While the Hindu Mahasabha was charting its own path away from the Congress, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was slowly gaining a reputation as an organiser of Hindus in Bombay state. Savarkar had earned his revolutionary stripes as a firebrand nationalist in London. He had been sentenced to transportation for life twice over, amounting to imprisonment for 50 years, at the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The charges against him were serious – abetment to the murder of the collector of Nashik and waging war against the king. Subsequent to his early release from prison in the Andamans, he repositioned himself as the intellectual fountainhead of Hindu revivalism in national politics.

Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, was for Savarkar the basis for the Indian nation-state. His explanation of Hindutva was complex, perhaps a key stumbling block for its limited resonance at the time. Hindutva was not a theory of Hinduism; in fact, it had little to do with religious practice at all. It was a political theory that was presented as the foundation of India as a Hindu Rashtra (nation) for the Hindu jati (race) representing Hindu sanskriti (civilisation).

Anyone who considered the land between the river Sindhu (Indus) in the north and the Sindhu Sagar (Indian Ocean) in the south as their pitribhumi (literally, fatherland; in this case, the land of one’s ancestors) and punyabhumi (holy land) was a person who, according to Savarkar, was tied by the bond of Hindutva, and hence a Hindu.

Only a Hindu as per his definition could, strictly speaking, be an Indian national.

This meant that by definition Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs could be included in a future Hindu state as citizens, but Christians, Muslims, and others who had their holy lands outside India, or those like Parsis, whose ancestors had come from elsewhere, could not. Atheists with ancestors from the Indian subcontinent, however, could also claim to be Hindus since they shared “a common blood”, and by virtue of not having any holy land at all, were part of a “born brotherhood”.

A largely polemical book, Essentials of Hindutva, in which Savarkar formulated the doctrine, was concerned as much with the future Indian nation-state as with its past. It was written with the objective of correcting history: how Hindus were actually wronged and did not suffer defeat at the hands of Muslim “invaders” as is assumed, how their victories were suppressed and defeats highlighted, how Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, and Shalivahana were reduced to footnotes in the annals of history owing to biased historical accounts.

Much of this Hindu revivalism was designed to instil pride but also to make Hindus more warrior-like. In fact, in Savarkar’s view, the reason Hindus became pacifist and lost their warrior-like nature in the first place was because of the rise of Buddhism with its teachings of peace and universal fraternity. Buddhism, for Savarkar, remained the original sin of Hindu political thought, rendering Hindus weak and unable to defend themselves from alien invasions.

Essentials of Hindutva was written like a historical account, meant to invoke a sense of pride amongst Hindus. Its messaging was complex – Hindu pride was divorced from Hindu religion – but its prime impetus was an instinctive feeling of resentment against Muslims who, as outsiders, had “invaded” India. There was very little in terms of a positive programme for freeing the Hindu nation from the colonial yoke.

When contrasted with Gandhi’s mass politics of non-violence coupled with an overt celebration of Hindu rituals, the singing of Vaishnava bhajans, and the promise of Ram Rajya – Savarkar’s more esoteric attempt at restoring Hindu pride – remained at the fringes of the national movement.

What the book, however, did was to make Savarkar a leading light in non-Congress politics. His growing stature and tirades against the politics of the Congress led him to the presidency of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, a post he held unchallenged and uninterrupted till 1944. During this time, the Mahasabha became part of the provincial government in Bengal in alliance with the Progressive Coalition Party, the Krishak Praja Party, the Forward Bloc, and the Independent Scheduled Caste Party. Though this was only possible because of the resignation of the incumbent Congress ministers, it was nonetheless the first time that the Hindu Mahasabha emerged out of the shadows into the political mainstream. Savarkar had given them a clear ideology, and its leading light in Bengal, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, had taken them into government. It appeared that their time – as an entity to be reckoned with in India’s fast-shifting political firmament – had come.

To reinforce its seriousness as a political outfit rivalling the Congress, in the 1939 session of the Hindu Mahasabha in Calcutta, Savarkar laid out his vision of a future constitution of India. In such a constitution, all citizens would have equal rights on the condition that they “avow and owe an exclusive and devoted allegiance to the Hindusthani state”.

This was a deviation from the theory of Hindutva, where even despite such allegiance being declared, a Muslim or Christian could not claim equal citizenship since their holy land factually remained elsewhere. This deviation was not unintentional – the entire edifice of Savarkar’s constitutional vision was the political acceptability of the Hindu Mahasabha as a mainstream political party. The radical nature of Hindutva ideology would now have to be toned down in an attempt to take on the Congress as the leading force in nationalist politics.

Savarkar went further: so that non-Hindus would not feel apprehensive about the Mahasabha, he also stressed that their rights regarding their religion, culture, and language would be expressly guaranteed in the constitution. Minorities could also set up special schools for their children with government support, provided the majority could do the same with proportionate state support.

Essentially for Savarkar, communities could maintain their own identities, but everyone was a citizen of Hindusthan first. Drafting such a constitution was a route for the Hindu Mahasabha to become both politically acceptable and rival the Congress. After the end of the Second World War, the establishment of the Constituent Assembly was imminent. To prepare for this momentous development, it was no longer just desirable but also necessary for all political parties to set out their own vision of the constitution on the basis of which India would be a sovereign nation. Following Savarkar’s lead, this is what the Mahasabha set out to do.

Excerpted with permission from The Colonial Constitution: An Origin Story, Arghya Sengupta, Juggernaut.