Amongst other things, Swatantryaveer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was a great social reformer. His thoughts on social reform have fundamental significance. However, what is more important is that he practiced what he preached. As he himself said, “He who gives up verbosity and acts as per the principle of ‘irrespective of whether others do it or not, as far as I am concerned, I will practice reform on a daily basis” alone is a true reformer. (1935, Hindutvache panchapran or The Spirit of Hindutva; Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, ed. SR Date, Maharashtra Prantik Hindu Sabha, Pune, 1963-1965, Vol. 3, p.75; hereafter abbreviated as SSV 3:75). His fieldwork in the sphere of social reform is truly pathbreaking. Savarkar did his work in the field of social reform selflessly. According to Savarkar, “He who wants to truly serve the nation should champion that which is in the interests of the people irrespective of whether it is popular or not. He who upholds or rejects a principle or policy that is in national interest solely with an eye on whether he will be applauded or humiliated is not a sincere servant of the people. (1937, Balarao Savarkar, Hindu Samaj Sanrakshak parva, Veer Savarkar Prakashan, Mumbai, 1972, p. 159). Savarkar self-composed axiom in this respect was “Varam janahitam dhyeyam kevalaa na janastutihi!” (“Not praise of people, public welfare alone!”).
In 1925, Savarkar started a survey of the Maharwada or the locality of the Mahars, an ex- untouchable caste among the Hindus (incidentally Ambedkar belonged to this caste). He started organized mass singing of bhajans. He toured small towns around Ratnagiri such as Dapoli, Khed, Chiplun, Devrukh, Sangameshwar, Kharepatan, Devgad and Malvan and made speeches decrying the practice of caste-based segregation and ensured that schools in these places stopped this pernicious practice. He ensured that children of the so-called low castes such as Mahars, Chamars and Bhangis (or Balmikis) compulsorily attended school by distributing chalk and slates and giving monetary incentives to their parents. He exposed schools that continued the policy of caste-based segregation but sent false reports to higher authorities. In 1932, Savarkar made a presentation on behalf of the Ratnagiri Hindu Sabha 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 Dassara and Makar Sankranti to distribute traditional sweets. Savarkar’s wife Yamunabai or Mai organized mass haldi-kumkum gatherings of Hindu women. At such gatherings, Savarkar ensured that women from ex- untouchable castes applied kumkum to women of ‘higher’ castes. He gave complimentary passes of his dramas to ex- untouchables so that they may freely mingle with people of other castes. Workers of the Ratnagiri Hindu Sabha would take Mahars on complimentary tours of Ratnagiri town and port. To improve the lot of the ex- untouchables, Savarkar gave monetary assistance and raised a musical band of the ex-untouchables. He took a bank loan for this purpose. Even in 1930, conservatives of the Vithal temple in Ratnagiri invited a Muslim musical band for their Ganeshotsav but would not allow a band of ex-untouchable Hindus (Balarao Savarkar, ibid, p. 217).
On 01 May 1933, Savarkar started a cafe open to Hindus of all castes including untouchables. This was the first pan-Hindu café in the whole of India. 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. The famous litterateur and Tilakite leader NC Kelkar took tea in Savarkar’s café on 15 May 1933. For this action, he was severely criticized by conservative Hindus. SR Date who later edited Savarkar’s Complete Works has narrated his own experience when he went to pay a visit to Savarkar as a youngster. Savarkar asked Date whether he had had a cup of tea in the pan-Hindu café. When Date said that he did not drink tea, Savarkar asked him to have a glass of water there. Savarkar met Date only when the latter did his bidding. The café always made loss. But Savarkar made up for the deficit from his own pocket. At that time, his financial condition was precarious. He was living on a paltry monthly allowance of Rs. 60 granted by the British Administration.
