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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 28, New Delhi, June 27, 2020

Peeling Away the Façade: Viewing Savarkar through the Lens of Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History | Anshu Saluja

Friday 26 June 2020

by Anshu Saluja

In the recent past, a major controversy was stirred when the name of V.D. Savarkar, one of the most prominent ideologues of Hindu right-wing politics of all time, was floated for the award of Bharat Ratna, the country’s top civilian honour. This suggestion is not to be viewed as the outcome of a hasty demand, triggered by a sudden impulse disconnected from the existing political context. Such a demand represents nothing new, rather it forms yet another link in the long and disconcerting chain of calibrated moves, devised to raise Savarkar to the status of an eminent national figure and create a cult of heroism around his life.

In October 2019, with an eye on the approaching Maharashtra assembly elections, the BJP state unit began to make noises to push Savarkar’s name for the Bharat Ratna, a concern which resonated with the Party’s top brass at the Centre and evoked a favourable response. For instance, offering his take on this issue, the country’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh said then in a televised interview: ‘Savarkar ji is a source of inspiration for many. I feel that nobody should raise any objection to this [the demand to confer the Bharat Ratna on him] … his contribution cannot be forgotten by the nation’. Expectedly, amidst such calls, considerable media din was generated around Savarkar’s life and legacy.

With 28th May 2020 marking Savarkar’s 137th birth anniversary, I revisit the recent Bharat Ratna controversy and the approving endorsement from many quarters to the well-timed move to press forward his claim. I take this controversy as a starting point to delve into one of Savarkar’s later writings, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History. And it is against this backdrop that I seek to examine his credentials for any state patronage and accolades. It becomes critical that we peel away the enforced façade of Savarkar’s greatness which has been built-up with meticulous care in popular discourse. We need to call a spade a spade; we need to debunk his views for what they are worth; we need to frankly ask this question—do we really want to give to ourselves and our future generations a Hindu Rashtra over a secular democratic republic? In the three sections that follow, I take a few tentative steps in this direction. I uncover some of Savarkar’s formulations, put forth in Six Glorious Epochs and try, as far as possible, to let his words speak for themselves.

Obsession with Numbers

Savarkar’s obsession with numbers is constant and pathological. Concerns about growing population of Muslims and declining numerical strength of Hindus frame his reconstructions of Indian history, a large part of which he terms as ‘the epic Hindu-Muslim war’. This obsession with demography remains one of the principal axis points around which his narrative revolves. Simultaneously, it serves as a useful communicative strategy that quickly grabs attention and brings forth his unrelenting hatred of Muslims.

For instance, at one point, he laments how ‘the Muslims defiled, with craft or coercion, millions of Hindus and thus inflicted immeasurable numerical loss to the Hindu nation’. Similarly, further ahead, he suggests that if Hindus had forsaken their misplaced notions of ‘religious tolerance’, which he even terms as ‘impotence’, and been unsparing towards Muslims from the very outset, humiliating their women and resorting to their conversion, they would surely have been fearful of Hindu strength and might. They would have refrained then from laying their hands on Hindu women. So, the latter would ‘have been saved all their indignities, loss of their own religion, rapes, ravages and other unimaginable persecutions’. In that event, large numbers of Hindu women, as also ‘their future progeny would not have been lost permanently to Hinduism and the Muslim population could not have thrived so audaciously’.

Thus, Savarkar connects all the dots; he brings together diverse loose ends to converge around his principal thesis, the fear of demographic change. It is this preoccupation which offers him a fitting occasion to flesh out and expound his concepts, throughout projecting Hindus and Muslims as two exclusive and mutually opposing entities. In this schematic, Muslims are construed to be essentially ‘savage’ and ‘fanatical’, while Hindus are represented to be virtuous and generous to the point of their own detriment. The two are constructed in monolithic terms as fixed and ossified categories, perpetually at variance with one another, while the existence of any possible affinity or commonality between them is assiduously disregarded.

