Mihir Dalal

To understand Narendra Modi’s India, it is instructive to grasp the ideas of the Hindu Right’s greatest ideologue, the world of British colonial India in which they emerged, and the historical feebleness of the present regime.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was a polymath who read law in London, enjoyed Shakespeare, admired the Bible, wrote important historical works, and became an accomplished poet and playwright. His lifelong obsession was politics.

Savarkar took up political activity in his teens and became a cherished anti-British revolutionary. While serving a long prison sentence for inciting violence against the British, he transformed into a Hindu supremacist bent on dominating Indian Muslims. His pamphlet Essentials of Hindutva (1923), written secretively in jail, remains the most influential work of Hindu nationalism. In this and subsequent works, he called for Hindus, hopelessly divided by caste, to come together as one homogeneous community and reclaim their ancient homeland from those he considered outsiders, primarily the Muslims. Savarkar advocated violence against Muslims as the principal means to bind antagonistic lower and upper castes, writing:

Nothing makes Self conscious of itself so much as a conflict with non-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.

Savarkar has proven prescient if not prescriptive. Over the past four decades, the Hindu Right’s violence against Muslims has indeed helped Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cement a degree of Hindu political unity long considered unattainable.

Some of Savarkar’s views on Hindus and their religion embarrass the Right. An agnostic, Savarkar declared that Hindutva – his construction of Hindu nationalism – was bigger than Hinduism, the actual religion of the Hindus. Later in life, he railed against Hindus and urged them to become more like Muslims (or his perception of them). Writing about Muslims in the medieval period allegedly raping and converting Hindu women any chance they got, Savarkar characterised it as ‘an effective method of increasing the Muslim population’ unlike the ‘suicidal Hindu idea of chivalry’ of treating the enemy’s women with respect. He wrote disparagingly about cow worship and other Hindu practices, and refused to discharge the funeral rites for his devout Hindu wife. Although Savarkar’s Hindutva helped inspire the launch of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a century ago, he was disdainful of its decision to avoid direct political participation. ‘The epitaph for the RSS volunteer will be that he was born, he joined the RSS and he died without accomplishing anything,’ he reportedly said.

Until Modi became prime minister in 2014, Savarkar was known to few Indians, and those few knew him as a minor freedom-fighter. Since then, the BJP-RSS have placed Savarkar at the centre of their efforts to rewrite Indian history from a Hindu supremacist perspective. Today’s BJP positions Savarkar as a nationalist icon on a par with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, if not greater. If Savarkar’s ‘repeated warnings against the Congress’s appeasement politics’ had been heeded, India could have avoided Partition, the separation of Pakistan from India, writes Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief.

In fact, this invocation of Savarkar disguises a much more complicated history that the Right is desperate to suppress.

Savarkar was born in 1883 to a Brahmin family near Nashik, a city in western India. In the first part of Vikram Sampath’s extensive, hagiographical biography of 2019, Savarkar is presented as a child prodigy who loved reading and lapped up Hindu epics, books, newspapers and political journals in Marathi – his mother tongue – and English. A newspaper ran one of his Marathi poems when he was 12; another published an article of his on Hindu culture.

The second of four siblings, Savarkar lost his mother to cholera when he was nine, and his father to the plague seven years later. Still in his teens, he formed a secret society of young revolutionaries against the British. According to Sampath, he found the constitutional methods of the Indian National Congress – an organisation gently pushing local interests – unappealing, and instead drew inspiration from the few revolutionaries who assassinated British officials. Savarkar would give speeches on historic nationalist movements to his secret society and extol the 19th-century European nationalist revolutionaries Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, who exercised considerable influence on his thought. After his marriage to a Brahmin girl was arranged by his uncle, Savarkar enrolled in college in 1902 for a major in the arts. He studied widely, reading Sanskrit and Greek classics, English poetry, international history and biographies of revolutionaries.

After graduation, Savarkar moved to London to read law but also to continue his political activity in the enemy’s bastion. He stayed at a boarding house for Indian students, where he met many co-conspirators, not a few of whom he helped to radicalise. Abhinav Bharat, Savarkar’s secret organisation, would smuggle arms and bomb-manuals to India; in 1909, the group assassinated William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, an aide to the Secretary of State for India, in London. Savarkar had already worried the British enough that, by the time he arrived in London in 1906, they had put him under surveillance. In 1910, he was arrested and deported to India to be tried. By this time, India had endured British colonial rule for more than a century. Colonial narratives greatly influenced the worldviews of Savarkar and other Indian nationalists.

