Savarkar's India : Throughline Right-wing Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi has won reelection as India's Prime Minister. As the political philosophy of Hindu nationalism gains ground in India we look back at one of its architects - Vinayak Savarkar.

Savarkar's India

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Last week, elections in the world's biggest democracy came to an end.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It is one big election, the biggest ever in world history.

Nine hundred million eligible voters, just a huge operation, of course.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Exit polls in India's national election are predicting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will win another majority government.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This election was seen as a referendum on Modi, who's a Hindu nationalist. His party's been accused of stoking religious divisions.


We wanted to better understand something called Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, the idea that being Indian and being Hindu is synonymous - because it had a really important role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reelection. But before we get into the history of Hindu nationalism, we first wanted to understand how it played out in the election. So we talked to Lauren Frayer.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I'm NPR's India correspondent, based in Mumbai.

ARABLOUEI: Who's been covering the election for months.

ABDELFATAH: She started by telling us about the BJP, Modi's political party.

FRAYER: So the BJP is the Bharatiya Janata Party. It's a right-wing Hindu nationalist party. And it operates sort of as the political arm of the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. And that's this big Hindu volunteer group that's alternately described as sort of a Hindu boy scouts organization, instilling Hindu values in youth. It's all male. But it's also a paramilitary group. It dates back to 1925 and the struggle for independence.

And the RSS back then emphasized military discipline and Hindu tradition and Hindu scripture over Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolent struggle for independence. And so today its political arm, BJP, also offers itself as a - as an alternative to this Gandhian pluralism in India. And the RSS runs everything from, like, morning yoga sessions in your local park to, like, summer camps training with weapons. And they've been involved in anti-Muslim riots.

So Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has been active in the RSS since he was a young boy. Most of his Cabinet members, the men, are members of the RSS. And so he, you know, rose up through the ranks of the RSS and then became active in the political arm, the BJP.

ARABLOUEI: And his primary opponent in this last election - or the BJP's primary opponent - was the Congress Party, the Indian National Congress Party. Who are they, and do they represent that kind of a Gandhian pluralism still?

FRAYER: Yeah, totally. So the Congress, or the Indian National Congress, was a independence group struggling for freedom from the British. And then it became the dominant political party in a free India. And it's the party of Mohandas Gandhi. It's the party of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India's first prime minister.

And so the Congress Party really stands for, like, secular values, a pluralistic India. And it was Indira Gandhi who inserted the word secular into the Indian Constitution in the 1970s. And so once Congress helped India achieve freedom from the British in 1947, it just went on to dominate politics, basically until the Modi landslide in 2014 - and then again this month.

ABDELFATAH: What does it mean for India today that Modi has won another term? What does that represent for the country?

FRAYER: So it means 2014 wasn't a fluke, that the Indian people again have overwhelmingly chosen a prime minister and a party that represent a different set of values for India than the ones that traditionally dominated Indian politics since independence. So the BJP and Modi, they want to bring the country's majority Hindu faith into politics and public life in a way that hasn't been done in the past.



FRAYER: The day after the votes were counted and we learned that Modi would be reelected, he gave this speech in which he described secularism as an old fad...


MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: ...In Indian politics. And he said it's no longer relevant.


MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: This is an old fad that other parties used to campaign on, and we're beyond that now. The Indian Constitution still says this is a secular republic. But, I mean, in a way, this debate has been frozen in time for 70 years. Gandhi - Mohandas Gandhi, the freedom leader, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist within months of India's founding. And that kind of shut down all debate. It kind of made it a taboo to criticize Gandhi, certainly, but even to criticize his politics, criticize his vision of a secular pluralistic democracy. And they think that the way that the state was founded, it's not the way they wanted it to be founded.

I mean, in the lead-up to the partition of India into two states, India and Pakistan, the Muslims got their state, Pakistan, right? The Hindus didn't get their state. They did not get a Hindu state. They got a secular pluralistic state. And they were upset about that. And basically, it wasn't until Modi was elected in 2014 - and again, now - that the taboo has been lifted. And this debate over whether India should be a secular country is suddenly out in the open.

