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India

Modiís Philosopher

Saturday 5 October 2019, by Vinayak Chaturvedi

The far-right ideology of Hindutva has gained frightening currency under Indian leader Narendra Modi. But in order to combat it, we first have to understand Vinayak Damodar Savarkar ó the man who originated the violent ideology.

In December 2018, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, took a trip to the colonial-era Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands. [1] The prison was a notorious institution under British rule and housed hundreds of anti-colonial activists. Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was there to pay tribute to one former prisoner in particular: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Savarkar is a divisive figure in contemporary Indian politics. A founding thinker of the ideology of Hindutva, he is the intellectual forebear of the hardline nationalism that today animates the ruling BJP. At the same time, his promotion of violence and his virulent anti-Muslim views placed him at odds with much of the political establishment of post-independence India.

With the BJPís rising political fortunes, many of Savarkarís once marginal ideas have drifted from the periphery of right-wing politics into the mainstream.

To better understand the man whose thought has come to have such a hold on contemporary Indian politics, I met with Vinayak Chaturvedi, associate professor of history at the University of California Irvine. A scholar of South Asia, Chaturvediís first book explored the tension between peasant politics and Indian nationalism on the questions of land and labor in Gujarat. [2] But it is his forthcoming book, an intellectual history of Savarkar, that I was most interested in discussing.


JR: What inspired you to take up the figure of Savarkar?

VC: The political reason for thinking about the project occurred to me when I was finishing my first book, which was centered on central Gujarat. This was the locality in which, in 2002, massive riots took place, which were described as ďanti-Muslim pogroms.Ē Approximately 150,000 Muslims were displaced, an estimated 1Ė2,000 Muslims were killed, there were allegations of state involvement in the violence, and so on.

These events got a number of academics and activists thinking about what the implications were for the rest of India. One of the things that was constantly being discussed was the ďrise of HindutvaĒ as a phenomenon. Historically, the area of Gujarat had been understood as a place of Gandhiís greatest support, but now it was perceived as going from a nonviolent, Gandhian space to a violent, Hindutva space.

Based on my first book, that formulation just seemed problematic. One of the things that I was underscoring in that book was that Gandhi was actually aware of the everyday forms of violence against certain low-caste groups by landed, privileged communities in Gujarat. So, for me, that was the beginning of thinking that there must be a different explanation for what was happening in Gujarat. It didnít simply go from a nonviolent land to a violent land of Hindutva. And as I kept thinking about Hindutva more and more, I was constantly drawn back to Savarkar.

In addition, an entire historiography was being formed at this time that was looking at economic factors, cultural factors, educational factors, attempting to offer an explanation for why Hindutva was taking off in Gujarat in a way that seemed inexplicable. And for me the one thing that wasnít being discussed were Savarkarís ideas.

JR: What accounts for this failure to engage with Savarkar?

VC: In many ways, both the Left and the Right treat him as a non-human subject. The Left wants to simply denounce him and see him as the political enemy, but not actually engage with his ideas. To talk about him or read him is s