A writer’s last testament


back to issue

Hindutva or Hind Swaraj is a slender work which in a sombre meditative tone and style, rich in metaphorical resonance, provides a disturbing reflection on a conjuncture of history that the writer Ananthamurthy finds menacing. The writing is strikingly different from the energetic, persuasive, urbane but argumentative style URA is known for. Instead, he seems to be experimenting with a bricolage of ideas and images, collating them for himself and the reader to meditate and discover the threads which weave them together. The bitter conjuncture of history for URA is the rise of Narendra Modi to power, which ‘perhaps symbolizes the end of the Gandhian era and the victory of Savarkar’ (p. 32). Though unsure whether the victory is temporary, he is convinced that it is Savarkar’s victory.

Though URA eschews an elaborate historical or ideological analysis, he is addressing the issue of Hindu nationalism which Savarkar conceptualized by creating the neologism Hindutva.1 His version of Hindutva as nationalism constructed on the modular European form characterized by one territory, one culture, one race and one language was found attractive by the native Indian elite who like Savarkar were uneasy about conflating Hindu religion with Hindu nationalism. After all Savarkar walks a long mile towards (colonial) modernity by clarifying that though a major constituent, Hindu religion is emphatically not the same as Hindu nationalism. His insistence is that anyone who experiences ‘Sindhustan’ or ‘Hindustan’ as both fatherland and holy land and is a descendant of the Vedic fathers and thus belongs to the race which also enjoyed the extraordinary historical luck of inhabiting a clearly bound territory is a follower of (and believer in) Hindutva.2


In an interesting section he argues that whether he is an agnostic, atheist or non-Vedic does not matter; nor does his belonging to a tribe or an untouchable caste matter. But for the highly rhetorical, emotional style of Savarkar, frequently breaking into poetry and more importantly, using a substratum of myths, images and tropes which reveal how his sensibility is grounded in the mainstream Hindu religious framework, one would think he was conceptualizing Hindu nationalism as a secular, modern space. This aspect must have greatly appealed to the ‘Young India’ group of revolutionaries in England and other European countries who believed in the legitimacy of violence in the nationalist struggle.

The insight that URA probably shares with other commentators on the Modi phenomenon is that today’s young India of techies, NRI’s, urban youth and the youth in small towns and cities also sees Modi’s Hindu nationalism as modern. Narendra Modi also avoids the non-modern categories of Vedic religion, caste supremacy, tradition and uses the idiom of development and efficient management. URA sees, correctly again, the convergence of nationalism (in its modern avatar), development (as the culmination of the anthropocentric, consumerist and ecologically destructive aspect of western civilization which Gandhi critiqued so powerfully in Hind Swaraj) and a political culture antithetical to democratic, liberal traditions in Modi’s rise to power.

Though the figure of Modi recurs through the text, URA uses him as a metaphor for the conjuncture of tendencies which have the potential to disrupt and dislocate Gandhi’s utopian but radical Hind Swaraj. It is a brilliant stroke to juxtapose Hindutva and Hind Swaraj – two texts, two approaches to India and two forms of politics which are for URA irreconcilable binary opposites. It is also a masterly move to posit Savarkar’s Hindutva in opposition to Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj deliberately ignoring the more openly fascist writings of Golwalkar and others. It is not this version of the right wing ideology which Narendra Modi now represents, but the far more powerful, persuasive and contemporary version of the same.


A very interesting aspect of Hindutva or Hind Swaraj is the manner in which URA shifts the grounds of his arguments from the political to the ethical. The text, after collating seemingly disparate statements about the Modi phenomenon, transforms itself into a deep meditation on evil. This section begins with a repertory/checklist of the distinctive evils of our times. ‘In our times evil is the mines, the dams, the electricity plants, hundreds of smart cities, shadeless roads widened by felling trees, rivers which have lost direction and now serve to wash the toilets of five star hotels, and the shorn, bald hills once the temples of the tribal people, markets where no sparrows come and green trees on which no birds sit’ (p. 15).

In the ethical perspective I mentioned, URA describes this evil as a product of man’s hubris which threatens human existence. It is a hubris based on the misconception of the world of nature as an endless, permanent cornucopia satisfying man’s endless greed (p. 22). This greed now takes the form of corporate greed and destructive developmental desires. In this analysis of the present evils, it is the Gandhian register which URA employs. Echoing the harsh critique of machinery and modern civilization of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, he writes about the overarching category of ‘development’ which ‘makes the earth anaemic, the sky a smoke ridden roof through which even the sun cannot peep and poisons the rivers’ (p. 16).


The Gandhian register is more audible in URA’s repeated reference to development as the extreme, unhealthy state of middle class greed which in turn is one of the forms which man’s hubris takes. He describes globalization as a modern form of ‘hunting by corporate lords’ which has already destroyed self-reflexivity and introspection. It is a condition of the sheer inability to see evil as evil.