And, I mean, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, has really been demonized by the BJP and by Hindu nationalists. Hindu nationalists accuse him of appeasing minorities and appeasing Muslims. And Gandhi is starting to be criticized as well. And that - that was unheard of a generation ago.

ABDELFATAH: It's interesting because this kind of gets at something that we spoke to Manu Goswami about. She's an Indian historian at New York University. And when we asked her about Hindu nationalism, this is how she described it.

MANU GOSWAMI: It's constructing a mythology and presenting it as a history. It is, in that sense, an explicit act of symbolic and, indeed, literal violence, to turn the immense heterogeneity of Indian society into a single strand. And that element of both symbolic violence and literal violence is very pronounced. So it is absolutely at odds with what our demographic reality is, but also this very complex, multilayered history.

ABDELFATAH: Could you put into context what you think she means?

FRAYER: I mean, if there's any place that has a more complex, multilayered history, I haven't found it.

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter).

FRAYER: Right? Like, I mean, India has hundreds of languages and hundreds of castes...


FRAYER: ...And hundreds of cultures. And so the Hindu nationalists say, what's the only thing that a Hindu from Kerala in the south has in common with a Hindu from Kashmir in the north, right? They don't speak the same language. They don't even have the same ways of worshipping. The only thing that they have in common is their faith. And so Hindu nationalists have sought to unite India's majority Hindus under this identity of a monolithic Hindu faith. But Goswami is saying, you can't do that; this diversity is what India is.


ABDELFATAH: And you mentioned a couple times that in the course of rewriting or reimagining the history, a lot of the antagonism is directed at Muslims in the country. And that seems to be the primary minority group that has been targeted by the BJP today. Can you tell us a little bit about why specifically that demographic is being targeted?

FRAYER: So Muslims are the largest religious minority. India is about 80% Hindu, maybe 79-point-something. And Muslims are about 14, 15% of the population. But in India, with 1.3 billion people, that's, like, a huge number of people.


FRAYER: It's, like, between 180 and 200 million people. It's one of the world's largest Muslim populations. So, I mean, that's a bigger proportion of India than African Americans are in the U.S. So how to unite - I mean, I was talking earlier about how to unite a Hindu from Kerala with a Hindu from Kashmir. So one of the easiest ways is to unite them around a common enemy. Seventy-plus years ago, it was colonialism. Nationalists encouraged Hindus to define themselves in opposition to a foreign power.

The new other in Hindu nationalist politics is Muslims. And that's what Modi's party and rhetoric has focused on. By the way, the reason why this makes good politics is this diversity, right? If you can unite all Hindus as one voting bloc, 80% of the population, you've just wrapped up every election.

ARABLOUEI: What was some of the rhetoric that Modi specifically used in his last campaign to kind of try to unite that Hindu population as a voting bloc?

FRAYER: So Modi won in 2014 on economic promises, a lot of which weren't fulfilled. And so in this election, his campaign really pivoted toward this rhetoric rather than the economy. So for example, his party has promised to build a Hindu temple in one of the most incendiary spots in all of India. And it's where Hindu extremists tore down a mosque and killed hundreds of Muslims in 1992.

And the situation there is still, like, very raw. And it's become this, like, rallying cry for Modi's hardline Hindu base. And it has potential to spark incredible violence. I mean, the riots that followed the destruction of that mosque in 1992 spread across South Asia and the Middle East. And thousands of people - mostly Muslims - were killed. So it's really incendiary rhetoric.

Another process that's happening is this Citizenship Amendment Bill, which has already passed India's lower house and will most likely be approved by the upper house now that Modi is reelected. And it seeks to use religion as a criteria for citizenship in India. And that's never been done before. So this legislation would grant Indian passports to religious minorities in neighboring countries, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians - except if you're Muslim.


