The Myth of Early Savarkar and His “Nationalist”1857 Book

This essay was first published in People’s Democracy, March 25, 2007

It has now become a truism of modern secular historiography on India that there was an ‘early’ Savarkar and a ‘late’ Savarkar (much in the same way as intellectuals refer to early and late Marx!), and that the early Savarkar was secular, humanist, and a nationalist revolutionary who, only in his later years became the theoretician of Hindutva. His nationalist, secular credentials are based on his activities in Europe and his escape from a ship mid-sea, and more and more frequently now on his book, First War of National Independence, 1857’, written by him in 1909. That we happen to be celebrating the 150th anniversary of 1857 will doubtless add to Savarkar’s glory, particularly as it is easy to prove that the Indian National Congress to begin with, did not uphold 1857.

This distinction between an early and a late Savarkar is clearly misplaced in so far as his secular credentials are concerned, or even his espousal of modern nationalism. A careful reading of the very text so often cited for his secularism brings out clear continuities in his communalist, parochial and elitist stance; between what he wrote in this text and in his Hindutva text written in 1924 after he became a leader of Hindu Mahasabha. His vision of an independent India was less forward looking in 1907 than that of many of his contemporaries, and certainly also as compared with many of the participants themselves in the 1857 rebellions.  

The break with the tradition of a composite, lived unity spontaneously acted upon in 1857, came with the consolidation of communalist tendencies in the late 19th century, after which it had to be consciously campaigned for by secular nationalists. Savarkar was very much a child of this communal consolidation and its reliance on revivalism, which colours his view of 1857 even when he defends the rebellions and marks the unity of Hindus and Muslims against the British.

We also need to look at what else Savarkar was doing around the same years, and what else he was writing around that time, and we need to explain first of all his conversion to “secularism” itself from an even earlier adolescent hostility towards Muslims. Not only does Dhananjay Keer, his biographer, describe an incident in which a twelve year old Savarkar leads a march of his school mates to stone a village mosque, but Savarkar himself in his later recounting, uncritically and with pride recounts the same incident. “We vandalized the mosque to our heart’s content and raised the flag of our bravery on it. We followed the war strategy of Shivaji completely and ran away from the site after accomplishing the task.” (VD Savarkar, Savarkar Samagra, Vol. I, Prabhat Prakashan, pp. 152-153. It was seen by him as a victory of the Hindus in their dharm yudh (holy war) against the Muslims. More important than the period when he recounted this incident is the fact that he never once regretted it: certainly not in his author’s introduction to the 1857 book.

He does make some other statements, however, which are telling: his espousal of Hindu-Muslim unity has little to do with any conviction of equal rights to citizenship or an appreciation of shared living or composite culture. “In 1857 the Hindus and Muslims set aside their centuries old religious war to fight the Christians.” (Savarkar Samagra, Vol. 5, p. 29). He has no doubt even in his so-called secular-nationalist phase that Hindus and Muslims are ‘warring nations’. He recognizes that Hindus and Muslims had to unite in 1857 if they had to present an effective challenge to the British, but that necessity does not seem to extend to the period when he is writing that text. He nowhere talks of the necessity of a unified struggle in the present (1907, when he is writing this book) or in the future: 1857 is a special episode, which he is describing as it happened, rather than learning from it to prescribe for the future.

In 1909 communal-revivalist historiography had still not gained hegemony, 1857 was not that far away– just about 50 years—and many people of that generation would still have been alive: it was simply not possible to have given a version of 1857 in those days which did not recognize the role of the Muslims in the 1857 rebellions, to give a communal version that could vilify or negate their role in 1857. Savarkar could hardly have done otherwise, once he decided to defend 1857—unlike many who just maintained a silence or opposed it.