For Savarkar, the Hindu religion and Hindu nation are but one, seamlessly sliding into each other. This ready conflation makes it incumbent upon Hindus to defend the cardinal religion-nation axis through their superior numerical strength. In sum, his reasoning leaves no room for the formation of shared cultures, composite societies and pluralistic polities. Herein, other creeds and sects have to necessarily be absorbed and assimilated within the Hindu religion, a course deemed to be crucial for the maintenance and reproduction of ‘the Hindu concept of order’ (Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, 1989, ‘Sikh Rebellion and the Hindu Concept of Order’, Asian Survey). And if such assimilation fails to be achieved for whatever reason, the outstanding faiths, together with their followers, can be readily characterised as alien enemies, bent on destroying the Hindu way of life, for in this worldview, ‘the change of religion today’ essentially implies ‘the change of nationality for the future’.

No End to Name-calling

Although Savarkar spends a good deal of time in lambasting religions like Christianity (‘Christian nations like the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the British and others rushed upon our nation from the sea … They also wrought havoc by converting millions
of Hindus at the point of the bayonet’) and Buddhism (‘Buddhist congregations (Buddha-sangha) were inherently anti-national and unpatriotic’ whose ‘treacherous mentality’ had become widely known to ‘the whole of the patriotic and politically conscious Indian population’), his principal target of vitriol is Islam which he denounces as ‘a hideous religion’. And it is no surprise that some of his choicest reprimands and accusations are reserved for its followers, the Muslims. In his view, ‘the conversion of one Hindu to the Islamic faith meant the transformation of a man into a demon, the metamorphosis of a God into a Satan’. Subsequently, in his narrative, Savarkar returns to and redeploys these symbols.

Harking back to an imagined idyllic age, he describes the achievements of the ‘victory-longing gods’ and ‘Aryans’ who crushed the demons, a recourse which the later day Hindus lamentably failed to adopt. If they had done so and persevered ‘in the initial stages of adverse times of the Hindu-Muslim war’, the outcome would have been very different. If only the ‘cow-faced’ Hindus had abandoned their virtuousness and countered the ‘tiger-faced’ Muslims with the same ruthlessness, ‘Hinduism itself might have completely routed Islam from the Indian soil’. Comparing Muslims to demons has indeed been a potent rhetorical weapon in Hindutva’s armoury which has found expedient application in the hands of many of its proponents.

Savarkar revels in relating accounts of Muslim violence and atrocities, perpetrated against Hindus across time and space. The Arabs, the Turks, the Mughals and many other peoples are effortlessly lapped together by him into the category of the savage Muslim and get tarred with the same brush. These disparate segments are throughout constructed in homogenous terms, representing an organic whole and possessing a shared set of attributes. Tellingly, they are presumed to be fundamentally intolerant of and antagonistic towards the Hindu order, constantly aspiring to bring about its ignominious destruction. Savarkar describes their advance thus: ‘… millions of Muslim invaders from all over Asia fell over India century after century with all the ferocity at their command to destroy the Hindu religion which was the life-blood of the Nation’.

But, the Hindus failed to respond in kind, for they had been fed, to reproduce Savarkar’s plaint, on the ‘Nectarlike advice that religious tolerance is a virtue’. In keeping with this advice, they continued with their ‘chivalrous behaviour’ towards Muslims. And how did the Muslims repay the Hindus for their ‘religious generosity and high-mindedness’? Savarkar asks rhetorically. He instantaneously follows this up with the answer that they came back ‘with the same old treachery and atrocity’. Still, the Hindus did not give up, preferring to abide by their ‘high ideals of religious tolerance’. They adhered to these ideals irrespective of ‘the propriety of time, place or persons’ and acted virtuously even with Muslims. In Savarkar’s words, it was because of this very ‘sacrilegious perversion’ of virtue, that they failed to wreck due ‘vengeance upon those wicked Muslims, even when they had golden opportunities to do so’ and match ‘their atrocities with super-atrocious reprisals …’

In his narrative, Muslim greed and lust are impressed upon, with considerable zest. They are, above all, shown to be overly desirous of appropriating and polluting Hindu womanhood. Savarkar speaks at length of ‘the diabolic Muslim faith’ and reiterates how it is a part of their ‘religious duty’ to ‘kidnap and force into their own religion, non-Muslim women’. This avarice, he urges, ‘incited their sensuality and lust for carnage’, significantly adding to their population, while eroding Hindu numbers.