FRAYER: So anybody who's a religious minority in Bangladesh, in Myanmar, in Pakistan, is welcome to come into India. India will open her arms to people who've been persecuted on the basis of their religion, except if they are Muslim.


FRAYER: There are also these cow vigilante groups that have sprung up. And these are lay people who take it upon themselves to investigate and sometimes attack people who are suspected of dealing in beef on the black market. And the people who deal in beef have traditionally been Muslims, Christians and other minorities, who, that was their tradition. And so there have been these mob lynchings of Muslims and other minorities.

ABDELFATAH: Does Modi himself condone, you know, either tacitly or implicitly, this kind of violence?

FRAYER: He's a very, very good politician. There are other BJP figures. The BJP president, Amit Shah, has much more vitriolic things he has said about Muslims. He called undocumented Muslim migrants from Bangladesh termites. I mean, that's chilling. That's language that we heard in the Rwandan genocide, right?


FRAYER: But Modi doesn't say that. Modi stays silent. He doesn't correct Amit Shah when he says things like that.


ARABLOUEI: OK. So now that Lauren helped us understand how Hindu nationalism is playing out today, we jumped into the history of how Hindu nationalism was born.

ADAM ROBERTS: I'm Adam Roberts. I'm an Economist correspondent. I spent five years in Delhi as the South Asia correspondent.

ARABLOUEI: This is Adam Roberts. And he guided us through the life of a man we came across when we were looking into this history, a man who many people, including Narendra Modi, credit for developing the modern vision of Hindu nationalism. His name was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.


VINAYAK DAMODAR SAVARKAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: Savarkar was born in 1883 in a small town in western India. He came of age under British colonial rule, when the political debate among anti-colonialists was whether to resist with force or, as Mohandas Gandhi would argue, with nonviolence. From an early age, Savarkar's choice was clear.

ROBERTS: He wanted to assert his character, his bravery, as this figure who stood up to Muslims and who was able to assert his muscular strength as a Hindu. And later in life, he'd get this term, Veer Savarkar. He'd be called Brave Savarkar. And he was always looking for incidents throughout his life that he could turn to to show how brave he was. And the earliest that I, at least, came across was this anecdote of talking about being a child in the village where they so bravely had gone to smash up the local mosque.

And it's the sort of thing you'll see in India today. You see it repeatedly throughout Indian history - that these clashes on the ground between local communities of Hindus and Muslims can start off as a small bit of violence and then very quickly spread, like a wildfire, and cause enormous damage and great loss of life.

ARABLOUEI: As young men, while both were studying law in London, Savarkar and Gandhi met.

ROBERTS: The story goes that that was a meeting in 1986 in Highgate, in north London - nice bit of London - where the two men, the two students, were both studying and getting by. And Savarkar was apparently cooking a meal at his home. I understand that he was frying prawns. And Gandhi came by, and they met each other.

And Savarkar, being a generous host, said, would you like to share my meal with me? And Gandhi, who could be a bit prissy, said no. He wasn't going to touch the meal that Savarkar had made because he didn't eat meat. He had become a very strict vegetarian. And Savarkar apparently replied, saying, well, you're an idiot. You're a fool. If you don't eat protein, how are you ever going to be strong enough, muscular enough, to fight off the British?

And whether or not that story is true, it really sets the scene beautifully for the divergent views that Gandhi and Savarkar took about how to fight off the British. Gandhi was someone who said, let's stick to our principles. Let's be pacifist. Let's be intelligent about negotiating all the time. Savarkar was always saying, let's be muscular. Let's fight. Let's look for ways to kill our enemies. And the two men were rivals - bitter rivals - throughout their lives.

ABDELFATAH: And so Savarkar - you know, he started to develop these nationalist ideas, and Gandhi was doing the same. So then when Savarkar returns to India, what does he decide to do?

ROBERTS: Savarkar gets involved with some more extreme resistance fighters, you might call them - people who were ready to pick up a gun and kill for the campaign to have Indian freedom. And there's an allegation - and the British certainly thought it was true - that Savarkar was part of a conspiracy to kill a British official who was walking through London one summer evening, and an assassin ran up to him and pulled a pistol, I think it was, and shot him dead.

