1928: “Criticism of non-violence is not a criticism of Gandhiji. We will fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Mahatmaji in the national struggle” — Savarkar about Gandhi
1944: “I urge Hindus to not contribute a pie to the Kasturba Gandhi Memorial Trust. Suffering of Kasturba was insignificant relatively” — Savarkar after the death of Kasturba Gandhi
1948: “So, you have come to arrest me for Gandhi’s murder” — Savarkar to cops
Such a steep deterioration in the complex relationship between Gandhi and Savarkar over a 40-year period is richly captured in Vaibhav Purandare’s book Savarkar. This is just one of many, but perhaps the most important example of the intricate presentation of one of India’s most controversial historical figures.
In the present political climate of weaponisation of history for electoral and legislative purposes, Mr Purandare’s book about a person amid a raging public debate, offers a sense of meticulous calm. The book is extraordinarily well researched, contains a wide swathe of events in Savarkar’s life and is careful to present only evidentiary facts and not stray into opinions.
My interest in the book was piqued by a claim Mr Purandare made in an article in the Abinav Bharat) to ghar wapsi to a “One nation, One rule” framework, there appears to be much in common between the ruling party’s ideals and Savarkar’s, including spiteful behaviour towards their opposition.
That Savarkar is a complex personality was well known, but the details were not, a gap this book bridges beautifully. For example, it explains how P K Atre, who bestowed Savarkar with the title “Veer”, turned against him by the 1940s, reflecting the dramatic twists and turns in Savarkar’s life. The book paints a vivid description of the constantly changing facets of Savarkar’s personality, embellished with rich anecdotes such as the gradual souring of ties even with his own Hindu Mahasabha successor Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief M S Golwalkar.
The book also explains the nuanced distinction that Savarkar made between Hindutva
and Hinduism. The man who coined the term Hindutva
ostensibly abhorred Hindu rituals, wanted his wife to remarry if he died in the freedom struggle, wanted people to eat whatever they desired and ensured there was no funeral pyre or chanting of mantras after his death. Yet, he apparently detested the idea of making Muslims feel secure in a Hindu-majority land, called for the purification of Hindi by purging all Urdu and non-Sanskrit words, deemed it appropriate for India to adopt Nazi Germany’s methods to forge the unity of Hindu India and so on. The seemingly staggering contradiction in Savarkar’s personalities described vividly in the book leaves the reader yearning for more.
On the sensitive subject of Savarkar’s role in the assassination of Gandhi, the book presents much detail and leaves it to the reader to draw inferences. It touches on all the circumstantial evidence presented in the trial. Yet, the curious case of a man who went from genuine respect for Gandhi to virulent critic to being implicated in his murder leaves the reader searching for more answers. The book quotes Sardar Patel as saying Savarkar’s criminal culpability in Gandhi’s murder was different from his moral culpability, insinuating that Savarkar perhaps should be at least morally accountable.
The book delves deep into the other controversial subject, of Savarkar’s pleas for amnesty from his prison in the Andamans. As with any historical incident, it needs to be judged in the context of the times. The book presents graphic details of Savarkar’s harsh treatment in prison and how he fought suicidal tendencies. He believed strongly that the national struggle for independence needed him to be alive and free, even if it meant his abstinence from direct active participation. The book argues that while it is true that Savarkar promised cooperation with the British in return for his release from prison, it also makes it clear that Savarkar wanted India to determine her own destiny.
For those interested in revisionist history, the book offers ample scope for indulgence. One such example is a proposed meeting between Jinnah and Savarkar to discuss an amalgamation of all parties opposed to the Congress party. Jinnah proposed that the meeting could take place at his Malabar Hill bungalow, since he was the senior of the two. Savarkar insisted that Jinnah visit him at his Shivaji Park residence. The meeting never took place over this silly quandary, leaving one to wonder what if…. There are many such examples.
Overall, Mr Purandare’s book is a scrupulous effort to portray the multi-dimensional personality of one of India’s more colourfully controversial leaders.
Savarkar : The True Story of the Father of Hindutva
Juggernaut, Rs 599, 360 pages