The areas of most intense rebellions—Delhi, Meerut, Bareilly, Lucknow, Kanpur, Gwalior, Jhansi, North-west Frontier—had sizeable Muslim populations and 1857 could not have assumed the form of civil rebellions without participation of both Hindus and Muslims. All armies, without exception, at that time were mixed, including that of Rani of Jhansi and Nana Saheb, and all armies, of the British as well as the states continued to be so in 1909 as well; so not even a sepoy Mutiny was conceivable without participation of all sections of the population in the country. Every family in the regions affected would have had a member—parents, grandparents—either for or against 1857. 1857 was a live, not distant memory in 1909. Even the British revenge against Muslims, their policy of marking out enemies and weeding them out of administration was part of ‘current affairs’ of that time, the aftermath of 1857. Folk songs abounded all over the country, personifying their heroes who came from all castes and regions, not to speak of religions. Just as today, it is just not possible for even the most rabid among RSS to be able to say about 1947 that killings were not on both sides, even as they may blame Muslims for partition, it was not possible to present in 1909 the communalist version of 1857 current in the later shishu mandir texts and RSS shakhas, which completely erase the role of Muslims in any struggle against the British. Mass media did not exist in the form that it does today when even contemporary events can be easily falsified by the might of a hegemonic media.

Therefore let us see what else he wrote in his book on 1857, which throws a closer light on his world view at the time of writing and publishing the book (1909). This book is reproduced in Savarkar Samagra, Vol. 5, published by Prabhat Prakashan from which we will quote.

We must remember that the early twentieth century, when he wrote 1857, was a period of both secular awakening and communal consolidation, and ‘revolutionaries’ could well be revivalist, while other, more ‘moderate’ people (moderate that is in terms of demands from British rule or in their advocacy of methods employed) could be far more radical and democratic in their views on society. Early twentieth century churnings were influenced by anti-caste movements, by the social reform zeal initiated by the Bengal renaissance and the ‘moderates’, the Arya Samaj and the backlash of Sanatan Dharma, by Tilak, the drain of wealth critiques by Dadabhai Naoroji, the census politics and divide and rule politics of the British, the stirrings of revolution in 1905 in the Russian empire and the swadeshi movement following partition of Bengal in 1905, nationalism of both the liberation variety and the chauvinist expansionist variety and much else. What did Savarkar adopt from this wide spectrum of influences to make his own intellectual personality?

Although his writings of that period are replete with references to ‘learning from history’ to build a ‘future’ nowhere in this book or in other writings of the period does he emphasize a secular unity or a secular nation. Rather his sources of inspiration, as they come out in the 1857 text, are Shivaji and the Maratha movement, Guru Gobind Singh, the ‘centuries old struggle of the Hindus’ against ‘Muslim tyranny’, and the cultural nationalism of Tilak rather than the anti-Brahman movements and organizations inspired by Jyotirao Phule. While in London he translated the life of Mazzini, and what he emphasized about him was that the nation can be built only by reaching back to the ‘roots’ of its ‘civilization’. Therefore he may have spoken of Hindus and Muslims as “blood brothers” in 1857, who loved the motherland equally, but throughout his 1857 text it is clear that for him the roots of India’s civilization lay in Hinduism, Hindus and Hinduism constituted the core of India and that his vision of a future India was a Hindu India even then. For him the inspiration essentially came not from the unity of Hindus and Muslims that he saw as true in 1857, but from the great Hindu past and the invented struggles of Hindus against Muslims.

Even as early as 1909 his was a world inhabited by opposing religions and unity was a pragmatic necessity. Mazzini, as he said, had written in his On Nationality: Whichever people by its superiority of strength, and by its geographical position, can do us injury, is our natural enemy; whichever cannot do us injury, but can by the amount of its force and by its position injure our enemy, is our natural ally. Savarkar, who was greatly inspired by Mazzini and wrote on him, agreed with him on this. The English were guilty of the very sins attributed to the Muslims. They were the target in 1857, not the Muslims, because they were in power and not the Muslims. Given the percentage of Muslim population in pre-independence India and its spread all over the country it was inconceivable in 1909, or at any point till today, even by communalists, that independence could have been won without the contribution of Muslims. The criteria of a secular outlook for the beginning of the 20th century (when he wrote the book) should not be whether one sees Hindu-Muslim unity operating in the past, but whether one sees in it the seeds of a nation free of religious prejudice and religious inequalities.

Whatever may have been the basis of Hindu-Muslim unity in 1857, and however many pages he may have devoted to describing the role of the many Muslim leaders and of the unity exhibited in 1857, for Savarkar in 1909 it was not something to uphold as heritage for a secular unity in the future.