A longish section of the work deals with two well known texts about evil. One is the Book of John which URA analyzes as representative of the Christian exploration of the nature, necessity and the role of evil as well as its problematic relationship with the will of God. The other text is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment with the focus on Raskolnikov’s febrile obsession with Napoleon and the notion of the superman. In URA’s reading of the novel, Raskolnikov’s struggles to escape from his intellectual hubris and move towards the Christian understanding of evil, though ‘he refuses to bend’ (p. 30).

Though I am somewhat unsure whether this meditation on evil around the two texts effectively relates to the analysis of Savarkar and Modi, URA’s intention is clearly visible. He is exploring two antithetical states of mind – the Gandhian and the one associated with Savarkar. The Gandhian frame eschews the loud, passionate rhetoric of Savarkar and speaks in an intimate dialogic manner, dreams of an India, universal but local, decentralized in the form of the panchayat. The Savarkarite ‘rejects the India of many religions and languages and limits it to only those who see it as punyabhumi – holy land (p. 58).


There is a long section in the work which offers a precise summary and commentary on Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? The section also introduces the background to Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, including Savarkar and Young India revolutionaries in England whom Gandhi met and who the editor of Hind Swaraj mentions without naming them. As Anthony Parel points out, Savarkar is one of the interlocutors of Gandhi’s work. This may not be so obvious because in the work, the Reader who begins as a resolute supporter of Young India very quickly gets persuaded by the Editor so that thereafter the Editor Gandhi seems to turn away from the interlocutor. His strategy seems to be of demolishing Savarkar’s Hindutva by ignoring it.

The act of ignoring is deliberate and consciously planned. Gandhi’s great insight was to see with clairvoyance that the edifice of Savarkar’s Hindu nationalism stood on the acceptance of modernity and the modular form of European nationalism. It was a classic case of the colonized internalizing the discourses of the colonizer. I have not read Savarkar’s work in the Marathi original, but clearly the English translation unselfconsciously transposes ‘nation’ and ‘church’ frequently, revealing the discursive complicity of Savarkar’s writing with the colonial discourses. It is this complicity which Gandhi attacks as the true enemy of Swaraj.

In the following famous passage Gandhi is certainly speaking to the invisible interlocutor: ‘In effect it means this – that we want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English, and, when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan. That is not the Swaraj that I want.’3

Though it would be stretching it too far to imagine ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Englistan’ as Gandhi’s play on ‘Sindhustan’ and ‘Hindustan’ in Savarkar’s work, the cutting edge remark is intended for Savarkar’s nationalism. Gandhi rightly understood that despite Savarkar’s waxing lyrical over Sindhustan, his conceptualization of nationalism was derivative of the Euro-centric model. Gandhi’s insight has been proved right and elaborated by modern scholarship which has traced continuities between ‘the one language, one culture and one nation’ description by Herder, Shiller and others and the Hindu nationalist duplication of the same construction.

Another striking derivative category used by Savarkar is ‘race’ – an essentialist category belonging to the colonial production of knowledge which, for long, enjoyed the status of a scientifically valid category. Savarkar, by conflating race and nation attributes a primordial identity status to nationalism because it is race which almost automatically ensures your nationalism whereas a reverential altitude towards fatherland and holy land needs to be cultivated.


In complete contrast to the derivative Eurocentric idea of nationalism, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj marginalizes the term itself. This is so because Gandhi shifts the grounds of argument by foregrounding the category ‘civilization’. Imperial England is an example of ‘modern’ civilization (western civilization) and for Indians to enshrine the Englishman in the heart would mean exchanging an aggressive but failed civilization for an ancient civilization which can sustain both the individual and the world.4 In Hind Swaraj India is not a nation; it is a civilization in which many languages and religions have coexisted. For Gandhi who liked to describe himself as a sanatani Hindu, no religion including Hindu religion, was perfect. While Savarkar makes much of the unique geographical features of Hindustan, Gandhi is in fact the modern individual negotiating with images of urban squalor, machinery, the railways and the law courts. Savarkar’s pastoral lyricism about Hindustan contrasts with Gandhi’s anti-urban, anti-industrial (almost Luddite) realism. Gandhi would sit well in the company of Blake, Wordsworth, William Morris and John Ruskin, in fact with many representatives of the anti-West or non-West in the western tradition. Savarkar the fiery nationalist is in the company of the colonizing West. Ananthamurthy dwells on this paradox.


Another perspective from which Gandhi and Savarkar are anlayzed in the work is related to their contrasting views regarding the state. URA argues that Gandhi’s thinking was shaped by two of his gurus who, philosophically speaking, were anarchists – Tolstoy and Thoreau. Like them Gandhi also distrusted an interventionist state. His conception of the village as the little, independent republic could exist and survive only if the state was minimalist and non-interventionist. If Marx saw the withering away of the state as an inevitable result of the dialectic of history, Gandhi thought of its withering away as an ethical imperative. In this he was absolutely alone because everyone else, including his heir Nehru, wanted a strong, centralized state albeit to achieve material progress and even to realise the socialist vision of equality.