How could a vast nation like India be conquered by a distant island a fraction of its size and population?

Over a 70-year period starting in the 1750s, the British East India Company defeated both European and local rivals and turned the Mughal dynasty that had ruled India for more than 200 years into its puppet. Britain’s barbaric traders carried out their conquest through loot and rapacity, while its scribes, missionaries and historians provided the moral justifications by portraying India as a degenerate civilisation that British rule might redeem. Some European thinkers, Orientalists and Romantics valorised ancient Hindu India as the cradle of civilisation, but they too lamented its decay.

Under British colonialism, elite Hindus often accepted the British narratives for colonial rule. They were especially tortured by the question: how could a vast nation like India be conquered by a distant island a fraction of its size and population? Such musings about Indian or Hindu history furthered the development of Indian nationalism. By assuming that a ‘national’ Hindu-Indian identity had existed since time immemorial (it hadn’t), elite Hindus felt driven to recover their Hindu-Indian identity in the present. In fact, until British rule, people in the subcontinent hadn’t seen themselves as Hindu (or Muslim) in the modern sense. They balanced various identities, including those of place, caste and family lineage; religion merely provided one among several, as the political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj and others have written. However, in the 19th century, some upper-caste Hindus, awed by the power of Britain’s military and industrial superiority, launched vigorous movements to ‘purify’ their religion and make it more like Christianity. They moved to cast off what they saw as the appendages dragging down Hinduism – the inegalitarian caste system, the large diversity of gods, sects and practices – believing this reformation would make India great again.

British historical narratives portrayed Hindu-Muslim enmity as a fundamental, self-evident feature of Indian history. In reality, religious pluralism and toleration – not fanatical religious hatred – had been the norm among people of various religions in South Asia. In The Loss of Hindustan (2020), the historian Manan Asif Ahmed writes that, before British rule, many elite Hindus and Muslims had thought of Hindustan as a homeland not only of the Hindus, but of the ‘diverse communities of believers’ including Muslims and Christians. British colonialism constructed a different narrative, one in which Hindus had been subjugated in their home for 1,000 years by Muslim invaders. This distorted the South Asian experience of Hindustan into claims of immutable enmity between Hindus and Muslims.

The British census aggregated Hindus and Muslims across India into homogeneous groups and facilitated the creation of solidarity – and belligerence – among them. Towards the end of the 19th century, colonial influences combined with what the historian Christopher Bayly in 1998 called ‘old patriotisms’ to contribute to the invention of a pan-Indian Hindu nationality, and a more inchoate Muslim nationality.

Working in this legacy, Savarkar made his first lasting contribution to Indian politics in 1909, with the publication of a historical work, The Indian War of Independence of 1857. In 1857, large numbers of Indian soldiers and gentry in northern and western India had risen under the banner of the fading Mughal dynasty in the largest armed uprising against the British Empire by a ruled people. British historians had played down this war as a ‘sepoy mutiny’, restricted to disgruntled soldiers rather than a polity – a view Savarkar set out to correct. In Hindutva and Violence (2021), an authoritative work on Savarkar, the historian Vinayak Chaturvedi shows that Savarkar was a master at reclaiming Indian history from the British by reading colonial records and works of scholarship ‘against the grain’. Drawing inspiration from the French and American revolutions as well as the ultranationalism of Mazzini, Savarkar reconstructed 1857 as the ‘first war’ for Indian independence. To this day, 1857 is understood as such in India. His passionate, romantic account glorified Indian war heroes with the intent of inspiring a revolution against the British.

