Translated excerpts from speeches, interviews and essays throw new light on the nationalist icon
Born in Nashik in 1883, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is one of the most controversial figures in the history of the Indian Independence movement. His fraught relationship with the Congress party and Mahatma Gandhi, and his conceptualization of the idea of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism, lends him perennial relevance in Indian politics.
However, as in the case of many other contemporaneous leaders, debates on Savarkar are often shallow because the bulk of his writing was in his mother tongue, Marathi. These essays have rarely been translated.
In this first of a new series of translated journalism for Mint on Sunday, we publish translated excerpts from Savarkar’s speeches, interviews and essays. These provide insights into Savarkar, who died in 1966, as a modernist, a rationalist and a strong supporter of social reform.
We would like to thank Ranjit Savarkar of the Savarkar Smarak in Mumbai, for giving us the permission to translate the originals.
In this undated interview to a Marathi journalist that has been republished in a book of his essays, Vividha Lekh, or Various Essays, Savarkar spoke about the virtues of modern cinema.
“The movies are one of the beautiful gifts of the 20th century. This is the machine age. We are surrounded by things that have been made with the help of machines. The world of entertainment cannot be an exception to this rule. Please understand that I refuse to condemn the advances made in technology. I would like modern machines to spread rapidly so that the whole of humanity is happier."
“I dislike any restrictions on the innovative spirit of the human mind. That is because modern progress and modern culture have emerged out of innovation. The very essence of the progress made by humanity over the past many years in science and knowledge can be found in contemporary cinema. There is no better example of the use of modern technology than the movies, and that is why I will never back any restrictions on them."
These remarks by Veer Savarkar are a stinging answer to the contempt with which Mahatma Gandhi has spoken about movies. When I asked Savarkar whether he was implicitly criticizing Gandhi, he asked me: “Is there anything common between Gandhi and me?"
“I saw my first silent movie when I was a student in London, and I liked it immensely. I have seen some talkies as well, but not too many."
“I doubt the theatre can compete with the movies. It will barely survive in a corner just as the folk arts barely survive in our villages today. But its best days are behind it."
“There is no need to feel bad about this. What is the use of the wooden plough in the age of the tractor? The wooden plough will be used only where there are no tractors. I deeply oppose the charkha philosophy of going back to nature."
“Films are even superior to novels. However well written be the biographies of national heroes such as Shivaji, Pratap or Ranjit, there is no doubt their stories will be more enjoyable and impactful on the screen."
“Films can even be used to educate our youth. We see life reflected very well on screen. It is better to borrow a good thing rather than have nothing at all. But one should neither blindly copy the work of others."
“As in all other fields, it is essential that our people are nationalists in the field of cinema as well. Everything else comes after that. The film industry too should believe that it will do everything possible for the progress of the entire nation."
“Our movies should focus on the positives of the country, keep aside the negatives and have pride in its victories. There is no value in making movies on national defeat or on our failings. These should be forgotten. Our youth should be inspired by movies that focus on the positive side of things."
On the Constitution of free India
In his presidential address to the annual session of the Hindu Mahasabha held in Calcutta in 1939, Savarkar spoke about how Hindus and Muslims could bury their historical differences in a common Hindustani constitutional state.
The National Constitution of Hindustan: The Hindu Sanghanists Party aims to base the future constitution of Hindustan on the broad principle that all citizens should have equal rights and obligations irrespective of caste or creed, race or religion, provided they avow and owe an exclusive and devoted allegiance to the Hindustani State. The fundamental rights of liberty of speech, liberty of conscience, of worship, of association, etc., will be enjoyed by all citizens alike. Whatever restrictions will be imposed on them in the interest of the public peace and order of National emergency will not be based on any religious or racial considerations alone but on common National grounds.
No attitude can be more National even in the territorial sense than this and it is this attitude in general which is expressed in substance by the curt formula ‘one man one vote’. This will make it clear that the conception of a Hindu Nation is in no way inconsistent with the development of a common Indian Nation, a united Hindustani State in which all sects and sections, races and religions, castes and creeds, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Anglo-Indians, etc., could be harmoniously welded together into a political State on terms of perfect equality.
But as practical politics require it, and as the Hindu Sanghanists want to relieve our non-Hindu countrymen of even a ghost of suspicion, we are prepared 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. 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, but always in proportion to the taxes they pay into the common Exchequer. The same principle must, of course, hold good in case of the majority too.
