Veer Savarkar: Myths and Truths
Today marks the one thirty second birth anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the man who coined the term Hindutva, the much maligned word in Indian socio-political discourse. It has been almost five decades since he passed away and still people do not know much about this towering historical figure. He is still the demon buried under the remains of what we call ‘Indian secularism.’
One can get biographical facts about Savarkar from Dhananjay Keer’s book, or websites like this. To get a more nuanced and balanced view, one can read explanations on Savarkar written by scholars who approach him from various ideologies: good examples include Lisa McKean, A.Sreedhar Menon, Michael Lederle, Siegfried Wolfe, Uday Mahurkar, John Zavos and Bindu Puri.
Here I make an attempt to answer most of the atrocious allegations made against Savarkar.
Allegation: In the Andaman jail, Savarkar revealed his cowardice by pleading with the British officials to release him, JNU historian Bipan Chandra quotes Savarkar’s refusal to join fasting with other rebels. Aged rebel Triloknath Chakraborty was witness to Savarkar’s refusal to fast.
Facts: One of the letters Savarkar wrote in the time of the First World War to Mr Montague, the then Secretary of State for India reads thus: If Britain sets up colonial self Government for India the Indian revolutionaries would cease all hostilities and help Britain in war effort. The Governor General eventually replied, ‘In the present circumstances it is impossible to give effect to your suggestion.’
Another letter by Savarkar asked the governor general to release other prisoners while Savarkar willingly agreed to remain imprisoned. On questioning Savarkar in 1914 in the Andamans, Home Secretary Reginald Craddock informed his seniors that Savarkar showed no regret for his revolutionary deeds but conceded that Britain’s engagement with the Indian leadership made the mutineer reconsider his political targets.
As for Mr.Triloknath, he would have found surviving archives which show that in 1920 after knowing of Tilak’s death, Savarkar organized a day of fasting himself included. Besides, Savarkar himself was sentenced to Transportation for Life, which according to prison rules meant that after serving about four years, he could work outside the jail and eventually settle on the islands. But that did not happen.
On the issue of dropping the protests in later years knowing the brutal treatment already meted out to Savarkar, it is understandable why he avoided constant hostility. Some would call it cowardice but it is nothing more than political realism.
Allegation: Andamans made Savarkar a rabid communalist.
Facts: The following is from Savarkar’s handwritten chronicles of his Andaman days where he speaks of how in early 1914 he opposed the prison guards for the untidy food and cruel circumstances:
‘When we fought for better life for Hindus we also took side of Muslim prisoners too, when required. By our agitation we brought about changes in prison life. That benefited Hindus as well as Muslims who therefore developed a respect for us.’
As for communalism this long statement of Savarkar would suffice:
‘Some of our well meaning but unthinking section of Indian patriots who look down upon the Mahasabha as a communal, narrow and anti-Indian body only because it represents Hindudom and tries to protect its just rights, forget the fact that communal and parochial are only relative terms and do not by themselves imply a condemnation or curse. Are not they themselves who swear by the name of Indian Nationalism in season and out of season liable to the same charge of parochialness ? If the Mahasabha represents the Hindu nation only, they claim to represent the Indian nation alone. But is not the concept of an Indian Nation itself a parochial conception in elation to Human State ? In fact the Earth is our motherland and Humanity our Nation. Nay, the Vedantist goes further and claims this Universe for his country and all manifestation from the stars to the stone his own self…..The fact is that all Patriotism is more or less parochial and communal and is responsible for dreadful wars throughout human history. No movement is condemnable simply because it is sectional. So long as it tries to defend the just and fundamental rights of a particular nation or people or community against the unjust and overbearing aggression of other human aggregates and does not infringe on an equal just right and liberties of others, it cannot be condemned or looked down simply because the nation or community is a smaller aggregate in itself. But when a nation or community treads upon the rights of sister nations or communities and aggressively stands in the way of forming larger associations and aggregates of mankind, its nationalism or communalism becomes condemnable from a human point of view…….’