In the book, Savarkar introduced the central motif in his historical works: violence as mystical unifier. He held that Hindus and Muslims had become united for the first time ever during the war through the means of violence. The literal ‘shedding of [British] blood’ together had forged the Hindu-Muslim bond, as the political theorist Shruti Kapila characterises Savarkar’s idea in Violent Fraternity (2021). Savarkar’s conception of Hindu-Muslim history had been partly shaped by the long tradition of religiopolitical enmity against the Mughals in his homeland of Maharashtra, as the historian Prachi Deshpande shows in Creative Pasts (2007). But Savarkar, always the innovative thinker, borrowed only what suited his purposes. He wrote that, since Hindu kings had avenged centuries of Muslim oppression by defeating the Mughals in the 18th century, the ‘blot of slavery’ had been ‘wiped off’. Having re-established their ‘sovereignty’ at home, they could now fraternise with Muslims. And finally, such was the power of the violence in 1857 that India now became ‘the united nation of the adherents of Islam as well as Hinduism’. Indian War and its author were admired across the political spectrum.

The book was the high point of Savarkar’s youth. Soon he lost his infant son to smallpox, and his elder brother was arrested for treason. In 1910, Savarkar himself was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Andamans, a brutal penal colony in the Bay of Bengal. He had become notorious on account of the violent activities of his secret society. But more than this, it was his ‘seditious’ writings with their potential to sow widespread disaffection that had threatened the British, the historian Janaki Bakhle wrote in 2010.

Prison broke Savarkar. In his autobiography, Savarkar writes about frequently suffering from dysentery, lung disease and malaria. He was put in solitary confinement for months, and for eight years was denied permission to see his wife. The Irish jailor was sadistic, and Muslim warders were cruel to Hindus. Nearly driven to suicide, he filed mercy petitions, abjured revolution, and promised to serve the empire (the issue most debated about Savarkar today). The petitions were rejected but in the early 1920s Savarkar was moved to a less harsh prison in western India.

By then, Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian National Congress had revolutionised Indian politics. His religiosity and asceticism attracted the masses to the independence movement, which had been limited to a tiny section of educated Indians. But, unusually, Gandhi emphasised nonviolence, ethical conduct, social reform and Hindu-Muslim unity as much as political independence. He also often upset fellow nationalists. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, some Indian Muslims launched a movement to compel the British to preserve the institution of the Islamic Caliphate, a symbol of international Muslim solidarity. Gandhi encouraged Hindus to join in, even though they had no stake in the cause.

Savarkar had met Gandhi, and had disdain for the man and his politics, which seemed to him anachronistic and effeminate. The Caliphate movement also triggered Savarkar’s fears about India being invaded again by Muslims. This wasn’t simply Islamophobia. Many elite Muslims resisted the slow democratisation unfolding through the colonial period, for fear of losing out to Hindus. They saw themselves as India’s historical rulers whose say in its affairs ‘could not be merely proportionate to their numbers’, as the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot writes in The Pakistan Paradox (2015), a history of Pakistan. Some Muslim leaders used the rhetoric of pan-Islamism and threats of violence to push their claims with the British. After the Caliphate movement, Savarkar felt that Indian War’s paean to a composite nationalism had been rejected by Indian Muslims because of their ‘divided love’ (the other interest being Muslims outside India); he reacted like a ‘spurned lover’, writes Bakhle in 2010.

In Hindutva, Savarkar applied the European framework of nationalism – that a nation needed a homogeneous community, a common culture, a long history – to the subcontinent. In western European nations and the United States, Christianity, race and language had offered the basis for a common history and identity (or so their nationalists claimed). But what could work for India? Hinduism, the religion of the majority, seemed unfit since it lacked a unifying mechanism of one book or church. India’s resident Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and others also bitterly resented attempts to hitch an Indian nationality to Hinduism. Hinduism thus posed ‘the main obstacle’ in Savarkar’s quest for a big-tent Indian identity, as Kapila notes. To resolve this conundrum, unlike religious nationalists, Savarkar strove to secularise Hindus – instead of Hindu scriptures, he chose as the foundation of his ideology the discipline of history, the paradigmatic secular form of the enlightened political thinker.

By turning to history, Savarkar wanted to show that followers of all religions born in India – Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism – owed allegiance to a common genealogy: Hindutva, or Hindu-ness. ‘Hindutva is not a word but a history,’ Savarkar wrote in his pamphlet. He also seized the chance to redefine who is a Hindu. Essentially anyone whose ‘fatherland’ and ‘holy land’ resided within the subcontinent qualified as Hindu, he concluded. Not only followers of Hinduism, but Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists counted as Hindus – a novel interpretation. Muslims and Christians, however, were outsiders as their holy lands lay beyond India, he emphasised. The influence of social evolutionism was clear. Hindus must remember that ‘great combinations are the order of the day,’ Savarkar wrote. ‘The League of Nations, the alliances of powers Pan-Islamism, Pan-Slavism, Pan-Ethiopism, all little beings are seeking to get themselves incorporated into greater wholes, so as to be better-fitted for the struggle for existence and power.’

