Vaibhav Purandare’s “Savarkar: The True Story of the Father of the Hindutva” reads like a biography by a Savarkar apologist

19 August, 2019

Is the annihilation of caste—involving actual social reform—possible under a Brahminical vision of authority? Are they mutually compatible? Or they are so incompatible that it is impossible to reconcile the two? These questions are sidelined every time a sympathetic researcher tries to locate the social-reformer impulse within the core idea fuelling Hindutva’s supremacist politics—the establishment of Brahminical hegemony. The results of such scholarship are always disappointing because instead of examining the actual relationship between the annihilation of caste and Hindutva hegemony, it creates a fairy tale that hides the reality.

The journalist Vaibhav Purandare’s book Savarkar: The True Story of the Father of the Hindutva, published this August, purports to look at the Hindutva ideologue differently. Its title suggests that the book will extricate VD Savarkar from the reverential halo in written depictions of him by his followers. But a few pages into the book, one realises that the author, like other sympathetic biographers of Savarkar—including Dhananjay Keer, Chitra Gupta and DN Gokhale—holds his subject in such high esteem that he is unable to retain the detachment crucial to achieving historical objectivity if attempting to write the life history of one of modern India’s most complicated and contradictory figures.

The tenth chapter of the book, for instance, seeks to portray Savarkar as a social reformer who “favoured a wipe-out of the caste order” and who “set himself to the task of obliterating the blights of untouchability and superstition that was taking a devastating toll on Hindu society and sought to replace these with an inclusive and scientific outlook.”

“A breach of custom during the popular Ganesh festival in Ratnagiri in 1924 marked the beginning of his crusade against Untouchability,” Purandare states. He goes on to explain that Savarakar used inter-caste dining and temple entry for Dalits as his two-pronged strategy to achieve this objective. He informs us how the construction of a separate temple for lower castes at Ratnagiri—named Patit Pavan and opened in 1931—constituted a high watermark of his revolt against the orthodox Hindus.

Purandare ignores that there was a double standard to Savarkar’s social-reform initiatives since his entire political philosophy—of Hindutva—was aimed at strengthening the Brahminical hegemony. Social stratification is the bedrock of this hegemony, and there is no record to suggest that Savarkar ever tried to challenge the Brahminical vision of authority.

On the contrary, contemporary records—including the Whirlwind Propaganda: Statements, Messages and Extracts from the President’s Diary of his Propagandistic Years, a book which was published in 1941 and has several of Savarkar’s diary entries, speeches, articles and notes from his first four years as president of the Hindu Mahasabha—show that even while he was the president of the Hindu Mahasabha he participated in the inter-caste dinners in a way that did not attract the ire of orthodox Sanatanists. Savarkar never exhorted his organisation—which was full of orthodox Maharashtrian Brahmins—to take up the issue as a movement. “Without involving the Hindu Mahasabha organization into social and religious activities not guaranteed by its constitutional limits, Veer Savarkarji has, in his personal capacity, organized, attended and participated in hundreds of Pan-Hindu dinners through his tours in which thousands of Hindus publicly dined together, touchables and untouchables, without any distinction of caste or creed in order to emphasize this principle of social and religious equality,” writes AS Bhide in the preface to this book.

Bhide, who was Savarkar’s close associate, adds:

It must be remembered however that as a social and religious reformer he [Savarkar] never means any affront to his Sanatanist coreligionists and respects them and their convictions as highly as possible. In all his efforts in affecting social and religious reforms, he almost always depends more on persuasion rather than legislative compulsion.

Clearly, there was a strong element of hypocrisy in Savarkar’s social-reform initiatives. But Purandare, far from examining these initiatives, takes them at face value. He tells the readers nothing about the hypocrisy embedded in them and depicts him as a great a social reformer comparable to BR Ambedkar. At certain points, he explicitly draws parallels between Ambedkar and Savarkar:

Yet Ambedkar and Savarkar did think similarly on at least two issues. Both considered Gandhi’s piety as showmanship rather than sincerity and, as admirers of western education, were thoroughly impatient with his viewpoint on science, surgery, technology and urban life being essentially negative forces. Both showed a genuine appreciation for each other’s work despite obvious differences.

