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Will India's G20 Presidency Help PM Narendra Modi Internationalise Savarkar?

PM Modi’s idea of India as Vishwa Guru is a straight construct from Savarkar’s objective to universalise Hindutva.

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The recent visit of several High Commissioners to India, Ambassadors of other G20 nations, other diplomats and officials from the United Nations, and various multilateral organisations to the Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, herald the beginning of India’s G20 presidency. But, is it also the discreet launch of efforts to secure international legitimacy and widespread recognition for the Hindutva icon, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

The question arises because the Centre flew in more than 40 diplomats and officials from other countries as part of a power-packed delegation to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where Savarkar was jailed, last weekend, to brief them on “logistical preparations” for the G-20 calendar over the year. 

India assumed the presidency of the multilateral body on 1 December and to kickstart New Delhi’s stewardship, the government hosted the dignitaries at a secluded resort where Amitabh Kant, the country’s ‘Sherpa’ for G20 in its presiding year, provided diplomats and officials details of upcoming meetings and arrangements being made. 

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BJP’s Quest For Its Own Heroes

However, the first item on the itinerary of diplomats and foreign officials— immediately after landing in Port Blair on 25 November—was a visit to the Cellular Jail, now a National Memorial and Museum. They were then taken on a tour of the cell where Savarkar, the codifier of Hindutva was lodged for eleven years from 1911. 

The move to make Savarkar an internationally acceptable political icon was possibly necessitated by the long-felt absence of a nationalist icon with international standing from the stable of Hindu nationalists. Savarkar stands the best chance to secure global acceptance for his years as an anti-colonial activist and ideologue in the early stages of his life. 

This regime’s understanding is that it must have ‘its own’ among the national pantheon of greats, not just those who fought for independence under the banner of the Indian National Congress. 

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Why Start G20 Presidency Itinerary From Cellular Jail

The decision about the venue for an event that flagged off India’s G20 presidential term on which the current political regime is investing time, energy, and resources in the hope that this would provide impetus to the Modi government’s objective, spelt first in 2015, of emerging as Vishwa Guru (teacher to the world), was evidently personally taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the request of the local member of Parliament. 

It was reported that he greeted Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a typical Modispeak at the recently concluded G20 summit in Bali: The two countries are 90 nautical miles close and not 90 nautical miles apart, the prime minister is believed to have stated.

India’s tenure at the head of the G-20 nations is being billed as a “mega national event” and approximately 200 meetings in 32 sectors across varied locations in India have been planned.

While the venue of Kant’s briefing can be justified both due to its proximity to Indonesia as well as the Centre's decision to hold meetings across India to emphasise its federal character, Savarkar’s association with the Islands cannot be ignored, especially because the delegates were taken to the cell where he was interned. 

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Will VD Savarkar Gain Global Currency?

However, efforts to elevate Savarkar’s eminence worldwide can be severely hamstrung by the Hindutva icon’s belief in the centrality of violence and violent action in human behaviour.

It needs to be borne in mind that Indian nationalist icons, starting with Mahatma Gandhi, are universally considered epitomes of non-violence. In contrast, the latent violence in Savarkar’s political thoughts can hamper his embrace outside India. 

In addition, Savarkar’s inexplicable linkage between Hindutva's history on the one hand, and violence on the other, would leave non-Indians bewildered about his formulation. 

There is just one occasion when Savarkar defines Hindutva, which he codified in his 1923 essay, ‘Essentials of Hindutva’. KB Hedgewar was inspired by this tract to establish the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. 

Savarkar wrote: ‘’Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be by being confounded with the other cognate term Hinduism, but a history in full.” This explanation remains incomprehensible to even most Indians. Despite this, millions of Indians revere Savarkar and are blind followers without subjecting his opinions to scrutiny because of the prejudicial politics it strengthens. 

But, it would be folly to expect people from other countries to venerate him the way they hold the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and even Jawaharlal Nehru in high esteem.

It remains to be seen if after prioritising a visit to Savarkar’s quasi-memorial over iconic national monuments, including the two dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi—Rajghat and Gandhi Smriti—the controversial Hindu nationalist ideologue would be talked about in the course of other events during India’s G20 presidency. 

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What Will Happen To The Savarkar Project In France Now?

It would be equally worthwhile to keep an eye on the government’s response to the long-standing demand of several Hindu nationalist organisations that lobbied with French authorities for a Savarkar statue in Marseilles. 

Savarkar was arrested in London by the British authorities in the summer of 1910 and was being deported to India aboard a ship when he attempted to escape while it was anchored at Marseilles Port, France. He intended to seek asylum in France but was detained, brought back to India, and eventually convicted in the Nasik conspiracy case. 

Hindu nationalist groups, including Swatantryaveer Savarkar Seva Kendra, Swatantryaveer Savarkar Madhyavarti Rashtriya Prabodhan Sanstha and Hindu Jana Jagruti Samiti, have campaigned since the mid-1990s for the installation of his statue in the coastal city to celebrate Savarkar’s memory and his act of bravado. 

The present government’s decision not to back this campaign has been a sore point among Hindu nationalists. They contend that the SSSK corresponded directly with the Office of the Mayor of Marseilles, requesting for allocation of land to build a memorial. 

Significantly, the Mayor of Marseilles in July 1998 conveyed consent to SSSK for the installation of the memorial/statute of Savarkar. But thereafter there was no progress on the matter. The government was asked this in Lok Sabha and its reply in August 2018 the aforementioned information was provided.  

Will the government now change tack on this demand after taking G20 delegates to Cellular Jail? Will the government put in a word at bilateral meetings of leaders of the two countries? There is no doubt a Savarkar statue/memorial at Marseilles would be publicised ad nauseam and projected as this regime’s ‘achievement’ and as proof of commitment to enhancing respect for India and Indians.

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PM Modi’s idea of India as Vishwa Guru is a straight construct from Savarkar’s objective to universalise Hindutva. Ideas articulated in ‘Essentials of Hindutva’ lie at the root of Modi’s ambition to see India as the global tutor. 

The popularisation of Savarkar internationally would somewhat justify claims of India’s rise and acceptance as Vishwa Guru due to Modi’s compelling efforts. “Universalisation of Hindutva as a planetary goal,” is certainly a dream in several hearts. 

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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