The father of Hindutva believed Aryans migrated to India

Shades of freedom.
Shades of freedom.
Image: AP Photo/Gautam Singh
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At Ratnagiri prison, Vinayak (Damodar Savarkar) decided to formulate an intellectual response to these very troubling socio-political realities of the times, postulating the fundamentals of Hindu identity and unification, despite the trying conditions of prison life and his failing health. Unlike his other works that were composed in Marathi, this book was in English. Evidently, the readership that he had in mind went beyond the Marathi speaking populace; it was aimed at the country at large. Given the obvious strictures that he was under, Vinayak wrote the book under the nom de plume “A Maratha.” It was smuggled out of prison and later published by Narayanrao.

Right from his childhood, Vinayak had bemoaned the lack of unity and organisation in Hindu society, ridden as it was with innumerable caste differences and other complexities. Finding an answer to “Who is a Hindu?” seemed germane to him at this point of time. From the confines of jail, he had been watching with alarm Gandhi taking the Hindu community for a ride during the Khilafat agitation. The relative increase in the Muslim population that the census had established, and the uncertain status of untouchables and tribal groups as Hindus for enumeration purposes made the definition of a Hindu all the more critical.

Yet again, Vinayak employed the agency of history as he had during his work on the 1857 War of Independence to create a sense of identity, pride and belonging. About the constant insinuations about the book being an ode of hatred, especially towards the Muslims, historian Janaki Bakhle opines:

Savarkar is widely reviled in Indian history as an apostle of hate; through a reading of Hindutva argue that he might better be understood as a spurned lover… Hindutva in its time was also a reminder to a Hindu community that even if Gandhi had left the political milieu, there was no need to worry. A political Hindu and a true nationalist was back and ready to lead India, even from behind prison walls. Hindutva was a pugilistic punch thrown against Gandhi in the competitive political ring for national leadership.

The concept of a Hindu identity had been an ongoing nationalistic project for long. Most often it was pushed to the forefront of politics during invasion, immigration or colonial occupation. Different groups throughout Indian history have—like several others across the world—tried to look to their past and to religious texts to locate a teleological narrative. Such a narrative produces a sense of identity that can be claimed, and also legitimised in the wake of external influences. Right from the ancient saints such as Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhwa, to the medieval Bhakti and Sufi poets, to modern reformers such as Dayanand Saraswati, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda, (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak, Aurobindo Ghose, and even Mahatma Gandhi—there has always been a call for revival of what was known as Indian values and cultural identity.

However, it was Vinayak who extended the word “Hindutva” beyond religious adherence to mean a term of ethnic nationalism. The short book that he produced proved to be highly influential, not only during the time he wrote it, but in contemporary Indian political discourse as well. Some found (and still find) the concepts elucidated as a much-needed reinforcement of Indian ideals and identity, while others criticised (and still do) it for fanning political separatism. Nonetheless, it remains an important document in the discussions around Indian identity, both as a cultural and political entity. Elucidating the importance of this book, Janaki Bakhle writes:

Hindutva is one of the few texts written by an Indian nationalist that links the present Hindu moment of Indian history to the pre-independence anticolonial period. Not even Gandhi’s own texts from the 1920s, much as they are read by academics, can claim such a time span of influence. However, Hindutva’s influence has not been without controversy. Five decades after it was written, it became the bible of militant and exclusionary Hindu nationalism, taking as its chief enemy the minority Muslim community of India. The book would also come to encapsulate and exemplify Savarkar’s entire oeuvre of writing and would dramatically influence the course of modern Indian history.

The book is lyrical, masterfully crafted and boasts passages of romantic literary flourish. But through it all, Vinayak manages to logically situate the term “Hindu.” Where did it come from? What did it mean? To whom? And when?

To arouse the interest of the English-educated Indian, he begins the book with a reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the famous phrase “What’s in a name?” The reference to the name (“Hindu” in this case) was to illustrate that unlike the Shakespearean logic, here, the name mattered a lot as he posited the first layer of Indian identity on it. It had different meanings for different people, no doubt, but throughout the text Vinayak deduced that the constant reiteration of this name through the history of the Indian people itself crystallised their first degree of identity. It also allowed him to lay out the first syllogism connecting the name (Hindu) with the country (Hindustan).

