Is Savarkar Really a 'Political Orphan' After 75 Years of Independence?

Exclusive chat with Vikram Sampath on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar's contested legacy: caste, censorship, communalism.

5 min read

(This interview first appeared on 15 August 2021. It is being re-published in light of the ongoing protests and a poster campaign by Congress leaders over the Enforcement Directorate (ED) summons to Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case. Some of the posters read: "I am not Savarkar, I am Rahul Gandhi", "truth will prevail" and "Dear Modi and Shah, this is Rahul Gandhi, he will not bow down".

On India's 75th Independence Day, The Quint tries to decode VD Savarkar's contested legacy with his biographer Dr Vikram Sampath. This detailed conversation touches upon fake news, Hindutva, Savarkar's attitudes towards caste, his relationship with Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, and his opinions on India's Muslims.


Dr Sampath says that there are no blacks and whites in history or its characters and we need more than "50 shades of grey". He shares that he five years in researching extensively for his two-volume biography of Savarkar "a complex man".

The second volume of Savarkar's biography written by Dr Sampath is titled Savarkar (Part 2): A Contested Legacy, 1924-1966 (published by Penguin) and has more than 150 pages of endnotes, appendices et al. "Every claim is backed with primary sources, especially often overlooked Marathi writings by and about Savarkar," Dr Sampath says. He says that 150 pages of endnotes leave no scope for fake news and that he has tried to be as factual as possible. Counter-facts are welcome.

Below is an edited excerpt from this interview:

What about compulsive revisionism in history? The text books now show Maharana Pratap as the victor in the Battle of Haldighati.

The right wing berates the government for not doing enough! No society is perfect, we overemphasise imperfections. The Nehruvian approach of brushing uncomfortable truths under the carpet doesn't work. The onus of the Ghori-Ghazni invasions is not on a young muslim man or woman today. We never allowed uncomfortable truths to come out and thus the wounds of the past never got healed. Let's not whitewash the excesses. Let's state historical facts as they are, let the wounds heal and let's move on.


Savarkar and Censorship

Savarkar wrote a satire once and was castigated by the British government for the same. Do you see any commonalities with what's happening in the present times?

Savarkar was prolific in his Ratnagiri internment years. He often used pseudonym for many writings to evade surveillance as the British didn't trust him till 1947, till the day they left. Today also surveillance is a huge issue: parliament is stalled over it. Urge for surveillance cuts across party colours. Savarkar never held a weapon, but was considered dangerous by the British government only because of his writings. His 1857 book was banned before its publication.

It is unfair to compare colonial practices with democracy but the establishment is always uncomfortable with freethinkers, journalists et al.

People linked with Savarkar were penalised even in independent India. Hridaynath Mangeshkar lost his job for setting Savarkar's poems to music for Lata ji and Asha to sing. Such has been our 'wonderful' tradition of freedom of speech in this country and we are living up to it!


Stand-up comics these days are arrested even before they can crack their jokes. Should a party revering Savarkar crush free speech thus?

Savarkar is a political orphan. Everyone appropriates bits and pieces of him to either eulogise or castigate him without understanding what he stood for.

Savarkar and Hate Speech

Savarkar has used really harsh language to refer to the Muslim community in his writings and speeches. Similar language is now being used by people to rouse passions against Muslims even today. What do you think about that?

Savarkar's writings were a product of his times. Compare Savarkar's words with Dr Ambedkar's who went to the extent of saying that Muslims could not be trusted to be loyal citizens of India. Based on his words, calling Ambedkar an 'Islamophobe' would be blasphemous today. Their writings were contextual as a section of Indian society had asked for the vivisection of the subcontinent. Indian leaders were responding to calls for partition in different ways.

But more than his personal utterances, Savarkar's views as president of the Hindu Mahasabha need attention. The 1945 document of the Hindu Mahasabha advocated equality for all in the eyes of law.


Savarkar, Ambedkar and Gandhi

Did Savarkar and Ambedkar really converge ideologically? Or was their confluence only based on their mutual dislike for Mahatma Gandhi.

Yes, Savarkar and Ambedkar were united in their dislike of Gandhi but it went beyond that. Savarkar wrote to Ambedkar several times during his 13 years in Ratnagiri stating that he had executed Ambedkar's vision of 'casteless society' in Ratnagiri. Ambedkar wrote back to him and praised his initiatives. Despite Savarkar's many invitations, Ambedkar never shared stage with him.

Savarkar's compatriots were wary of being seen with him because he was not in the good books of the British. It must have been awkward for Ambedkar. He met Savarkar met only after the Ratnagiri years of internment. Ambedkar attended the 'Red Fort Trial' where Savarkar was tried for the conspiracy of Gandhi's assassination. He even told Savarkar's lawyer how the government wanted to 'fix' him.

Yet, the twain never met.

Why did the casteless society project fail?

Savarkar realised that dialogue was only way to achieve unity, equality in the Hindu society and diktats don't work. There was hesitation from all sides. The 'temple entry' (for the so-called lower castes) in Ratnagiri happened after years of negotiations. Savarkar failed to get allies to scale up his Ratnagiri pilot project. Later, the Hindu Mahasabha dedicated itself to dealing with the British rule and the caste reforms were overshadowed by other agendas.


Savarkar and Hindu Unity

Did Savarkar want caste-less Hindu society only to check Muslims? Did this project fail because it came from a place of insecurity?

I agree only partially. Yes, numerical strength was important. Hindus wouldn't have got due legislative representation unless they identified as one community. Past census reports show that Hindus identified as Arya Samajis, Brahmo Samajis, Sanatani, Lingayats etc. Savarkar found consolidation to be essential. However, beyond political expedience there was also genuine concern for the marginalised. Savarkar insisted on all-caste dining everywhere. Through such a consolidation, Hindutva offered a response to waves of political islam during that time.

Savarkar and 'Foreign Policy'

India has now stymied relations with both Nepal and Afghanistan, two countries that Savarkar cared for. What do you think about that?

Hindu nationalists saw Afghanistan as an entry to any Islamic invasions by land. Every meeting of the Hindu Mahasabha started with an invocation of Nepal's king. Nepal was crucial for creating a bulwark against the Islamic umma. The king of Nepal was envisioned as the king of undivided India who'd steer a Hindu-Buddhist alliance, which even China might have joined! Fortunately or otherwise no "Allies" joined this project.

Without getting into whose fault it was, it's unfortunate that now we have uneasy relations with both the countries.


Savarkar and Ghar Wapasi

When Yashwant Holkar of Indore wanted to marry a foreigner, everyone got jittery that he was going to convert to Christianity. The priests got together and convinced him that the king need not leave his religion. Instead, the bride-to-be would be converted to Hinduism. So love-jihaad in reverse was happening even then!

Jokes apart, through today's prism Savarkar's 'shuddhi' project doesn't appear innocent.

The 'shuddhi' movement caught Savarkar's attention in Cellular Jail where Muslim jamadars converted Hindu political prisoners to Islam merely by feeding them beef. Such prisoners escaped torture by converting. There was no mechanism to bring such converts back. The orthodox Hindus resisted to reconversion the most. The Holkar incident was an exception, conversions didn't really happen for marriage purposes. The beneficiaries of 'shuddhi' were those converted forcibly. Such a project was needed then.

What is the need for such a project now?

I'm not a social scientist, so I can't comment on contemporary motivations.


Video Editor: Rahul Sanpui

Copy Editor: Padmashree Pande

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Topics:  Gandhi   Savarkar   VD Savarkar 

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