Allegation: Savarkar supported Manusmriti and in his Essentials of Hindutva supported caste discrimination:
‘For the very castes, which you owing to your colossal failure to understand and view them in the right perspective, aver to have banded the common flow of blood into our race, have done so more truly and more effectively as regards the foreign blood than our own. ‘
Facts: In Savarkar’s mind social transformation of the Hindu society had to be founded on logical views of the time period and not on Holy Scriptures, in his own words:
‘In future, whenever we have to decide whether a reform is good or bad, changes are desirable or not, think: Is it useful or harmful for today? We must never ask the question – is it sanctioned by the scriptures? We must never again waste time on that fruitless discussion. If a change is desirable, implement it today. […] It is easy to prove whether a reform is useful or not. But it is impossible even for the Creator to decide whether the same is sanctioned in the scriptures or not. We therefore do not regard any religious text to be followed at all times’
As far as Essentials of Hindutva here is the full text:
Even a brief look at one of our Smritis would conclusively show that the Anuloma and Pratiloma marriage institutions were the order of the day and have given birth to the majority of the castes that exist amongst us.
If a Kshatriya has a son by a Shudra woman, he gives birth to the Ugra caste; again, if the Kshatriya raises an issue on an Ugra he founds a Shvapacha caste while a Brahman mother and a Shudra father beget the caste, Chandal….Down to the day of Harsha-not to mention the partial collapse of the caste-system itself in the centuries of Buddhist control —intermarriages were the order of the day.
Take for example the case of a single family of the Pandawas. The sage Parashar, a Brahman fell in love with a fair fisher-maid who gave birth to the world-renowned Vyas, who in his turn raised two sons on the Kshatriya princesses Amba and Ambalika; one of these two sons, Pandu allowed his wives to raise issue by resorting to the Niyoga method and they having beseeched the love of men of unknown castes, gave birth to the heroes of our great epic.
Unlike traditionalists, Savarkar doesn’t call the Pandavas children of Gods but sees them as product of an inter-caste blending. He expounds on the inter-caste marriage and speaks of how this blending led to several castes being formed which in turn made India a nation of varied groups. In later years, famed sociologists MS Ghuriye and MN Srinivas have also shown in their works how the process of Sanskritisation ensured the cohabitation of various castes and ensured the stability of the medieval Indian society.
In Discovery of India Jawaharlal Nehru quoted scholarly works and concluded (like Savarkar two decades before him) that at one point in ancient and medieval India the caste arrangement served a purpose and created a sensible work culture as labor was divided into the various castes as mentioned above.
Savarkar rightly said that the current caste system continued because it allowed everyone to dominate someone else. It is difficult for a sociologist to know the lowest caste because every caste considers some other caste to be below it in hierarchy. It is true that some Brahmins took advantage of the caste system but they did so with active support from the other groups. All Hindus preserved caste divisions. Thus logically one can argue that all Hindus should destroy them.
Allegation: Savarkar saw the untouchables as incentives in his politics of overruling the Muslim masses; they were of no use to him after their work is done.
i.One of the letters Savarkar wrote to his young brother while the former was in Andamans jail went like this:
One thing more – among the social organizations – the greatest curse of India is the system of castes. The mighty current of Hindu life is being threatened to parish in bogs and sands. It is no good saying ‘we will reduce it to four caste system first. That would and should not be. It must be swept away, root and branch. The best means to that effect is crusade against it, in all forms of literature, especially drama and novel. Every true patriot should cease to have double dealing and speak out his mind clearly and act up to it.
ii.As Hindu Mahasabha president he declared:
Remember also that the abolition of untouchability is a task as easy to be tackled as it is bound to reinforce Hindu union. It will be nothing short of a victory won in the battlefield if we, within five years’ time, can sweep out untouchability from the face of our country by killing the very idea of not touching our co-religionists on ground of birth in a particular caste alone, and removing automatically the special disability, some economical and some social, from which those of our religious brothers are suffering most unjustly at this hour.
