Nehru and Savarkar: Ideological intersection in the origins of the idea of India
Updated: May 9
Perhaps no two political figures in modern Indian history have been considered more antithetical to one another than Jawaharlal Nehru and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The self-professed admirer of socialism, Nehru, the first prime minister of India, is seen as an emblem of pluralism while Savarkar, with his sectarian fusing of Hindu religion with nationalism, is considered parochial and divisive.
This essay analyses two seminal texts, Nehru’s The Discovery of India (1946), and Savarkar’s Hindutva (1923), both composed when the writers were imprisoned by the British government for participating in the freedom movement, to show how, while these two leaders built differing, even antagonistic political projects, the ideas they used in conceptualising an independent homeland contained areas of significant convergence.
The founding principles of the India that the two men, trained in law in England, dreamt of, and the vocabulary they used – whether quoting Yeats (‘balanced all, brought all to mind’, Nehru 1946: 22) or Shakespeare (‘What’s in a name?’ Savarkar 1969: 1) – placed them in a “nationalist-collaborator” role (Hussain 1974: 1) simultaneously playing freedom fighter and consummate intermediary with access to the culture of the rulers. Nehru declared that he was “the last Englishman to rule India”, while Savarkar promised “to be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress”.
Through this essay I shall chart out four primary areas of confluence in the way Nehru and Savarkar framed the notion of India – (a) construction of a common “sacred geography” (Eck 2011) in which they find their “hidden heart of national identity” (Schama 1995: 56); (b) the shared narrative of masculinity; (c) framing through “Eastern nationalism” (Plamenatz 1973) the lens where they feel compelled to contest a sense of cultural inadequacy; (d) and though both of them avow a moral rejection of a caste-based social structure, they cannot escape its use, even covert defence, as an inherent part of the body polity.
The comparison between The Discovery of India and Hindutva shall show us how the modern Indian nation was created through an ideological tussle whose dispute is well-documented but commonality at origin is often ignored.
What bridges the vision of Nehru and Savarkar in The Discovery of India and Hindutva is a permeating sense of devotion, a language of piety, to a spatial topography which they imbibe with metaphysical meaning. For two men who declare aesthetical disinterest in religion, neither can construct the idea of a nation without theological tropes.
“I wandered over Himalayas, which are closely connected to old myth and legend… the mighty rivers of India that flow from this great mountain barrier into the plains of India… The Indus or Sifidhu from which our country came to be called India or Hindustan…” says The Discovery of India (Nehru 1946: 51), echoing Savarkar’s, “… the great Indus was known as Hindu to the original inhabitants of our land and owing to the vocal peculiarity of the Aryans it got changed into Sindhu…” (Savarkar 1969: 12). The ancients, argued Savarkar, were looking to find a word “… comprehensive enough… to express the vast synthesis that embraced the whole continent from the Indus to the sea and aimed to weld it into a nation” (Ibid.).
If nationalism is made up of “cultural artefacts of a particular kind” (Anderson 2006: 4), then these artefacts are to be found, for both Nehru and Savarkar, in geography. If for one, “The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture” (Nehru 1946: 51), for the other, the sense of the nation is created “out of their gratitude to the genial and perennial network of waterways that ran through the land like a system of nerve threads and wove them into a Being” (Savarkar 1969: 5).
Both men emphasise the interweave of co-related geographies, a mountain range here, a river there, all of them in conversation with one another, using the idea that “geography is a science of relationships” (Huntington 1928).
Their imagined communities (Anderson 2006) are plotted in scriptural terms with Nehru pointing to “vast numbers of common folk were continually travelling to the numerous places of pilgrimage… All this going to and fro and meeting people from different parts of the country must have intensified the conception of a common land and a common culture…” (Nehru 1946: 191) and Savarkar claiming to quote from the ancient Vishnu Purana, “The land which is to the north of the sea and to the south of the Himalaya mountain is named Bharata”.
But using this shared conception, they arrive at divergent destinations. Nehru talks of an India built as an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously” (Nehru 1946: 59). But for Savarkar assimilation (and not coexisting layering) is the key to nationhood, for instance for Muslims, he wants “worship as heroes our ten great avatars only adding Muhammad as the eleventh” (Savarkar 1969: 101) as the criterion for entry into the embrace of nationhood. This difference is stark, for instance, in describing the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni upon India. “Mahmud was far more a warrior than a man of faith and like many other conquerors he used and exploited the name of religion for his conquests… He enrolled an army in India and placed it under one of his noted generals, Tilak by name, who was an Indian and a Hindu. This army he used against his own co-religionists in central Asia” (Nehru: 1946: 235), while “…where religion is goaded by rapine and rapine serves as a handmaid to religion… such were the forces, overwhelmingly furious, that took India by surprise the day Mohammad crossed the Indus and invaded her” (Savarkar 1969: 44) — while they can agree with why their homeland is glorious, Nehru and Savarkar part ways in defining the enemies of India and their attributes.
In Nehru’s imagination of India, there is no defined ‘other’ whereas the ‘other’ for Savarkar is acutely established. For Savarkar, India is defined by influences that it must repel, while for Nehru, even in the most repellent of experiences, India is constructed of that which it absorbs — even from those that attack it.
In their imagining of India, there is also a shared sense between Nehru and Savarkar of “Eastern nationalism” (Plamenatz 1973). The Plamenatz model talks of two kinds of nationalism — Western and Eastern. Western nationalism, according to Plamenatz, is seen among Western countries which may have gone into decline but are sure of their cultural apparatus, whereas Eastern nationalism in places like Asia and Africa comes from “peoples recently drawn into a civilisation hitherto alien to them” (Plamenatz 1973: 25) and deals with a feeling of cultural inadequacy.
