Kannan Srinivasan


Given that Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament is ritually garlanded, that Prime Minister Modi and the entire Sangh Parivar hold him in such reverence, clearly he is of great relevance today. I discuss Savarkar’s decision to turn from nationalist patriot terrorist to anti Muslim; his pathological focus on Muslims as the outsiders inside, who were foreign to India and must therefore be driven out or even as his hero Hitler had to the Jews, exterminated; the question of whether this could be called fascism. I conclude by seeing in Hindutva representation in the Congress Party.


Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1926) was at one time a secular revolutionary terrorist[1]. He was incarcerated in 1910 in the Andamans Cellular Jail for his part in a terrorist conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of AT Jackson, ICS, Collector of Nasik, in December 1909. But there he found himself unable to undertake the great rigours of his imprisonment, unlike many other nationalists.


This prompted his decision that he had been wrong all along: the true enemy of India was not the British but the Muslims. He now avowed concern about the entry of Turkey into the War, and claimed to fear an invasion by Afghanistan.


“The siding of Turkey with Germany as against England, roused all my suspicions about Pan-Islamism and I scented in that move a future danger to India. I…feared that in this grim struggle between two mighty powers the Muslims in India might find their devil’s opportunity to invite the Muslim hordes from the North to ravage India and to conquer it”


Accordingly, he wrote a series of mercy petitions, proclaiming he had renounced his former nationalism and desired only to serve the British Empire (or Aryan Empire as he sometimes termed it).


As a cooperative and trusted prisoner, he won increasing privileges of which he boasted much in his book on the Andamans, Mazhi Janmathep. Most importantly for him, he persuaded the prison management to appoint him to run the key operations of the prison and subordinate the Muslims to him, thus creating ‘Hindu rule’.


“CHAPTER X Miniature Hindu Raj. When I stepped into the Andamans there was in it, in prison and outside, what one may rightly call, Pathan Raj. Dressed in brief authority, the Pathan dominated the scene. It was overthrown, as I have described in this story, by the time that my stay in the prison had come nearly to an end. The Pathan Raj was gone and Hindu Raj had taken its place…The capital of that Raj was the oil-depot of the prison and as I have already mentioned before, I was its foreman and therefore the monarch of that Raj…The oil-depot being the main source of income for the Silver Jail, the man in charge of it was a person of great importance… every one connected with the oil-depot from top to bottom was a Mussalman, and mostly a Pathan…The wiliest, the intensely selfish, the most cunning and the most wicked person in the prison was often chosen for the job. During my seven to eight years of prison-life, an array of such men had adorned the seat. Now, in my ninth year, the seat had come to me. All the Mussulman tindals, petty officers and warders who had still remained in that jail, were full of fear that I was appointed to that office. The demi-god presiding over the oil-depot could only be propitiated by offerings in gold and silver. If the prisoner desired not to be ground down in the oil-mill of that place, they had perforce to propitiate its deity…Every single tindal began to approach me from now onwards with bated breath and in whispering humbleness (Mazhi Janmathep English translation My Imprisonment for Life pp 494-5, 1949).”


Now the warders and supposedly favoured Muslim prisoners in that remote jail may indeed have been oppressors (but this anti Muslim perception is not shared by most other political and terrorist prisoners) but they were also themselves poor men facing conditions of hardship. This triumph over them may seem a strange achievement to record. It is stranger still that it has been so widely commended, for this is legend even for many on the Left, and in Maharashtra in particular.


To put it in context: Savarkar had once, as leader of the Abhinav Bharat Society, led a terrorist conspiracy. At that time he had a grand world-view, visualising Indian independence in the context of anarchist struggles and of the Risorgimento. Now all this is reduced to tyranny over a Pathan watchman at an oil-mill in Port Blair!


We see the same world-view in his subsequent career, for he now saw mastery over Muslims in India as the single important political question, one that justified perpetuating British rule and even postponing Independence.


