Veer Savarkar: The Historian Extraordinaire
When one looks at history, one finds that all great social leaders have taken a keen interest in the past. It is how they have viewed history that shaped their own actions. A good example of that is Jawaharlal Nehru. His romantic view of Indian history, his parroting of the colonial history handed down by the British, his extension of the same with his own Marxist spicing and his one-dimensional linear view of progress which essentially aped the USSR, shaped his politics.
It distorted his perceptions of geo-political realities and to this day, the nation pays a heavy price. Of course with his ornately worded, left-oriented, romantic view of international politics, Nehru heaped for himself personal accolades, even as the nation heaped disasters at the frontiers and decades of riot refugees from East Pakistan.
If we look at Dr.Ambedkar, we find a much better, scholarly, original thinker. He questioned the Aryan race theory and foresaw its demise. He constructed his own view of the social history of the down-trodden masses of India that showed that they had a rightful claim to the glories of India’s past magnificence and thus had an equally rightful share in the future of the nation.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, popularly known as Veer Savarkar, was also a historian. In fact he was primarily a historian. He was a also a revolutionary and later a politician of extraordinary foresight. How he viewed history and learnt lessons from the past to understand the present as well as prepare for the future is an interesting dimension of this great patriot. At a very early stage, Savarkar the historian understood that the way history is constructed, the very terms of narrative are loaded with their own politics and power. For a nation to survive it has to reclaim its past. Savarkar, the utilitarian historian wrote:
The nation that has no consciousness of its past has no future. Equally true it is that a nation must develop its capacity not only of claiming a past, but also of knowing how to use it for the furtherance of its future. (1)
When the British historians and their Indian followers repeatedly termed the 1857 uprising as a ‘mutiny’, Savarkar contested this by calling 1857 a revolution. He wrote:
The history of the tremendous Revolution that was enacted in the year 1857 has never been written in this scientific spirit by an author, Indian or foreign. (2)
One should note here that Savarkar uses the term ‘scientific spirit’ and not nationalistic or patriotic spirit. What Savarkar the historian wanted was history as it happened and not eulogy. Only if the past is understood rationally and objectively can it be used for understanding the present and in preparation for the future. Otherwise, one may live in a fool’s paradise.
Nevertheless Savarkar was not a dry historian piling facts with no emotions. As a historian he was brutally objective and the objective historian in him fed the emotional revolutionary. The scientific research into 1857 convinced the patriot Savarkar that what happened in 1857 was indeed a national revolution. Armed with the facts of history, he gave this emotional call to his fellow countrymen, to carry on the unfinished tasks of the revolutionaries of 1857:
We take up your cry, we revere your flag; we are determined to continue that fiery mission of ‘away with the foreigner’, which you uttered, amidst the prophetic thundering of the revolutionary war. (3)
Savarkar chose 1907 to release his book, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the great uprising. Consequently, the book was banned by the British and became a must-read for all Indian revolutionaries such as Madame Cama, Lala Har Dayal, Bhagat Singh, and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
When Savarkar brought out the work, British intelligence could lay their hand on only one chapter of the book. And what they found, shocked them. A report about this first chapter from an official with Home Department of the Government of Bombay states with visible alarm:
The [chapter] is only a small fragment of a book containing nearly 470 pages, each page redolent of the most inflammatory language with quotations from English authors describing most pathetic and pitiably tragic scenes and so forth.(4)
Not an idle arm chair historian he was. And the work itself remained banned by the government for the next forty years.
Savarkar the historian made Savarkar the pragmatist patriot to understand one bitter truth from the history of 1857. That Indians have been intentionally and systematically de-militarized by the colonial regime. Unless that condition was reversed, another uprising was almost impossible.
