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There are, as a re­sult, many prob­lem­atic sec­tions, in which Sam­path, to con­firm ev­i­dence for Savarkar’s ac­count, has turned to Savarkar’s own ac­count.

For in­stance, he takes Savarkar at his word when he vents his full-throated prej­u­dice against Mus­lims. He ac­cepts Savarkar’s ac­count that Mus­lim warders and ja­madars in the An­damans Is­lands were “fa­nat­i­cal Pathans, Sind­his and Baluchis from Sindh and the North-West Fron­tier Prov­ince”. What is the ev­i­dence that it gave “these men a spe­cial thrill to bru­talise a Hindu kafir?” In the foot­note, we find cited Savarkar’s own ac­count of his time in jail, which re­veals more about Savarkar’s per­cep­tion about Mus­lims than any­thing else, as ev­i­denced in many other of his writ­ings.

Sam­path’s ad­mi­ra­tion for Savarkar leads him in other pe­cu­liar di­rec­tions as well. On the Mo­plah re­bel­lion, Sam­path does not re­fer to re­cent schol­ar­ship but ac­cepts that the Mo­plahs were a band of fa­nat­i­cal Mus­lims bent on vi­o­lence and that “[m]ass mur­ders of Hindu fam­i­lies, bru­tal rapes of women in front of their fam­ily mem­bers, mur­ders of preg­nant women, des­e­cra­tion of tem­ples [note the many plu­rals here], cow slaugh­ter, forcible con­ver­sions, pil­lage, ar­son and loot reigned till the Bri­tish troops took con­trol”, (page 401). This is far from be­ing ob­jec­tive his­tory and re­flects an of­fi­cial and mo­ti­vated colo­nial ac­count, cit­ing only the Manch­ester Guardian (now The Guardian) and C. Sankaran Nair, whose 1922 take­down of Gandhi turned out to be more about his pos­si­bly be­ing a colo­nial agent than a re­li­able ob­server of the po­lit­i­cal scene.

Sam­path does give us facts and yet, as Robert Caro put it, “biog­ra­phy should not be just a col­lec­tion of facts”. In­stead, the bi­og­ra­pher has to put those facts to­gether in search of a truth that is not the same as the sto­ries great fig­ures tell. Moses and John­son were both great men—but Caro shows they were men who let noth­ing get in the way of their am­bi­tion, in­clud­ing (most of all) the truth.

Savarkar is revered in sec­tions of Ma­ha­rash­tra by those who are con­vinced he was mis­un­der­stood by the main­stream. This is true. But it is also true that a full en­gage­ment with Savarkar must con­front di­rectly the way in which his love of the na­tion was the flip side of his con­vic­tion that Mus­lims were not au­then­tic mem­bers of it, or that Gandhi was a traitor to In­dia be­cause of his sup­port of the Khi­lafat move­ment. Savarkar was a bril­liant but deeply flawed his­tor­i­cal fig­ure and these flaws played a de­ter­min­ing role in his life as well as in the con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics in In­dia. It is, there­fore, of over­rid­ing im­por­tance that we not ac­cept Savarkar’s own ac­count of his life. Un­for­tu­nately, for all its man­i­fold con­tri­bu­tions, that is what Sam­path does in this work of un­crit­i­cal biog­ra­phy. ■

Janaki Bakhle is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of In­dian his­tory at U.C. Berke­ley. Her pub­lished work in­cludes Coun­try First? Vi­nayak Damodar Savarkar and the Writ­ing of ‘Es­sen­tials of Hin­dutva’


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