He was released from the Andamans to imprisonment in Ratnagiri on the west coast of Bombay Presidency in 1921. There he wrote his Essentials of Hindutva in 1922. He was released in January 1924 to confinement to a bungalow in Ratnagiri provided by the British, who also gave him a pension which he kept petitioning should be increased. Savarkar’s pension was periodically reviewed as is evident in this letter from the Collector of Ratnagiri to the Home Department, Bombay:


On 3rd January 1933, I personally informed Savarkar that his conditions would continue…He considered that the Rs. 60/- allowance was insufficient since he could be earning at least Rs. 600/- per month, but he looked forward to taking up Government Service when his conditions would be withdrawn as that fact would be proof in itself that Government had gained faith having tried him in the fire….. (Home Special 800 (74) (21) 1932-4,Weekly Confidential – Ratnagiri District – 18th January).”


He was allowed to freely receive visitors. The British also permitted him to direct anti-Muslim agitations locally and in other parts of India too.


In 1926 a glowing biography praising his fearlessness, Life of Barrister Savarkar was written by “Chitragupta,” who later turned out to be Savarkar himself; it is in this book he may first have awarded himself the title Veer, the brave. His new view was that the Muslims were the essential outsider to India, and that there should be in fact active collaboration with British rule, came to have increasing influence over the Hindu Mahasabha. He was visited in his bungalow in 1925 by KB Hedgewar, who had read his Essentials of Hindutva (Nagpur, 1923) and saw it as a guiding lamp to his work in the Mahasabha. Their long discussions laid out the design for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), set up the following year.


Gandhi and other Congress leaders had, from the very outset, campaigned for his release first from imprisonment, and then from confinement. Released from detention by the provincial Congress Government when it came to office in 1937 perhaps under the erroneous impression that he was still the secular hero of three decades earlier (KF Nariman hailing him as such in at a public meeting), he immediately took charge of the Hindu Mahasabha, which he led officially from 1937 to 1942, having anyway so significantly influenced it even from his confinement in Ratnagiri.


He really remade the Mahasabha (which though founded in 1909, was led by Brahmin conservatives exemplified by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya who really saw it as an Hindu lobby).


But under Savarkar it set out a programme to arm Hindus against Muslims by recruiting them to the Indian army, promoting military education, influencing the administration of the princely states including their armies and gaining access to weaponry from their armies to eventually conduct the pogroms of partition.


Savarkar involved himself now especially with what he claimed was the most ancient subordination of India, namely its invasion and subsequent rule by Muslim sovereigns.


This demanded the abandoning of unmanly attributes and a return to ancient warrior virtues celebrated in the Vedas. UnVedically, it also involved the vast project of creating an unified Hindu nationality: to fight the Muslims, he needed an Hindu Ummah. The Muslim presence in India was the perpetual enemy within, the outsider inside.


The issue was no longer that ritual purity might be defiled by women at a time of ‘uncleanness’ or by the lower castes as in traditional Hinduism. Rather the concern was with outsiders concealed within who might betray the community of Hindus.


This idea of the Muslim as essentially foreign to India was immediately adopted by the Mahasabha: his colleague B.S. Moonje was to describe the so-called Muslim threat from the North as being that


“[It is] on this sector [the middle sector of the N.W. Frontier, KS] that whatever skill and manliness which we may possess have to be concentrated…Here lie… the famous passes…which have provided safe passages to enemy forces in invading India throughout its long history (Moonje Memorandum on Hindu Military Academy, p. 45, from the Parthasarathi Gupta papers collected from the National Archives of India, New Delhi; hereafter Moonje Memorandum).”