In 1909 too religion formed the very basis of politics for him. In the 1857 book too he politicized the references to religion and introduced religious metaphors to make political points.  The epigraph for the book on 1857 is taken from Samarth Ravidas. It says: “Die for the sake of dharma and while dying kill all; in killing is your victory, the establishment of your own rule.” (Savarkar Samagra, 5, p.19). Swadharma and swarajya are inextricably linked, he says, and this forms the title of his first chapter. The principal causes of 1857 revolution, its divine force, were swadharma and swarajya (p. 25). And lest we think that by dharma is meant some nebulous ‘way of life’, he goes on to elaborate that “as soon as the terrible, fatal and treacherous assault on our dearer- than-life religion was realized, the thunder of ‘deen-deen’ (our religion- our religion) reverberated in defense of religion, and when this thunder was joined with the realization that the independence provided to us by nature was treacherously taken away from us, and that we are shackled in political slavery, a holy desire arose to gain self rule swarajya, and this sacred desire dealt a blow to the chains of freedom, and it is here the roots of this revolutionary war lie…Nowhere else the love for one’s own religion and the love for one’s own rule are so clearly visible than in the history of Hindusthan.” Further, “what effort was spared by Hindusthan for swarajya and what divine inspiration it did not gain to retain swadharma?” And then he quotes Guru Gobind Singh: “The man who fights for religion…even if each part of the body is cut off, he does not leave the field…” and goes on to give his opinion that indeed, the entire history of Hindusthan is filled with episodes of brave men fighting for their religion, who did not leave the field even when their bodies were cut to pieces (p. 25).  Therefore, even the matter of greased cartridges hurting religious sentiments was just an episode, as annexation of Awadh and other such episodes were, and the “war” would have been waged even had they not taken place, because the matter was not just one of bad rule, but of rule itself which was seeking to destroy the religious personality of the Indians. (Chapters1-2). He has chosen to highlight mainly such passages from leaders as go to illustrate this point. As Jyotirmaya sharma has shown in his essay on Savarkar, despite Savarkar’s regular barbs against Muslim theocratic politics, religion formed the very basis of politics for Savarkar (Hindutva, Penguin), and that Savarkar considers 1857 to be a political revolution on the lines of what happened in Mazzini’s Italy, but the essence of which was the establishment of one’s own religion as much as self rule (Sharma, p.142).

What was the connection between swadharma and swarajya?Savarkar said that the “ancients believed” that the two were inseparable, much as Mazzini did, like heaven and earth were two ends of the same thing and could not be dissociated (discussion in Sharma) The sword of swarajya must always be there to defend swadharma. In ancient times revolutions always took a religious turn and went hand in hand with religion and religious sanction…Even Mazzini said the same, says Savarkar, and stands by it for 1857, and approves of it as an essential and desirable element for politics of his time… ( Savarkar Samagra p.19). Without our religion self rule means little, and without self rule our religion is emasculated; .the sword of swarajya should always be drawn in favour of swadharma and concerns of the other world. This bent of mind of the ancients is to be seen in every moment of history…Political revolution without being joined with religion was unknown in our ancient world; this can be understood only if we recognize that their seeds lie in this same grand worldwide sweep of religion.  This very means of swadharma and swarajya (i.e., where religion and politics are inseparable) are valid even in the revolution of 1857 (p.27). He quotes Bahadur Shah Zafar’s proclamation as stating: “Why has God given us wealth, country, rights? They are not related merely to the happiness and enjoyment of individuals but for the holy aim of protecting our religion.” According to him Zafar warned that “if you lose the opportunity and means to protect your religion you will be considered a criminal and anti-religious in the court of God…God has willed that you attain self rule because that is the only means for protecting your religion. Those who do not attain self rule are without religion and are traitors to religion. Therefore rise in defense of your religion and attain self rule.” And then Savarkar himself goes on to say: “‘Rise in defense of your religion and attain self rule’—in how many divine miracles has this truth not been revealed throughout our history?” (p. 28).