So he waited. When the opportunity came in the form of the Second World War, he urged Indian youths to join the army. It was not just national independence that Savarkar envisaged. He saw military recruitment as an opportunity for the caste-ridden Hindu society to remove the ills of caste divisions. So he actively supported Dr.Ambedkar’s call for Mahar youths to join the British army. Dhananjay Keer, the official biographer of Dr.Ambedkar states:
Savarkar, who wished the Hindus to be reborn into a martial race, expressed his hope that under the able guidance of Ambedkar the Mahar brethren would be re-animated with the military qualities and their military uplift would contribute to the consolidation of Hindus. (5)
This move later helped Subash Chandra Bose in his organizing of INA. Bose openly acknowledged in his Azad Hind Radio broadcast (June 25, 1944), this vision and role of Savarkar:
When due to misguided political whims and lack of vision, almost all the leaders of Congress party have been decrying all the soldiers in Indian Army as mercenaries, it is heartening to know that Veer Savarkar is fearlessly exhorting the youths of India to enlist in armed forces. These enlisted youths themselves provide us with trained men and soldiers for our Indian National Army. (6)
Perhaps his magnum opus as a historian was his ‘Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History’.
Any history text book of India that a student studies today shows India as being repeatedly overrun by invading foreigners. This is only natural because such a historical narrative helped British to inculcate in the minds of Indians the idea that they are a society born to be slaves of another foreign power or culture. The success of this approach is that even today we perceive ourselves as slaves of the mind and culture of the West.
On the other hand, Savarkar concentrated on the various freedom struggles and peoples’ movements against the foreign invasions. He chronicled how Indian resistance to foreign invasions and imposition of foreign ways of life on Indian people happened. The six epochs present Indian history as a long epic narrative of Indians facing the onslaughts of the enemies, sometimes being overcome, and how they formed resistance and overthrew the enemies or assimilated them or made them subservient to Indic might.
Savarkar the social historian was not given to fantasies of casteism and social stagnation. Rather, he understood the social dynamics and presented the fact that only a society that regards talent and not birth based ritualism as its civilizational ethos can successfully face and conquer the aggressive enemies. He decried the fabrication of fashionable genealogies constructed for great achievers. Social commentary Savarkar makes here remains relevant today:
Was Chandragupta a social outcaste? Was he not a Kshatriya? What matters though! Chandragupta could have said with justifiable pride, “More than any of you, nominal caste-born Kshatriyas, who bowed your heads to the Mlechhas, the Greek emperor and his commanders, I, a ‘peerless’ Chandragupta, have a greater claim to being a Kshatriya in as much as with my sword I have completely vanquished those very Mlenchhas in every battlefield.” With the same haughty affront of Karna, he could have flung in the face of those railing enemies the following words:
“Whether a charioteer or a charioteer’s son.Or whoever (else) I may be, (that is of no consequence!) Birth in a (noble) family depends on fate; but manliness depends on me I” (Bhatta Narayan, Act III, 37 91). The son of Mura is a Maurya! That is precisely why Chandragupta is called a Maurya. Proud of his maternal extraction Chandrgupta designated his royal family as Maurya and immortalized the name of his mother, Muradevi in Indian history. The Maurya emperors accepted the same Moriya caste too, (one which traded in peacocks) that belonged to his mother. (7)
Another important work on history written by Veer Savarkar was ‘Hindu Pad Padashahi‘. Titled in English as ‘The Maratha Movement’, the book describes the Maratha struggle to re-establish the Hindu Empire in India. This was written in 1925. The book was written when Savarkar was still a political prisoner. Savarkar had no luxury of getting reference books from world libraries. Yet, when the book came the whole thesis could be substantiated from varied research works and well known authorities. Great Indian nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai exclaimed about the book thus:
It is full of facts congested in a small space arranged with skill and made to speak with tongues of fore and love. In my opinion every Indian politician ought to read it. (8)
A question arises as to whether such a historiography would lead to furthering of the bitterness between Hindu and Muslim communities. Savarkar in his foreword to ‘Hindu Pad Padashahi’ answers this question both as a historian and as a humanistic nationalist.