Moonje echoed Savarkar in seeing the basis of Hindu weakness in the caste system. Accordingly, the solution was to attack the caste system in order to build a larger Hindu community to fight Islam:


Hindus generally…are known throughout the world, as meek, mild and docile people who, in their conception of spirituality and refinement, would prefer, if the Afghans were to invade India, to conquer them by love


Moonje cited a Rao Bahadur C.V. Vaidya in support of this argument to claim that


“The result of the Caste System is that, in India, about 10% of the population is fit and disposed to fight; while the remaining 90% by nature and heredity, is…therefore, ready to accept the rule of any Nation (Moonje Memorandum, pp. 50, 54).”


The anti-caste movement directed to this Hindu Ummah project was to become a part of the Mahasabha agenda. On 9th April 1932, whilst interned at Ratnagiri, Savarkar spoke at a Mahar meeting of the Patit Pawan Mandir:


the image of Patit Pawan which is standing before you will not be polluted if you touch it…Your brethren are trying to enter the Temple at Nasik, and there they are getting lathi blows…Have a manly spirit. A boy of your caste will now recite the Gaitri Mantras in Sanscrit…(Weekly Confidential Ratnagiri 17 April 1932 Home Special 800 (74) (21) 1932–4).”


Yet his concern with Muslims concealed within who might betray the Hindu community sometimes seemed even obsessive. Some pathology seems evident in the curious witch-hunt instigated by Savarkar when he wrote to Indra Prakash, the Secretary, on 9 October 1940 that


‘It is reported from several reliable quarters that Moslems are still allowed to enter and even stay on the Mahasabha ground. .. The unchecked presence of Moslems is bound to be standing menace…I had again issued instructions months ago to you as the Hon. Secretary in charge of the Delhi Hindu Mahasabha Head Office that no Moslem should be allowed on the Hindu Mahasabha grounds…But in spite of that the Moslems are allowed to enter the precincts. – You should immediately stop the practice and cease to tolerate it under any excuse whatsoever. Life property and even the sanctity of the Hindu Mahasabha grounds stand in hourly danger if this practice is allowed to continue’.


To this the reply was prompt, on 12 October:


It is a great lie that Muslims are still allowed to enter or even stay in the Hindu Mahasabha Bhavan…I am very sorry that Mr. Padam Raj Jain who thinks himself a respectable man should be instrumental in instigating such lies and worry you for nothing….I also add for your information that even one Muslim teacher who was on the staff of the School has been turned out by the School Board. Another Christian has also left the School’.


Was this movement fascist or merely communal, and authoritarian?


Some question arises as to whether the Hindu Mahasabha and its associated and successor organizations should be characterised as fascist. For instance, the distinguished scholar, Professor Achin Vanaik argues (, extracted from his book The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism, Verso May 2017) that what we see in India is neither fascism, nor a move towards it:


the paradigm of fascism fails to perform well in this task. ……..For a Marxist to believe that the forces of Hindu communalism embody the threat of an Indian fascism is to give the struggle to prevent it from coming to central state power an exceptional gravitas. ….Clearly, a major difference of political perspective emerges from the two contesting (fascist and non-fascist) paradigms. One will more greatly emphasize the drastic curtailment or elimination of any democratic space for opposition once “fascism” comes to power….The logic of such a perspective should be to align the widest possible spectrum of “anti-fascist” forces. … An alternative view might see the forces of Hindu communalism as viciously authoritarian and capable of launching anti-Muslim pogroms, fomenting civil strife …. — though as non-fascist…. Such a view would ….. be more inclined to emphasize the significant domestic and international constraints preventing any rapid elimination of all democratic space for open and mass forms of resistance. ……. the use ….. of the label “fascist”…. It would imply “extreme” outcomes if political Hindutva were to continue rising….