It is only a change of mentality and nothing more than that can achieve this seemingly insuperable task. If every Hindu Sanghatanists simply says and begins to act on it ‘I would not look upon anyone of my co- religionists as untouchable simply on account of birth in a particular caste’-the question will be solved without a farthing’s cost or the least measure of suffering and we shall have a veritable army of some three crores of our co- religionists fighting shoulder to shoulder with us under Pan-Hindu flag on behalf of Hindudom.
iii. When he was confined in Ratnagiri, Savarkar invited all the untouchable families in his house and dined with them. The Pan-Hindu canteen and the Patit Pavan Mandir are standing symbols of Savarkar’s struggles as a reformer. He also attended Mahar conferences in Ratnagiri to hear their objections and worked for their well-being.
Allegation: Savarkar opposed Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and had contempt for him.
Facts: Regarding Ambedkar’s decision to convert to Buddhism, it was the leaders of Congress who opposed him while the Savarkar-led Hindu Mahasabha hailed it.
In fact Savarkar and his deputy Dr. Moonje consulted with Master Tara Singh and the Akalis to have Ambedkar and his supporters convert to Sikhism. Savarkar stated that if orthodox Hindus support the caste system, the untouchables may well join the Arya Samaj or accept Sikhism. But Ambedkar chose Buddhism, years after taking the decision to convert. Savarkar only opposed Ambedkar’s views on Hindus being a defeated and confused bunch of people. Savarkar opposed the Buddhist discourses on political matters not religious. Savarkar emphatically stated that cultural inheritance and military spirit unified the Hindus, not religious endorsements.
In 1933, Dr.Ambedkar’s Janata magazine in a special issue paid tribute to Savarkar addressing him as a crusader against caste discrimination. Manohar Malgonkar who wrote the definitive The Men Who Killed Gandhi (1978) on Gandhi’s assassination, revealed in 2008 that it became ‘compulsory to omit certain vital facts such as, for instance, Dr. Ambedkar’s secret surety to Mr. L B Bhopatkar, that his client, Mr. V D Savarkar, had been involved as a murder suspect on fragile grounds.’
While framing those to whom the Hindu Code Bill would apply, Dr.Ambedkar used the same definition of Hindu Savarkar had used:
This Code applies, (a) to all Hindus, that is to say, to all persons professing the Hindu religion in any of its forms or developments, including members of the Brahmo, the Prarthana or the Arya Samaj; (b) to any person who is a Buddhist, Jain or Sikh by religion; (c) (i) to any child, legitimate or illegitimate, both of whose parents are Hindus within the meaning of this section. (ii) to any child, legitimate or illegitimate, one of whose parents is a Hindu within the meaning of this section; provided that such child is brought up as a member of the community group or family to which such parent belongs or belonged; and (d) to a convert to the Hindu religion.
Ambedkar also said:
Application of Hindu code to the Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains was a historical development and it would be too late sociologically to object to it. When the Buddha differed from the Vedic Brahmins, he did so only in matters of creed and left the Hindu legal framework intact. He did not propound a separate law for his followers. The same was the case with Mahavir and the ten Sikh Gurus.
Allegation: Savarkar was a Nazi sympathiser.
Facts: From Essentials of Hindutva:
‘If the Zionists’ dreams are ever realized—if Palestine becomes a Jewish State and it will elate us almost as much as our Jewish friends……’
Savarkar had never cared for race in the biological sense. We can turn to Essentials of Hindutva:
‘After all there is throughout this world so far as man is concerned but a single race—the human race kept alive by one common blood, the human blood. All other talk is at best provisional, a makeshift and only relatively true. Nature is constantly trying to topple the artificial barriers you raise between races. To try to prevent the commingling of blood is to build forts on sand. Lust has proved more powerful than the commands of all the prophets put together. Even as it is, not even the aborigines of the Andamans are without some pinch of the so-called Aryan blood in their veins and vice versa truly speaking all that any one of us can claim, all that history entitles one to claim, is that one has the blood of all mankind in one’s veins. The central unity of man from pole to pole is true, all else only relatively so.
This is totally divergent to Hitler’s Master Race belief.
