Swatantryaveer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (28 May 1883 to 26 Feb 1966) was a fearless freedom fighter, social reformer, writer, dramatist, historian, political leader and philosopher. Unfortunately, Savarkar has been a victim of malice and misinformation. Those who disagree with Savarkar’s political views start with the assumption that he was an obscurantist and a reactionary bigot. As a considerable part of his literature is in Marathi, his thoughts and achievements in several spheres are largely unknown outside Maharashtra. 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. His contribution in the field of social reform is relevant even today. Savarkar’s birth anniversary which falls on 28 May provides an excellent opportunity to dispassionately evaluate his contribution as a social reformer. Savarkar carried out a vigorous campaign for social reform through his thoughts, words and actions. The present article deals with Savarkar’s thoughts on social reform. The next article shall deal with his path-breaking field work in this sphere.
On 13 March 1910, Savarkar was arrested in London. He was subsequently sentenced twice to Transportation for Life, to the Andaman Islands. The sentences of Transportation were to be served in succession - a total sentence of 50 years, unparalleled in the history of the British Empire. Savarkar’s spirit remained undaunted in the hell-hole of the Cellular Jail. Public outcry in India forced the British to release Savarkar from the Cellular Jail on 02 May 1921. From May 1921 to 06 January 1924, Savarkar was successively kept in Alipore, Ratnagiri and Yerawada Jails. Mounting public pressure again forced the British to release him from jail. But so wary were the British of Savarkar that they asked him to stay within the confines of Ratnagiri District, a backward place in Coastal Maharashtra. Savarkar was also asked “to abstain from any participation public or private in politics”. These restrictions on Savarkar were meant only for five years. But British Authorities extended their duration by two years in succession - to a total of 13 years internment. Savarkar reached Ratnagiri on 08 January 1924. He was finally released unconditionally from internment in Ratnagiri on 17 June 1937. Savarkar plunged whole-heartedly in the field of social reform during his internment in Ratnagiri. 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: prohibition of touch (sparshabandi) of certain castes, prohibition of interdining (rotibandi) with certain castes, prohibition of intercaste marriages (betibandi), prohibition of pursuing certain occupations(vyavasayabandi), prohibition of seafaring (sindhubandi), prohibition of rites sanctioned by the Vedas (vedoktabandi) and prohibition of reconversion (shuddhibandi) to the Hindu fold. The so-called untouchable (Savarkar favoured the use of the word poorvaasprushya or ‘ex-untouchables’ instead of “Harijan’ or ‘Dalit’) children were seated separately in schools. It was considered a sin to interdine with people of a ‘lower caste’. A person who performed such a transgression faced social boycott. Caste discrimination was practised by all castes, including the so-called lower castes and untouchables.
Savarkar’s work in the field of social reform was done in the the most difficult circumstances. As he once remarked, “working in the social field is like walking on a bed of thorns. It is not for the faint-hearted!” (Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, ed. SR Date, Maharashtra Prantik Hindu Sabha, Pune, 1963-1965, Vol 3, p.640; hereafter abbreviated as SSV, 3:640). During the early years of British rule, there used to be two schools of thought in Maharashtra. The school led by Tilak believed that the political reforms should precede social reforms. The other school led by Gopal Ganesh Agarkar held just the opposite view. Savarkar reconciled both viewpoints. Savarkar was a “sapper and miner” of the Tilak school of political thought. However, in the social sphere, he concurred with Agarkar. In 1941, Savarkar declared that if freedom was won without having achieving social reform, it would not last even for three days. (Balarao Savarkar, Akhand Hindusthan ladhaa parva or The battle for undivided Hindusthan, Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1976, p. 202). There have been many distinguished social reformers in modern India. Most of them remained aloof from the freedom struggle. Savarkar was a rare exception. As a rule, contemporary society used to be hostile to social reformers but the British Government was not against them. On the other hand, Savarkar had to face hostility of the predominantly conservative society as well as the Government. In Ratnagiri, his house was searched by the police several times and his books were banned. People were scared to associate with him. He had to work with very meagre financial resources. The year ending balance of 1929 of the Ratnagiri Hindu Sabha, under whose auspices Savarkar worked, was a princely sum of a rupee and a quarter!
