Accusations of Hinduphobia in those who do not see eye-to-eye with Hindutva have reached new heights in recent years. An obscure 19th-century concept is now the default mantra for Hindutva-vadis against all critiques of their ideas.

The recent furore against the upcoming conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva” (September 10-September 12) has made me wonder whether, ironically, these same individuals might also – if they had the patience and capacity to read his large corpus of writing – need to identify Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as Hinduphobic.

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After all, a basic truth made clear in Savarkar’s writing is that Hindutva is not Hinduism. They are not equivalents. In fact, you do not have to read Savarkar all that carefully to see the clarity with which he argued that Hindus should consider “abandoning” the concept of Hinduism as part of their lexicon.

One does not need to search deep into his oeuvre to discover Savarkar’s distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism. In Essentials of Hindutva, published in 1923, he begins by clarifying that “Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva”. He declared Hinduism as one of the many “isms” that had plagued modernity, by calling it a “spiritual or religious dogma or system”.

He not only argued that Hinduism was inferior in comparison to Hindutva, he also stated that it was “more limited, less satisfactory and essentially a sectarian term”.

An existential crisis

The Marathi intellectual and Marxist scholar GP Deshpande had long argued that Hindutva-vadis do not actually read Savarkar. I think we should take Deshpande’s claim seriously, despite the increasing number of celebrations of Savarkar’s life as exemplary for Hindus. I suspect that Savarkar’s arguments about Hindutva and Hinduism would create an existential crisis among those who claim to be his supporters.

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If their logic is that any critique of Hindutva or Hinduism is a form of Hinduphobia, then certainly Savarkar’s call to abandon “Hinduism” – he believed it was an inferior concept created by Western Orientalists – should also be viewed in the same framework.

Does this mean that Savarkar himself was Hinduphobic?

There was once a period in the 1930s when Sanatanis in Maharashtra decided to stage protests against Savarkar’s call for temple entry for, and inter-dining with, “Untouchables”. Petitions were circulated to British officials demanding that Savarkar be prevented from speaking because it was believed he posed a threat to social order, that he was hurting the sentiments of Hindus. Rocks and chappals were regularly thrown at Savarkar’s processions.

Does this mean that these adherents of Sanatan Dharma were Hinduphobic? Or does it mean, conversely, that Savarkar’s advocacy of social reform linked to Hindutva was Hinduphobic as it was hurting the sentiments of Hindus?

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If the adherents of Hindutva actually read Savarkar, they would know that he also advocated the need for Hindus to kill other Hindus. Savarkar’s intended Hindu victims were individuals who promoted ahimsa. Savarkar saw ahimsa as a kind of weakness that needed to be weeded out. In similar vein he identified as effeminate all Hindus who lacked a theory of warfare.

Was Savarkar Hinduphobic in celebrating the killing of Hindus? When Savarkar and Gandhi publicly disagreed with each other on interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita or the meaning of the Ramayana, did this mean that both were Hinduphobic?

Textual pluralism

To push this argument further, are all disagreements between Hindus merely expressions of Hinduphobia? By this logic, the only end to Hinduphobia would be the annihilation of all Hindus, which would happen when there could be no critique of Hindus, Hinduism, and Hindutva. Perhaps this is what all Hindutva-vadis actually desire: reductio ad absurdum.

I do wish that those Hindutva-vadis who decided to burn copies of the Kama Sutra in Ahmedabad recently had read Savarkar on what he called “the sexual urges of mankind”. As also the importance he attached to Hindus celebrating their rich literary traditions. They would then learn what Savarkar clearly argued, namely, that the libido was more powerful than the claims of any man, god, or prophet. They would also then understand that Savarkar celebrated textual pluralism, and that he had a deep affection for the Bible.

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Will these Hinduva-vadis who burned the Kama Sutra now seek to destroy the temples at Khajuraho based on their same argument of indecency? Is the artistic magnificence of Hindu temple architecture to be made hostage to Victorian notions of sexual correctness?

The question that in fact comes to mind by carefully understanding Savarkar’s sophisticated and clear-headed mind, as evident from his Marathi and English writings – the vast bulk of which I have read over many years – is this: are these modern Hindutva-vadis who claim Savarkar as their hero in fact themselves Hinduphobic?

In 1937, the Marxist revolutionary MN Roy shared a stage in Mumbai with Savarkar. Roy wanted to introduce Savarkar as a great revolutionary who had influenced him in his childhood. But Roy also publicly disagreed with Savarkar’s interpretations of Hindu-Muslim relations and his conceptualisation of Hindutva. Savarkar did not denounce Roy as Hinduphobic.

On the contrary, he shared a stage with this Marxist and stated that Roy was more interested in structural inequality based on class differences, and not in the divisions between Hindus and Muslims. Savarkar added that he was willing to accept Roy’s description of socialism as long as it meant equality for all Hindus.

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The fact is that Savarkar himself exemplifies a liberal principle and broad-minded intellection when he shows, by his presence alongside MN Roy, that political enemies could and should have a debate about ideas. Modern Hindutva-vadis betray their own hero Savarkar when making it clear that debate is no longer possible.

Claiming victimhood

The purpose of an academic conference on “Dismantling Global Hindutva” is exactly meant to debate interpretations about the very meaning of Hindutva in the 21st century. Those who oppose the conference without even knowing what scholars will actually say by declaring all participants “Hinduphobic” is a sign that those who promote Hindutva no longer have the capacity for intellectual exchange. Instead, Hindutva-vadis have mastered intimidation and threats of violence, rape, and murder as a way to shut down any intellectual engagement, all the while claiming victimhood in the process.

Hindu fragility is something that Savarkar had anticipated during his lifetime. He claimed that the more the Hindus worshipped cows, the more the Hindus would behave like cows.

Savarkar also wanted to harness what he saw as Hindu fragility into excessive or cruel violence as a form of vengeance, which is why he promoted the lion as the spirit animal of Hindus, and celebrated Narasinh’s savage killing of Hiranyakshipu. The fact is that without the claims of victimhood and hurt sentiments, the entire edifice of contemporary Hindutva-vadis falls apart. The endless repetition of Hinduphobia as a chant against anyone who provides a critique of Hindutva is today’s tactic to reinforce the idea that those Hindus who support Hindutva are victims.

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I cherish this simple irony: that if Hindutva-vadis actually read what Savarkar had to say about Hindutva and Hinduism, we would be one step closer to the declaration that Savarkar was Hinduphobic.

Vinayak Chaturvedi is at the History Department, University of California, Irvine. His Essentials of History: VD Savarkar and the Meaning of Hindutva will be published in 2022 by Permanent Black and Ashoka University, and subsequently by the State University of New York Press.