So what is true fascism? Here as Gilbert Allardyce has demonstrated, virtually none save Italian fascism will meet that test. This is because as Paul Arpaia in his forthcoming book (Converging and Diverging Parallels: The Case of the Gerarca Luigi Federzoni (1878-1967)) argues, fascism is a response to the threat of democracy; but not a coherent philosophy. He has usefully drawn on Gioacchino Volpe’s concept of “vario nazionalismo,” to argue that


Fascism, like the nation, was (and is) a contested term in which proponents, opponents, and sympathizers asserted their own conceptions of what they thought real Fascism was (and is) and how they and others should act Fascistly. At any given time or place, “various Fascisms” existed, and still do today. …. And, here I would like to acknowledge my debt to Ian Kershaw who argues that Nazism was shaped by both the Nazi leadership and ordinary Germans who thought of themselves as “working toward the Führer”.


Obedience to a ruler or a class seemed natural in the pre-modern world. Science, revolution and modern industrial production have destroyed such myths, and introduced this challenge. No longer can any hierarchy be claimed natural. Yet the disenfranchised, Arpaia points out, threatened to shape the state and society in their own multiplicity of images, so long suppressed, and these might conflict with those liberals have thought natural, progressive, civilized.  So in accepting the principle of equality liberalism qualifies it with the new myth of deferred equality, that certain peoples must be tutored for democracy, extended to the Empire and colonies, and today to states from Afghanistan to Syria, occupied, or soon to be invaded. But fascism faces this challenge by celebrating the community and directing that profound emotional energy that belonged to religion to the communal identity; best expressed in our times by the modern state, and by a totalitarian state; Emilio Gentile has discussed this sacralisation in Italy. So the new hierarchy this communal identity demanded was not one of feudal obligation, nor of wealth; rather an hierarchy of peoples and states across the globe, some to be subordinated. This is a new internationalism of perpetual threat and opportunity. This ceaseless agitation, the prospect of each fresh betrayal, provides the secular drama of fascism, as vivid as stories of God and the Devil. Those who inhabit the same geographical and cultural territory but possess a distinct identity, what I have termed outsiders inside ( A Subaltern Fascism? in Banaji, J (ed) Fascism in Europe and India Three Essays Collective, second edition 2016), must be agents of the enemy without and their purging becomes therefore the most pressing concern. I adopt Arpaia’s argument to suggest that in subject peoples there were two distinct and historically sequential responses. First, to the challenge of Western power and the modern world, there was an historical re-imagining of the past and by virtue of that of current religion, for instance in Hinduism and Islam. But secondly for subject peoples from Egypt to China this compelled them to face up to the challenge of democracy in the mass mobilization against colonial rule; democracy, not simply modernization, or the West.


It is in this light that the Hindu Mahasabha must be seen in the era of mass politics. Threatened by the prospect of mass Muslim enfranchisement and therefore political power exercised through state institutions as in the Punjab and Bengal and increasing cultural presence in an India struggling for freedom, it recoiled and embarked on a singular path to ensure that the great evil as it saw it of democracy did not result in the outcome of Muslim self assertion, that being seen as the greatest threat of franchise. This anti democratic strategy led it naturally to explore both collaboration with the Raj and the emulation of the European fascists, to adopt that model to India.


At first it seems curious that an aspirational fascist party such as the Mahasabha should have been willing to cede the monopoly of force to an overseas imperial power rather than challenge the colonial power of occupation. But this is because it set out to court the prevailing coercive power in order to ensure an authoritarian succession. Without even control of the State, the Mahasabha’s identified path to power was built as I have tried to show on the expectation of power-sharing in a junior capacity with the goal being a reward for its service as a subordinate ally.


Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha’s strong endorsement of Fascism and the Mahasabha trip to meet Mussolini was not discouraged by the British, who at the very same time suppressed anti-Nazi propaganda by left and liberal organizations well into 1941. Despite its earlier praise for Mussolini and Hitler the Mahasabha hailed the proclamation of the new state of Israel in 1948 on what might seem the same logic! and promised it support.


He had already propounded in 1938 soon before Kristallnacht on November 9th and 10th that what Hitler was then doing to the Jews had its justification simply in the fact that they were not part of the German nation, seeing there an analogy to the position of the Muslims in India.



