Savarkar and Modi, beginning and end of Hindutva

Savarkar and Modi, beginning and end of Hindutva

Hate mongers

Hate mongers often need concocted stories to buttress their political message. In India, these are most common in that peculiar Indian form of hatred: anti-Brahminism. As the local counterpart to what anti-Semitism has been in the West, it fantasizes about how Brahmins have only domination over us lesser mortals as their uppermost concern. Everything a Brahmin does, just has to be a wily stratagem to manipulate others. With their greater book-orientedness and heavy overrepresentation in the writing professions, they control public discourse and make others look at the world through Brahminical glasses. No matter how you try to gain autonomy, they manage to outwit you, even to the point of taking control over progressive movements, even over anti-Brahminism.

Against such a formidable enemy, any means are justified. That may well be the reason why Abheek Barman chose to write the misleading opinion piece: “Why did PM Modi skip mentioning Savarkar at the Mathura rally?” (Economic Times, 27 May 2015). Alternatively, given the preponderance of borrowed, deformed and simply mistaken historical ideas in the anti-Brahmin movement, he may simply have been misinformed.

For starters, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar did not found “the ‘parivar’, that he started and which now holds the reins of power in New Delhi”. He was president of the rivalling Hindu Mahasabha in 1937-43, though not its founder: when it was created (1915 or 1922, depending on the definition), as also in 1925 when the RSS as backbone of the Parivar (family) was founded, he was in jail and barred from participating in politics. He did, however, launch the concept Hindutva as a political category common to several Hindu Nationalist organizations, and indeed adopted as central to the RSS worldview.

Much is made also of Savarkar’s plea to the British for a lenient treatment, and his pledge of loyalty, after he had been confined to the Andaman Penal Colony. Anti-Hindus let on their secret fear of Savarkar as a Hindu leader when they assert that he should have locked himself up in stern but sterile opposition, merely being heroic and dying – the very policy that the Rajputs pursued, ultimately to the detriment of the Hindu cause. The truth is that Savarkar was too intelligent for that. He played his cards well and managed to actively serve the Hindu cause once again after his early release. It is this strategic acumen that Nehruvians like Barman cannot forgive him for.

It must be admitted, though, that the anti-Hindu camp is very savvy in its use of arguments developed by anyone, as long as they are useful for the anti-Hindu cause. Seeing that Savarkar was being lionized by the Hindus, someone at the Communist fortnightly Frontline decided to belittle Savarkar as essentially a coward who had others do the killing that he planned, moreover a toady of the British. In reality, the British gave Savarkar two life sentences and many years of actual imprisonment for his proven anti-British opposition, much harsher than anything that the luxury inmates Gandhi and Nehru have had to endure, let alone the caviar Communists at Frontline.

golwalkarThe Communists’ attempts to cut him to size only draw attention to the fact that they aren’t qualified to touch his feet. Yet, ill-conceived as this anti-Savarkar mudslinging was, it has been taken over by all anti-Hindu spokesmen and is now being used to maximum effect. This contrasts with Hindutva behavior: when any new pro-Hindu argument is launched, the Hindu Nationalist movement will ignore it and fall back on the same worn-out outpourings of long-dead stalwarts like Guru Golwalkar, blind to the proven impotence of this outdated rhetoric.


Then, we see Mahatma Gandhi for the umpteenth time called the “Father of the Nation”. Though quite vain (as when he condoned the crowd demanding that MA Jinnah address him as “Mahatma” rather than “Mister”), Gandhi himself would have rejected this epithet. It stems from the new-fangled Nehruvian notion that India is a “nation in the making” conceived by the political unification under Queen Victoria, whereas Gandhi saw himself as a son of an age-old nation. This falsehood is a cornerstone of the Nehruvian rhetoric, but then nobody in his right mind had considered falsity and Nehruism incompatible.