On Muslims and modernization
At the very end of a sharp essay on the religious idiocies of the Hindus and Muslims, published in the May 1935 issue of the magazine Manohar, Savarkar asked Indian Muslims to “for the sake of their humanity" learn from Turkey under Kemal Ataturk.
Just as it is my duty to repeatedly tell the Hindu nation to abandon its silly religious customs, observances and opinions in this age of science, so I will also tell Muslim society, which is an inevitable part of the Hindustani nation, that it should abandon as quickly as possible its troublesome habits as well as religious fanaticism for its own good—not as a favour to the Hindus, not because the Hindus are scared of your religious aggression, but because these practices are a blot on your humanity, and especially because you will be crushed in the age of science if you cling on to an outdated culture.
You should abandon the belief that not even a word in the Quran can be questioned because it is the eternal message of God, even as you maintain respect for the Quran. But the norms that seemed attractive to an oppressed but backward people in Arabia at a time of civil strife should not be accepted as eternal; accept the habit of sticking to only that which is relevant in the modern age...
Oh Muslims, just think what the Europeans reduced you to after they escaped from the clutches of the Bible, to master the sciences that are beneficial for our times. You were pushed out of Spain, you were subjected to massacres, you were crushed in Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. Your control over Mughal India was snatched away. They are ruling you in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Iraq and Syria.
Just as our yagnyas, prayers, Vedas, holy books, penances, curses could not harm the Europeans, so too will your Quran, martyrdoms, namaaz, religious lockets will make no difference to them.
Just as the maulvis sent armies to war in the belief that the men who fought under the banner of Allah would never lose, so did our pundits peacefully sit back to repeat the name of Rama a million times. But none of this prevented the Europeans, with their advanced weapons; they not only decimated the Muslim armies, but they even toyed with the fallen flag of Allah.
And that is why Kemal Ataturk has broken the bonds of all religious laws that have kept the Turkish nation backward. He has borrowed civil law, criminal law and military law from Switzerland, France and Germany, to replace the rules in the Quran.
The literal meaning of what is said in the Quran no longer matters. The only question today is what is essential for national advancement in the light of modern science. Turkey can hold its own against Europe today because Kemal has given primacy to modern science in his nation. If Turkey had remained bound within the covers of the Quran, as it was during the reign of Kemal Sultan or the Khalifa, then the Turks would still be licking the boots of the Europeans, as the Indian Muslims are doing today.
If they want to advance as the Turks have done, Indian Muslims should abandon the religious fanaticism that has been nurtured over a thousand years, and accept modern science.
On the age of machines
Savarkar often called on his supporters to welcome the age of the modern machine. Here, in an essay published in the magazine Kirloskar, and republished in a book of his essays on the scientific approach, he argued that India would continue to lag behind Europe as long as its leaders believed in superstition rather than science.
It was 200 years ago that Europe entered the era that our country is now entering. This means we are two centuries behind Europe. We are entering what economists describe as the age of the machine. The spread of machines some 200 years ago in Europe challenged traditional beliefs and habits.
There were fears that humanity would lose its essence in the machine age, religion would be undermined, humans would begin to act like machines, our bodies would shrivel and the prosperity that was promised with the use of machines would itself be destroyed. Men would be reduced to being paupers rather than eating well. Such shrill warnings were spread across Europe by a class that stuck to tradition and religious naiveté.
The reason machines are not more widely used by our people is because of the religious beliefs in our society. Europe too did not accept machines 200 years ago because of the power of Christian religious beliefs. There was a massive earthquake in Lisbon in the 18th century. The religious leaders of Europe preached to the people that the earthquake was the result of the Protestant perfidy against the religious beliefs of the Roman Catholics. It was a punishment because Protestant marriage ceremonies were led by women, Protestant priests were allowed to marry, the words of the Pope are not considered infallible. It was in reaction to these reasons that the people decided to protect themselves against future earthquakes by trying to finish off the Protestants.
Such naive people were incapable of even understanding that there were physical explanations for earthquakes, let alone trying to use seismology to design machines that could perhaps help them predict the risk of an earthquake. Europe could truly embrace the machine age only when its religious beliefs were demolished by the scientific approach.
But in India, even someone as influential as Gandhiji swears by his “inner voice" to say that the Bihar earthquake is a punishment for the caste system. And that he is still waiting for his inner voice to tell him why Quetta was rocked by an earthquake. And then there are Shankaracharya and other religious leaders who swear by the religious books that the earthquake was caused by attempts to do away with the caste system.