And rather than put him in jail in Britain, the idea was that he will be sent back to India. What happened, though - and this is where Savarkar really got his celebrated start in life - was that while he was being transported by the British, put on a ship in Marseille harbor to be taken across to India, he dived out of a porthole. He opened the porthole window and leapt out into the harbor.


ROBERTS: And if you look at sort of hagiographies and cartoons and drawings about Savarkar's life, this is often the image that is on the front cover of the book or whatever. And it's a picture of him diving headfirst out of a porthole, down into the dirty waters of Marseille harbor to escape the British. Well, he managed to get off the ship, but he didn't get very far. He got ashore and was promptly arrested.


ROBERTS: Then when he got back to India, he was then sent to this most storied prison out on the Andaman Islands. So this is deep into the Bay of Bengal. These are tiny little islands. And the prison is a brick building, remarkably severe. It's called Cellular Jail. But it's surrounded by lush jungle, and it's a tropical climate. It's a remarkable place. And for many Indians, it was a great terror to be sent to the Andaman Islands because they feared disease, torture and, obviously, being locked away for many years.


ROBERTS: Famously, he wrote on the walls of the cell. So while he was kept in prison, he was very keen to write. He wanted to write about Hindu nationalism. And for much of the time, he would scrawl on the walls of the cell because he didn't have access to pen and paper all the time. So he used the very walls of the prison to write down his manifesto.


ABDELFATAH: That manifesto was later called "Hindutva: Who Is A Hindu?"


ABDELFATAH: Savarkar was sentenced to two life sentences in prison but was released after about a dozen years. In exchange for early release, he struck a deal with the British that he'd stop participating in nationalist politics.

ARABLOUEI: And so through this bit of negotiation, he's able to get out. And when he gets out, what does he do?

ROBERTS: Well, he pretty quickly breaks his word. Maybe the British shouldn't have been too surprised.


SAVARKAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ROBERTS: He has decided that the way for India to get its independence is to be far more assertive, far more demanding - both against the British, who, of course, are running the place - but also against Muslims, who are an important, very significant minority part of India's population. They still are, but they were even bigger back then. And so he joined this group called the Hindu Mahasabha, which is - if you're thinking about the roots of Hindu nationalism in India, this is an incredibly important organization.

And from the Hindu Mahasabha, later there breaks off this group called the RSS, which is more of a paramilitary volunteer organization, which today is by far the most influential Hindu nationalist group in India. So for many years, he becomes the head of this Hindu nationalist group which is campaigning to kick the British out of India. So it's a very hard-line political group. He's in favor of violence. He's in favor of being much more confrontational than the Congress movement of Mohandas Gandhi.

ARABLOUEI: That's because Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Party that he led advocated for an end to British rule and a new Indian-led government that was socially democratic, multicultural and secular.

ROBERTS: But Savarkar didn't want to do that. He ridiculed that. He said that Gandhi was a fool for wanting to work with Muslims because the Muslims were a threat. Just as much as the British, the Muslims, he said, were a threat to Hindus. And you had to be ready to fight them both.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, by extension, because of Gandhi's sort of calls to unite people across India, including Hindus and Muslims, did Savarkar see Gandhi himself as a threat?

ROBERTS: Yeah, so if you look back throughout their lives, Gandhi proved to be the far more successful politician than Savarkar. So I think some of what Savarkar saw in Gandhi was jealousy. He himself had wished to have the prominence, the political success, the veneration that Gandhi was so skillful at generating for himself.

By the early 1920s, Gandhi had run his campaigns in South Africa, come back to India and constructed the Congress movement into this most powerful mass body that had millions of followers who were beginning to threaten British control of the continent.