Gandhi is also termed an “implacable opponent of the British, who won independence for India”. Though admittedly very common worldwide, this myth crumbles when you investigate it properly. His love of the British came out several times in successive wars when he organized military or humanitarian support for the British camp, or when he forced the apparent Congress candidate for the first Prime Ministership, Sardar Patel, to step down in favour of the anglicizer Jawaharlal Nehru. The confused and contradictory course he charted, actually caused serious setbacks to the freedom movement. Ultimately it was Britain’s weakening in World War 2 and India’s heightened self-confidence through its wartime record that convinced the British to withdraw. As the decolonizing British PM Clement Attlee later confided, Gandhi’s role had been “minimal”.


That Narendra Modi singled out Deendayal Upadhyaya, co-founder of the Jan Sangh, predecessor of the BJP, as “one of the three pillars of Indian politics”, together with Mahatma Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia, would be a fit topic for criticism, for it is indeed an ill-conceived choice. Lohia launched casteism in politics, a tendency here flatteringly referred to as opposition to “upper-caste domination over subalterns”. Gandhi’s policies of strict non-violence and economic primitivism, if followed, would have finished India long ago.

trinityUpadhyaya had the merit of coining the phrase “Integral Humanism”, which in a nutshell says everything Dharmic politics should be. It would still be a good thing if the BJP today would highlight “Integral Humanism” as its real ideological commitment, instead of weasel terms like “Nationalism”. Call it “Dharma” for Indians and people with a vivid Indian connection, “Integral Humanism” for foreign consumption or in English-language media.

Unfortunately, in his elaboration of this bright idea, Upadhyaya proved too attached to the RSS fixation on a “national soul” (ultimately stemming from European Romantic thinker Johann Herder), which took up all the space in his booklet with the promising title. People who knew him confided to me that he was an all too ordinary man, which corresponds to the verifiable mediocrity of his ideas. But these are trifles pertaining to the contents of his ideological work, unimportant next to the damning indictment that he was “a Brahmin” and “an early member of the RSS”. What much of ideology does consider, is sweeping and inaccurate (“hostile to the all ideas of individualism, capitalism, democracy and communism”), but we can put that down to the space constraints of a mere column.

Why not Savarkar?

Anyway, the crucial question for him is also crucial for us: “But why did Modi skip Savarkar, whose image in Parliament he paid homage to, soon after becoming PM? The RSS celebrates him as ‘Veer’ or ‘valiant’. From the 1920s, he was the main ideologue of the RSS that came into being on Vijaya Dashami, 1925. Savarkar wrote its basic text, ‘Hindutva’ in 1923.”

Indeed, though Savarkar was formally not one of them, his Hindutva ideology was all-important to the RSS and its daughter organizations, including the present ruling party. Why did Modi not even mention him? Has he been superseded by more recent Hindu ideologues, such as that other Jan Sangh president, Balraj Madhok, or by historian Sita Ram Goel, or by later converts to Hindu politics like Arun Shourie and Subramanian Swamy?

And it is not that Modi was shy about naming names. Mentioning Gandhi may have been in deference to the actual moral aura that the Mahatma still enjoys worldwide, and Upadhyaya may have been unavoidable for an RSS loyalist. But he lionized Lohia of all people, the stalwart of the divisive casteist poison that has so long paralyzed Indian politics. He actually preferred the socialist caste-monger Lohia to Savarkar, as well to all other unnamed Hindu leaders and thinkers.

Could the reason be that Modi partakes of the intellectual culture of the RSS: borrowing from Nehruvian sources, playing by the rules laid down by the enemy? But such considerations are outside the Nehruvian worldview, which catalogues anything done by any Hindutva hate figure as wily, fanatic, part of a tough secret plan motivated by Hindu interests. It just doesn’t occur to him that nominal Hindu Nationalists are really obedient playthings in his own side’s own hands. Not that they themselves fail to treat Hindus as enemies, but Hindus refuse to see this and treat them as their own standard, as their Guru. Even when securely in power, Hindu Nationalists still crawl before the secularist standard.

