have gradually lost faith in militant activities during his prison term. He might have been fascinated by Gandhi’s methods, seeing the popular movement that emerged under his leadership in India. Therefore, he might have decided to compromise with the British and forge a new path ahead. He might have attempted to convince the British of his newfound respect for democratic ways. His letters and his later actions reflect the same.

Many Indian parties in power today enjoyed the support of the British back in those days. The Justice Party, the forerunner of the Dravidian movement, was wholly British-backed. E.Ve. Ramasamy was openly pro-British. Ambedkar was foregrounded by the British and remained a British supporter almost until Indian independence. There is hardly any Indian political party—including the Congress—that did not compromise with the British at some point. Even Gandhi’s suspension of the Non-Cooperation Movement in the wake of the Chauri Chaura violence has been seen as a compromise and drew heavy criticism. The Communists in India too supported the British during the Second World War.

The nature of politics has always been such, alternating between conflict and compromise. Some struggles may have to be given up strategically, like the DMK abandoning their demand for a separate Dravidian nation. That is how I see Savarkar’s clemency petitions. The truly unforgivable compromise was the one Subhash Chandra Bose made with the Japanese despite being aware that they had brutally tortured and killed lakhs of Tamils in the construction of the Siam-Burma Death Railway.

Savarkar the fundamentalist

I do not consider Savarkar a coward, nor do I doubt his patriotism. There is no denying that he made sacrifices for the nation. However, I rate him a completely unacceptable political figure. This is my assessment based on his skewed understanding of history and his politics of violence.

Savarkar was a fundamentalist. Any form of fundamentalism is antithetical to democracy. It works against the well-being of the common people and ultimately brings about only destruction. Regardless of what it may be grounded in—religion, caste, language, race, or nationality—fundamentalism in any form is essentially destructive.

All forms of fundamentalism are the same in practice, because ultimately they posit an ideology as superior to the well-being of the people. Fundamentalists believe that no matter how many millions die to uphold their ideology, such sacrifice is justified; thus they remorselessly massacre millions. History chronicles the same cataclysmic cycle playing out time and again.

What really is fundamentalism? It can be defined as the concerted cultural and political activities carried out in order to establish a rigid and inviolable ideology which forms its core. Fundamentalism has certain basic characteristics. First of all, it elevates its core ideology to the status of being infallible and beyond question. It frames all those who deny it or disagree with it as enemies and seeks to destroy them. It constantly conjures enemies to defend itself against. All its activities are designed to counter the activities of the perceived enemy; in fact, its actions are never inspired by a positive ideal. Secondly, fundamentalism works by projecting certain individuals as the perfect representatives of its ideological core. It invests them with all powers and deifies them. It exhorts followers to place their complete faith in such leaders and hail them as icons. Finally, fundamentalism always borrows its central tenet from age-old cultural traditions such as those belonging to a religion, race or language. It chooses an existing dogma and reinvents some aspect of it as an irrefutable sacred truth. Owing to these three basic qualities, fundamentalism is in essence anti-democratic.

Debate and deliberation—granting individuals the right to freely accept or reject ideas—are the basis of democracy. Democracy strives to include all perspectives; its function is to deliberate and resolve all contradictions by arriving at a consensus. Fundamentalism is its opposite.

Gandhi can be seen as the symbol of the democratic ideal in India; Savarkar, on the other hand, typifies the perils of fundamentalism. The two contrasting modes of politics, both originating in Europe, presented themselves as options for our future at a critical juncture in our history. We, as a nation, chose democracy.

There are two aspects to note about fundamentalism, without understanding which it would be impossible to counter it: (1) Fundamentalism is different from conservatism; (2) It always presents a deceptive reformist face.

Conservatism is often conflated with fundamentalism. Different brands of conservatism exist all over the world and all religions have staunch conservative adherents. Conservatism is basically a stagnant mindset: the wish to remain grounded in age-old values, customs and ways of life, some of which might be unacceptable by modern standards. Therefore, some of these traditions may seem unjust or absurd today. Yet there is a section of people which prefers to remain committed to such an old-world dispensation. This may be because some cultural or spiritual elements of the past might give them a sense of grounding, a firm grip on life that they do not like to relinquish. They might prefer the stability of tradition to the constant flurry of changes that modern life imposes on one. I personally believe that one has the right to practise that kind of conservative lifestyle as long as it doesn’t affect anyone else’s life.

Fundamentalism, however, is a politico-cultural movement that borrows only some part of antiquity, constructs a contemporary ideology out of it, and tries to consolidate power around the ideology. It does not accept everything that comes from antiquity. It rejects every aspect of the past that does not advance its power politics. Therefore fundamentalism always assumes a reformist face. It appeals to logic, claims a quasi-scientific authority and addresses contemporary issues. It even appears modern.

