The place of Muslims in his Hindu Rashtra
Vikram Sampath | 28 May, 2021
Veer Savarkar (centre, front row) at the Calcutta Session of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1939
ADDRESSING A MAMMOTH gathering of his party at the 21st Annual Session of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha in 1939, which took Calcutta by storm and laid the foundation in Bengal for the party and leaders such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar outlined several important policy decisions. This was his third address as the national president of the party. He dedicated a significant portion of his speech to his party’s outlook towards religious minorities in India, in the imagined ‘Hindu Rashtra’ that was being envisioned in the aftermath of the Empire. He was principally opposed to using terms such as ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ as they reinforced separateness among Indians on communal lines. Savarkar however laboured to “relieve our non-Hindu countrymen of even a ghost of suspicion” that they might have about Hindu majoritarian suppression and wished “to emphasize that the legitimate rights of minorities with regard to their religion, culture and language will be expressly guaranteed: on one condition only that the equal rights of the majority also must not in any case be encroached upon or abrogated”. The majority was not to gain any extra privileges by virtue of numerical strength, and conversely the minority too was not to get extra concessions, as everyone was to be treated as equals in the eyes of the law, with faith relegated to private space. He emphasised that “every minority may have separate schools to train up their children in their own tongue, their own religious or cultural institutions and can receive Government help also for these.” If anyone infringed on these legitimate minority rights, the Hindu Rashtra would intervene to provide justice. Savarkar staunchly opposed the communal award of separate electorates on religious grounds and advocated a ‘one-man, one vote’ policy for all Indians. This was a reiteration of what he had articulated in his earlier addresses at Ahmedabad and Nagpur.
It was a long journey for Savarkar of grappling with the vexed, civilisational battle that the two dominant communities of India faced. As a young boy he had led a band of his companions in a mock attack on an unused, decrepit mosque in his village Bhagur. But they were absorbing the political rhetoric of the times, in the 1890s, where Hindu-Muslim riots were commonplace across Maharashtra. Even a nationalist leader like Bal Gangadhar Tilak severely denounced the British government in his Kesari for what he termed as Muslim appeasement when it came to issues such as cow-slaughter or Hindu processional music in front of mosques that often led to a conflagration. In retaliation Tilak often made his Ganeshotsavs and Shivaji Jayanti celebrations grander and more ostentatious. Young boys such as Savarkar who saw leaders like Tilak as role-models were obviously inspired by this sentiment of emulating Shivaji Maharaj to overthrow ‘alien’ power. These incidents also made Savarkar aware of how poorly organised, disunited and easy to subjugate Hindu society was.
Yet, in his seminal book that he wrote as a law student in London in 1909, on the 1857 uprising that he called the first war of Indian independence, Savarkar acknowledged the role of all leaders of the revolution, including Bahadur Shah Zafar, Maulvi Ahmed Shah, Begum Hazrat Mahal and others. The book ends with a poignant scene from Zafar’s durbar and a quote from the Emperor: “Ghazion mein bu rahegi jab talak iman ki, Tab toh London tak chalegi teg Hindustan ki (Till there remains a trace of love for one’s faith in our heroes’ hearts, so long the sword of Hindustan will remain sharp and flash at London’s gates)”. In a speech in the presence of his life-long ideological opponent MK Gandhi, he had said in 1909: “Hindus are the heart of Hindustan. Nevertheless, just as the beauty of the rainbow is not impaired but enhanced by its varied hues, so also Hindustan will look all the more beautiful across the sky of future by assimilating all the best from the Muslim, Parsee, Jewish and other civilizations.”