Savarkar’s sins

Anyway, Barman puts it down to a belated recognition of Savarkar’s own sins. The worst is of course that he was “a Chitpavan Brahmin”. At age 12 already, young Savarkar took a leadership role in a communal riot. That he was an accomplice in the assassination of a British official should count as relatively good (if not the means, at least the purpose) for an avowed admirer of “implacable” opposition to the British. Ah, but that admiration was only meant for Gandhi, the man responsible for many thousands of deaths during the Partition massacres, the man who let others do the killing (described as an act of cowardice in Savarkar’s case) all while keeping his own hands clean even to the point of becoming a byword for non-violence.


Barman also claims that Savarkar “wrote of the ‘unity’ of all Hindus, but his writing had no place for Muslims, Sikhs or other communities”. It is only a dogma of the Nehruvians, including the separatist section among the Sikhs, that Sikhism is a separate religion. From a scholarly viewpoint, of course Sikhs are Hindus: all Indian “unbelievers” were called just that by the Muslim invaders who introduced the very term “Hindu”. And at least Barman should know that from a Hindutva viewpoint, Sikhs are Hindus just as Buddhists, Tribals and other Indian religionists are. That precisely is what “the unity of all Hindus” means. Barman is a frog in the well who projects his own limited and ignorant Nehruvian worldview onto more mature views.

Then, Barman accuses Savarkar (and another Chitpavan Brahmin, prominent freedom fighter BG Tilak) of having espoused the Aryan Invasion Theory. This is the cornerstone of British rule in India, of missionary propaganda and of the anti-Brahmin agitation among Tribals, Dalits, Dravidians; indeed, of Barman’s own anti-Brahminism. And it is true that Savarkar was wrong in this regard, having been mesmerized by the then all-powerful belief that linguistics had somehow proven the Aryan invasion and thus overruled Hindu tradition, which knows of no Aryan invasion but only of several “Aryan” emigrations. But while Savarkar was wrong 90 years ago, under several constraints, the anti-Brahmin movement entertains the same mistake even today. Contrary to Barman’s claims, it was not exported from India to Europe but had been invented in Europe ca. 1820, after several decades of assuming that the newly-discovered Indo-European language family had originated in India.

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Let us face the fact here that Savarkar’s worldview was influenced by the then Zeitgeist (spirit of the times), which no longer obtains. Likewise, Mahatma Gandhi is badly outdated, as are Ram Manohar Lohia (though sinister disintegrationists including Barman try to keep his legacy alive) and Deendayal Upadhyaya. It was one of the worst traits of Hindu Nationalism that it refuses to grow and just keeps on hero-worshipping long-dead leaders without making their inspiration evolve with the times.

Savitri Devi

And then Barman gets really off track:

“Savarkar’s story has a sinister follow up. By the late 1920s, a European woman called Miximiani Portas travelled to India, where faced with deportation, she married Asit Krishna Mukherji, then the only Indian supporter of Nazism and Japanese expansionism across Asia. (…) Inherently racist, but with a mystical awe of ancient Hindu and Egyptian civilisations, Savitri gobbled up Savarkar’s bizarre Aryan theories. (…) ideas of Aryan racial supremacy, and the inherent ‘sub-humanity’ of other people, travelled via Savitri Devi to Adolf Hitler. She believed that Hitler was the divine power that would deliver this world from the Kali Yuga. Savitri Devi – and Savarkar – helped Hitler form his bizarre racial theories.”

Having devoted a few hundred pages to the sad case of Savitri Devi (chapters in The Saffron Swastika, 2001, and in Return of the Swastika, 2007), I will not fill up this limited space with the many reasons why Barman’s version is worse than imaginary.