In the 1920’s, inter-caste dining was unthinkable. It was difficult to hire halls or cooks for such programmes. Savarkar’s reformist followers often faced stiff opposition from their own homes. Unless the reformists underwent ‘penances’ prescribed by caste organizations, their daughters could not be married. Their sons could not undergo ‘thread ceremony’. They could enter temples only if these were first ‘purified’. It may be mentioned that in November 1932, Gandhi who himself fought for rights of untouchables issued a statement, “I do not consider even in my dreams that ‘dining together’ and mixed (inter-caste) marriages are essential parts in the movement for abolishing untouchability. Such activities would indeed create obstacles and therefore should not be entertained.” (Balarao Savarkar, Hindu Samaj Sanrakshak parva, Veer Savarkar Prakashan, Mumbai, 1972, p. 272). But Savarkar carried out his programme undaunted. On 08 March 1931, some 35 participants of Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha from Ratnagiri were released. Savarkar publicly honoured them and organized a ‘dining together’ programme. In January 1934, when Savarkar visited Malvan to launch the newspaper ‘Konkan Samachar’ he arranged a ‘dining together’. Muslims and Christians too attended this programme. In March 1936, the legendary actor-singer ‘Balgandharva’ came with his drama company to Ratnagiri. Balgandharva was a great admirer of Savarkar. He insisted that Savarkar attend a show by his drama company. Savarkar agreed on condition that an inter-caste dining was arranged after the show. Balgandharva agreed. The inter-caste dining programme took place on 06 March 1936. The taboo on inter-caste dining was prevalent even among the so-called low 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 a Dhor, Chamar or Bhangi. Thus, Savarkar’s campaign for social reform encompassed all castes. Within a period of ten years viz 1924 to 1934, Savarkar had broken the shackle of prohibition of inter-caste dining.
In those days, certain occupations such as carpentry, tailoring, shoe-making and scavenging were considered lowly and meant only for so-called lower castes. Savarkar broke this taboo by doing ‘pinjari’ (spinning cotton) work himself. His prestige as a barrister did not come in his way. Savarkar organized the shuddhi (purification or reconversion) of those who had left the Hindu fold under threats and inducements. He performed the shuddhi of the Dhakras family which had embraced Christianity. More importantly, he took the initiative in getting the Dhakras’ daughter married and even performed her kanyadan. In spite of his adverse financial condition, Savarkar brought up a girl from the ex-untouchable Maang community in his own house. He personally taught ex-untouchables to read and write and recite the Gayatri mantra, hitherto the preserve of ‘upper’ castes.
On 22 February 1933, amidst much fanfare, he organized a bonfire of the statue of untouchability. He lent his support to Dr. Ambedkar in his Mahad and Nashik campaigns against untouchability. On 13 November 1933, Savarkar invited Dr. Ambedkar to visit Ratnagiri. However, the visit did not take place.
In 1930, Savarkar started the first pan-Hindu Ganeshotsav in the whole of India. The festivities would be marked by ‘kirtans’ rendered by so-called untouchables. Listeners from so-called higher castes would garland those who rendered the kirtans. Public lectures by women and inter-caste dining of women were special features of these Ganesh festivities.
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 (a building contractor; at Savarkar’s suggestion, Keer later constructed a pan-Hindu crematorium in Dadar, Mumbai), Dr. Mahadeo Ganpat Shinde, Kashinath Laxman Parulekar and others. On Mahashivaratri day i.e. 10 March 1929, Shankaracharya Dr. Kurtakoti laid the foundation stone of this temple. Countless men and women participated in the procession. Then Shivu Chavan (a Bhangi or Balmiki boy who was taught by Savarkar himself to read and write) rendered a heart-rending lyric composed by Savarkar. After this, Savarkar explained the idea of the Patitpavan Mandir. He said, “I had this idea for some time now. Indeed, the Kashi Vishweshwar, Jagannath Puri, Dwarka , Rameshwar and other temples should be, subject to certain rules and regulations,open for darshan to Hindus of all castes. No Hindu should be denied access on the basis of birth-based caste distinction. However, I thought that until this principle is accepted by society, there should be atleast one temple that has its doors open to all Hindus. Last year when I met Shriman Bhagoji Seth Keer at the new Bhageshwar temple built by him, he told me that being a member of the Bhandari caste, he could not perform puja at the old temple and this fact pained him. He had hence decided to build a temple where he could get the satisfaction of performing puja himself. Accordingly, he got that temple built. I told Sethji that the plight of our untouchable brethren is far worse than his previous plight. They are unable to have darshan even from a distance. I told him that he was wealthy and capable and could hence build a temple. But what about the untouchables? Is it not therefore necessary for you to build a temple for them also? My question touched his mind and he agreed to extend all possible help towards the building of such a temple. As a result, our work became easy. Now, idols of Bhagwan Vishnu and Lakshmi shall be consecrated at this temple. Any Hindu who has a bath and wears clean clothes will have the right to perform puja of these idols. At the door of the sanctum sanctorum, there shall be a shivling and padukas (sacred wooden footwear); any Hindu shall have the right to perform their puja. The priest of this temple will not necessarily be a Brahmin by birth. However he would need to have knowledge of all the priestly duties. The temple shall have a trust. The trustees will have one member each from the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and untouchable communities and one representative of Bhagoji Seth Keer. Thus the main feature of this temple would be equal rights to all Hindus.” Savarkar thundered, “Without this feature, there would have been no need to build a new temple. A community that does not have the strength to defend its existing temples has no right to build new ones. This temple aims to impart this strength to the Hindus. Today it is not just the Mahar, Chamar and untouchable community that has become degraded or patit, the entire Hindu society that is under foreign yoke has become degraded. He who redeems this degraded Hindu nation, I call Patitpavan (Patit =fallen; pavan=holy). He who gives back all that we Hindus have lost, I call Him Patitpavan.” This was followed by the ‘Hindu unity’ song penned by Savarkar. Finally, the foundation stone of this unique temple was laid.