In the most clear enunciation of its outlook towards a modern, republican and secular state, the Hindu Mahasabha came up with a document in 1945 known as ‘The Constitution of Hindusthan Free State’. There would be no state religion. Minorities were envisaged as equal stakeholders in a Hindu majority country
When one objectively assesses Savarkar’s life and attitude towards minorities, especially Muslims, it seems to swerve around these very broad lines all through. But like all political ideologies evolve with time and circumstances, his response to the emerging separatist tendencies and virulent pan-Islamist movements kept varying and influenced his attitude towards this issue. In the over decade-long incarceration in the dreaded Cellular Jail in the Andamans, the differential treatment meted to Hindu prisoners by Muslim warders, attempts at forced and induced conversions and the British complicity in the matter, and the absence of theological mechanisms within Hinduism to get neo-converts who wished to return to their parental faith, rekindled his earlier desire to organise and unite Hindu society. This was further accentuated by the dangerous Khilafat agitation that Congress, and Gandhi in particular, were fanning in a bid to elicit Muslim participation in the Non-Cooperation movement in lieu of Hindu support to re-establish the despotic Caliphate in Turkey that the British had deposed in World War I. As historian RC Majumdar notes, that by making the Khilafat such a vital concern for a large section of Indian Muslims whose priority should have been liberating one’s own country that was in shackles rather than barter one’s support for such extraterritorial allegiance, “Gandhi himself admitted in a way that they formed a separate nation; they were in India, but not of India.” Several Congressmen, including Lala Lajpat Rai, Annie Besant, Bipin Chandra Pal, and to an extent even Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant Jawaharlal Nehru, considered the Khilafat movement as being ridden with dangers. In Khilafat conferences presided by Gandhi himself, open calls to violent jihad against kafirs or non-believers were made and despite being warned by Congressmen, including Swami Shraddhanand, Gandhi disregarded them politely. When the movement was launched around 1918-19, Gandhi had promised both swaraj and the re-establishment of the Caliphate in one year. The failure and the subsequent frustration and communal frenzy led to widespread riots and carnages through the 1920s, from the Moplah genocide of Hindu Nairs in Malabar to those in Kohat, Panipat, Delhi, Bengal, Sindh and other areas. The Congress response was usually an act of tenuous balancing and apportioning blame on both communities. When Swami Shraddhanand was brutally assassinated by a fanatic Abdul Rashid, Gandhi lovingly called Rashid a “dear brother” whom he did not “even regard as guilty of Swamiji’s murder.” The murderous Moplahs were described as “brave, God fearing…patriots who were fighting for what they consider as religion.” Castigating this perversion, BR Ambedkar commented: “Any person could have said that this was too heavy a price for Hindu-Moslem unity. But Mr. Gandhi was so much obsessed by the necessity of establishing Hindu-Moslem unity that he was prepared to make light of the doings of the Moplas and the Khilafats who were congratulating them.”
Savarkar was to continuously oppose this tendency of Congress and Gandhi to whitewash crimes and to put a premium on a particular community’s support that only led to organisations such as the Muslim League increase their bargaining power and demand more. In his Ahmedabad address of 1937, Savarkar stated this about the League’s perennial holding the nation to ransom: “If you come, with you; if you don’t, without you; but if you oppose, in spite of you, we Hindus will fight out the good battle of achieving the independence of India and herald the rebirth of a free and mighty Hindu nation in the near future…The Hindus will assure them all that we hate none, neither the Moslem nor the Christians nor the Indian Europeans, but henceforth we shall take care to see that none of them dares to hate or belittle the Hindus also.”
Since the outbreak of World War II till the time of India’s freedom, the Mahasabha was the only outfit that doggedly opposed partition, till the very end. It even rejected the Cripps Mission on the grounds that it undermined the integrity of India
Savarkar’s treatise in 1923 on Hindutva and ‘Who Is a Hindu’ was a direct answer to the pernicious Khilafat agitation and an intellectual salvo at Gandhi. He clarified at the outset that Hindutva did not bother itself with the theological aspects of Hinduism, but was more a cultural and national identity marker. Anybody who considered this sacred geography of Bharatavarsha between the Indus and the seas as the land of their forefathers that was worthy of one’s devotion, loyalty and allegiance was culturally a Hindu, despite following any faith in their personal lives. Alongside was a call to unite all Hindus, dismantle the varna and caste system and a complete abolition of untouchability. Savarkar himself was to make the 13 years of house-arrest in Ratnagiri from 1924 to 1937 an opportunity to put this Hindutva theory of unification into practice, as a social laboratory where despite a virulent orthodox backlash, largescale social reforms of inter-caste dining, inter-caste marriage, temple-entry, common schools, lakes, wells and festivals for all castes were ushered. He was to make common cause here with Ambedkar who complimented him as “among the very few who have realized” that “it is not enough to remove untouchability; for that matter you must destroy chaturvarnya.”