While there is no doubt that religion pervaded the world view of most people in 1857, the entire tone and tenor of this proclamation, of which we are given no historical reference, moves in tune with the tone and tenor of Savarkar himself. Then he approvingly quotes Ramdas: “Had not Shri Samarth Ramdas preached to us 250 years ago ‘Die for your religion, kill all while dying, kill all and establish your rule.’ This is the elemental cause of the revolutionary war in 1857. The telescope through which one can discern the clear and true character of that war, that genuine telescope, that is… Die for your religion, and while dying kill all of them, while killing win your rule. If you look at this war through this telescope, one begins to see a very different picture. Swadharma and swaraj—these two holy causes with which this revolutionary war was fought, its holy character is not diminished by defeat. The efforts of Guru Gobind Singh may have failed if we look at them from a traditional perspective, but this does not lessen the divine character of his efforts.”(p.28).

It is clear thus that even in 1909, when he wrote his 1857, for him, religious politics forms the raison d etre of people’s struggles and the motive force in history. For him swadharma is no dharma of Buddha: it is filled with violence and hatred. Swadharma is not identified by him with some secular duty either, which is given an exalted, dharmic status: his is not the language of an atheist, as some historians have claimed him to be. Independence for him is a religious duty, and the goal of independence is the assertion of the religious will.

Another misconception is that he was concerned with the idea of a nation. For a person inspired by Mazzini, and who wrote on him, it is surprising that the word “rashtra” or nation does not really occur in the book. Throughout the book he refers to 1857 as “revolutionary war”: for him it was, as he titled it, essentially the ‘First War of Independence’ from the present enemy in power. It is not a war qualitatively different from the earlier wars against the Mughals, except that the enemy is the British and the Hindus are joined by the Muslims in fighting against them. For him the British too are qualitatively no different from the Mughals: they are being fought because they are in power in 1857. He would accept even later, in his Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, that the Hindus and Muslims had fought together against the British. For him the war against the British is like the war against the Muslims earlier: both represented an insult to religion. Throughout 1857 his references to the battles of Hindu kings against the Mughals is referred to and described as a fight of the Hindus against Muslims. One searches in vain in his 1857 book for any nationalism or idea of nation, as we understand a modern nation. And it must be remembered he was no Bahadur Shah Zafar or Rani Lakshmi Bai ruling in mid nineteenth century. He was no 19th century peasant or tribal whose mental world was hegemonised by religion. He was writing in the early twentieth century after having spent considerable time in Europe, being exposed to the ideas of liberalism and nationalism, and was somebody who had gone on an academic scholarship to read for the Bar exams in London. The idea that Savarkar upheld 1857 as a “national” war is really the interpolation of the communalists, born out of the need for inventing for themselves a nationalist personality. When he did begin to talk of a nation, he articulated the idea of Hindutva and Hindu rashtra. In 1909 he refers to the 1857 as “war” for independence, and the war for independence is a “dharmyudh” (holy war). The Hindus and Muslims are fighting together, but the Muslims are fighting for their religion and the Hindus for their own. He approvingly quotes a proclamation without giving its source as saying: “Our revolt is only for the protection of our religion, there is no other purpose behind it” and called upon people to “leave aside all personal factors and co-operate with us in the defense of our ancient religion.” (p. 239).

It would be fruitful to quote from his description of the endorsement of Bahadur Shah Zafar as Emperor of Delhi by the rebels after capture of Delhi. He writes: “However this establishment of the power of this old representative of the Mughals, was not for bringing back the old Mughal dynasty or the old barbaric tradition…it could appear so in a narrow sense but was not so in truth, in a broader sense…The Mughal dynasty had not been chosen by the people of this country. Mughal power was imposed upon us by the aggressive personality of the Muslims and the desire to conquer Hindusthan and as a result of treason by people devoid of self respect. ..Here no such force was at work in elevating Bahadur Shah to the throne once again. No, that would have been impossible…It would have been suicidal to do so……because that would have meant that the blood shed by Hindu martyrs, fighters for their religion, for their independence, over the course of three-four centuries has been in vain…the spate of aggression and conquests in all directions started by the barbaric hordes of Arabstan with their acceptance of Islam crushed all under their feet. Nowhere were they resisted, so as they overran country after country, one human race after another human race fell prey to their forcible conversions to Islam. If somebody resisted this formidable and unchecked storm without compromising and with great bravery, fearlessness and determination for the first time it was this country. In the history of other countries such resistance is only an exception. This war continued for more than five centuries. For more than five centuries the Hindus fought for their birthright [natural rights] against these foreign conquerors. ..and in this glorious struggle of centuries and centuries there arose a new Hindu force in the western ghats from among whom thousands and thousands of Hindus sacrificed themselves for the self respect of their race, and which took upon itself to uphold the honour of the Hindu race…A brave Hindu, Bhaosahab Peshwa, led his army from Pune to the throne of Delhi, captured it and washed off the dark stains of slavery on Hindu culture. Hindusthan thus shed its slavery, wiped away its defeat and became independent once again. Hindus once again became masters of the land of Hindus—they became blessed once again. So, in truth, the endorsement of Bahadur Shah as Emperor by the people did not represent the reinstatement of the Mughal dynasty in 1857.” (p. 238). This crucial summing up of a defining moment in 1857 reveals his attitude to history and his own world view, his parochialism, the invention of unending bravery of Hindu royal houses

