A visit to Sabarmati Ashram or Raj Ghat is normally a staple of diplomatic visits to India. But in late November 2022, as India prepared to take over the presidency of the G20, the government flew ambassadors over the Bay of Bengal to the Andamans. Here, before retiring to a resort on the recently-renamed Swaraj Dweep (Havelock Island), these foreign diplomats were taken on a tour of the Cellular Jail, including a visit to the narrow cell that once housed Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar.

For Vinayak Chaturvedi, author of Hindutva and Violence: V. D. Savarkar and the Politics of History, the visit to the Andamans was pregnant with significance. It is no exaggeration to state that, while the political fortunes of Jawaharlal Nehru or Mohandas Gandhi have plummeted in recent years, those of Savarkar have skyrocketed. A forum like the G20 provided a perfect opportunity to integrate Savarkar – before a global audience – into a very different understanding of Indian history and national identity.

For many liberals, this has been a deeply discomforting development, given Savarkar’s pronounced antipathy towards Muslims, his overt majoritarianism, and the cloud of suspicion that still hangs over his role in Gandhi’s murder. Historians and other intellectuals have, until recently, largely refused to engage with Savarkar’s ideas and writings.

Chaturvedi believes that this is a mistake. In Hindutva and Violence, he engages deeply with Savarkar’s oeuvre, discovering how his conceptualisation of Hindutva is intrinsically linked with history. Any cogent response to Hindutva, he believes, needs to take this history into account.

In this episode of Past Imperfect, Chaturvedi demonstrates the complex, oftentimes unexpected influences upon Savarkar’s ideas. Savarkar regularly drew upon the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, but the writings of the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini exerted a truly formative role.

Savarkar engaged with the Quran and the Bible along with European thinkers like Herbert Spencer. He could be an innovative historian, exhibiting an “unusually sharp intelligence ferreting out the reality beneath the rhetoric” in colonial sources. At the same time, however, Savarkar’s works are heavily reliant on conjecture – and are oftentimes inflected with an autobiographical impulse. The narrative he creates ultimately revolves around violence: a history of invasions, heroic defenses, and revenge, a dramatic contrast to Gandhian notions of ahimsa.

Hindutva and Violence has also been an intensely personal undertaking for Chaturvedi. In his teens, he discovered that he was named after Savarkar by his paediatrician, one of Nathuram Godse’s accomplices. By retracing this incident, Chaturvedi looks at his own past to understand the multiple uses of history by Savarkar and his followers.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.