In the tumultuous years since the outbreak of World War II till the time of India’s freedom, the Hindu Mahasabha was the only consistent political outfit that doggedly opposed Partition, till the very end. It even rejected the Cripps Mission that Congress was willing to accept in return for the defence portfolio, on the grounds that it undermined the integrity of India as every province and princely state was given the freedom of integration with a union federation or autonomy. It played a curious Jekyll and Hyde role where on the one hand it jostled for a seat on the high table of negotiations with the Viceroy alongside Congress and the League, but surreptitiously kept active back-channel tracks with Britain’s enemies, the Axis Powers in Berlin, Rome and Tokyo—one reason the British never came around to trusting Savarkar or the Mahasabha.
But another proactive agenda of Savarkar was militarisation of the Hindus both to infiltrate the British Indian Army and thereafter defect soldiers to the Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose and also to create a power balance between the two communities in the inevitable event of a civil war once the British departed. One community was armed and prepared; another made pusillanimous with several decades of doctrinal non-violence and with calls to disband the Indian army altogether after freedom. Ambedkar, who had studied the communal composition of the Indian army, flagged the dangers he saw in it. From 36 per cent of infantry and 30 per cent cavalry in 1930, he stated that, “the pre-war proportion of Muslims in the army was between 60-70%, while others pegged that number around 50%…high enough to cause alarm to the Hindus.” It was this strategic importance that the community gave them militarily that further made the British bend over backwards to placate the League and its unreasonable demands. Ambedkar candidly wondered if Hindus could rest easy that the “gate-keepers” would “protect the liberty and freedom of India” when it is attacked by co-religionists from Afghanistan. “Will they,” asked Ambedkar plainly, “respond to the call of the land of their birth or will they be swayed by the call of their religion, is the question, which must be faced if ultimate security is to be obtained.” It was the constant push towards setting up nationwide militarisation boards and drives by Savarkar and his associate BS Moonje that by 1943, 50 per cent of the Indian army was made up of Hindus and Gurkhas, 34 per cent of Muslims and 10 per cent of Sikhs.
But for all his suspicion of the community, Savarkar in his addresses held out an olive branch to Muslims in particular that if extraterritorial allegiances of pan-Islamism or separatist tendencies were curbed, emotional integration was possible. Like Ambedkar, he believed that as long as a section of the Muslim community owed its allegiance to the larger ummah or faith-based brotherhood, there would inherently be two nations within India competing for space.
Several Congressmen, such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Annie Besant, Bipin Chandra Pal, and even Nehru, considered the Khilafat movement dangerous. Savarkar opposed Gandhi’s tendency to put a premium on a particular community’s support
POLITICALLY, THE HINDU Mahasabha tried to break the Muslim political space by allying with non-League Muslim parties to form coalitions or United Hindustan alliances, such as the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) of Fazlul Haq in Bengal and the Unionist Party of Sikandar Hayat Khan in the North West Frontier Province. It even formed a broad alliance called the Azad Muslim Conference of anti-Partition Muslim parties, with Sir Allah Bux Soomro of Sind as president, that included the KPP, Unionist Party, Sind Ittehad Party, All-India Momin Conference, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and others. However, the Mahasabha was bitterly criticised when it even joined hands briefly with the League in some provinces and Congress dubbed them as desperate “job-hunters”. Savarkar rationalised it as grabbing every opportunity, however small, to create a lobby and pressure valve that safeguarded Hindu rights. He was horribly mistaken when, despite the Mahasabha presence, some of those ministries passed several anti-Hindu laws and all that these votaries of Hindu rights could do was angrily walk out of the Assembly or the ministry.