The temple was built over the next two years at a cost of Rs. 100000/- at 1920 prices. The cost was largely borne by Shriman Bhagoji Seth Keer. Savarkar had planned to consecrate the idols at the hands of Shriman Bhagoji Seth Keer who was a Bhandari by caste and hence traditionally debarred from performing Vedic rites and could only perform Puranic rites. To this end, he wrote several articles, delivered speeches, corresponded with several people and arranged for the cost of bringing several people from the Mahar and Chamar colonies. At Bhagoji’s insistence, Savarkar invited such learned Brahmins from Kashi and Nashik who approved of Bhagoji’s right to perform puja according to Vedic rites. For two days, these Brahmins and Savarkar were engaged in discussion on whether all Hindus should have the right to recite the Vedas. Savarkar opined that every Hindu, whether Mahar or Maharaj (king) should have the right to recite the Vedas. But the learned pandits would not accept Savarkar’s position. At the last moment, the pandits said that while Bhagoji may be a man of character and god-fearing and he might pay them handsomely they could still not bring themselves to grant him the right to perform Vedic rites. The pandits even refused to accept the ruling of Shankaracharya Dr. Kurtakoti in this regard. At this turn of events, Bhagoji Keer said that he did not wish to create a controversy if the pandits were adamant. He would perform the puja according to Puranic rites as per the instructions of the pandits. Savarkar told Sethji, “Look, Sethji, we have built this temple to preach a new principle. Otherwise there are several old temples. If you beat a retreat, I cannot remain with you. You know well that I do not consider that only a Brahmin can be a priest. I believe that anyone who knows priestly duties is a priest. At your insistence, I invited another set of Brahmins who would agree to let you perform the Vedic recitation and consecrate the idols. I don’t care even if these Brahmins now change their stand. We should go ahead with our programme as planned. We should not retreat.” Seeing Savarkar’s resolve, Sethji agreed to perform the rituals under the directions of these other Brahmins. The ceremony was attended by saints, leaders from all castes and ex-untouchables, reconverted Hindus, journalists and Arya Samajis from different parts of Maharashtra and Goa. On Phalgun shuddha 5, 22 February, 1931, learned Brahmins under the leadership of Ganeshshastri Modak, a disciple of Masurkar Maharaj performed the havan and the idols of Shri Vishnu-Lakshmi or Patitpavan were duly consecrated by the Shankaracharya Dr. Kurtakoti. After this meeting, a grand procession was taken out. The Chamar leader Rajbhoj of Pune worshipped the Shankaracharya’s feet with his own hands. Hitherto, the untouchables were denied the right to pay obeisance to the Shankaracharya directly. With this, one more taboo was broken! The Patitpavan Mandir consecration had already marked the breaking of the taboo on non-Brahmins performing Vedic rites. The Patitpavan Mandir is a symbol of Savarkar’s lifelong commitment to social reform.
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 Maharishi 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.” On 08 September 1933, Madhav Rao Bagal of the Satyashodhak Samaj too was dumbfounded when he witnessed the remarkable transformation brought about by Savarkar. In an emotionally charged address, Bagal remarked, “Since I have come here, I have seen so much progress that I am at a loss for words. Even in Pune and Mumbai, we find it difficult to find ten women who would be ready for inter-caste dining. In Kolhapur, we have not managed to organize even one inter-caste dining. And yet, here in Ratnagiri, I am seeing hundreds of women who take part in such functions. The credit for this change undoubtedly goes to Savarkar. Had we been fortunate to be blessed with such a personality in our area, we would have paraded him on our shoulders.”
Savarkar did his stupendous work in the field of social reform after undergoing nearly a decade and a half of hellish prison life. He carried out these activities though he personally never experienced caste discrimination. His repute as an internationally acclaimed revolutionary, barrister and poet did not prevent him from working as an ordinary soldier in the battle for social reform. He contributed both in the realm of thought and deed. He was never motivated by narrow considerations of politics, power, pelf and popularity. Above all, he was a humanist. The least we can do in his memory is to follow the ideals for which he staked his home and hearth!