A sub-chapter in the book is precisely titled: ‘Hindu dharma and Hindu rajya must be Struggled For’, and Nana Saheb on departure after defeat is quoted as saying: “Efforts will have to be made once again to re establish Hindu dharma and Hindu rashtra.” Throughout the 1857 book he refers to Hindustan as “Hindusthan”, and specific areas as “Brahmavarta” and so on. The only heroes to whom separate chapters are devoted and the chapters titled after their names are Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Laxmi Bai, Mangal Pandey, Kunwar Singh and Amar Singh; no Muslim heroes, though in details of various areas they do emerge as local heroes. The old Hindu royal houses are described in a way that leaves no doubt of his admiration for the feudal order, including of the preference of sati of Rajput women in the face of defeat and so on.

More significantly, all the imperialist stereotypes about the people—including the racial sterotypes—are reproduced in all their glory by Savarkar. His easy characterization of the Sikh, the Bengali, the Rohilla, the Maratha, the Gurkha as playing their ethnic and racially designated roles is revealed in the fashion made familiar by old British or rabidly communal historians and administrators. Therefore the Sikh emerge as the betrayer, the south Indian keeps quiet, and the Bengali is indifferent or black sheep, and so on.

Also, in what has become the hallmark of communal historiography, in characterizing it as the “first war of independence”, there is complete silence on all struggles that cannot be termed as “Hindu”. So while we have glowing passages of the kind quoted above with regard to Marathas, there is no mention of Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali, of the peasant and tribal revolts against the British rule all over the country and almost every year since the coming of the British, the entire real pre-history of 1857 that culminated in the great rebellions of 1857.

Considering that he is writing in 1907-1909, long after the formation of many social and political organizations, there is no cognizance or mention that lack of such political organisations may have meant in 1857. Dadabhai’s study on drain of wealth may have been familiar to him as also the impact of British rule on the different sections of the people. But apart from talking of general “destruction” of “Hindusthan”, there is no cognizance of colonialism or Imperialism.

The celebration and glorification of violence so characteristic of fascist/sectarian organizations, and the intense hatred towards those characterized as enemies, the belief that might is right and justification of unprincipled violence and cruelty is evident throughout the book. The way the descriptions go, of attacks on “white men women and children” “attacked for their very whiteness”, Savarkar may have lifted descriptions of senseless violence and cruelty from the most prejudiced colonial accounts, except that he is proud of them. It is sickening to read such descriptions, where the killing of children is justified as killing of the litter of serpents who would grow up to be poisonous. He has completely accepted the imperialist logic in inverting the picture of 1857. Nobody who reads these descriptions and the glorification of killing by treachery and senseless hatred can even consider the proposition that Savarkar’s 1857 book reveals that the early Savarkar was a secular, nationalist and humane personality. It covers so many passages in so many pages, that one can make a full book of it. There is everything in that book which does the spadework for the later, well defined and well developed communal historiography, and it very much shows the future course that Savarkar was to take.

(First published in People’s Democracy, March 25, 2007) 


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Nalini Taneja Written by:

Nalini Taneja taught history in Delhi University and is a publisher of Three Essays Collective

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