The Partition riots and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in independent India have often affected women and children the most. More recently, there was a degree of callousness and insouciance on all sides regarding the violence meted out to women and children during the riots in Gujarat between February and April 2002. This narrative will, therefore, confine itself to Savarkar's justification of violence against women and children in his essay on 1857. His spiritual children or manas putras in the Sangh Parivar have often claimed monopoly over morality and rectitude. However, citing examples from Savarkar's celebration of such violence would question this moral certitude. It would also suggest that Savarkar transformed Hindutva into the very image of the Islam he defined and found so intolerably objectionable.
A few examples from Savarkar's The First War of Independence of 1857 would suffice to illustrate these points. In Meerut, the rebels made rivers of blood of the English flow. Several women and children died after their houses were set on fire. Savarkar notes that the more English blood split, the more the rebels began to rejoice loudly. In Delhi, Jenning, his young daughter and a lady guest of theirs were killed. Bahadurshah Zafar had given refuge to a few Englishmen and women but they were soon eliminated. If some woman or child pleaded for mercy, the vengeful sword of the men leading the revolution decapitated the pleading head.
In Allahabad, most English children were in the fort and were killed. Savarkar describes this without emotion. A few pages later, he justifies the killings on the ground that they were for the sake of swadharma and swarajya.
It was a consequence of a hundred years of slavery. It was natural to retaliate and take revenge. The word Savarkar uses is 'pratishodh'. In Kanpur, Colonel Evert's wife was told that she was being spared because she was a woman. 'What woman! Isn't she a white woman? If so, cut her to pieces,' shouted a rebel. Mrs Evert was killed.
Englishmen, women and children were put on boats in Kanpur and asked to leave. This is what happened when they were in the Ganga:
In the meantime, the boats started burning. English men, women and children started leaping in the Ganga. Some started swimming, some drowned, some started burning and all of them, sooner or later, were killed by bullets. Pieces of flesh, decapitated heads, strands of hair, disembodied hands, broken legs, a flood of blood. The Ganga turned red … this is how the anniversary of Plassey was celebrated!
Savarkar's reference to 'celebrating' the anniversary of Plassey in this manner is noteworthy.
There is still more to come. Here is Savarkar's unemotional account of what happened in Bibigarh, in Kanpur. The scene is one where the prison guards refuse to massacre the English. Begum Saheb, the chief officer of Bibigarh, which is under rebel control, sends a message to the butcher's colony in Kanpur:
In a short while, the butchers entered Bibigarh with naked swords and sharp knives in the evening and emerged out of it late in the night. Between their entering and coming out, a sea of white blood spread all over. As soon as they entered with their swords and knives, they butchered one hundred and fifty women and children. A pool of blood collected there and body parts floated in it. While going in, the butchers walked on the ground and while coming out they had to journey through blood.
And then, this is what happened next morning:
As soon as it was morning, these poor creatures [those who were half-dead or dying] were dragged out and were pushed into a nearby well. Two children got out from under the weight of bodies and started running around the edge of the well. But they were pushed back into the well and fell over the dead.
Savarkar comments that the account accumulated between the two races had been squared in this manner.
Something similar happened in Jhansi prison. Sixty Englishmen, women and children were massacred. This is how Savarkar describes it:
Women had little children in their laps and these children were clinging on to their mothers. Those women, infants and older children who were clinging on to their mothers were guilty of being white and were decapitated with a black sword.
Savarkar's reaction: This was how the great injustice of Jhansi was avenged.
This was not a mere massacre, he says, but a holy, ritualistic sacrifice, a 'bali'. At one point, when the English caught the rebellious soldiers, and before they were hanged, the English asked them why they had killed their women and children. The soldiers replied: 'Sir, does anyone leave behind the litter of a snake after killing the snake?'
The story doesn't end here. A justification of revenge, retaliation and retribution was carefully built into Savarkar's retelling of 1857. A massacre, he says, is a terrible thing. It happens, however, because humankind has failed to approximate the lofty ideals of natural justice, peace, parity and universal brotherhood. In this day and age, asatya, untruth, rules over satya, truth. We can only wait for an era to dawn when truth will rule every heart. If someone in such an era were to spill blood or even utter the word pratishodh or revenge, he/she would automatically be considered vile, wretched and lowly. Acts of revenge in a society where ahimsa, non-violence, and justice rule would be considered sinful.
Savarkar regretted that such a divine epoch was far from being realized. Words like revolt, revolution, rebellion and revenge, therefore, were legitimate in order to remove injustice and bring about parity and justice. Revolt, bloodshed and revenge were at once the instruments of injustice and of bringing about natural justice. That is why Shivaji's claws were sacred, that is the reason Brutus's dagger was sacred and that is why the bloodshed of Italy's revolution was without blemish. Fear keeps a check on injustice. 'For every Hiranyakashyapu,' Savarkar quips, 'a Narasimha is essential; every Duhshasana requires a Bheema.'
Revenge, therefore, was the establishment of natural law and justice. From this axiom, Savarkar derived a principle of nationalism. He claimed that wherever injustice increased and nations went up in flames, wherever nationalist wars were fought, in such places revenge for injustices that the nation suffered were taken by killing the perpetrators of injustice of another nation.
This was not only part and parcel of Savarkar's theory of nationalism but also his lifelong project to make Hindus more manly. In the Madura session of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1940, Savarkar gave a clear exposition of his cherished goal:
It is in this spirit that I want all Hindus to get themselves re-animated and re-born into a martial race. Manu and Shri Krishna are our law givers and Shri Rama the Commander of our forces. Let us re-learn the manly lessons they taught us and our Hindu Nation shall prove again as unconquerable and conquering a race as we proved once when they led us: conquering those who dared to be aggressive against us and refraining ourselves, not out of weakness but out of magnanimity, from any unjustifiable designs of aggression against the unoffending.