Muslim violence and atrocities directed towards hapless Hindu women make up key themes of his tirade. With ‘shameless religious fanaticism’, they resorted to ‘carry away forcibly the women of the enemy side … to ravish them, to pollute them … and to absorb them completely in their fold’. Savarkar writes passage after passage, detailing Muslim depredations through the ages, the pitiful plight of Hindu women, and the misplaced chivalry of Hindu men who, on account of the virtues engrained in them, failed to reciprocate and violate Muslim women.

Legitimating Rape

Even if we were to discount Savarkar’s contentious role in India’s colonial history, a history that we are being emphatically advised to ‘rewrite’ in order to remedy ‘the injustice done’ (Home Minister Amit Shah’s speech reported in The Indian Express, 18 October 2019) and his alleged involvement in plotting M.K. Gandhi’s assassination, his incessant objectification of women, whether Hindu or Muslim, and advocacy of rape in no uncertain terms should serve to caution us. His repeated legitimation of rape as a fitting weapon of war should serve to lead us away from any reverential regard that we may have for him or that which is being preached to us from the highest echelons of the ruling dispensation. It is high time that we pause and ponder; it is high time that we seriously question Savarkar’s representation as a ‘veer’ who inspired ‘others to join the freedom struggle’ and emphasised ‘social reform’ (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet on V.D. Savarkar’s 137th birth anniversary); it is high time that we dispense with image-making and instead tap into his writing to gauge the full import of what he stood for and propagated.

Savarkar regards rape as a potent means of subjugation and sanctions its use against enemies in a righteous war. He is of the view that Hindu commanders should have resorted to the use of rape, in order to punish and banish their Muslim enemies. The humiliation and defilement of their women would have surely frightened them and made them withdraw from the ‘epic struggle’. But, this outcome, Savarkar painstakingly informs us, could not be achieved, on account of undue Hindu virtue and chivalry. In the ultimate event, Savarkar ends up representing Indian history as ‘a single-axis narrative: of non-stop Hindu resistance against Muslim invasions and tyranny’ (Tanika Sarkar, 2018, ‘Is Love without Borders Possible?’, Feminist Review). For this, he draws upon existing myths and legends and even fabricates his own, thereby conveniently substituting authenticated facts with specious propaganda.

He underscores inherent Muslim male lust for Hindu women and lists the outrages endured by the latter as a result. In this vein, he endlessly denounces Muslim conquerors and commanders in his long-drawn, verbose and, for the most part, erroneous account. Concurrently, he holds forth on the ‘perverted religious ideas about chivalry to women’ which were treasured by the Hindus. So great was the sway of these ideas on Hindu warriors that even Muslim women, who ‘played their devilish part’ in aiding ‘the molestation and harassment of the Hindu women’, had no fear and felt assured of their safety ‘in the thick of battles’. In order to hammer home this seeming difference, Savarkar goes on to reproach Shivaji and his accomplices for their failure to duly humiliate and violate Muslim women in successful military campaigns. This ‘misplaced chivalry’ of ‘the victor Hindu Chiefs’ and their refusal to suitably ‘chastise the Muslim women-folk’ even when the latter were ‘completely at their mercy’ proved, according to him, ‘highly detrimental to the Hindu community’.

A Fundamental Shift

Savarkar’s unending strictures, calling upon his followers to avenge the laments of ‘millions of molested Hindu women’ by paying ‘the Muslim fair sex in the same coin’, have been imbibed and acted upon with particular viciousness in repeated instances. This link between the written word and its practical application in the form of brutal violation of Muslim women needs to be explored further. For now, suffice it to say that his contentions legitimating rape go against the very grain of any democracy, undermine ‘the civilisational ethos of India’ (Bharatiya Janata Party: Sankalp Patra, Lok Sabha, 2019) and explicitly contradict the current Prime Minister’s emphatic pronouncements to ‘ensure equal rights for our Muslim daughters and sisters’(Narendra Modi’s address delivered on 15 August 2019).

Viewed in this light, the concerted pitch to raise Savarkar to an exalted pedestal—whether in the form of his incessant idealisation as a national figure, the hurry to name streets and places after him or most recently suggesting his name for the Bharat Ratna—has to be resisted and countered, for it points to an unconscionable moral vacuum. It reflects a fundamental shift that has, arguably, already taken place and the reflection is far more disturbing than what we had imagined or anticipated.

(The author Anshu Saluja is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.)

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