In a recent column in The Indian Express, Tavleen Singh made a startling admission. “Having grown up believing that Hindutva was a dangerous, divisive ideology, I find myself surprised at how important an idea it could be for our times,” she wrote. What India needs, she declared, is to build on “the very enlightened view of Hindutva that Savarkar evolved in the long years he spent in prison”.

The journalist’s main contention is that the recent instances of cow-related lynching across the country are not inspired by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s ideology of Hindutva, which was, Singh declares, “an ideology of Hindu reform”. Indeed, she concludes that Savarkar’s “ideas of modernity and cultivating the scientific spirit make him more relevant today than Gandhiji”.

Tavleen Singh, like so many others attempting to mainstream Hindutva, is wrong about the man who formulated this ideology. In reaching her conclusion, she has ignored large swathes of Savarkar’s thoughts and actions, as well as his historical connections to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Father of Hindu nationalism

At the risk of stating the obvious, Savarkar is recognised both by his supporters and his critics as the father of Hindu nationalism, the ideology that fuels India’s ruling Bharaitya Janata Party. While in prison between 1911 and 1924 for anti-British revolutionary activities, Savarkar used the time to read and write about his understanding of nationalism. In 1923, while still in prison, Savarkar published the book that came to be the main ideological text of Hindu nationalism: Hindutva. Who is a Hindu?

It is through this publication that he popularised the term Hindutva (Hinduness) as a national identity, which he declared was broader than Hinduism. The Hindus, he said, are not only a nation bound by the same culture, but also geography, blood, country and history. Indian Muslims and Christians, though, are the progeny of converts from Hinduism. To become part of the nation, it was essential for them to accept Hindu culture and shed their bigotry. They must start looking at India not only as their Motherland, but also their Holy Land, he said.

At first glance, it would seem, Hindutva is a very inclusive concept, one aimed at assimilating the minorities. But in practice, it was not. This was already apparent in Savarkar’s time.

Consolidating Hindus

For instance, Hindutva was supposed to be open to all, regardless of caste and creed, and yet the Hindu Mahasabha party – of which Savarkar was president from 1937 to 1943 – did not admit non-Hindus in its ranks. Hindutva was never about assimilating non-Hindus – it was an idea to consolidate the Hindus. While it spoke about minorities a great deal, it was not to win their favour but to unite Hindus by emphasizing the differences between them and others.

It is hard not to see all of this echoed in the present attitude of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP. Two years after the publication of Savarkar’s seminal work, the RSS was created by a group of people who included his brother, Baburao Savarkar. This Hindu nationalist organisation still uses Savarkar’s term, Hindutva, quite openly. When, for instance, the RSS and the BJP talk of accepting Ram as at least a “national hero”, as party veteran LK Advani once did, these statements are an echo of Savarkar’s core concepts.

How could, for instance, atheists, whom Savarkar claimed to welcome to the Hindutva fold, accept Rama “at least” as a national hero while not believing in his existence at all? Virtually all countries construct a national identity – including by such means as cultivating national heroes. But what Hindutva does is to insist that this identity must come with an acceptance of a religious culture.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays homage to a portrait of VD Savarkar.

In her column Tavleen Singh writes of Savarkar as if he was a person wrongly accused of a crime a long time ago whose innocence is now being proven. This is hardly the case. No spectacular discovery has been made about him recently. Whatever information Singh did mention about him does not make all the other facts about Savarkar less relevant. She rests her conclusions on two biographies – one that she doesn’t name it in the column and on Vikram Sampath’s new book, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924. Sampath’s work is indeed painstaking and valuable, but it is also a soft, evasive and generalising on the subjects of Hindu-Muslim and Hindu nationalism. As a consequence, it cannot really serve as a basis of the claims Singh makes.

Moreover, Sampath’s book is only the first part of what promises to be a monumental work. As its story ends in 1924, it cannot be used to judge Savarkar’s role in the Hindu Mahasabha, during the Second World War, in the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, and after India gained independence. At any rate, so much has been written on and by Savarkar – and many of his chief writings are available on – that it is easy to read about his views and find out how divisive and dangerous his ideology is.