These declarations by Savarkar’s lieutenant in the Mahasabha, Nirmal Chatterji should clear up all doubts about Savarkar being a Nazi sympathizer:
- Our ardent dedication to democracy and liberty is based on the recognition of the Holiness of man. We are nationalists and democrats. The Anti-Fascist Front must extend from the English Channel to the Bay of Bengal. (Hindu Politics, Calcutta 1945, p.13)
- In the conflict of ideologies the Hindus have made their position perfectly clear. We are the enemies of Hitler and Mussolini. We are longing and struggling for our own emancipation and we want to repel any despot who would try to reduce sections of humanity to captivity. (Hindu Politics, p.68)
- The Hindu Mahasabha stood for Savarkar’s policy of militarization and progress. We recognized that Fascism was a matchless threat to what is noble in our civilization. Due to Veer Savarkar’s call thousands of young men joined the Army and Navy and Air Force and shed their blood for resisting Nazi malice and for real empathy with China and Russia. But as the Hindus had the audacity to ask for National Independence and took the lead in spurning the Cripps offer, they were smeared and the delicate forces of organized British propaganda were let loose to compel the Hindus. (Hindu Politics, p.103)
No lieutenant of a Nazi-backer can give such declarations.
Allegation : When Gandhi launched the ‘Quit India Movement’ asking people to leave government jobs Savarkar actively drafted Indians for the British Army.
Facts: Many would see Savarkar’s refusal to join the Quit India Movement as proof of him being treacherous but they conveniently skip the position taken by other notable leaders. For example:
- Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who due to conflicts with the Congress left India for Germany formed Indian battalions in the German and later the Japanese army during the 2nd World War. Many in India including Gandhi and Nehru were shocked and disapproved Bose’s decision of grouping with the Axis powers. But all bowed before the nationalist zeal of Netaji and the INA. Moreover, south-east Asian nationalists like Aung-San and Sukarno who wanted to free their respective nations from Imperialist tyranny joined Japan even though they opposed the prejudice of the Axis powers.
- Rajaji and KM Munshi , both senior Congressmen fruitlessly pressed the Congress party to help the British in their war against Germany since Hitler was more dangerous than the British and Congress’s disavowal caused both leaders to temporarily leave the party.
- Dr. Ambedkar like Savarkar asked the Mahars and the Dalits to join the British Army and stated that it was vital for them to get military training in order to be prepared in times of peril . Likewise Ambedkar was a part of the advising panel of the Viceroy who ordered the arrest of Gandhi even though Ambedkar opposed it.
- ‘We feel that not only is this a battle waged in just self-defence and in defence of the nations threatened with the world-domination of Germany and the Nazi system of life, but that it is a defence of civilisation and its highest attained social, cultural and spiritual values and of the whole future of humanity. To this cause our support and sympathy will be unswerving whatever may happen; we look forward to the victory of Britain and, as the eventual result, an era of peace and union among the nations and a better and more secure world-order.'(Sri Aurobindo’s message to the Governor of Madras dated September 19,1940)
- The Communists supported the British (after they became a Soviet ally in 1941) since they were Soviet devotees and saw the Congress activists as their foes. Yet their acts are seen in a different light and for nearly four decades, they painted themselves as patriots and freedom fighters.
And it was due to Savarkar’s deeds that in Africa as well as in Vichy, France, that Indians were hailed as noble and daring men who smashed the Axis flocks.
Allegation: Savarkar proposed the two-nation theory before the Muslim League.
Facts: It has been stated in many historical works based on factual data that the prime Muslim reformer and modernist of 19th century, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was one of the first to say Hindus and Muslims are separate nationalities and he also opposed the budding freedom movement asking Muslims to stay clear from it. Similar views were taken by Sir Mohammed Iqbal, who became the national poet of Pakistan.
Even if after reading the aforementioned detailed examination of myths and facts, one still thinks that Veer Savarkar was a bigoted fascist, all I can do is repeat this quote dedicated to Joseph Goebbels the chief propagandist of the German Nationalist Socialist Party:
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.