One of the most influential figures in modern Indian history, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, has often been demonised by his detractors who project him as a Hindu fundamentalist while his supporters often treat him as an Hindutva icon. However, one of the least discussed aspects of Savarkar’s life pertains to his efforts as a social reformer, especially against caste discrimination and untouchability.
After undergoing nearly 15 years of torturous imprisonment in the Andamans, Savarkar focused on social reforms after his release. He wanted to eradicate the indigenous practices that were creating differences in Bharatiya society. Savarkar once 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.” (‘Hindutvache panchapran’ or The Spirit of Hindutva; Samagra Savarkar Vangmaya, edited by SR Date, Vol. 3, p.75).
Savarkar was a strong critic of the caste system and ensured that children of the so-called lower castes attend school. He gave monetary incentives to their parents and distributed slate and chalk to children from these 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. 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.”
On Hindu festivals like Dussehra and Makar Sakranti, Savarkar would visit houses, accompanied by people from different castes, and distribute traditional sweets. He himself brought up a girl child from a former untouchable community and taught people from untouchable communities to read, write and recite the Gayatri mantra.
In 1930, Savarkar started the first pan-Hindu Ganeshotsav. The festivities would be marked by “kirtans” rendered by the so-called untouchables. Listeners from the so-called higher castes would garland those who rendered these devotional songs. Public lectures by women and inter-caste dining by women were special features of these festivities. Savarkar was also behind many temple movements of Maharashtra, where the untouchables were encouraged to pray, recite Sanskrit hymns and conduct “abhishek” of the Vishnu idol.
In 1931, the Patitpavan temple was established in Ratnagiri; it had on its trust, representation from all castes, including those from the erstwhile untouchable caste. Savarkar also organised community meals in some temples. The first community meal for women in Maharashtra was held in the Patitpavan temple on September 21, 1931. Around 75 women were present on the occasion. By 1935, this count had gone up to 400.
On May 1, 1933, Savarkar started a cafe for Hindus of all castes, including untouchables. This was the first pan-Hindu café in entire India. He had employed a person from the Mahar caste to serve food there. This was at a time when inter-caste dining was unthinkable.
Criticising the practice of caste being decided by birth, Savarkar said: “There is a belief that heredity, birth in a particular caste decides what qualities a person imbibes… A person who has no qualities of a Brahmin…whose seven generations have not shown any qualities expected of a Brahmin is called a Brahmin because one of his forefathers, maybe 70 generations ago, possessed those qualities. He or she has the privileges of a Brahmin simply because they are born in that family. And a person born to a family considered as a lower caste is an untouchable just because some of his forefathers 70 generations ago had performed a job that was considered lowly. This system of deciding caste by birth is so unjust, damaging and an hindrance to the progress of humanity.” Savarkar argued that such a system should be abolished.
Savarkar also talked about the ways to abolish the caste system and untouchability, He said, “To achieve social revolution we first have to strike at the birth-based caste system and bridge the differences between the various castes” (Samagra Savarkar Vangmay; Part 3, page 641). In a letter to his brother Narayanrao on July 6, 1920, Savarkar wrote “I feel the need to rebel against caste discrimination and untouchability as much as I feel the need to fight against foreign occupation of India”.
In 1931 Savarkar wrote a song related to the entry of erstwhile untouchables into temples. It can be translated as “Let me see the idol of God, let me worship God.” It is said that tears rolled down Savarkar’s eyes while he was writing the song.
There are several aspects of this great revolutionary, reformer and visionary which demand greater attention. Being an ideologue of Hindu philosophy is just one aspect of his life.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 29, 2019 under the title ‘Savarkar, the reformer’. The writer has a Phd in sociology and is a fellow at IVSK, Delhi. The views expressed are personal