The Discovery of India has tracts of the questioning of such alien culture with undertones of a pushback against the inadequacy of the native culture. “Ancient Greece is supposed to be the fountainhead of European civilisation, and much has been written about the Orient and the Occident. I do not understand this… India, it is said, is religious, philosophical, speculative, metaphysical, unconcerned with this world, and lost in dreams of the beyond… So we are told, and perhaps those who tell us so would like India to remain plunged in thought… so that they might possess this world…” (Nehru 1946: 152). Savarkar has even more emotive fare: “The Indians saw that the cherished ideals of their race… were trampled underfoot, the holy land of their love devastated and sacked by hordes of barbarians” (Savarkar 1969: 21).
Nehru disagreed with poet Matthew Arnold’s description of the East (“The East bow’d low before the blast; In patient, deep disdain; She let the legions thunder past; And plunged in thought again”) in The Discovery of India, writing, “But it is not true that India has ever bowed patiently before the blast or been indifferent to the passage of foreign legions. Always she has resisted them, often successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, and even when she failed for the time being, she has remembered and prepared herself for the next attempt.” (Nehru 1946: 142). Savarkar makes a similar point of forgotten valour, when attacked, he argued, “… the enlightened would perhaps remain as unaffected as ever… But the rest of the Hindus could not then drink with equanimity this cup of bitterness and political servitude at the hands of those whose barbarous violence could still be soothed by the mealy-mouthed formulas of ahimsa (non-violence)” (Savarkar 1969: 19).
Unmistakably, there is a streak of “nationalism is paranoia” (Kis 1966) in this. In fact, the reinforcement of the vision of nationalism based on “an ancient civilizational entity” (Oomen 1999) is consistently used as a counterbalance to the cultural inadequacy Nehru and Savarkar seem to sense around them.
Perhaps it is because of this feeling of insufficiency that both men seep into their description of India strong undertones of masculinity.
Underlining both texts, there is a sense of romanticist masculinity, a portrayal of adventure — theoretically this is their journey to become “men of consequence” (Ruddiman 2014). Nehru has an effusive description of the moon from his jail room in the beginning of The Discovery of India, “The moon, ever a companion to me in prison, has grown more friendly… a reminder of the loveliness of this world…” (Nehru 1946: 15). His portrayal of prison life as a romantic ideal started early and stayed on. “Nehru thrilled in jail-going, and there is, in his letters and diaries of the early twenties, the glow of virginal suffering and self- indulgent sacrifice.” (Gopal 1976). In The Discovery of India, Nehru brags about how he bravely spurned an invitation to meet Mussolini despite being on a visit to Rome and immense diplomatic pressure (Nehru 1946: 47). On his part, Savarkar’s self-imagery and positioning is lucid. He mentions, “Forty centuries, if not more” have gone by to as “prophets and poets, lawyers and law-givers, heroes and historians, have thought, lived, fought and died” establish the legitimacy of the word Hindutva (Savarkar 1969: 3). There is no confusion about his self-placement in that pantheon — Savarkar is, in his own assessment, the latest in the list of historical figures battling to establish the credentials of Hindutva.
There is a difference, though, in the tonality of their masculinity. Nehru develops a voice of “avuncular masculinity” (Krishnamurti 2014), a derivative of the Gandhian “Satyagraha… has been conceived as the weapon of the strongest” (Gandhi 1938). For instance, for all the talk of non-violence, Nehru hastens to explain in The Discovery of India that non-violence did not prevent the Congress from formulating the creation of a military or police force in independent India (Nehru 1946: 444). Savarkar has a more militant ideology and displays an “anxious Hindu masculinity” (Gupta 2011) as he pushes forth the idea of sangathan (organisation), “The numerical strength of our race is an asset that cannot be too highly prized” (Savarkar 1969: 134), and in his worldview every enemy of India is defined in terms of “bitter haters of Hindus” (Savarkar 1969: 59) and every hero as “you are the restorer of the Hindu religion and the destroyer of the Mlechhas (foreigners)” (Ibid.).
Nehru and Savarkar also denounced caste in the personal and public but failed to escape putting forth its relevance, even defence, in the making of India as they saw it. India may have had caste discrimination, but this was better than the slave labour in ancient Greece, argues Nehru. “Within each caste there was equality… each caste was occupational and applied itself to its own particular work. This led to a high degree of specialization and skill…” (Nehru 1946: 216). Savarkar is more strident, “… pull down the barriers that have survived their utility… of castes and customs… Let this ancient and noble stream of Hindu blood flow from vein to vein” (Savarkar 1969: 129). Savarkar could only “pull down” dated customs, never completely remove caste as there is always a lurking sense that Hindu unity would be lost without caste.
This essay, for reasons of brevity, does not make a claim to depict in its entirety, the ideological roots and commonality between Nehru and Savarkar. But it does aim to succinctly show that even though contemporary imagination pitches them as irreconcilable adversaries, the men were products of their class and milieu. It is conceivably Nehru’s exposure to socialism and Gandhian pacifism that enables him to construct a multicultural teleology (Guttman 2003). Savarkar’s early rejection of “mealy-mouthed ahimsa” leads to a radical path including an accusation in the assassination of Gandhi. That the two men differed in their conclusions, and Nehru’s subsequent leadership of independent India, established his vision of a mosaic society in India. But it is because of the early commonalities that Savarkar’s monochromatic viewpoint never disappeared and, as the rise of Hindu nationalism has shown, may yet be strong enough to mount a sustained challenge.
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(Hindol Sengupta is an award-winning writer and historian.)