Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is often considered a non-human subject. Many of his followers and supporters revere him as a deity, while some of his detractors and antagonists see him as evil incarnate – a monster. Both are incorrect.
Conversely, I support something quite banal: Savarkar was human. I think Savarkar would have preferred this cropping.
But before any reader misunderstands my point, let me explain.
While I was recently teaching the writings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for one of my undergraduate classes, it occurred to me that there were a lot of writings on the diseases and health issues of Gandhi as part of an effort to think about Gandhi’s humanity, but nothing comparable exists in the Savarkar literature. Scholars are only too aware of the difficulties of writing about figures like Gandhi and Savarkar who occupy a larger-than-life status in public culture. Interpreting them as human subjects and discussing their vulnerabilities and frailties is often met with suspicion and dismay.
Gandhi made his body a subject of political protest and self-inflicted wounds through his fasts on public display, while discussing everyday issues of illness and health as part of his interpretation of modernity. Savarkar’s life circumstances and politics followed a completely different trajectory, particularly as a political prisoner in the Andamans.
Unsurprisingly, Savarkar had a lot to say about what it meant to be Human. These ideas informed his conceptualizations of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindutva’ which need to be seen as central to his political thinking.
In its key text The essence of Hindutva (1923), Savarkar argues that blood is what makes us human. He further argues that our humanity is tied to our sexuality, particularly when he notes that “sexual attraction has proven more powerful than the commandments of all the prophets put together.”
Our ability to speak also made us human – an observation with which linguists would later agree. Most important was Savarkar’s assertion that violence is a key feature of human nature.
by Savarkar work is replete with analyzes that all humans are violent, including Hindus. To emphasize this assertion, Savarkar added that Ahimsah (non-violence) was contrary to being human. In fact, he argued that supporters of nonviolence should suffer a cruel and brutal death. AT to be human was to recognize oneself as a violent being. Only Hindus who understood the human condition would be up to the task of inflicting violence in the name of humanity. This interpretation was Savarkar’s gift to the Hindutva-go awaywho have embraced this essence of being Hindu.
Savarkar also wrote about suffering as part of the human condition. He explained that Hindus had mourned for millennia as victims of invasions. While the early invaders, such as the Greeks, Huns, Sakas and Kushanas, had been conquered or assimilated by the Hindus, and the later Europeans, such as the Portuguese and the British, had been forced out of India , the Hindus had continued to suffer at the hands of the Muslims. Yet if suffering was a part of being human, there was no endgame to Savarkar’s argument. The only remedy was for the Hindus to seek what he called “justifiable revenge” in permanent warfare.
Today’s Hindutvago away echo this assertion by declaring that they are in a thousand year war against Muslims, confirming that violence remains essential to being a Hindu.
Savarkar’s writings also provide insight into his personal suffering. While accounts of his difficult time as a prisoner in the Andaman Cellular Jail are well known in this context, what is often overlooked are the physical and mental illnesses he experienced throughout his life. As French theorist Roland Barthes points out in his autobiography, writing about life means writing about the body, its anatomy, its illnesses, its distress. Yet I realize that talking about Savarkar’s health is walking a fine line in the eyes of Savarkar’s followers and critics. Savarkar’s humanity cannot simply be reduced to a discussion of his illnesses.
At a seminar, I once discussed that Savarkar’s body weight had dropped to 95 pounds as he had been ill for over a year in the cell prison. This was around the time he was writing petitions asking to leave the Andamans. He also wrote a letter to his brother Narayan Damodar Savarkar asking for his help as he was unsure whether he would survive the malarial climate and a long illness.
An audience member was very upset and accused me of trying to “humanize” Savarkar. He could not be redeemed as a human, I was told.
One of the criticisms philosopher Hannah Arendt faced in her reporting on the 1961 trial of German Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann was that she spent too much time discussing his health and appearance. Arendt went further, saying that Eichmann reflected “the banality of evil.” She was excoriated for suggesting that Eichmann was just plain ordinary: a human, not a demon. Even the most brutal killers can look unremarkable or pathetic when they’re powerless, old, or sick.
For Arendt, it was Eichmann’s banality that offered a window into his evil deeds. The challenge Arendt faced, and it is also relevant in writing about Savarkar, is: When is it no longer possible to write about a human subject as a human?
