Review: Savarkar and Hindutva by A.G. Noorani

Savarkar and Hindutva

On a sunny humid Saturday morning, with nothing to do at home, I headed out to look for myself the bookstore Kitab Khana, located in an area called Fort in Mumbai. Couple of months ago I had passed through dark alleys near C.S.T and had stumbled upon a large mansion-like building with ‘Kitab Mahal’ written on its large entrance, underneath ‘Indo American Society’ and I mistakenly assumed it to be the bookstore. The reflecting sunlight made me more level headed and I searched for address of Kitab Khaana on my phone while standing in front of Kitab Mahal. I walked along crowded streets, to be surprised by a roadside mobile accessories vendor who recognized make of my phone by glancing at its backside for a fraction of a second! On entering Kitab Khana, one could feel its rich interiors with marble statues lining top of the shelves on one side, with the other one leading to a café located inside the store. History section disappointingly was suffocating small – there were hardly any books I was unaware of. So amongst the few which I had not heard of, ‘Savarkar and Hindutva – The Godse Connection’ by A.G. Noorani caught my eye. A.G. Noorani is a regular columnist in Frontline magazine, and I devour his well researched and sometimes difficult to understand book reviews. He also practiced as an advocated in Supreme Court of India. Rise of Hindutva is an illuminating one in a land revered for moderate Hindus and accepting nature of Hinduism. Christophe Jaffrelot’s ‘Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics’ lay unread on my shelf, but I couldn’t stop myself from buying this one.

Mr. Noorani starts with efforts of BJP from 1990s onwards towards reviving the image of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. However, he writes, “only in 2002 could Lal Kishen Advani, the BJP’s foremost exponent of Hindutva, muster courage to laud Savarkar as a national hero”. That Savarkar’s portrait replaced that of Gandhi during BJP’s rule cannot be more despicable and ironical given that Nathuram Godse, was Savarkar’s disciple, and Gandhi’s assassin. Because of ideological differences in politics of BJP and Congress, BJP had to bring out its side of contribution towards achievement of Indian independence, and this is what they came up with. Coverage of the book is wide indeed – from books to articles, from speeches to court orders – everything has been unearthed to bring facts on the table. He laments that “a fair and definitive biography of Savarkar is yet to appear. The standard work in English is Dhananjay Keer’s biography which often borders on hagiography”. Author mentions hard work put in by Savarkar for his first book The First Indian War of Independence – 1857, a “veritable classic” and gives him credit where due.

However, the so called revolutionary character of Savarkar falls apart when he is sent to jail owing to his involvement in two murders of British men. He was sent to Cellular Jail in Port Blair, wherein after spending considerable amount in jail, he bows to British masters and his family is putting frantic efforts to get him released. The “submissive, even obsequious” nature of him is evident from verbatim letters written by him to British, asking for forgiveness. The point which stirs a debate in my head is when it is mentioned that “Savarkar was the first to propound the two-nation theory. He propounded it first in Hindutva in 1923” and “Jinnah propounded his two-nation theory in 1939”. This was something I couldn’t immediately fathom because MJ Akbar, in Tinderbox, had mentioned and clearly written how the movement for separation of Muslims and Hindus (for fear of being left behind after the British) had roots in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This topic however will need more research (1, 2) and reading from my side before commenting further. I felt the author should have delved deeper about why he believes only Savarkar was the first ever proponent and not elite Muslims (especially of Bengal) in 18th and 19th centuries, rather than just accuse him of the disastrous theory on the basis of his writings in Hindutva.

About Gandhi’s murder, the author, based on various court orders and letters, concludes that Savarkar was involved in the planning of it, however RSS (as an organization) wasn’t – but members of Hindu Mahasabha were directly involved in the assassination. In chapter ‘Gandhi’s Murder’ he chalks out movements of suspects and how their first attempt at assassination failed and succeeded only during their second attempt, both in Delhi. Accused in the case were Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Madanlal Pahwa, Shankar Kistayya, Gopal Godse, V.D. Savarkar and Dattatraya Parchure. Barring “Kistayya, all were committed Mahasabhaites blindly loyal to Savarkar”. And it was all the more surprising to read that “Nathuram Godse and Apte left by plane on the afternoon of the 17th arriving at Delhi in the evening and stayed at the Marina Hotel, then a fairly posh European style hotel in Connaught Circus”. Author then points to various statements of accused and action of the prosecution to nail them. He verbatim quotes their statements and notes how law is structured differently for a civil suit and a criminal suit. Savarkars honorific title of ‘Veer’ is ripped apart owing to his fawning behavior when in trouble with the government, whether British or Indian. His vile-filled articles against Muslims and even Arabs (during the creation of State of Israel) bring forth a personality which is less of a revolutionary and more of an extremist, and extremist however who is scared to death when faced with accusations. In the end, Savarkar went scot-free only because Judge Atma Charan felt “’unsafe’ to convict Savarkar on Badge’s uncorroborated evidence even though he had found him to be a truthful witness”. Though Sardar Patel’s views, “morally, it is possible that one’s conviction may be the other way about” (when writing about how one may be innocent in the eye of law, but not necessarily morally), and Justice Jivan Lal Kapur end up nailing the truth by laying bare “the pattern underlying earlier crimes – Curzon Wylie’s murder in 1909, Jackson’s murder in 1909, an attempt to murder Hotson in 1931, and Gandhi’s murder in 1948”.

This book is not meant for somebody who is unaware of BJP / RSS / twentieth century Indian history as it straight away enters into a muddled world of politics and hardliners. The book is short with 147 pages barring bibliography. It is a bit drab in places and repetitive on some aspects of the case. Author does however cross the line more often than not by passing crude personal comments about Savarkar, rather than being objective about it. Leaving aside the jingoism, it makes for an eye opener on Savarkar – the man still leading BJP / RSS towards light of a path not so righteous.

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