He theorised that Hindu identity had been formed chiefly through violence, Chaturvedi notes, whether it was in the Islamic period that lasted more than a millennium starting in the 8th century or even earlier. In the long war with the Muslims, ‘our people became intensely conscious of ourselves as Hindus and were welded into a nation to an extent unknown in our history,’ Savarkar wrote in Hindutva. He ridiculed nonviolence – to negate Gandhi’s ideas – which, along with Muslim hatred, became his lifelong obsession.

Eloquently written with a clear sense of urgency, Hindutva became The Communist Manifesto of the Hindu Right. Soon after its publication, K B Hedgewar, a former Congress member from Savarkar’s homeland, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. He conceived it as a sociocultural organisation that would transform the character of Hindus through indoctrination and paramilitary training, and make them masculine in order to defeat ‘outsiders’. Hedgewar thought RSS would stay away from direct politics. It would operate in the shadows to avoid backlash from the British, and build Hindu unity from the ground up to realise a Hindu nation in the future.

In 1924, Savarkar was released from prison after 13 years inside. Still banned from political activity and put under house arrest, he launched social-reform initiatives and became a prolific writer of plays, poetry, articles and historical works. Despite opposition from orthodox Hindus, he campaigned aggressively against untouchability and in favour of intercaste dining and marriage. ‘A national foolishness’ that created ‘eternal conflict’ among Hindus, the caste system deserved ‘to be thrown in the dustbins of history,’ he wrote. His aim was to dissolve barriers enough for Hindus to realise political unity; caste discrimination, not caste itself, was his target. Despite Gandhi’s emergence, Savarkar still burned to become the leader of the Hindus. In his autobiographical works, blissfully free of modesty, Savarkar presented himself as a great Hindu in an ancient line of civilisational warriors. After his death, it emerged that one of his adulatory ‘biographies’ may have been authored by Savarkar himself.

In 1937, after he was allowed to re-enter politics at the age of 54, Savarkar assumed the presidency of the Hindu Mahasabha, a former wing of the Indian National Congress that broke out as a militant Hindu party. Anxious to stay away from prison, he greatly tempered his anti-British stance. Instead, he took aim at his two obsessions: Gandhi and the Muslims. But Savarkar, whose strengths lay in literary writing and polemics, lacked the energy and vision to mount a serious challenge against the Congress. His health had never fully recovered from the prison ordeal, and help from the RSS was inconsistent. Even though its members sometimes participated in Congress-led campaigns against the British, the RSS as an institution largely stayed out of the independence movement. RSS leaders and Savarkar were ambiguous about the Congress-led struggle partly because of their hatred of Gandhi’s politics of nonviolence and his pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity.

In 1948, Nathuram Godse, one of Savarkar’s acolytes, assassinated Gandhi.

Flailing around on the periphery of power, Savarkar could only lash out at Gandhi’s ‘appeasement’ of Muslims. When in the 1930s the Muslim League began to demand a separate nation carved out of India for Muslims, he was appalled (as were other Hindu politicians including Gandhi and Nehru, although for different reasons). Desperate to avoid conceding land to Muslims, Savarkar called for one secular state with equal rights for everyone, where minorities would be free to practise their religion. But he revealed his hand by accusing Muslims of anti-Indian activities; meanwhile, on the ground, his party stoked communal polarisation and organised violence against Muslims. Unlike Gandhi, Savarkar agreed with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, that Hindus and Muslims constituted ‘two nations’; but, obsessed with establishing Hindu supremacy, he opposed the creation of Pakistan.

Savarkar and other Hindu extremists blamed Gandhi for the bloody Partition of 1947, the division of India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India overseen by the British. They were incensed by the fast the old man undertook to compel India to give money owed to Pakistan. In 1948, Nathuram Godse, one of Savarkar’s acolytes, assassinated Gandhi. Savarkar’s reputation was irredeemably stained. He was put on trial for allegedly conspiring to murder Gandhi. His fear of returning to prison was so intense that in court he distanced himself from Godse, who was hurt by his mentor’s ‘calculated, demonstrative non-association’. After his acquittal, Savarkar withdrew from politics and spent the rest of his life in anonymity.