Janaki Bakhle mentions the strategies that Vinayak employed in the writing of the book:

…Four rhetorical strategies Savarkar employs: the politics of naming, the poetics of the list, the enchantment of territory, and the management and evocation of affect. Through these strategies he names into being a mythic Hindu community, identifies the magical territory it inhabits, and invokes through his enchantment of territory a militant affect of love. Savarkar uses a number of registers in Hindutva, from the theoretical and declamatory to the polemical, but the one he deploys most often is the poetic.

At the outset, Vinayak postulated that the essence of being a “Hindu”, defined by him as “Hindutva” or Hindu-ness, was completely different from the popular religious connotation of “Hinduism.” Incidentally, it is believed that Chandranath Basu first coined the term “Hindutva”—a neologism with Sanskrit etymology—in his 1892 Bengali work, Hindutva—Hindur Prakrita Itihas (Hindutva—An Authentic History). But it was undoubtedly Vinayak who popularised the term within a short span of time.

He postulated that “the ideas and ideals, the systems and societies, the thoughts and sentiments which have centred round this name [Hindutva] are so varied and rich, so powerful and so subtle, so elusive and yet so vivid” that it has taken centuries to mould it. Hindutva was not a word for Vinayak but an entire history of the land and its people. The related term—”Hinduism”—was “only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva.” Inability to understand this difference, he opined, had “given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of our Hindu civilisation.” Hindutva was an all-embracing philosophy, to understand which he delved deeper into the word “Hindu” itself and its captivating power over so many brave men for the longest period of human history. In his own words:

What is in a name? Ah! Call Ayodhya, Honolulu, or nickname her immortal Prince, a Pooh Bah, or ask the Americans to change Washington into a Chengiz Khan or persuade a Mohammedan to call himself a Jew, and you would soon find that the “open sesame” was not the only word of its type. To this category of names which have been to mankind a subtle source of life and inspiration belongs the word “Hindutva,” the essential nature of significance of which we have to investigate into . . . Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva. Unless it is made clear what is meant by the latter, the first remains unintelligible and vague. Failure to distinguish between these two terms has given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of our Hindu civilisation . . . Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism. By any “ism” it is generally meant a theory or a code more or less based on spiritual or religious dogma or system. But when we attempt to investigate the essential significance of Hindutva we do not primarily—and certainly not mainly—concern ourselves with any particular theocratic or religious dogma or creed… Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole being of our Hindu race.

Several issues of contemporary discourse, such as the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), racial bloodlines and foreign rule, find place in his work. He located factors that contributed to the ideological phantasm of a Hindu identity, legitimised those assertions with logical deductions (and sometimes hyperbolic) from history, and finally used this to create a common rallying point.

Vinayak appealed to a hoary Hindu past—one that was imagined and defined by a monolithic Hindu identity, linked geo-culturally to a mythical and ageless Hindu nation. This nation continued to exist beyond the vicissitudes of history and political change. He begins his historical narrative at the very “beginning”, which according to him is when the first Aryans “settled down” in different parts on the banks of the Indus river, or Sindhu.

It must be mentioned that contentious debates are still under way on the subject of the AIT. According to this theory, nomadic tribes migrated from Central Asia around 1500 BC to the subcontinent, absorbing the advanced, dark-skinned Dravidian inhabitants and giving birth to an Indus or Vedic culture. Many scholars have refuted the theory, both through scientific and genetic studies, as well as scriptural studies of the earliest treatise of mankind, the Rig Veda, that was composed during this period.

However, Vinayak mildly settles for the AIT and seems to indicate that the Aryans came from Persia and thereabouts. He inferred that upon coming to this land they felt a deep sense of oneness and belonging to the river that sustained them. They began to call this land Sapta Sindhu or the land watered by seven rivers and presided over by the Sindhu, or Indus.

Excerpted from Vikram Sampath’s Savarkar with the permission from Penguin Random House India.

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