The Strange Case of Barrister Savarkar

What Savarkar’s early autobiography reveals about his thinking

Savarkar, perhaps one of the first articulators of modern Hindutva, has risen to the very top of the rightwing pantheon in India. Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum & Library
30 April, 2020

ON 28 MAY 2019, a video of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on his Twitter handle. The day marked the one-hundred-and-thirty-sixth birth anniversary of Vinayak Savarkar, the demagogue and Hindu nationalist whose portrait the video showed Modi praying to. Savarkar “epitomises courage, patriotism and unflinching commitment to a strong India,” Modi said. “He inspired many people to devote themselves towards nation-building.” Modi added that “Savarkar was both a freedom fighter and poet, who always emphasised harmony and unity.” 

The prime minister is not alone in this kind of hagiographic praise for Savarkar. Perhaps one of the first articulators of modern Hindutva, Savarkar has risen to the very top of the right-wing pantheon. His portrait now hangs in the Indian parliament and his image is plastered on various posters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. In March, a road in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University was named after Savarkar. (Soon after, BR Ambedkar’s name was graffitied over it, on a sign proclaiming the road’s new title.)

The deification of Savarkar has been an outcome of the constant writing and rewriting of his life to fit the Hindutva politics of the time—a project that is as active today as it has ever been, as evident in two new biographies by the writers Vikram Sampath and Vaibhav Purandare. This not only includes attempting to project his notions of a Hindu majoritarian state and how to achieve it, but also attempts to connect him to a menagerie of revolutionaries and revolutionary organisations as a way of reifying the argument that he played a crucial role in India’s struggle for decolonisation. In any rigorous academic analysis of the various struggles against the British, Savarkar played only a marginal or tangential role as an ideologue. The Hindu Right further needed to rewrite Savarkar’s legacy after various mercy petitions Savarkar had sent to British authorities were published in the historian RC Majumdar’s 1975 book Penal Settlements in the Andamans

Much of the praise and criticism Savarkar receives necessarily connects to his ideological positions, set out in the 1923 pamphlet Essentials of Hindutva. For instance, the archival work of the academic Marzia Casolari as well as Ashish Nandy’s An Anti-secularist Manifesto draw upon this text to delve into the ideological incompatibility of Savarkar’s Hindu nationalism with the idea of a secular India, as well as to explore the similarities between Hindutva and the ideology behind fascist movements in Italy and Germany.