Surprisingly, the origin of fundamentalism coincides with the same cultural phase we associate with modernism. Every fundamentalist ideology prevalent in the world co-evolved with modernity. It may even be said that fundamentalism is just another offspring of modernist thought. Modernism refers to a style of thinking and living that emerged during the last century. The common characteristics of modernist philosophy such as privileging rationality, adopting a universal outlook, favouring individualism, centralising authority, and concentrating power are all vital to fundamentalism as well. These traits are also common to other modernist schools of thought such as liberalism, rationalism, and Marxism. All over the world, modernist ideologies such as liberalism or rationalism are actively engaged in an attack only against conservatism. They are ill-equipped to combat fundamentalism. Often, they accept certain elements of fundamentalism since they too are offshoots of modernist thought.

Any fundamentalism can be maintained as logical and reformist in nature. That is why Wahhabism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, is seen as a reformist movement by Indian rationalists and Marxists, who do not hesitate to share stage and associate themselves with the Wahhabis. Savarkar was an atheist and rationalist who swore by logic and science. If only EVR and Savarkar had met, they would have agreed on all but one point: Savarkar’s brand of nationalism differed from that of EVR. Otherwise both shared in many modernist beliefs.

Ideologically, Savarkar was entirely a European product. He was the chief Indian heir to the European concept of cultural nationalism which emerged at the end of the 19th century. As a belief system, it later metamorphosed into Fascism and Nazism which eventually destroyed Europe. Thus Savarkar’s thoughts and beliefs were all rooted in 19th century Europe.

In the eyes of the modernists, Gandhi was in many respects unworthy of comparison with Savarkar. Gandhi was not rational enough, often relying on his intuition instead. He was “superstitious” and skeptical of science. Instead of a universal outlook, he advocated indigenous thought. He rejected uniformity and championed diversity. He envisioned the nation as a collection of independent economic units. Gandhi called himself a conservative, a Sanatani. However, in practice he was receptive to all reforms and was a great reformer himself.
Mahatma Gandhi seated at the centre of the dais is addressing a public meeting at Abbottabad, for the first time since his arrival in the Frontier province. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Ambedkar, whose philosophy was greatly at odds with Gandhi’s, had harboured goodwill towards Savarkar. In fact, he has expressed this in various places. Dhananjay Keer who wrote Savarkar’s biography was later Ambedkar’s biographer as well. What the two had in common was their modernist outlook. Reliance on science and logic as well as a centralising vision was strong in Ambedkar’s thought; he propounded a reformist version of Buddhism. Therefore, Savarkar’s own engagement with logic and a scientific bent, his zeal for centralisation and reformist views appealed to Ambedkar to a certain degree.

This is, in fact, the trap most modernist thinkers fall into. They cannot completely resist the roots of fundamentalism; they even make the mistake of cultivating it sometimes. In the early 1990s, I remember reading several essays by European and American modernist intellectuals in support of the Taliban. Those who have not read such essays can draw their conclusions simply by watching Rambo III. Euro-American scholars argued that the Taliban were logical-minded religious reformers and a strong youth force against conservative Islam.

The tools of modernist schools of thought such as liberalism, rationalism and Marxism can effectively counter Gandhi but not Savarkar. Their arguments would be easily knocked down by pointing out that Savarkar himself was a rationalist, an atheist and a believer in science. Since their tools prove ineffectual, the present day political opponents of Savarkar resort to their usual name-calling tactics and label him cowardly and unpatriotic. However, since this slander is patently untrue, it only serves to strengthen him. Others choose to attack Savarkar by labelling him a conservative and a religious fanatic. This too, being far from truth, ends up unwittingly bolstering his image.

Savarkar was a fundamentalist. In a word, he was a “Hindu Wahhabi”. His was a nationalist fundamentalism. Borrowing the concept of a Hindu nation from Indian antiquity, he constructed a fundamentalist movement around it. Savarkar’s was the first home-grown fundamentalist thought to emerge on Indian soil. He was the father of Hindu fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism always pins its faith blindly on whatever conceptual core it has appropriated from a tradition. It rejects all other variants of the same tradition, or tries to adapt them also to suit its ends. That is exactly what Wahhabism does and its followers present themselves as reformers too. So did Savarkar and that is how he assumed the identity of a reformer.

Fundamentalists in general are aggressively fanatical believers in their cause. As a result, they are unmatched in their obduracy. They flinch neither from killing nor dying for their ideology. Therefore, they might face severe persecution for their beliefs and actions. They may even bravely endure torture. However, their sacrifice and bravery are not admirable in any way.

If we begin to glorify their sacrifice and heroism simply driven by our middle-class cowardice or boredom, we shall end up elevating fundamentalism to the seat of power. The Islamic world has made that grave blunder in the last 50 years. Many countries which had made progress on the path of democracy are now falling into the deadly clutches of fundamentalism. Countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon which got carried away in their fascination for the adventure, sacrifice and heroism of fundamentalist “leaders” are now paying for their egregious mistake with blood and tears. For this reason, I consider anyone who praises a fundamentalist’s heroism or sacrifice as an evil force ushering in destruction.

To reiterate: (a) Conservatism is different from fundamentalism. (b) The intellectual and reformist face of fundamentalism is only a veneer. In order to counter fundamentalism, these two basic truths must be grasped. Otherwise we are liable to commit two major mistakes. We might lash out at all conservative individuals and label them as fundamentalists, thus alienating them and pushing them towards fundamentalism ourselves. On the other hand, we might fall for a fundamentalist outfit that seeks our support by claiming to be a reform movement. The progressives, liberals and Marxists of our country are consistently making both these mistakes. Those who join hands with Wahhabis can claim no moral ground to oppose Savarkar. Such hypocrisy would only end up making Savarkar a larger-than-life figure. That is exactly what is happening today.