He elaborated on this the following year at Poona in his lecture to some 400 students at the Law College on 31 July, well after the Declaration of War against Germany:



The Mahasabha was a flop in the 1937 elections, and Savarkar’s frequent wartime visits to the Viceroy and his abject behaviour there provoked much amusement. The Mahasabha under every fresh avatar did miserably in several elections after Independence.


But that is not a true measure of Hindutva’s success.


Many key Congressmen were in some sense Hindutva collaborators, such as UP CM, later Home Minister, Pandit Vallabh Gobind Pant. Witness his behaviour and that of his Party towards Muslim members beginning with the first United Provinces Assembly in 1937. Then, in 1947, UP Home Secretary Rajeshwar Dayal ICS went to Pant, to reveal the detailed evidence of a plot organized by the RSS, to undertake a massive pogrom of Muslims; Pant tipped them off so they fled. It is under Pant that the Ram idol mysteriously appeared to validate the Hindu claim to Babri Masjid.


KM Munshi’s behavior in Hyderabad as Agent General is well-known. So was his Somnath reconstruction project, which was opposed by the Archaeological Survey of India, because it involved destruction of the ruined temple.


The Congressman NB Khare organized the massive anti-Meo programme in Alwar and Bharatpur, which gained tacit approval from Home Minister Patel who appointed him Prime Minister of both States. Patel’s own behaviour in dealing with Hyderabad and his suppression of the Pandit Sunderlal Committee Report has also been well documented. Congressmen such as Purshottam Das Tandon and Rajendra Prasad acted throughout in the Hindutva interest.


So Congress played the critical role in keeping Hindutva alive, till the gradual rise of BJP post Emergency, and its participation in the government.


This certainly enabled the rise of Narendra Modi, and the situation we are in today.


But that is not a measure of Hindutva success Many key Congressmen were in some sense Hindutva or sympathetic such as Pant, witness his behaviour in 37 Assembly 47 Dayal recorded plot, Ram idol appearance, KM Munshi in Hyderabad, on bloodbath, Somnath, Khare who went to Alwar-Bharatpur, Patel’s own behaviour dealing with Hyderabad and Pandit Sunderlal and Alwar-Bharatpur, Purshottam Das Tandon, Rajendra Prasad.

[1]His book on 1857 spoke approvingly of jihad against the British in the context of Hindu-Muslim unity. It was published in the Netherlands in 1909, and he had said of the deposition of Wajid Ali Shah: “The world-wide difference between Swarajya and foreign rule was, thus, brought painfully to the notice of all Oudh (p 50).” He speaks of the common plight of all Indians that “there is no wonder that, seeing that there was no protection for their religions, the Hindus and Moslems alike were pained and grieved (p54).” Now it might well be said that Savarkar’s admiring description for instance of the Rohilla Pathans as being “…a population of brave, strong, and spirited Mussulmans” is evidence of a certain caricature of a community, and that would be correct. But when for instance he says that “the sight of Hindus and Mahomedans fighting side by side for Hindusthan, realizing their true interests and natural comradeship, was truly magnificent and inspiring” we should I suggest acknowledge that this reflected the secular nationalism of the pre War period; as did his ending his book with Bahadur Shah Zafar’s couplet “Ghazion men bu rahegi jabtalak iman ki/ Tabto London tak chalegi teg Hindustan ki”, as well as “Vande Mataram”.

Copies were concealed and brought to India (along with revolvers evidently for acts of nationalist terror) by an Indian student of aristocratic background, by among other patriotic Indians, Sikandar Hyat Khan, who was ultimately to enlist as an officer in the Indian Army, was decorated, and became a successful businessman. As the head of the Unionist Party in Punjab, a secular party of wealthy Muslims and Hindus, he became Chief Minister and was knighted, opposed the Muslim League but died suddenly during the Second War. His grandson in the British independent Left writer and publisher Tariq Ali.



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