MOHANDAS GANDHI: I regard myself as a soldier, though a soldier of peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ROBERTS: And Savarkar looked on with envy and wanted to be more like Gandhi, I think, and felt that Gandhi was both a more skilled strategist but also more feeble or more willing to give way to their opponents. And so repeatedly, if you look at letters that Savarkar wrote, he repeatedly comes up with taunts and criticisms of Gandhi. I'll just dig out a couple of things that he said.

He called Gandhi a crazy lunatic who happens to babble about compassion and forgiveness. He says that notwithstanding Gandhi's sublime and broad heart, Gandhi has a very narrow and immature head. He called Gandhi mealy-mouthed. I mean, he really didn't like Gandhi's approach to pacifism, to working often with the British instead of against the British. And of course, he didn't like the way that Gandhi worked with Muslims.

And so throughout the 1920s and 1930s, there was a bitter competition between Savarkar and the Hindu nationalist movement that he was building up on the one side versus Gandhi and the Congress movement, which was much more moderate but also highly principled, on the other side. And the more successful Gandhi became, the more furious Savarkar became.


ARABLOUEI: And that anger would only continue to build. When we come back, the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mahatma Gandhi is dead. When vast throngs crowded Delhi's Birla House, urging him to break his last vows, few imagined an assassin would strike near this spot 11 days later.

ABDELFATAH: On August 15, 1947, India gained independence from Britain. And less than a year later, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sir Stafford Cripps called him the world's greatest spiritual leader.

ABDELFATAH: At the time, it was alleged that Savarkar had played a part in the assassination.

ROBERTS: Yeah. I think it's more than just an alleged role. I think Savarkar did play some part in the assassination of Gandhi. Now, we can tease out exactly how significant a part he played. But the people who carried out the assassination of Gandhi - the main figure who is known to history is Godse. Now, he was a member of the movement that Savarkar led - the Hindu Mahasabha. He was an editor of a newspaper within that movement.

And he came up from the west of India to Delhi, and he visited Savarkar not long before the assassination. And although he was arrested and put on trial and then acquitted, it isn't hard to believe that Savarkar encouraged them to carry out the assassination and that he may have even provided some means to them.

ABDELFATAH: Wow. So what happens to Savarkar? What legacy does he leave?

ROBERTS: Well, after the murder of Gandhi, because of its connection to the assassins, the RSS is banned, and the likes of Savarkar are disgraced. And they are considered to be far beyond the pale by the vast majority of Indians. And Gandhi, for the next 40, 50, 60 years, rises as this figure in India who is the embodiment of all that is wonderful about India - the fact it is a secular, liberal place where all religions are tolerated. And although, of course, there are still clashes between people, the constitution of India is this wonderful, forward-thinking, respectful constitution that says everyone has the freedom of belief.

And so the likes of Savarkar are sidelined for decades. They're pushed to one side. And Savarkar goes on to die in the 1960s, and he dies in a most mysterious way. He decides to commit something called atmaarpan, which is when a person has decided he's old enough, he's done enough in his life - he's just going to die. He decided to refuse any more food, and he would slowly fade away. And it took him 20 days, and this way of ending his life adds to the myth, I think, about Savarkar. It gives him something for others to really respect - that he was able to end his own life in this peaceful, but not comfortable, way.

ARABLOUEI: How does Savarkar's name start to reappear in Indian politics?

ROBERTS: So the more that Gandhi is built up, the more that Savarkar's own reputation falls. But then we have this political shift in India, which is going on still today, which is the decline of the Congress Party as the dominant political force in India and the rise of two other forces - on the one hand, the rise of regional political parties who are more and more important than any national party, and secondly, the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement and the rise of a party called the BJP.

And so people are looking for heroes. People are looking for someone else to turn to from India's past. We're going to reach back into the past for characters who promoted Hindu nationalism and who were very aggressive towards Pakistan. And so every time there was a war with Pakistan, of course, there was an excuse to whip out the nationalism. But the BJP could turn that into Hindu nationalism and then turn to the likes of Savarkar to say, this is how we should define ourselves.