URA’s work has interesting sections on Tagore and his novel Gora (which URA described on many occasions as the archetypal Indian novel). In contrast to Gandhi’s rejection of a strong state, Savarkar conceptualized a strong Hindu nation, using an imagination fully tinted by the hyper-masculinist notions which were also the mainstay of imperialism. This is hardly surprising given the fact that Indian right wing ideologues were admirers of the powerful fascist states, both Nazi Germany and paradoxically, Israel. URA quotes at length from Nathuram Godse’s defence to demonstrate the fury with which the likes of Godse reacted to Gandhi’s ‘weak nationalism’ and pacifism.

URA analyzes the dichotomy between a powerful state and anarchy by using his notions of ‘The Fear of the King’ and the ‘Fear of King’s Absence’. (URA had used the set of terms effectively in his earlier writings). He argues that the Savarkarite vision of nationalism inevitably gravitates towards a strong centralized state. In his subtle analysis, the notion of Hindutva reveals a masked repugnance towards heterogeneity and pluralism – two ineradicable features of Indian society. Though Savarkar in his Hindutva says emphatically that the religion of the majority has no privileged position and is willing to accord an equal status to the minor religions, he disqualifies Islam and Christianity from being part of Hindutva because they worship a holy land different from the fatherland. Gandhi, as mentioned earlier, hardly ever speaks of the nation. He is therefore free from any attempt to exclude any religion from Indian civilization.


Even while admitting that Savarkar’s concept of nationalism had little of the violence and cruelty of the fascist and Nazi models, URA argues that it was very vulnerable to such possibilities because of its consent to a strong state. There is every possibility that the present political trend in India is to create a coercive state which can be used to ‘purge’ the minorities and give away to global capital the resources which belong to the tribals and peasants. This is the basis of URA’s apprehension about Narendra Modi’s rise to power. The fear now is of the presence of the king, not of his absence.

Hindutva or Hind Swaraj reads like the last testament of a writer who was an iconic and visible public intellectual. URA explains to the readers that the work is ‘a response to the optimism which seems to have arisen in the media and the people after the election of Narendra Modi by a majority and my own misgivings’ (p. 1).


This opening sentence may mislead the hasty reader to conclude that the work is the response of a writer hounded by right wing supporters even in his condition of terminal illness for saying that he would not want to live under Modi’s regime. Nothing could be farther from the truth of the text. The finest parts of the text are about what man has discovered in his labour, in the learning and use of skills to live with nature. I wish URA had written far more elaborately about this. In his myriad and apparently endless search for possibilities of a truly non-western, non-orientalist knowledge and experience, he tried in his later writings to seek them in ‘tradition’. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in concretely realizing this in his fiction and ensuring that this tradition would not be the same old brahminical tradition.

In brief but important sections of this work (pp. 11-12), URA talks about the knowledge of the world acquired by man in the process of living and making things. This knowledge is acquired by the body-soul in the physical act of labour. Here URA introduces the contours of a knowledge which emerges from lived experience, or to be more precise in the act of labour. The reader may initially be puzzled by this section and wonder what it has to do with Hindutva. URA’s intention is that it has everything to do with it. It is in the separation of man from his labour, in the separation of knowledge from experience that a unique paradigm emerges. This relates to a world view which supports the utilitarian and exploitative approach to the world. This world view also supports a compartmentalization of the aesthetic, the political and the ethical. This world view is at the heart of nationalism. URA is emphatic in his indictment of all political parties which support such a fragmented world view. He points out that the healthy scepticism of nationalism by both Gandhi and Tagore was not endorsed by any Indian political party, including the Congress. URA is scathing in his criticism of the Congress which was complicit in the killing of the Sikhs in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi.


It is necessary to place this last work of URA in the context of the critique of nationalism and globalization which has emerged in Kannada, dominating debates in Kannada civil society and literary circles for nearly two decades. The long tradition of Kannada writers who are also activists and participants in people’s movements, has ensured an articulate resistance to communal forces. URA himself was a leading voice of protest against right wing ideologies and globalization, all along believing that neoliberal politics and communalism converge in unexpected ways and that a certain kind of nationalism can, in its modern form, emerge as a serious threat to democracy. URA’s last testament is therefore part of an ongoing dialogue in Kannada society. Sadly, U.R. Ananthamurthy will now only be a silent participant.


* Hindutva Athawa Hind Swaraj (Hindutva or Hind Swaraj) is the last book that U.R. Ananthamurthy wrote. Though it was written during illness and amidst continuous harassment by the right wing groups, he worked on several versions of the text and had finalized the work before he passed away. It has now been published by Abhinava, Bangalore, 2014.

** In the essay I have used my own translations of certain passages. The page numbers refer to those in the original Kannada book.


1. V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1923) rpt. Bharatiya Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi. Also available on several internet sites.

2. Ibid.

3. Anthony Parel (ed.), Gandhi: ‘Hind Swaraj’ and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, Delhi, 2009, p. 27.

4. See Anthony Parel’s introduction, ibid.