In the first three decades after independence, the Indian National Congress dominated Indian politics. Drawing on the legacy of the freedom struggle, Nehru and his successors attempted to cultivate a secular democratic culture. In this period, the Hindu Right struggled politically even as the RSS multiplied its presence across India. Godse had been an RSS member and the organisation was widely seen as culpable in the murder. Banned for 18 months after the assassination and fighting for its survival, the RSS was compelled to enter politics directly. It decided to people a new Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, with its members. The safeguard turned into a permanent feature, as the allure of political power proved to be too seductive.

In 1963, Savarkar – hobbled by old age and ailments – published his final historical treatise, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History. The ‘glorious epochs’ referred to those eras when civilisational warriors freed the Hindu nation ‘from the shackles of foreign domination’. In this ambitious work, Savarkar excavates a triumphant Hindu will to power in history so as to furnish a guide to establishing a Hindu nation. He spends a majority of the book on the Hindu-Muslim encounter, which he characterises as an ‘epic war’ that lasted more than a millennium.

Savarkar essentially prescribed ‘permanent’ war for Hindus within their homeland

Six Glorious Epochs is striking for its vicious polemic – against Hinduism, Buddhism and, most of all, against Hindus. Reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s hatred of Christianity and lay people, Savarkar rants at the ‘perverted sense of virtues’ of the Hindus, like nonviolence, religious tolerance and ethical conduct in war. Hindus, according to Savarkar, had been corrupted by Buddhism and its nonviolent creed (like Christianity-corrupted Roman culture in Nietzsche’s telling). He writes that nonviolence ‘emasculates human beings’ and that it ‘should at times be killed by cruel violence!’ Savarkar castigates past Hindu rulers for their ‘suicidal’ practices; he moans that they did not massacre Muslims en masse after winning battles, avoided raping Muslim women, refrained from enacting forcible conversions, and did not destroy mosques. According to him, this is precisely what Muslims did to Hindus, an attitude he praises as ‘highly pious and thoroughly sound’ in war. But their ‘perverted sense of virtues’ had made Hindus ‘slovenly and imbecile, and insensible to all sorts of shameful humiliation’.

The Hindu will to power was manifest only in a few ‘heroic men and women warriors’; the rest suffered from the Savarkarist version of false consciousness. He was clear that, in order to realise their latent Hindu-ness, Hindus would have to relinquish the values they held dear. Savarkar essentially prescribed ‘permanent’ war for Hindus within their homeland, as Kapila and Chaturvedi both note.

Written in the aftermath of Partition, Gandhi’s martyrdom, the unrelenting dominance of the Congress and Savarkar’s own disgrace, his bitterness in Six Glorious Epochs is a giveaway: the lover first spurned by the Muslims had been rejected by his Hindus too. In 1966, the ailing Savarkar died by suicide, aged 82.

In 1975, the prime minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, suspended democracy and imposed authoritarian rule, which later drew great public anger. Within two years, the Indian National Congress was voted out of power for the first time and a makeshift grouping of parties that included the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Jana Sangh formed the union government. The Congress soon bounced back but its dominance had ended.

In the 1980s, the erstwhile Jana Sangh, now reinvented as the BJP, spearheaded the Rama Temple movement that permanently changed Indian politics. Riding an old myth, the BJP and its allies claimed that a mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya had been built by 16th-century Islamic invaders over the ruins of a Rama temple at the deity’s alleged birthplace. The desecration of his birthplace was a living symbol of Hindu India’s historical oppression by Muslims, the BJP thundered, as it feverishly mobilised the masses to restore the temple. Worshipped devoutly by hundreds of millions of Hindus, Rama proved to be irresistible: in 1992, the mosque fell to a Hindu mob. The BJP went from winning just two seats out of more than 500 in 1984, to the head of the ruling coalition by 1998. Since 2014, Modi, who played a minor role in the Rama temple campaign, has dominated Indian politics.