The Hindus were a martial race, says Savarkar, with a history of great men who showed the path of manliness in the face of aggression. He admitted that there was a parallel tradition of forgiveness and non-aggression that was born out of Hindu superiority and magnanimity.
The above words justifying the Hindu martial strain were an outcome of Savarkar's denunciation of Gandhi and his philosophy of ahimsa, non-violence. Savarkar calls it 'the monomaniacal principle of absolute non-violence'.
Absolute non-violence in the face of incorrigible aggression was immoral. It was not 'an outcome of any saintliness but of insanity'. Even the Jains and the Buddhists had made exceptions to their philosophy of ahimsa.
Ahimsa was the other non-self (apart from Islam) that Savarkar's Hindu Self had to contend with. It was the only impediment in the completion of Savarkar's definition of a martial, forward-thrusting, unforgiving and aggressive Hindu Self. He had to reconcile with and neutralize the challenge posed by this formidable non-self, especially because ahimsa was rooted in the very Hindu civilization, which Savarkar privileged and celebrated.
The very embodiment of 'the mealy-mouthed formulas of Ahimsa and spiritual brotherhood' was the Buddha. Before launching his diatribe against the Buddha's philosophy, Savarkar played safe by paying a qualified tribute to the Enlightened One. He spoke of 'our love, admiration and respect for the Buddha—the Dharma—the Sangha'. They belong to the Hindu people. Their glories and failures are in equal measure 'ours'.
Buddhism's glories, however, belonged to a world far removed from Savarkar's matter-of-fact world. Here were found feet of clay and trishna or thirst so powerful and real they could not be quenched by the promise of nirvana. It was a world where steel could be easily sharpened. When the Huns and the Shakas poured into India 'like volcanic torrents', the Indians—in this passage Savarkar uses the term 'Indians' as a synonym for Hindus—realized that while they were superior to the hordes of barbarians invading India in language, religion, philosophy and mercy, the invaders were superior in 'Fire and Sword'. Buddhist logic was incapable of meeting this challenge, 'this strange Bible of Fire and Steel'. The leaders of thought and action in India had to rekindle the sacrificial fire of the Vedas, to sharpen the steel of war at the altar of Kali so that 'the Mahakal—the “Spirit of Time” [could] be appeased'.
National and racial distinctions in the world made men brutal. Savarkar was convinced that exchange of sword for rosary could not subdue animal passions, political ambitions or individual aggrandizement. Any talk, therefore, of international brotherhood and man's common humanity was utopian in the extreme. The dualism of fire and sword could not be abandoned as long as 'the whole world was red in tooth and claw'. The solution was a state backed by a religion, a 'church' as he puts it, which was intensely national. Only that could revive India's ability to resist sin, crime and aggression. Ahimsa and universalism had weakened these institutions and their ability to withstand external assaults on the nation, religion and race.
Savarkar wrote two plays centred around themes connected with the life of the Buddha. Bodhivriksha remained incomplete. The second play, Sanyastha Khadga (The Renunciate Sword) is a most lucid exposition of Savarkar's rejection of ahimsa and advocacy of violence. These plays have to be read also as thinly veiled attacks on the Mahatma and his philosophical system.
A substantial part of Sanyastha Khadga is devoted to debates between Vikram Singh, the commander-inchief of the Shakya kingdom, and the Buddha. To begin with, Vikram is a karmayogi who does not believe in renouncing the world. He believes in living in the world and developing the attitudes of a renunciate. The Buddha talks of the middle path and the need to embrace sanyas, renunciation. This, in turn, entails a rejection of kamini or women, krishi or agriculture, and khadga or arms. Vikram says that all these rejections are harmful for society and for the nation, more so the rejection of arms. Vikram considers an excessive preoccupation with ahimsa as self-destructive. Destruction of the self is a form of himsa, violence. In the end, extreme ahimsa gets transformed into extreme violence.
Vikram sees the end result of renunciation and ahimsa as enslavement in the hands of other nations. Ahimsa weakens because an evil enemy usually fails to recognize forgiveness and mercy. He does not see an end to the primacy of arms and of war; for him 'might is right' remains a cardinal principle. The Buddha retorts that the only weapon that a sanyasi has is mercy. Vikram counters him by saying that one who does not have the ability to punish cannot forgive. Without strength, forgiveness is capitulation. Such forgiveness is the characteristic of a refugee. The Buddha concedes that it is all right to strike and finish an aggressor and put an end to violence as long as a householder and not a sanyasi does this.
Despite warning the Buddha of the consequences of ahimsa and the giving up of warfare, Vikram joins the Buddha and becomes a renunciate himself. Some years later, the Shakya kingdom is attacked. Only Vikram can save them from being invaded. There is a final showdown in the play between him and the Buddha. At the end of this confrontation, Vikram gives up being a renunciatc and goes out to fight a war.
Vikram's arguments echo Savarkar's own sentiments about ahimsa and the pre-eminent position he grants to violence in the process of nation building.
This is how Vikram's argument proceeds: Abandoning arms is against public good. The strength of the arms of the wicked subdues virtue and the semblance of all dharma, righteousness. Only power, authority and the strength of arms can bring about genuine ahimsa. To ignore the defence of a nation is to commit a sin. The Buddha wants to eliminate evil from the very roots of human character—a more durable solution. Vikram rejects this as impractical. In the closing scenes of the play, Vikram saves the Buddha from being murdered. Only the sword can save the sage, Vikram says.
The play ends with the appearance of an embodied Dharma. Vikram gives a very Krishna-like discourse. He utters a prophecy about the weakening of India and it being under threat from foreigners. To overcome this, he prescribes karmayoga.