(My column in Mint Lounge, May 26 2018)
In November 1940, V.D. Savarkar—whose birth anniversary is on 28 May—presented a most fascinating proposition in a newspaper called the Khyber Mail. Authored under his usual pseudonym of “A Mahratta”, the architect of Hindutva went beyond his familiar arguments about “Hinduness” and nationalism here, highlighting instead a political framework in which these concepts could achieve fruition. Ostensibly, this was a rejoinder to a “spineless” statement by Mahatma Gandhi that the nizam of Hyderabad was a potential candidate for emperor of India. But Savarkar’s “virile antidote” to Gandhi’s “inferiority complex” is not any less puzzling. The thrust of his argument painted India’s rajas (“defenders of Hindu faith and honour…the reserve forces of Hindudom”) and not the nizam as the road to the future. And if, he argued, Hindus in British territory and the princes joined forces, they could offer a sparkling alternative vision for India, establishing a nation that was a veritable “racial dream”.
Like much of Savarkar’s writing, this too features a good deal of anti-Muslim polemics. The “academical” view offered was that if it came to civil war, Hindu military camps would spring up in the princely states, from Udaipur and Gwalior in the north to Mysore and Travancore in the south. “There will not be left a trace of Muslim rule from the Seas in the South to the Jamuna in the North,” while in the Punjab Sikhs would keep at bay the Muslim tribes of the west. Independent Nepal would emerge “as the Defender of the Hindu Faith and the commander of Hindu forces”, mobilizing “Hindu rifles” to “spit fire and vengeance in defence of Hindu Honour”. Indeed, Nepal might even make “a bid for the Imperial throne of Hindusthan”. Its march into India would be reinforced, of course, by Hindus, and at the end of the day they would all together consecrate a Hindu rashtra with its own suzerain, ready to inherit “the Sceptre of Indian Empire” as it fell from colonial hands.
The Hindutva family of organizations understandably perceived a community of interests with the princely states. The latter were, as the scholar Manu Bhagavan observes, viewed as “portals to a pure, ancient past”, “sites of India’s imagined past of purity”, and “the foundation on which the future nation” could be launched. In 1944, in a letter to the ruler of Jaipur, in fact, Savarkar openly declared the Hindu Mahasabha’s policy of “standing by the Hindu states and defending their prestige, stability and power against the Congressites, the Communists, (and) the Moslems”. “Hindu states,” he concluded, “are centres of Hindu power” and naturally, therefore, would become instrumental in the realization of Hindu nationhood. Meanwhile, if not spirited support, the princes certainly provided a degree of encouragement—several Mahasabha meets were hosted in the states, including in highly advanced Mysore and Baroda, and the organization found ample support among the orthodox in princely territory.
What, however, were the chances of the princes uniting around Savarkar’s vision? They certainly did possess networks of blood and kinship that could, in theory, link them. Travancore in Kerala “belonged” to Lord Padmanabhaswamy—a deity whose idol was made of salagram stones from Nepal. The Maratha dynasty in Baroda shared political roots not only with the rulers of Indore and Gwalior in the centre and north but also with the descendants of Shivaji who survived in Tanjore, deep in Tamil country. Mysore, meanwhile, was ruled by Kannadigas, who eagerly sought Rajput brides. To this combination could also be added senior Indian statesmen of the time who thought the Congress vision of India a disaster, and were equally willing, therefore, to consider an alternative plan. As late as July 1947, for instance, the redoubtable Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer (who considered Gandhi a “dangerous sex maniac” and Jawaharlal Nehru “unstable”) was convinced that if power went to the Congress, “civil war…within six months” was inevitable, culminating in the division of India between “half a dozen principalities”—and Sir C.P. was considered “one of the cleverest men in India”.
In reality though, most Indian rajas were more interested in sustaining their decadent lifestyles and reaffirming loyalty to the Raj than in plotting grand designs for India’s future. Many of them were known not for their virile nationalism but for their boudoir passions. They certainly owned 40% of Indian territory, but over 454 of the 565-odd states were made of less than 1,000 sq. miles; only a few dozen had revenue over Rs10 lakh, and even fewer owned armies that truly deserved the name. The greatest of the states, Hyderabad, was inconveniently Islamic, while Kashmir, held by Dogra Rajputs, was majority-Muslim. Add to this mass agitations within the states, encouraged by the Congress, and the heady picture of brave princes rising to inaugurate an Age of Hindutva looked hopelessly remote.
In the end, history didn’t quite play out in the way Savarkar and his confederates theorized. Nehru proved perfectly stable, the Hindutva cause was damaged after Gandhi’s murder, and Sardar Patel integrated most principalities with the carrot of money and status. Despite obituaries and shrill prophecies of danger, India became a secular democracy, and not a Hindu rashtra. And, in perhaps what might have caused the father of Hindutva to recoil in horror, it was not the Nepali dynasty of Savarkar’s “academical” premise that soared to power in New Delhi. Instead, another family emerged to play a formidable role in shaping India’s destiny: one bearing those very names—Nehru and Gandhi—that he viewed with such intense antipathy. What Savarkar envisioned in 1940, then, was a “Future Emperor of India”; what India got in a decade instead was a people’s Constitution, defended by men and women who brooked no kings and shunned all empires.