But interestingly, in the most clear enunciation of its outlook towards a modern, republican and secular state that held all its citizens as equals, the Hindu Mahasabha came up with a 100-page document in 1945 known as ‘The Constitution of Hindusthan Free State’ under a committee composed of LB Bhopatkar, KV Kelkar, DV Gokhale and MR Dhamdhere. With no distinction of religion, caste, creed and gender, all Indians born here or with parents born here, and domiciled for not less than seven years were to be citizens of the country. Sixteen fundamental rights were guaranteed, one of which said: “Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion and the protection of culture and language are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen, and no law shall be made either directly or indirectly to endow any religion, or prohibit or restrict the free exercise thereof, or give any preference or impose any disability on account of religious belief or religious status.” It also laid out that “no person attending any school receiving state-aid or other public money shall be compelled to attend the religious instruction that may be given in the school.” Public money was not to be utilised for the exclusive propagation or benefit of any particular sect, community or religion and that there would be no state religion in Free Hindustan or its provinces. Minorities were thus envisaged as equal stakeholders and not second-class citizens living as tenants in a Hindu majority country. The document also laid out in minute detail a proposed structure of the Union Government, powers of the President of India and Council of Ministers, role of the judiciary, legislative and executive, Centre-state relationship and so on. During the Constituent Assembly debates, NV Gadgil of Congress drew upon this document and commented on how its features were in consonance with the eventual Constitution of India.
Ambedkar was to dub Savarkar’s prescription as “illogical, if not queer”. But he said: “this alternative of Mr. Savarkar to Pakistan has about it a frankness, boldness and definiteness, which distinguishes it from the irregularity, vagueness and indefiniteness which characterizes the Congress declarations about minority rights. Mr. Savarkar’s scheme has at least the merit of telling the Muslims, thus far and no further. The Muslims know where they are with regard to the Hindu Mahasabha. On the other hand, with the Congress, the Musalmans find themselves nowhere because the Congress has been treating the Muslims and the minority question as a game in diplomacy, if not duplicity.”
BR Ambedkar complimented Savarkar as ‘among the very few who have realized’ that ‘it is not enough to remove untouchability; for that matter you must destroy chaturvarnya’
Yet, for a man who was a closet historian and for whom history was a potent tool to inspire action in the present and future, even as he was willing to bury the hatchet of the past in the interest of a modern, peaceful secular India, Savarkar was perhaps unwilling to whitewash or forgive the Muslim invaders for the numerous genocidal atrocities committed over centuries. Hence, just three years before his self-willed death in 1966, his book Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History postulated in depth about Islamic invasions, plunder of lives, property, modesty of women and places of worship in gory detail, calling upon Hindus to learn from past mistakes. Often, because of this treatise, he is held guilty of advocating rape as a weapon against a community. What he actually said was that chivalrous Hindu rulers like Shivaji Maharaj or Chimaji Appa took it upon themselves to bear the age-old Hindu tradition of fairness in war, pardon of an unarmed opponent and respect for their women, children, elderly and sick. But these acts of theirs were purely one-sided and unilateral and not even respected by the opponent. This misplaced chivalry of the Hindus had no salutary effects on their Muslim foes, who perhaps viewed this ethical conduct as cowardice, according to Savarkar. If instead a fear of “paying back with the same coin” and a similar treatment to their women or places of worship had been placed in the hearts of those barbaric medieval invaders they might have treated this country and its people better, he hypothesised. “If they had taken such a fright in the first two or three centuries,” he theorised, “millions and millions of luckless Hindu ladies would have been saved all their indignities, loss of their own religion, rapes, ravages and other unimaginable persecutions.” While clearly this was not a prescription for current action but of how Hindus could have done better in the past and used ethical goodwill with an opponent who equally recognised and honoured it, the fuzzy manner in which he presented it left it open to several misinterpretations and rightful indignations. But that was one of Savarkar’s grievous flaws as an amateur historian, where the poet in him and the consequent flourish often overtook the unemotional coldness and statement of facts that the discipline of history demands.
And for this, and several other reasons, Savarkar remains today a deeply polarising, a badly misunderstood and a grossly under-evaluated leader, walking the alleys of the Indian freedom struggle as a barely discernible ghost.