I am thoroughly disgusted by Savarkar. Even while retrieving his picture from the Internet for this essay, I could not help but feel bitter and revolted. However, I do not consider Savarkar a coward, nor do I suspect the power of his personality. Savarkar is not a conservative; he is, in fact, the deadliest venom India has ever produced. He is the fountainhead of fundamentalism in India. That is why I am allergic to him.

To the venom that Savarkar was, we only find an antidote in Gandhi. That explains why Savarkar’s invisible hand was involved in the assassination of Gandhi. All said and done, I believe our nation still stands indicted for Gandhi’s murder. Savarkar is the culprit who stained our hands with Gandhi’s blood. Every right-thinking person with a conscience ought to reject Savarkar outright, with all the words at their command. Among all the personalities that emerged as leaders in India, Savarkar is the only one who deserves to be hated and shunned as much as the world shuns Hitler. He is not worthy of respect by anybody anywhere for any reason. Even the slightest shred of acknowledgement that this nation may afford Savarkar is anti-Gandhi, anti-democracy and anti-humanity as a whole.

Jeyamohan is a writer and critic. This essay has been translated from the Tamil original by Iswarya V.

Three interesting comments at the website:

I have read the article in both Tamil and English. I would like to congratulate the translator for the wonderful translation! The meaning and purport of the Tamil original is intact in the English translation. I agree with the author that any movement, if it has to achieve its end, should follow the means of democracy. But, i certainly will not agree with him in equating Savarkar with Netaji and Bhagat Singh. I've been to the Cellular Jail at Port Blair many times, where Savarkar was incarcerated, and found nothing so special about the cell. He was treated one among the jail inmates and meted with the same treatment or punishment. The author is clearly imbalanced in that while eulogising the 'sacrifice' by Savarkar, he also justifies his clemency petitions. Also, his equating Savarkar with Periyar and Ambedkar in being pro-British stands no reason. While Savarkar was the proponent of Hindu majoritarian nationalism, the other two fought for the social justice and believed that social justice should foreground nation's independence. Every leader worth his salt had sacrificed him/herself at the altar of freedom struggle. But, elevating Savarkar to the level of 'Tyagi' is unwarranted and will only support the theory of the Sanghis, who await such heroic anointment to justify their narrow minded majoritarian nationalism, which will never see the light of the day as they still live in the midnight on the eve of Independence day! Finally, being a translator myself, I'd like to leave a congratulatory note to the translator, Ishvarya, for the brilliant translation. Can I have her email id?
Ajit Prasad:  
The author's attempt to equate Savarkar with SC Bose, Bhagat Singh is totally out of the context. Further, the article is made to balance certain equations that have been going against Savarkar for the last decades. This justification is unwarranted. Thousands suffered brutal treatment inside various jails during the British era. The cowardice shown by this man can not be nullified with mere statements. I truly join with the author in acknowledging that he (Savarkar) "is not worthy of respect by anybody anywhere for any reason".
Partha Pratim Das
The basic postulate of the column is that belief in democratic ideals helps in going farther than that of the path of violence. The reader is also impelled to construe that the writer of the column seems to find violence and fundamentalism compatible with each other while democratic ideals and non violent means can go a long way together to bring political solutions. Gandhi, to the writer, was a champion of political protests through democratic means. Nehru was an ardent follower of his. Ambedkar also believed in non violence and the power of people to gain political rights. On the other hand Savarkar was a neo-intellectual of the nineteenth century baptised in the ethos of cultural nationalism prevalent throughout Europe of his time. He was not Sanatani like Gandhi, rather a modernist. His modernism developed from selective plucking of materials from the Ancient Indian antiquities. He visualised India to be a nation enamoured in the hue and colour of a single religion, all other religions being subservient to the majority. But equating Savarkar with the likes of Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is far-fetched. Bhagat Singh was an atheist and a committed communist. Netaji was born from the very womb of non violent protest under the guidance of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and prophesying that Bhagat Singh or Netaji would have done, had they been alive in Independent India, the same things what Stalin and Hitler had done cannot be accepted by any sane individual characterised by rationality. This is also misplaced that all the followings of Bhagat Singh or Netaji were the result of boredom of middle class lives. This is historically true that the British seriously thought of leaving India only after the Naval Mutiny which was a fall out of the deeds of Indian National army and participation of British Indian soldiers in the said Army. The author also expressed his loquaciousness when he said that Netaji had a truncated view of History. A slogan like Jai Hind which is acceptable to all religious denominations of the Indian Soldiers of INA tells us how Netaji had a proper understanding of Indian history and culture. Apart from this, the entire column gives a very good comparative picture of what constitutes conservatism and what constitutes fundamentalism. Why Gandhi's politics through nonviolent means was difficult to be dealt with by the British than the violent tactics of Savarkar was also analysed very well. Thanks writer for giving us a good article.