Complicated man, simple message

Sampath is right in calling Savarkar a “bundle of contradictions”. His mind was a mix of a traditional Indian, Hindu upbringing and Western influences. He was a complicated man raised in troubled times, during which both he and his country went through several significant phases. The problem with interpreting Savarkar is somewhat similar to reading Gandhi – both Gandhi and Savarkar wrote so much, and gave many speeches over a long period of time when their views were evolving. As a consequence, there are some issues on which you can find two statements by each individual that seem to contradict each other.

Savarkar did indeed seek to reform the caste system. He blessed marriages of Mahars with Brahmins. He invited the ire of the Hindu orthodoxy for his caste-related reformist activities. At the same time, however, he arranged the marriages of his own children within his own Chitpawan Brahmin caste. Savarkar did not fully damn caste, as if he did not want to lose the support of the Hindu conservatives. While calling for Hindu unity above the differences of caste, he also declared that the caste system was the bedrock of Hindu nationality.

“All that the caste system has done is to regulate its noble blood on lines believed […] to contribute most to fertilise and enrich all that was barren and poor,” he wrote in his Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?

It is also true that Savarkar preferred scientific reasoning to religious custom. He did not allow religious rituals to be performed for his departed wife (his son, Vishwas, had them conducted clandestinely). But at the same time, he realised the potential of using religion in politics and made the Hindu religion his main weapon.

A nation on religious lines

The core idea of Savarkar was to blend the European notion of a nation, a political entity, with Hindu religious identity, to form an idea of a nation based on religious lines and to unite the people in a political struggle with the use of religious images. When in 1939 the Hindu Mahasabha took part in defending a Shiva temple from demolition in Delhi, Savarkar, perceiving this victory as a step in “consolidating the Hindus”, called for a larger shrine to be constructed at the site as a unity-building effort. “I already see rising before my mind’s eye a magnificent Temple of Shiva,” he declared. It sounded similar to later attempts by the RSS-BJP to rally the Hindus around an idea to build a grand temple.

I think the confusion about Savarkar’s ideology arises from three simplifications: identifying Savarkar’s thought with that of the rank-and-file Hindu nationalists, trying to push Hindutva into dichotomies of modernism and conservatism, and simply taking Savarkar’s words for granted.

President APJ Abdul Kalam and others at the Savarkar portrait in Parliament. Credit: Rajya Sabha website

What is indeed perplexing is Savarkar’s personal view of religion. He might have indeed been an atheist or, as my colleague Siegfried O Wolf (of the South Asia Democratic Forum) described him, a “strategic agnostic”. He continuously maneuvered between rejecting religion and respecting it. If he mentioned Hindu deities, it was usually the “earthly” avatars, Krishna and Rama, and not the transcendental gods, like Vishnu and Shiva. He also found it acceptable to regard Krishna and Ram as humans – as long as they would serve as unifying political factors.

Social scientists and media commentators often make the mistake of conflating the thoughts of the leader with the ideas of the rank and file of the movement. It is wrong to assume that all followers of Hindutva should think like Savarkar in every regard. Even if Savarkar did not believe in, say, the existence of Shiva, it does not make this view a central part of contemporary Hindutva, as it is clear most followers of Hindutva do believe it. Savarkar moulded his ideology to successfully mobilise some of the believers, not the atheists.

Cow worship

His attitude towards cow worship is probably a part of this thinking. It is true that he did not regard the cow as holy. By “considering the cow to be divine and worshipping her, the entire Hindu nation became docile like the cow”, he wrote. But even here, by the way, he found a pin with which to prick Muslims, as he often did, by writing that Muslims armies used cow as shields in battle, thereby using the religion of their Hindu rivals against them. It is equally true that he called for cow protection, claiming that this was a “national responsibility”. The explanation is, again, in his conviction that religion has no transcendental role but is still crucial as a part of society’s life as it can be used for political unification.

Tavleen Singh is right that Savarkar was a reformist but this label does not explain and justify his other thoughts and actions. Yes, Savarkar was a reformist and at the same time a radical Hindu nationalist. These two aspects of his thinking neither cancel each other, nor do they justify each other; they are both connected elements of his mind’s machine. Hindutva is not simply modernism; it is a nationalist ideology that seeks to unite various groups (and hence needs to overcome certain traditional divisions through reform). But it also seeks to unite them on common religious grounds by making the protection of religious customs a common goal, as proved by the BJP’s campaigns from cow protection to Sabarimala.