We ought to read history not with a view to finding out the best excuse to perpetuate the old strife and stress, bickerings and bloodsheds, whether in the name of our blessed motherland or of our Lord God, that divided man from man and race from race, but precisely for the contrary reason…
…far from standing in the way of any real and honourable unity between our Hindus and our Muslim countrymen, it makes a frank and lasting union far more feasible than it would have otherwise have been and deserves therefore to be especially recommended to the attention of all Indian patriots, Muslims as well as Hindus. It cannot fail to act as a sedative on blustering snobbery on the one hand and as a stimulant to mopping self-diffidence on the other. (9)
The book brings out in great detail how the Maratta navy defeated the European forces and how complacency brought the curtains on the last Hindu empire.
It was based on this scientific understanding of history that Veer Savarkar asked Hindu youths to join the Indian army in large numbers. In his call given on 24th March, 1942, he addressed the Hindu youths to join the army, particularly the navy in Konkan area. He reasoned:
Ever since I was in Ratnagiri the District Hindusabha there along with some of my distinguished Bhandari friends in Konkan have been demanding entry into the Navy for the Konkan Hindus. Now that the Government has thrown open, under pressure of circumstances, the services in the navy to the Hindus we shall be only harming our own interests if we lose this long expected chance to revive the naval military spirit in our people in Konkan….
It is these Hindu communities like the Dhandaris, Kharvis and others who once rendered the Maratha Navy a terror over the Portuguese and the English and had inflicted several crushing defeats in naval engagements on them as for example when in a sea-fight the well-known English war-ship ‘Revenge” was captured by the Marathas. The children of Konkan, as it is said regarding the children of Britain, begin to play with the waves as soon as they begin to play with toys and have an inborn aptitude to make the best fighting material for the sea forces of our nation. Unfortunately these naval instincts were deliberately suppressed till today by the British Government….
Remember again that the proportion of Hindus in the military, naval and aerial forces today is already dangerously low. If even now the Hindus, through folly or fear fail to enter these forces, others, unconcerned with Hindu interests and in cases even ready to endanger them will rush in and we Hindus shall find ourselves in a worse plight and weaker by far even than what we are today.” (10)
Here one sees how Savarkar the historian displays his ability to relate history of the past with the challenges the nation faces in the present and intuit and shape the future with all the pregnant possibilities and challenges. History is witness to the genius of a historian in Savarkar when during Partition, thanks to his advice and efforts Indian army was dominated by Hindus and Sikhs. Had the impractical romantic pacifism prevailed and prevented Indian youths from joining the army in early 1940s, the whole of Kashmir, large chunks of Punjab, Bengal and Assam would have become part of Pakistan, not to speak of the humiliating ethnic cleansing that would have taken place in these provinces.
1. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Author’s Introduction to the original edition, The Volcano, English Edition: 1909
2. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, The Volcano, Chapter-I, p. 19
3. Circulated by Savarkar under the title ‘Oh Martyrs’ on 10th May 1908
4. Government of Bombay, Home (Special) Department, 60-C/1908-10: “V.D. Savarkar: Book entitled ‘Indian War of Independence of 1857’ by an Indian Nationalist,” Maharashtra State Archives (MSA). Cited in : John Pincince, 2007
5. Dhananjay Keer, Dr.Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Popular Prakashan, 1954:2011, p.338
6. Dhananjay Keer, Veer Savarkar, Popular Prakashan, 1950:2012, p.350
7. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Bal Savarkar Savarkar Sadhan, 1963:1971 (English), pp.38-9
8. Lala Lajpat Rai, Endorsement in ‘The Maratha Movement, 1925:2003, Hindi Sahitya Sadan
9. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Author’s Foreword, The Maratha Movement, 1925:2003, Hindi Sahitya Sadan, pp.21-22
10. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Smart Hindu Youths should join the navy, Statement issued on 23-4-1942