Another aspect of the book that suggests the author is an apologist for Savarkar is how he handles the latter’s response to the martyrdom of the people embroiled in the Kakori Conspiracy case. In August 1925, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri conducted an armed robbery in a train between Kakori and Lucknow, and were eventually caught and executed. “While Savarkar hailed the sentenced patriots and lauded their sacrifices in a tribute, he mentioned only three of the four sent to the gallows by name – Ram Prasad Bismil, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri. He failed to name-check the fourth, Ashfaqullah Khan. By doing so he opened himself up to the charge of clear bias,” Purandare writes.

Here the author fails to remain a critical observer and inserts an erroneous interpretation to help Savarkar get away with his crime of oversight. Without citing a source, he fabricates an explanation as to why Savarkar missed Ashfaqullah Khan’s name: because he “failed to name-check.” Purandare fails to understand or entertain the possibility that this could be a reflection of Savarkar’s communal psyche that stopped him from recognising the sacrifices of a Muslim. Worse still, the author makes use of the appeals filed by the Kakori case convicts to the Privy Council and “the King-Emperor himself in London” to mislead the readers into believing that their actions were similar to Savarkar’s own mercy petitions to the British government— submitted to obtain his personal freedom from the Cellular Jail in Andmans. “These revolutionaries have fortunately not been branded as ‘traitors’ or ‘British collaborators’ – charges that Savarkar has faced from time to time,” Purandare writes.

In the last of his petitions, Savarkar had assured the British that “every intelligent lover of India would heartily and loyally cooperate with the British people in the interest of India itself.” Though the book seeks to present Savarkar’s mercy petitions as a tactical ploy, other contemporary records—including intelligence records in the National Archives of India and the All India Hindu Mahasabha papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library—tell us that Savarkar remained true to his promise to the colonial regime after getting out of the jail. Not only did he keep himself away from the freedom struggle, he even collaborated with the British in helping it implement its divide-and-rule policy. The divisive theory of Hindutva that he formulated after coming out of jail was another form of the Muslim League’s two-nation theory.

It is not surprising that, in the last chapter of the book, the author appears to make desperate efforts to convince readers that Savarkar was not a conspirator in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi but a victim of a conspiracy hatched by the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who he claims, never trusted Savarkar or the Hindu Mahasabha. To drive home this point, Purandare goes to the extent of inserting an unsubstantiated “claim” made by some followers of Savarkar regarding a secret meeting between Ambedkar and the Hindutva ideologue’s counsel and legal expert LB Bhopatkar. Accoding to the claim, Ambedkar told Bhopatkar, while the Gandhi murder trial was ongoing, that Savarkar was innocent. Purandare writes:

When Bhopatkar reached the spot in the evening, Ambedkar was waiting in the driver’s seat in his own car. He asked the lawyer to get in next to him and told him, ‘There is no real charge against your client; quite worthless evidence has been concocted. Several members of the cabinet were strongly against it, but to no avail. Even Sardar Patel could not go against these orders. But, take it from me, there just is no case. You will win.’

Neither Bhopatkar nor Ambedkar made any public statement of such a secret interaction—a fact that Purandare acknowledges. Nor was anything of this nature published anywhere while the two were alive. And yet Purandare thought it fit to use this fictitious piece of evidence in his book. As a justification, he attributes the story regarding the so-called secret meeting to the author Manohar Malgonkar, who he claims, quoted it from a story that appeared in the newspaper Kaal in 1983—around three decades after Gandhi’s assassination, and written while neither Bhopatkar nor Ambedkar was alive to contradict it. Purandare adds that “Savarkar’s followers swore by” the events of the story.

At various points, Purandare relies on secondary sources or on writings either by Savarkar or those sympathetic to him. Journalistic write-ups, too, constitute a significant part of his source base. But he has barely attempted to dig into the wealth of primary sources and information on Savarkar in the form of intelligence records and confidential files at the National Archives of India, or papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The book, therefore, sets forth Purandare’s own biased agenda rather than being a “true story” of Savarkar’s life.