A revered father, not a forgotten relative

Singh’s short piece could make readers believe that Savarkar’s Hindutva was somehow separate from “other” Hindutvas, as if the Hindutva of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and its successor, the BJP, was some heresy, a corrupt version of a rightful ideology. But it is the other way round: Savarkar is remembered by the present BJP and the RSS precisely because he played such a crucial role in the formation of Hindu nationalism. While there were differences between the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS-Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and there are still differences between the RSS and the BJP, ideologically all of these bodies are like branches that have grown from the main trunk of Hindutva.

Savarkar’s party, the Hindu Mahasabha, had considered to put the image of the cow on its flag (though eventually an aum symbol and a swastika were chosen instead). During the cow protection demonstrations of 1950s and 1960s, Hindu Mahasabha members took to the streets, working hand in hand with their rivals on the Hindu Right – the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Ramrajya Parishad. In 1955, Hindu Mahasabha was one of the parties that abortively tried to push through a Cattle Preservation Bill in the Lok Sabha.

Tavleen Singh also ignores the obvious connections between Savarkar and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The organisation was, after all, the creation of the Hindu Mahasabha men. By the 1940s, the RSS separated itself from the Hindu Mahasabha. But while that parting may be the reason why the cult of Savarkar’s personality is not as strong in the RSS circles as that of Hedgewar or Golwalkar, Savarkar is by no means forgotten by them.

“Savarkar was no fan of the RSS,” Tavleen Singh claims. The RSS, however, was certainly among Savarkar’s fans. One can simply go through some recent issues of the RSS magazine Organiser to see how much it writes of him with reverence. The BJP-led government that ruled between 1999-2004 named the Port Blair airport named after Savarkar. The chain of RSS schools, Vidya Bharati, devotes a lot of space to him in his textbooks. The schools even celebrate Savarkar’s attempt to flee from British custody – his leap into the waters near Marseille in 1910 – with an annual swimming pool jump competition.

Yes, it is true that present-day Hindu nationalists are silent about many of Savarkar’s statements that they would find inconvenient: that he did not regard cows as holy, that he thought the Aryans came to India from Tibet, that he wanted the Hindu Mahasabha to support the 1950s Communist government of Kerala against the Congress, and some others. But the Hindu nationalists have focused on the essence of Savarkar’s thinking – and they got it right. The controversial parts of his thought fell off on the way, like the unwieldy parts of a mast, but the banner of his idea of Hindutva is still being carried.

The theory of Savarkar’s relevance

If I understand it correctly, Tavleen Singh declares that what India needs is an “enlightened view” of Savarkar’s Hindutva because he was “cultivating the scientific spirit” and because he was not a pacifist like Gandhi. If some of Gandhi’s ideas had been acted upon, Singh writes, “India would today have been pacifist enough to be fully vulnerable once more to be invaded.”

It is true that the pacifist policies of 1950s had put India in grave danger. It is also true, to his credit, that Savarkar did warn against this. He criticised the Panchseel doctrine. In 1956, he also pointed out that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had lost six years since the annexation of Tibet by remaining friendly towards China instead of preparing for conflict, while Beijing was arming itself. But while Savarkar was right on some scores, does it make Hindutva any more relevant now?

As for Savarkar’s scientific temper, Singh connects the main subject of her text symbolically to Chandrayaan-2 mission, which reached the moon soon after her column appeared. Savarkar, she writes, “would have approved proudly of India trying to enter her name in the small list of countries which have dared to explore the unknown frontiers of outer space”. Certainly. But what does this change? Nehru would have approved of this too, as would a vast number of people, I presume. Did Hindutva help India to reach the moon with two missions? It obviously did not, so in what ways would India need Hindu nationalism to further promote a scientific spirit?

The most dangerous thought here is what is needed is a “very enlightened view of Hindutva”. In its heart, Hindutva is a simple, divisive form of nationalism. I can hardly fathom that it could have any enlightened form at all.

Krzysztof Iwanek is a Head of the Asia Research Centre at War Studies University in Warsaw and a contributor to The Diplomat magazine.