The reader merely has to consider the chronology to see that his story is impossible. Adolf Hitler wrote his Mein Kampf, full of “Aryan racial supremacy and the inherent ‘sub-humanity’ of other people” in 1923, when Maximiani Portas was a young student and Savarkar a prisoner. Until then, Savarkar had only written a few books about Indian history, which didn’t interest Hitler, and about the anti-colonial struggle, which Hitler strongly opposed. So no, Savarkar did not influence Hitler and did not give him the very European idea of the Aryan race. (But at least, Mein Kampf and Savarkar’s Hindutva were written at the same time and both in captivity, a likeness about which astrologers and fantasy writers like Barman could certainly think up a good story.)

Maximiani Portas brought her Aryan theory with her into India, as she had learned it in Europe. She only took Indian ideas with her back to Europe when she could leave India at long last in 1945, too late for Hitler to learn anything from her. Incidentally, she had taken the name Savitri Devi shortly after settling in India, years before she married Mukherji. It is but one of the many mistakes of detail accumulated in Barman’s brief column. She did have a peculiar veneration for Hitler as well as for Genghis Khan and for Pharaoh Akhenaten, the founder of monotheism and iconoclasm (a tradition that has particularly victimized Hinduism through Islam). She prefigured the many Westerners who have travelled to India to brew their own combination of Hindu and Western ideas, and who often ended up getting sun-struck.

What Barman strategically omits, is that after the outbreak of World War 2, Savarkar immediately offered help in the anti-Nazi war effort and started recruiting for the British-Indian Army. Indeed, Gandhi would deride him as a “recruiting officer”, forgetting how he himself as a British loyalist had recruited Indian volunteers for the British war effort in the Boer War, the Zulu War and World War 1.

boseOf course, in Barman’s game, it is “heads Hindus lose, tails anti-Hindus win”: if Savarkar had sided with the Axis against the British (as the secular Leftist Subhas Bose did), he would have been denounced as a proven Nazi, and now that he worked for the opposing camp, he is denounced as a British toady. In reality, Savarkar had only India’s best interests at heart, which he thought were best served by enlisting in the British-Indian Army, just as Bose thought that enlisting in the Axis Armies was the best course to India’s independence. Barman with his puny divisive ideas would not understand, but Savarkar and Bose, for all their differences, were first of all patriots.


Why did Narendra Modi not enumerate Savarkar, as the coiner of the political category Hindutva, among his political role models, when he did include the whimsical Mahatma, the divisive Lohia, and the mere follower Upadhyaya? For a reason that doesn’t figure in Barman’s worldview: BJP secularism.

Whereas Nehruvians like to portray the RSS-BJP as a formidable enemy mercilessly pursuing the Hindu agenda, the fact is that most BJP stalwarts prefer to keep the Hindu agenda as far removed from their policies as possible. They serve their time in government and enjoy the perks of office, meanwhile hopefully cleaning up the economic mess that Congress has left behind, but never touching a serious Hindu concern with a barge-pole.

This even counts for the Prime Minister, whom Barman and his ilk have spent a dozen years demonizing as a Hindu fanatic. The Hindutva once espoused by the Jan Sangh (1952-77) should be updated, the old formulas should be allowed to evolve, of course. But most BJP stalwarts are not interested in any evolution of their ideology, the only evolution they can conceive of is betrayal. They have never developed an ideological backbone; instead, they have continuously borrowed conclusions from the Nehruvians and others who did their own thinking for non-Hindu purposes. They had the pickpocket mentality of getting things on the cheap, of being mentally lazy and borrowing their ideas from elsewhere.

That is why both BJP Prime Ministers thus far, Atal Behari Vajpayee and now Modi, have professed their secularism. No, not age-old Hindu “secularism” (in the sense of religious pluralism) but the anti-Hindu ideology that is falsely called “secularism”. They essentially live up to the standards set by their enemies because their movement has never seriously developed a perspective of its own.

Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst earned his Ph.D., from the Catholic University of Leuven based on his research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism. Author of more than a dozen books on Indian society and politics, he has worked in political journalism and as a foreign policy assistant in the Belgian Senate. He has also published about multiculturalism, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and language policy issues. In the ongoing Aryan homeland debate he has played a key role.