“Ultimately, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is the name of a blown-up, grotesque temptation…” (Nandy 2009, 10). Ashis Nandy’s words on the “father of Hindutva” are severe and unambiguous. Savarkar represents, according to the famous Indian critic, an age-old desire found in emerging countries, to model a fantasized nationalist identity as replica of unquestioned western symbols. By calling this urge a “temptation,” which, moreover, he adds, many other ideologues have encountered, Nandy does not deny the supposed interest of the view, but questions the ethical meaning of its adoption. In his article “The Demonic and the Seductive in Religious Nationalism, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and the Rites of Exorcism in Secularizing South Asia,” Ashis Nandy traces the genealogy and draws the stakes of this temptation. I shall attempt here to present and discuss some of the claims offered by the author.
These early fights for independence (Savarkar renamed the 1857 revolt The Indian War of Independence) called as much for the liberation of India from its English restraint as for a thorough definition of what future, free India would be. For Savarkar and others, there was but only one solution: India would have to become a nation-state.
Nandy’s starting point is that of the modern need for a reformed Hinduism. “Both the individuation and the mobility have taken place in a relatively impersonal, contractual, anonymous, urban-industrial context, where mainstream Hinduism in all its diversity … cannot be sustained” (1). However, for many Indians, such a reformed and redefined spirituality marked a distantiation too vast to be of any good, even within the very flexible Hinduism. It is in reaction to this progressive evolution that pro nationalist movements have emerged, stemming from the Young Bengal Group in the 1840s in Kolkata, to the (in)famous V.D. Savarkar in the 1910s and 1920s. One recurring claim of such movements was that India was a “sleep-walking crypto-nation that had not actualized its possibilities” (2), that India had nationhood at its heart but never could express it because of the continued invasions of outsiders. These early fights for independence (Savarkar renamed the 1857 revolt The Indian War of Independence) called as much for the liberation of India from its English restraint as for a thorough definition of what future, free India would be. For Savarkar and others, there was but only one solution: India would have to become a nation-state. Inspired by European nationalists like Italian Guiseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), Savarkar saw in a nation-state not only the opportunity to reaffirm the racial and ideological superiority of India, but also a solution to inter-religious matters. The first propounder of the two-nation theory in South Asia (3), Savarkar contrasted Gandhi’s non-violent discourse with an appeal to the cultivation of “sturdy habits of hatred, retaliation, vindictiveness.” Here, Nandy attempts a psychological portrait and argues that, for Savarkar, violence was not just “a revolutionary tool, but an end in itself” (4), a means to liberate his profound and peculiar anger.
One very interesting feature of Savarkar’s ideology is his paradoxical use of religion. On the one hand, he professes a separation from the Vedas (in Essentials of Hindutva, he argues that one does not even have to follow these sacred texts to be considered as Hindu) and was well-known as a non-believing Hindu, while at the same time he was expecting of the Hindus to consider India not just as their Patribhu (the pro-masculine ‘father India’ symbol), but as their Punyabhu (holy land). Nonetheless, if Savarkar was to copy the European nationalist frame, secularism had to be a fundamental trait of his imagined Indian nation. But Nandy notices rightfully, “the post-seventeenth century idea of nation-state and secularism have both been complicit with ethnoreligious violence during the last two centuries” (5).
What is exactly the process that Nandy accuses, behind the politics of V.D. Savarkar? Savarkar is the example of an almost copy-paste enterprise, the fantasying of an idealized west that would get transposed in Asia without facing any difficulty. Following Nandy’s psychological analysis, we could also talk of something similar to the “Stockholm syndrome” in Savarkar’s ideology: he recuses the controlling presence of any foreign power, and in particular the last in date, the Britishers, but in the meantime he seems to wish seeing in his own land the repetition of the seemingly peaceful state of affairs of Europe. But this transposition is not free of charge: the words of Savarkar alone (he remained out of official positions of political power as such) have sufficed to contribute to the emergence of a political microcosm where the formation of a nation is the ultimate goal, whatever the cost would turn out to be: “there is a natural fear that unless one builds a nation, whatever its cost in human suffering, one will not get justice locally or globally” (9). In this dream, we see the shadow of the idea of the greater good found with by European utilitarians and professed, for instance, in the history of societies by Hegel, one that also defined western society and, paradoxically, their colonial enterprise. Savarkar and his co-nationals have fell pray of the aggressive politics of the west, yet some of them reacted to it only by an exact mimetism. Jinnah, Savarkar’s alter-ego, would only confirm the same line: once asked, in 1946, whether the Direct Action of the Muslim League would be violent or non-violent, he replied, “I am not going to discuss ethics.” (9). The contagion of the ideals of western nationalism in South Asia shows that one does not have to wait for the contemporary period to attest of the magnitude and the pitfalls of globalization.
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