Savarkar presents a different kind of banality when talking about illnesses. Tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, malaria and dysentery are all mentioned in his writings. He frequently commented on the depression and suicidal tendencies of fellow cell prison inmates. He shamed these people for considering suicide as he considered it an effeminate form of death. A male death was one that involved killing an enemy on the battlefield before dying. It was an act of verata and bravery which Savarkar aspired to, but was never realized.
Savarkar’s own experiences with angst are never fully discussed in his writings. There are delusions to psychic breaks at various times in his life, including in childhood. The best documented moment took place shortly after the execution of Madanlal Dhingra in 1909.
Almost every biographer – from Dhananjay Keer to Jaywant Joglekar to Harindra Srivastava – has written about how Savarkar broke down physically and mentally. Savarkar was distraught as he felt his political project had failed. He had nowhere to live in London and felt completely alienated. He believed he was constantly being followed.
Savarkar arrived in the coastal town of Brighton to stay with Niranjan Pal, the son of nationalist Bipin Chandra Pal. In an essay published in the maharatta (1938), Niranjan Pal described Savarkar’s fragile state at the time, noting that he sat by the seashore and “cried like a child”.
According to Pal, it was at this time that Savarkar apparently composed his famous poem “Sagaras”, a work which reflected his existential crisis. A line that Savarkar repeats throughout the poem is, “My soul is so tormented.” Each stanza ends with this sentence. He describes being trapped and overwhelmed by darkness. He asks the ocean to bring him back to Bharat Mata. Hindutva-go away have interpreted this poem as representing Savarkar’s devotion to the motherland as a patriot and a nationalist. Psychic breakdown and suicidal thoughts do not appear in these analyses.
Savarkar’s condition worsened and he was no longer able to take care of himself. He also developed bronchitis and pneumonia. He was sent to Mendip Hills Sanatorium in Wells, Somerset, where he was placed in the care of Dr David Chowry Muthu, a tuberculosis specialist who had published articles in British medical journals discussing the links between mental health and lung problems.
Dr. Muthu was a visitor to Shyamji Krishnavarma’s India House, where Savarkar resided for some time in London. It is possible that he and Savarkar met earlier. In fact, the cost of staying at the sanitarium was paid for by Krishnavarma. Dr. Muthu would later become Ramanujan’s doctor when the mathematician fell ill at Cambridge University. Details of Savarkar’s stay at the sanatorium are not well documented. It is also unclear whether Savarkar’s other reason for being sent to Wells was to receive treatment at nearby Mendip Hospital specializing in psychiatric care.
We know that Savarkar left Wells prematurely because he learned he could be arrested. He eventually made his way to Paris, where he continued to need help from friends.
Harindra Srivastava explains that he had interviewed Balarao Savarkar, Savarkar’s personal secretary. Balarao told something about Savarkar that had never been revealed before.
Once, when Savarkar was living in Bombay, he asked Balarao to accompany him to the sea. He explained that he was “going into the sea for good”.
Balarao was puzzled and asked Savarkar to explain what he meant. Savarkar apparently declared that he no longer wanted to live. Balarao convinced Savarkar to abandon any plans for suicide, saying there was a lot of work to be done for the cause of Hindutva.
Savarkar suffered from physical and mental health issues throughout his life. This is by no means an extraordinary revelation. The fact that Savarkar condemned other suicidal people as effeminate provides important insight into his own experiences of suicidality.
Throughout his writings he regularly blamed effeminate Hindus for the problems of all Hindus. If only Hindu men had expressed their masculinity throughout history, Hindus would not have fallen victim to foreign invaders, especially Muslims.
Savarkar left us an interpretation of the human condition that reflects his own subjectivity. The nom de guerre ‘Veuh attached to his name by his admirers reflects a hagiographic interpretation of Savarkar.
There was another side to him that shows him as all too human.
Vinayak Chaturvedi is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine. His forthcoming book Hindutva and violence: VD Savarkar and the politics of history will be published by Permanent Black in India and SUNY Press in the United States.
If you know someone – a friend or family member – who is at risk of suicide, please contact them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of phone numbers they can call to talk confidentially. Icall, a counseling service run by TISS, maintained a crowdsourced list of therapists across the country. You can also take them to the nearest hospital.