What can one say about the religious naiveté of the ordinary people in a country when its prominent leaders hold such views? Europe is in the year 1936 while we are in the year 1736.
On the unpopular tasks of the social reformer
In the same collection of essays on the scientific approach, where he also mocked those whose religious sentiments get hurt very easily, Savarkar wrote about how the true social reformer has to accept unpopularity.
And that is why any reformer who seeks to root out harmful social practices or preach new truths has first of all to compromise his popularity. That is what Jesus meant when he told the majority who opposed him: “Ye build sepulchres unto those whom your fathers stoned to death!" Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad are today the gods and prophets of millions of people, but look at how they were treated by their contemporaries. Jesus was killed. Buddha had to face a murderous attack. Mohammad had to flee, was injured in battle, was condemned as a traitor.
So, reformers who rock the boat, who become unpopular, who disturb the social balance, who hurt religious sentiments, who turn their back on majority opinion, who think rationally—all these reformers face the inevitable consequences of their actions. Every reformer has had to face these challenges. This is because social reform—by definition rooting out any evil social custom—means taking on the persistent social beliefs of the majority.
And the reformer who pits himself against the religious practices of millions will be the most unpopular. And the man who has made popularity his business will give in to the popular will out of fear, but who wants to do some good, will eventually be overcome by his fear, will leave the road to social and religious reform.
A true social or religious reformer should only be driven by the desire to do good. As far as I am concerned, so that I am not torn about the choice between popularity and public good, I have this stamped on my mind: Varam Janahitam Dhyeyam Kevala Na Janstuti (It is best to think only of the welfare of people, not praise them).
Savarkar was a strong opponent of the caste system. He repeatedly argued that what the religious books say about untouchability is irrelevant. The social practice was unfit for a modern society. In his collection of essays on breaking the caste system, he welcomed the constitutional provision that made untouchability a crime.
“Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law"
—Article 17 of the Indian Constitution
It was a golden day for all humankind and Hindu Sanghatan when the Constituent Assembly unanimously took this decision. These words should now be carved on some eternal pillar like the Ashoka Pillar, so important are they.
This historic decision should be seen as the success of the hundreds of saints, social reformers and political leaders who worked so hard over the centuries to break the shackles of untouchability. The practice of untouchability is now not just an evil that has to be criticized but a crime that will be punished. Citizens are now not just been advised to abandon the practice of untouchability, but have been told that it is against the law to practise it.
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution has used the word untouchability in the singular. There should have been an explanatory note in the interests of clarity. After all, there could be instances when untouchability has to be practised for medical or personal reasons. These may not be damaging to society. Of course, Article 17 is meant to deal with only that untouchability that men and women have to face if they are born into a particular caste...
Besides untouchability, social cleavages and hierarchies of all types have been frowned upon. These practices may not be punishable but will be looked down upon. This is implicit in Article 17, given the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution and in its preamble. And later, in the sections about fundamental rights, it is clearly stated that no citizen of the Indian state will be discriminated against on the basis of religion, race, caste, gender or place of birth. They are all equal under the law. In this way, the Constitution has taken the wrecking ball to the edifice of social discrimination.
In 1952, Savarkar went to Pune to announce the closure of Abhinav Bharat, the revolutionary outfit that he had set up as a student to fight for independence. In a public speech, he said that revolutionary organizations have no place in a constitutional state, echoing the views of his friend B.R. Ambedkar.
The end of the age of revolution and the coming of swarajya means that our primary national duty in the new age is to abandon the methods of rebellion so that constructive and lawful politics will gain primacy. To overthrow foreign rule, we had to inevitably have secret societies, armed revolt, terrorism, civil disobedience; these were holy. But if we stick to these methods after we have got our freedom, then the damage we will inflict will be worse that what even are enemies can do...
The establishment of swarajya does not mean that Ramrajya will follow immediately.
(After explaining how 200 years of colonial rule had damaged India, Savarkar says) ...it is our duty as citizens to support our national government that we should at least for some time bear whatever pain lies ahead. So that the national government gets time to address important questions. We should support the government with our hard work and patience. There is a lot of criticism of the mistakes the government has made... The people have still decided to hand power to the Congress. They have not snatched power from you. It is only fair to point out that had the difficult task of setting matters right not been given to the Congress, but to the socialists, communists or Hindutva parties, they too would have made similar mistakes, either because of inexperience or the lust for power.