Born in Bhagura, a village in Bombay Presidency, Savarkar came from a lower-middle-class Marathi Chitpavan Brahmin family, which is to say precisely the kind of background likely to produce a Hindu nationalist. Tragedy struck early and often. Cholera picked off his mother, then plague his father. As a youth, Savarkar was already showing his bias, threatening Muslim boys with knives; by his own admission, he vandalised a mosque aged 13.

Savarkar read law in London. There, he moved in anarchist circles, sourcing pistols to send to nationalists back home. When his mate killed the Indian secretary of state’s political aide-de-camp in South Kensington, Savarkar was charged with conspiracy to murder and banished to a penal colony on the Andaman Islands. No sooner did he get there in 1910 than he began begging the Brits to release him. The letters have generated controversy in recent years, as liberals have rushed to suggest that Savarkar was a wimp. Not so, the Berkeley historian Janaki Bakhle concludes in this superb book on his life and times. She’s evidently no fan of Savarkar, but she makes it amply clear this was just subterfuge to secure freedom. Savarkar had
absolutely no intention of becoming a colonial poodle.

Savarkar was released in 1921, Bakhle writes, because the Brits saw him as something of a useful stooge. At the time, the Khilafat Movement was in full swing, and Raj officials thought it would be convenient to have an unreconstructed Islamophobe attacks Muslims and Gandhi. Savarkar played his part well, accusing Muslim men of raping ‘Hindu maidens’ en masse. All the same, he was kept on a tight leash. Savarkar remained under house arrest until 1937, when he was elected Hindu Mahasabha president.

What he wanted to do with Muslims was never very clear. Bakhle discerns a ‘striking resemblance’ between Savarkar’s Hindutva and the Nazi völkisch movement for racial purity, but I don’t think this is right. Shruti Kapila has argued more convincingly that it was not the extirpation of Muslims that Savarkar was after, but rather a hierarchy of faiths. As Bakhle writes, he said to an American journalist that Muslims in India were to be treated “as a minority in the position of your Negroes” — as a disenfranchised underclass.

At all events, Savarkar’s hatred for Muslims was his USP and, in many ways, a sentiment original to him. The word ‘Hindutva’ was coined in 1892 by the Bengali literary critic Chandranath Basu to connote Hindu-ness. It was in this more or less benign sense that Rabindranath Tagore and Bal Gangadhar Tilak used it in the decade that followed. Savarkar’s sleight of hand, however, transformed the word into the epithet it has now become, where pride in Hinduism is inevitably freighted with contempt for Islam.

Festive offer

Indeed, Savarkar’s pamphlet of 1923, Essentials of Hindutva, is as much a lesson in geography as it is a jeremiad against Muslims. Unsurprisingly, then, in later years, his anti-Muslim feelings eclipsed his anti-colonial feelings. So much so that at the time of Quit India, when most nationalists were eking out a sorry existence as jailbirds, Savarkar found himself a free man. The Mahasabha stayed aloof from the independence struggle. He was, ironically, arrested after independence, when the RSS alumnus Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi ostensibly with his blessing. Savarkar was let go for want of evidence, though kept under surveillance and effectively under house arrest in Shivaji Park, the Bombay neighborhood where he lived until his death in 1966.

Bakhle dispenses with his CV in a few quick pages, before homing in on his poems and povadas (didactic Marathi ballads). This is a literary study, not a biography. It’s a pity that it only covers his writings until 1937. Bakhle might have done well to serve up a full life to counter the recent spate of appalling hagiographies, including Vikram Sampath’s. Her prose is crystal clear, if a touch fogeyish. Dipping into the vocabulary of a Victorian ethnographer, she writes, for instance, that to many people nowadays, Hindutvavadi is a ‘contumelious insult.’

The most fascinating aspect of Bakhle’s book is her reconstruction of Savarkar’s caste politics. Basing her account on his Marathi writings, she concludes that he has been poorly understood outside his native Maharashtra. Few in the Hindi belt are aware of Savarkar’s ‘progressive’ side. Not only did he rail against scripturalism and vegetarianism, he also defended intercaste marriages long before Gandhi came around to the idea. He likewise enjoyed taking digs at cow worshippers, who “filled their cupped palms with cow urine and sprinkled it all over a temple but if Ambedkar were to give them Ganga water, they believe they have been polluted.”

Progressive on caste, reactionary on religion: there was an internal consistency to it. The objective was to unite Hindus against Muslims. Low-caste Mahars ought to be allowed to draw water from public wells, he argued, since the real untouchables were Muslims. Still, Savarkar’s radical side should not be ignored.

“The great majority of the Brahmins are those who doggedly deny the horrors of the system in the teeth of such a mass of evidence; who, when they speak of freedom, mean the freedom to oppress the untouchables.” Who said this, Ambedkar or Savarkar? Before I read Bakhle’s book, I confess I’d got this wrong.

The writer is a historian at the University of Oxford and author of Another India