India is at an ideological war with itself. Ideological debates that had animated early-20th century India, then standing at the cusp of colonialism, nationalism and modernism, have returned to the fore with a vengeful desire to be resettled. At the heart of these debates are two characters who have arguably had the profoundest impact on the destiny of post-Independence India both in life and death — M.K. Gandhi and V.D. Savarkar. Decades after their deaths, their ghosts are at an ideological war in an India making rapid strides towards Hindu nationalism.
Yet, both these leaders and the complex and counterintuitive dynamics they shared throughout their lives remain barely understood. Opposed as they were, the two remained each other’s unnamed shadows throughout their lives. Moreover, neither of the two followed the present-day templates of what it meant to be either secular or a Hindu nationalist.
To be sure, the relationship between the two perhaps did not exist as much in reality as it did in their minds. For in ‘reality’, the two only met twice. But it is their ‘imaginary’ conversations with each other, especially Savarkar’s with Gandhi, that continue to shape their country’s destiny today as they did a century ago. According to the historian, Shruti Kapila, theirs was a relationship of not just ideological opposition but also what psychologists refer to as “identification”. In her book, Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age, Kapila explained the phenomenon of identification as conceptualised by Sigmund Freud as “one of the principal phenomena of political life, encompassing emulation and admiration, but equally hatred.”
Gandhi’s big political manifesto, the Hind Swaraj, with its uncompromising emphasis on non-violence, was written in the form of a dialogue with an imaginary person. According to Kapila, “Savarkar appears for the first time as a shadow in Gandhi’s text (in Hind Swaraj).” It remains unproven if Savarkar was indeed the unnamed addressee in Gandhi’s work, but “Hind Swaraj was nevertheless addressed to precisely such a figure: one who espoused a new political language of violence,” she adds.
Savarkar’s life, perhaps to an even larger extent, was defined by his differences with Gandhi. He saw Gandhi as effeminate, unmodern, unscientific and irrational and saw in him all the problems of Hinduism that needed to be overcome in order to create a strong Hindu nation along the lines of a modern European nation state.
It needs to be emphasised that Hindu nationalists, including Savarkar and Nathuram Godse, saw Gandhi and his pacifism as a much graver threat to the Hindu nation than the nationalist leaders of the time like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. In his last speech, Godse said that Gandhian politics “was supported by old superstitious beliefs such as the power of the soul, the inner voice, the fast, the prayer and the purity of the mind.” He gave these as one of the reasons for assassinating Gandhi without whom Indian politics would be “practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with the armed forces.” Prayers and fasts, which are increasingly weaponised by Hindu nationalists in present-day India, were seen as “womanly politics” and obstacles to the realisation of the Hindu nation by its first leaders.
While Savarkar is seen as the father of the Hindu nation, in his own words, the similarity between Hindutva and Hinduism, which he repeatedly called “dogma”, was only “superficial”. For him, being Hindu was a fundamentally political identity devoid of any spiritual, scriptural or sacred meaning. Therefore, Gandhi was detested by Savarkar and his followers not for his secularism but for his non-violent, non-militant, sacred and fraternal use of religion in politics. Gandhi, a devout Hindu, could publicly practise a Hinduism that did not alienate or demonise Muslims. To be secular, he did not have to jettison his Hinduism.
In his foundational text, The Anti-Secular Manifesto, the political psychologist, Ashis Nandy, came up with the following four categories of Indians in public life: non-believers in public and private life (Nehru, for example), non-believers in public and believers in private life (Indira Gandhi), believers in public and non-believers in private (Savarkar) and believers in public and private life (Gandhi). In Nandy’s categorisation, the third category to which Savarkar, an atheist, belongs makes political use of religion instead of the religious use of politics, which is what Gandhi sought to do. Therefore, both Savarkar and Gandhi sought to bring in religion into politics, but from very different standpoints and to very different ends.
Further, with his satyagraha and his refusal to uncritically buy into the Western ideas of modernity, technology, industrialisation and Statecraft, Gandhi posed not just a threat to Savarkar but to all modern rationalists like him. For instance, in a direct attack on Gandhi’s use of the charkha as a symbol of self-sufficiency, Savarkar said, “It is through science, modern thoughts and industrialization and not by spinning wheels… that we can ensure that every man and woman in India will have a job to do, food to eat, clothes to wear and a happy life to lead.”
His views on cow worship were equally modern and rational. Stripping away the cow from any sacred association, Savarkar wrote that “Animals such as the cow and buffalo and trees such as banyan and peepal are useful to man, hence we are fond of them; to that extent we might even consider them worthy of worship. Their protection, sustenance and well-being is our duty, in that sense alone it is also our dharma!” Savarkar offered a fundamentally transactional explanation for protecting the cow. Yet, he argued that if someone killed the cow only to spite Hindus, then that would be a problem.
Gandhi, on the other hand, offered unabashedly sacred and ethical explanations for preventing cow slaughter, even as he denounced the violent cow protection movement of the early 20th century as having “degenerated into a perpetual feud with the Musalmans (Muslims).” He upheld the Hindu belief in the sacredness of the cow, but simultaneously put the onus on Hindus themselves to convince Muslims to not eat beef in order to respect their religious feelings. There was no ‘if not, then…’ implied in Gandhi’s attempts at cow protection despite the sacredness of the animal in his eyes.
Therefore, when Savarkar’s supporters claim that he was, in fact, modern and a rationalist, they are not wrong. It was Gandhi, who through his politics of sacred secularism, upended simplistic correlations between rationalism and secularism. Gandhi was not a rationalist in the modern, European sense of the word; yet he was secular. Savarkar was a rationalist, but not secular, despite his atheism.
One of the most well-documented interactions between Gandhi and Savarkar offers some insights into their counterintuitive relationship and also allows us to shed the binaries of our times through which we insist on seeing these two figures. When Savarkar and Gandhi met for the first time in London, Savarkar was cooking prawns, his personal favourite. He asked Gandhi to eat with him. Gandhi declined, saying he was vegetarian. A miffed Savarkar retorted by saying, “If you cannot eat with us, how on earth are you going to work with us! Moreover… this is just boiled fish… while we want people who are ready to eat the British alive.” In today’s India, Hindu nationalism is associated with and even predicated on an almost militant insistence on vegetarianism. But more than a century ago, it was Hindu nationalism’s Brahmin and atheist founder who mocked a devout Hindu for his vegetarianism.
Finally, for all his mocking of Gandhi’s “superstitious” ideas of soul force and fasting, it is pertinent to note that Savarkar finally took his own life by fasting until death. In death as in life, the shadow of Gandhi followed Savarkar.
Sanya Dhingra is the author of an upcoming book on the history of ayurveda