The Rama temple evangelism was manufactured by an insurgent BJP primed to knock over the decrepit ancien régime of the Congress. It is the same former insurgent – now a dominant but deeply insecure incumbent, haunted by its discreditable past – that orchestrates the Savarkar propaganda. Both campaigns share a common feature: the Right’s felt need to locate its legitimacy in history. The BJP has carried on Savarkar’s legacy of turning to history instead of Hindu religious texts for validation. It’s not the Vedas or the Bhagavad Gita, the greatest Hindu scriptures, that ordained the BJP’s rule, but the civilisational history of the Hindus that did. Positing an unbroken chain stretching back thousands of years, the BJP-RSS present themselves as the guardians of the great Hindu civilisation, successors to iconic kings like Chandragupta Maurya (reign c322-298 BCE), Prithviraj Chauhan (c1178-92) and Shivaji (1674-80).

The Hindutva antipathy for Gandhi and his methods is hard to hide, indeed central to their formation and history

The significance of their success in appropriating Indian history cannot be overstated. The appropriation allows for the exclusionary politics of the BJP-RSS to subsume, even replace, religious belief. For example, the inauguration of the Rama temple by Modi this January, one of the biggest events in modern Indian history, incited a national frenzy among Hindus. But the spectacle wasn’t mainly a celebration of Rama bhakti (religious devotion). It was about a politically united Hindu community declaring its pre-eminence in its homeland.

If the BJP-RSS have worked very hard to make history – admittedly, partly a colonial one – their strength, it is also their weakness. The RSS is hypersensitive to its shaming non-participation in India’s freedom movement. (This is what Congress party members meant when they called Right-wing leaders ‘anti-national’, which, now, unsurprisingly, is one of the Right’s favourite labels for its critics.) There is no escaping the fact that Indian independence came under Gandhi using Gandhian methods, and the Hindutva antipathy for Gandhi and his methods is hard to hide, indeed central to their formation and history. The Right cannot fundamentally alter public perception of these facts all at once. Savarkar is the one figure who cannot be claimed by the Congress and who has genuine links with the anti-British struggle. His revolutionary past and later marginalisation yield a counterfactual interpretation that can cover somewhat for the Right’s embarrassing absence. In the Right’s telling, Savarkar was sidelined by Gandhi and Nehru while the Hindu polity foolishly rejected Hindutva – Partition was the calamitous outcome of these two decisions. If Hindus had chosen Savarkar’s (and the RSS’s) macho Hindutva over Gandhi’s ‘Muslim appeasement’, they would have reigned supreme in undivided India, it is implied.

The icon of Savarkar thus reminds Hindus: without Hindutva, India’s national security is perennially under threat. Only by heeding ‘the man who could have prevented Partition’ can you secure Hindu India, especially when Islamic terrorism is perceived as a threat, and Muslims constitute 14 per cent of India’s population. Muslims oppressed Hindus for centuries and won a nation for themselves by expropriating Hindu territory – why shouldn’t Hindus become masters in whatever was left of their own ancient homeland? Gandhi had dedicated his life to fighting such realpolitik, a struggle carried on by Nehru after independence.

Hindutva now, however, enjoys wide legitimacy among Hindus of all castes. The BJP won about 37 per cent of the votes cast in the last national election of 2019, but that number greatly understates the public’s approval of Hindutva. Rival parties can criticise the BJP, but they dare not oppose Hindutva. The self-professed secular Congress party, for instance, tends to respond to the BJP’s Savarkar propaganda by questioning his lack of machismo for filing mercy petitions with the British, instead of contesting his Hindu supremacism lest it be seen as anti-Hindu.

As BJP and RSS leaders have brought Savarkar to prominence in Indian politics and thought, a cult of Gandhi’s assassin Godse has flourished among party loyalists. In recent years, statues and even temples dedicated to Godse have cropped up, while Gandhi memorials are defaced.

As resurrected Hindutva icons, they stand in death as they did in life: Savarkar, the guru, behind the pulpit; Godse, the disciple, on the streets. Savarkar would have thought that India’s Hindus today are finally being cured of what he hated as their perverted virtues of nonviolence, tolerance and respect for adversaries.

Mihir Dalal is an Indian journalist and author of the book Big Billion Startup: The Untold Flipkart Story (2019). He was a 2022 Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University in New York, where he studied business, Indian politics and narrative history.

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