ABDELFATAH: You know, maybe nobody in Indian politics embodies this as much as the current prime minister, Narendra Modi. I believe you interviewed him on several occasions.


ABDELFATAH: And I'm wondering, do you get the sense that Savarkar has influenced him?

ROBERTS: I do. I think Narendra Modi, before he became a politician - even as a child, he was hugely influenced by the Hindu nationalists. He became a member of the RSS. He devoted his whole life early on to being a - not just a member, but an active leader within the RSS. He became a sort of monk within the movement. And I understood this to be his way of escaping a very rural small-town life in Gujarat and a way for him to escape to the big city and to make something of his life.

Now, Modi was absolutely devout Hindu nationalist. And the faster he rose up through the ranks of the RSS, the more outspoken as a Hindu nationalist he became. And I think that Savarkar, also from the west of India, was something of a model for him. And you can look back throughout Modi's own political history to many examples of times that Modi has cited Savarkar as a great hero to be an inspiration for India today.


MODI: (Foreign language spoken).

ROBERTS: There's a painting in Parliament of Savarkar. And Narendra Modi, most years in May, on Savarkar's birthday, will go to light a candle for Savarkar.


MODI: (Foreign language spoken).

ROBERTS: He was very happy to endorse the launch of a website devoted to Savarkar and to accuse others of spreading terrible propaganda about how wicked Savarkar was. And so the more he builds up the likes for Savarkar to be a hero for Indians to celebrate, the more he can play down figures such as Gandhi, who talked about, as we've said, unity between Hindus and Muslims and the importance of pacifism and so on. And so Modi likes to turn to Savarkar, but also other figures, such as Patel, who was a very strong early independence leader, as well, and to say that these more confrontational figures are the models for India to follow because he wants India to be made great again.

ARABLOUEI: And Modi's critics - what would they say?

ROBERTS: The great success of India in the last 70, 80 years is how united it has been and how stable it has been, whereas Pakistan next door, which is really dominated by one majoritarian idea - that you have to be Muslim, really, to be a Pakistani - Pakistan is in much greater trouble, much less stable, much worse off because it is not tolerant. And the danger of Modi and the Hindu nationalists is they actually end up repeating the mistakes that the Pakistanis have made. So the danger of going the Savarkar route is you make all the same mistakes that those other countries made, and you throw away the great success that India has achieved in the last 70 years or so.

ABDELFATAH: That's Adam Roberts. He's a correspondent for The Economist.


ARABLOUEI: One last question for you, Lauren - what do you think Hindutva offers to the average Hindu voter?

FRAYER: So I think it's something that's really positive - that people who voted for this see it as a positive thing. Like, you know, experts will compare Hindu nationalism to the rise of the far-right in Europe, neo-Nazis, white nationalism in the U.S. The hundreds of millions of people who voted for this in India don't see it that way at all.

I'm not actually sure that the average Indian voter is thinking about Savarkar or, frankly, even knows his name - might remember his name in history books or from their grandfathers. But his ideas permeate India right now - the idea of being a proud Hindu, of not apologizing. I mean, basically, this is the message - that the majority should not apologize. I mean, they're from a country that - like, think India. What's the stereotype of India? It's, like, the epitome of the Third World, right? And that's unfair. That's not today's India. Today's India has ascended. It's soon to be - very soon to be - the most populous country in the world. The economy is booming.

And so you have a leader now who's telling Indians that they're part of this ancient civilization that should be proud and, you know, was conquered by outsiders time and time again, whether it was Mughal Muslim emperors, whether it was the British colonial powers. And now, India is free and proud and ascendant. And that's what people are voting for, and that's the feeling that Modi has tapped into and the feeling that Hindu nationalists give Indians.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This show was produced by me.






N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK. Smizing and somber - N'Jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Original music was produced by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Lu Olkowski.


ARABLOUEI: Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Lauren Frayer.

ARABLOUEI: Scott Neuman.

ABDELFATAH: And Sarah Knight.

ARABLOUEI: If you liked this episode, please write us at or find us on Twitter @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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