Savarkar put down his views on social reform and rationalism in writing. In this, he put various literary forms to use. During his internment in Ratnagiri, he penned ‘Jatyuchchedak Nibandh’ (Essays on abolition of caste), ‘Vidnyannishtha Nibandh’ (Pro-science essays) and ‘Ksha kirane’(X rays). He also wrote a collection of short stories called ‘Samaj Chitre’ (Portraits of society). His drama ‘Ushaap’ (Antidote to a curse) deals with untouchability, kidnapping of women, shuddhi and the duplicity of conservatives. Though Savarkar was a poet of great repute, he did not consider it beneath his dignity to pen down pretty ordinary poems on specific occasions such as temple entry! Savarkar’s poems on social reform have been criticized as being propagandist. However, these poems were written from the depths of his heart. NS Bapat, one of Savarkar's associates in Ratnagiri was an eyewitness when Savarkar composed his poem "Malaa devaache darshan gheu dyaa, dole bharun devaas malaa paahu dyaa " ("Let me have a glimpse of god, let me see god to my heart's content") in 1931. He writes that Savarkar must have shed at least a handful of tears when he composed this poem (Smritipushpay, author and publisher NS Bapat, 1979, p 63). It is worth mentioning that the same Savarkar had remained unmoved when he heard the judge sentencing him to two Transportations for Life! However, Savarkar’s literature on social reform and rationalism is wholly in Marathi. While this is understandable considering that he was writing for a Marathi readership, it has also placed a linguistic barrier for the propagation of Savarkar’s thoughts. Among other issues, Savarkar discussed the concept of God, dharma, religious scriptures, rituals, yagna, caste and caste discrimination, untouchability, social reform, qualities of a social reformer, ethics, truth and non-violence. Given their radical nature, it is not surprising that Savarkar’s thoughts and teachings shook and shocked contemporary society.
Savarkar examined the institution of caste in a scientific manner. As he was to observe in 1963, Savarkar felt that the practice of birth-based caste division must have been responsible for the mighty consolidation and amazing stability of the Hindu society under certain circumstances and conditions. While evaluating its merits and demerits, it would be sheer ingratitude to only point fingers at the latter day ill-effects of the institution of caste (1963, Sahaa soneri pane or Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History; SSV 4: 710). Savarkar held that the present-day caste division had arisen from the debris of the chaturvarnya of yore. (1930, Jatyuchchedak nibandha or essays on abolition of caste, SSV 3: 449). Savarkar rejected the theory that caste division was a conspiracy of the Brahmins or the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. He held that the blame for the atrocities perpetrated by the higher castes on lower castes due to scripture-based caste division lies with all castes, from the Brahmin to the Bhangi (Balmiki), not with Brahmins and Kshatriyas alone! This scripture-based caste division enabled the Bhangi to assert his superiority over the Dom, hence every one in his own way preserved and is still preserving it. The blame for unnecessarily allowing it to thrive rests on every one…so the best way is to accept that every one is to be blamed and that the responsibility of reform is collective! (1935, Ksha kirane or X-rays, SSV 3:178). Savarkar rightly observed that every untouchable caste considers some other lower caste untouchable. Finding out the lowest caste is like digging deep into the bowels of the earth! (SSV 3 :519). Savarkar rebelled against scripture-based caste division and termed it as a mental illness that gets cured instantly when the mind refuses to accept it (1935, SSV 3:497-499). To those who regarded chaturvarnya and caste divisions as part of Hindu Dharma, Savarkar had this to say, “Both chaturvarnya and caste divisions are but practices. They are not coterminous with Sanatana Dharma … Sanatana Dharma will not die if the present-day distortion that is caste division is destroyed (1930, Jatyuchchedak nibandha or essays on abolition of caste, SSV 3:444). Savarkar’s views on caste-based organizations were remarkably pragmatic. He said, “It is foolish and even harmful for caste abolitionists to totally boycott all caste organizations for they need to use the desirable element in caste organizations to abolish caste itself…” (1937, SSV 3: 620-624).
