By Arnold Zeitlin 2 July 2023
This little book has been around since its initial publication in 2002, with at least seven reprints, plus a digital print edition in 2O20. Its message remains relevant as India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), continues its slide from a secular, inclusive democracy to a Hindu nationalist state in which those who do not embrace the Hindu religion and/or culture or other indigenous Indian religions become second-class citizens.
The book is a polemic. Its author, a Mumbai lawyer now in his 90s, is much less interested in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as the founder of the Hindutva movement as he is in trying to demonstrate that Savarkar was the brains behind the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January 1948.
“The BJP’s attempt to project Savarkar as a national hero is, in effect, as (sic) attempt to displace Gandhi from his position as a symbol of Indian nationalism,” Noorani writes. adding that since India’s home minister at the time and a commission of inquiry 20 years later “held that Savarkar led the conspiracy to kill Gandhi makes the BJP’s game all the more insidious and revolting.”
To Noorani’s earlier dismay, Savarkar, one of seven to be tried on a charge of being part of a conspiracy to murder Gandhi, was the only defendant acquitted. The lead defendant, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, who actually pumped three bullets into Gandhi’s chest, was convicted and hanged in November 1949.
Noorani notes that Godse and Savarkar had known one another since 1929 and a witness at his trial had testified that he heard Savarkar tell Godse “be successful and come back” as the assassin-to-be was leaving Savarkar’s home two weeks before the killing. The judge in the trial found such evidence against Savarkar too “vague and inadequate” to convict.
Noorani devotes four of his six chapters to Savarkar and his embrace of Hindutv, a label he claimed Savarkar coined in a 1923 essay, although history gives credit to a 19th century Bengali scholar, Chandranath Basu, who published in 1892 a work entitled Hindutva—Hindur Prakrita Itihas, roughly translated as Hindu nature history. Savarkar certainly amplified the concept as a .cultural and political ideology, especially since he claimed to be a non-believer, an atheist.
Savarkar initially became prominent for his violent, revolutionary ideas for the independence of India, which got him shipped off by the British in 1911 for a 50-year sentence to a penal colony in the remote Andaman islands, where his elder brother, Ganesh, was already a resident. He and Gandhi had met in London, and Savarkar had been suspected of but never tried for being behind the assassination of a British colonial officer in London. By the time he was pardoned in 1924, Savarkar had abandoned advocating Indian independence and was deep into Hindutva.
According to Noorani’s narrative, Savarkar went from calling for Hindu-Muslim unity in the early 20th century to create an independent United States of India to advocating a Hindu nationalism that by1999 was adopted by Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP) in an election manifesto that said “Hindutva…shall be the rainbow which will bridge our present with our glorious past and pave the way for an equally glorious future.”
Noorani quotes liberally from Savarkar’s writing as well as from the testimony in the Gandhi murder trial and makes this oft-reprinted little book a useful tool for those interested in determining if India is on the path to a “glorious future”.