Veer Savarkar did his stupendous work in the field of social reform after undergoing nearly a decade and a half of hellish prison life. He was never motivated by narrow considerations of politics, power, pelf and popularity
Dr Shreerang Godbole
Swatantryaveer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is largely known as a revolutionary freedom fighter and exponent of Hindutva. It is not widely known that he was also an outstanding social reformer. The fiftieth anniversary of Savarkar’s atmarpan (embracing death by self-denial of food and water) which falls on February 26, provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate his contribution as a social reformer. In his vigorous campaign for social reforms through his thoughts, words and actions, he had to face hostility of the religious conservatives as well as the Government that also with very meagre resources.
Savarkar penned his views on social reform and rationalism. During his internment in Ratnagiri, he penned ‘Jatyuchchedak Nibandh’ (Essays on abolition of caste) and ‘Vidnyan Nishtha Nibandh’ (Essays on Scientific Temper). His drama ‘Ushaap’ (Antidote to a curse) deals with untouchability, kidnapping of women, shuddhi and the duplicity of conservatives. He penned down poems on specific occasions such as temple entry.
A Lifelong Social Reformer
It has been alleged that Savarkar carried out his campaign for social reform not because he had any sympathy for the lower castes but because he wanted to gain their support for Hindu consolidation. The following passage conclusively nails this allegation, “To regard our 70 million co-religionists as ‘untouchables’ and worse than animals is an insult not only to humanity but also to the sanctity of our soul. It is my firm conviction that this is why untouchability should be principally eradicated. .. When I refuse to touch someone because he was born in a particular community but play with cats and dogs, I am committing a most heinous crime against humanity. Untouchability should be eradicated not only because it is incumbent on us but because it is impossible to justify this inhuman custom when we consider any aspect of dharma. Hence this custom should be eradicated as a command of dharma. (1927, Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, ed. SR Date, Maharashtra Prantik Hindu Sabha, Pune, 1963-1965, Vol 3, p.483; hereafter abbreviated as SSV, SSV 3: 483).
Another charge hurled at Savarkar is that he carried out social reform only because his political activities were forbidden by the British and he forgot about social reform after his unconditional release. In a letter written in 1920 from the Andamans, Savarkar wrote, “Just as I feel that I should rebel against foreign rule over Hindusthan, I feel I should rebel against caste discrimination and untouchability.” This letter was written before he had made up his mind to consolidate the Hindus. His tours as President of the Hindu Mahasabha were never complete without a visit to the homes of the ex-untouchables. He used to deliver lectures in the Ganesh festivities only on condition that these lectures would be open to ex-untouchables.
Though Savarkar was a lifelong champion of social reform, the period of 1924 to 1937 may be broadly considered as the phase of social reform in Savarkar’s life. Ratnagiri district in Coastal Maharashtra was a bastion of conservatives. Hindu society was bound by the following seven shackles in the social sphere. In 1925, Savarkar started a survey of the locality of the Mahars (incidentally Ambedkar belonged to this caste). He started organised mass singing of bhajans. He ensured that children of the so-called low castes such as Mahars, Chamars and Valmikis compulsorily attended school by distributing chalk and slates and giving monetary incentives to their parents. While exposing the caste based segregation in schools, Savarkar made a presentation on behalf of the Ratnagiri Hindu Sabha in 1932 to ICS Officer Lamington who had been given special responsibility of the ‘lower’ castes. Savarkar said, “Once the children are educated together, they will not observe caste hierarchy in later life. They will not feel the need to observe caste division. Therefore the Government regulation of 1923 must be strictly followed. In addition, the Government should abandon the title ‘special schools for low caste children’. This very title creates a feeling of inferiority among children attending the school”. (Balarao Savarkar, ibid, p. 159).
To ensure that untouchability disappeared not just from schools but also from homes, Savarkar visited numerous houses, accompanied by people from different castes, on the occasion of Hindu festivals like Dussehra and Makar Sankranti. Through gatherings of Hindu women, Savarkar ensured that women from ex-untouchable castes applied kumkum to women of ‘higher’ castes. Savarkar gave monetary assistance and raised a musical band of the ex-untouchables. He took a bank loan for this purpose. On May 1, 1933, Savarkar started a cafe open to Hindus of all castes including untouchables. This was the first pan-Hindu café in the whole of Bharat. He had employed a Mahar to serve water, tea etc. Anyone who visited Savarkar had to first go to this pan-Hindu café and have at least a cup of tea. This seemingly simple act required great courage in those days.
In the 1920’s, inter-caste dining was unthinkable. But Savarkar carried out this programme undaunted. Savarkar’s campaign for social reform encompassed all castes. The Brahmins would not share meals with the Marathas who in turn would not share it with Mahars and Chamars; the Mahars and Chamars in turn would not share meals with a Bhangi. Sometimes, Mahars would challenge Savarkar to share meals with them. Savarkar would readily comply but at the same time would ask them to drink water served by someone lower in the caste hierarchy.
Savarkar organised the shuddhi (purification or reconversion) of those who had left the Hindu fold under threats and inducements. On February 22, 1933, amidst much fanfare, he organised a bonfire of the statue of untouchability. He lent his support to Dr Ambedkar in his Mahad and Nashik campaigns against untouchability.
Savarkar wanted to start a temple that would be freely open to all Hindus. In this revolutionary venture, Savarkar found loyal associates in men like Bhagoji Seth Keer, Dr Mahadav Ganpat Shinde, Kashinath Laxman Parulekar and others. On Mahashivaratri day i.e. March 10, 1929, Shankaracharya Dr Kurtakoti laid the foundation stone of this temple. Then Shivu Chavan. Any Hindu who had a bath could perform puja. The priest of this temple was not necessarily to be a Brahmin by birth. The temple had a trust with one member each from the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and untouchable communities and one representative of Keer. Savarkar felt that the entire Hindu society was in a degraded state under foreign yoke. Hence he called the temple ‘Patitpavan temple’ (redeemer of the degraded). The temple was inaugurated on February 22, 1931 by Shankaracharya Dr. Kurtakoti. The Chamar leader Rajbhoj of Pune washed the Shankaracharya’s feet with his own hands. Hitherto, the untouchables were denied the right to pay obeisance to the Shankaracharya directly.
Little wonder then that Savarkar’s tireless efforts elicited admiration from those who differed with him in his political beliefs. The Brahmo Samaj leader and head of the Depressed Class Mission Vithal Ramji Shinde visited Ratnagiri in February 1933. After seeing Savarkar’s work, he exclaimed, “I am so pleased with what Savarkar has achieved that I pray to the Lord that he should give the remainder of my life to Savarkar so that he may fulfill my ambitions and aspirations.”
Savarkar did his stupendous work in the field of social reform after undergoing nearly a decade and a half of hellish prison life. He was never motivated by narrow considerations of politics, power, pelf and popularity. The least we can do in his memory is to follow the ideals for which he staked his home and hearth!
(The writer has contributed to the making of www.savarkar.org)