Savarkar launched a scathing attack on the seven shackles that undermined Hindu society. In a moving appeal to Hindus, Savarkar wrote, “Rise and irrespective whether others do it or not, take a pledge at this very instant that you shall use the hand with which you touch my cat and dog to touch your untouchable brother in dharma, failing which you shall go hungry... By publicly touching some untouchable brother, show the world that as far as you are concerned, you have acquired the boon of freeing the Hindu race from the sin of untouchability! Throw your house open to the untouchable to the extent you do for the caste Hindu. Those who have houses to rent should do so to untouchables and caste Hindus alike; those who own wells should throw them open to untouchables and caste Hindus alike…in short, let not a day pass without you publicly behaving with an untouchable as you would with a caste Hindu” (1935, Hindutvache panchapran or The Spirit of Hindutva, SSV 3: 81). Savarkar held that no profession was lowly. He declared, “…Scavenging cannot be considered a lowly profession as it is in the interests of society and inevitable. A reformer should show by his actions that a scavenger is worthy of equal treatment as other professionals provided he is as clean as them (1935, Hindutvache panchapran or The Spirit of Hindutva, SSV 3: 73). Savarkar unambiguously championed the rights of the ex-untouchables. He said, “The demand of untouchables to be allowed to draw water at public places and enter public temples is extremely modest and justified. All important holy places, temples, holy and historical sites should be open with the same regulations to all Hindus, irrespective of varna or caste. (1931, Jatyuchchedak nibandh or essays on abolition of caste, SSV 3:480). Savarkar defended the right of ex-untouchables to launch civil agitation to secure their lawful rights if all efforts to change the minds of the caste Hindus into granting lawful rights fail.
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 was politically motivated with a selfish view of winning 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. Untouchability should go also because its eradication is in the interests of our Hindu society. But even if the Hindu society were to partially benefit from that custom, I would have opposed it with equal vehemence. When I refuse to touch some one 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. From the point of view of justice, dharma and humanism, fighting untouchability is a duty and we Hindus should completely eradicate it. In the present circumstances, how we will benefit by fighting it is a secondary consideration. This question of benefit is an aapaddharma (duty to be done in certain exceptional circumstances) and eradication of untouchability is the foremost and absolute dharma. (1927, 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 and only did Hindu consolidation. 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. Savarkar continued his campaign for social reform after his unconditional release in 1937. 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. On 17 February 1939, Savarkar had gone to Khulna to attend the Bengal Provincial Hindu Conference. In his Presidential speech, Savarkar exhorted those present to eradicate untouchability. He followed words with deed. He visited the house of the ex-untouchable leader Shri Dhali and dined with Doms, Bhangis, Namshudras, Patnis and other ex-untouchables. The Amrit Bazaar Patrika in an editorial said that hundreds of untouchable brethren were overwhelmed on thus seeing Savarkar participate in inter-caste dining and came with folded hands to catch a glimpse of him. On 27 March 1939, during his tour of Mungher (Bihar), Savarkar attended the ‘Untouchable Conference’ and later participated in inter-caste dining with ex-untouchables. In 1944, when his admirers insisted on celebrating his birthday, Savarkar asked them to observe his birthday with a Eradication of Untouchability Week. In 1947, he said, "Time and again, I feel that if my health recuperates and I gain enough strength to enter public life, I must devote at least one-two years towards the work of eradicating untouchability and scripture-based caste discrimination and launch a nation-wide campaign against this pernicious practice. This is the extent to which I feel this work is important not just from the point of view of Hindu consolidation but also of human consolidation as well" (Balarao Savarkar, Akhand Hindusthan ladhaa parva or The battle for undivided Hindusthan, Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1976, p 369). In 1924, he declared movingly, “I am confident that I shall live to see the eradication of untouchability. It is my fervent desire that after I die, my dead body should be lifted by Dhends, Doms along with Brahmins and Banias and they should all cremate my body. Only then will my soul rest in peace" (Balarao Savarkar; Hindu Samaj Sanrakshak Savarkar, Veer Savarkar Prakashan; Mumbai; 1972, p.67). Indeed, Savarkar’s zeal for social reform stemmed from his abiding faith in humanism. He considered his thoughts in the social sphere to be even more important than his spectacular escape from the ship into the ocean. However, Savarkar was not an armchair reformer. His activities in the social sphere were no less revolutionary than his exploits in armed struggle.