Against Hero Worship:- Savarkar, Gandhi and the problem with idols


A few years ago, the then Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi proclaimed in Parliament that the difference between his party and that of the BJP was that one worshiped Savarkar while the other worshiped Mahatma Gandhi. One believed in violence while the other was the apostle of non violence. Since then, the Indian National Congress has fought(and lost) elections over this narrative. The fight, they say, is for the soul of India. The fight is for good against evil. Love against hate. Democracy against dictatorship. Secularism against Hindutva. The Congress walked right into the trap laid by the socially right Bharatiya Janata Party. This was an ideological warfare. The BJP set the narrative and the Congress accepted it.

This has been happening ever since the BJP came to power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself never gets tired of reminding the Congress about the faults of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. BJP MPs such as Sakshi Maharaj and Sadhvi Pragya go a step further by praising Gandhi’s assassin as a “patriot and nationalist”.

But are things so black and white? Do we really have to choose between Gandhi and Savarkar?

MK Gandhi

Lets start with a story we’ve all heard before:- In 1893, a young lawyer named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown off a first class compartment of a train after a white man refused to share a seat with him due to his skin color. He spent the night in the cold platform of Pietermaritzburg railway station. That was the day he resolved to fight against discrimination. “The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial”, writes Gandhi in his autobiography, “only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the colour prejudice.”

Gandhi’s fight wasn’t against colour prejudice initially. He was infuriated that Indians were treated in the same way as Kaffirs(racial slur){Volume 5, Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi}. He continued to repeat this well into late 1900s. The early Gandhi referred to whites of Transvaal as “white fellow colonists”.(Vol. 7). The Oxford historian Faisal Devji points out that Gandhi’s derogatory comments ceased when he was not practicing as a lawyer. However, Gandhi continued to use the word “Kaffir” 2 years after he stopped practicing law in 1910(Vol. 13). Let us assume for a moment that Gandhi’s rhetoric was merely an attempt to make compromise. He was, in other words, trying to change the system while remaining within the system. This still doesn’t justify a statement like this:-

We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs. There, our garments were stamped with the letter ‘N,’ which meant that we were being classed with the Natives. We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the whites, but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed too much to put up with.(Vol. 8)

One cannot help but concede that in his early days, Gandhi was indeed a racist.

His views about the caste system weren’t really much different. Gandhi continues to be seen as one who actively fought to eradicate the caste system. Gandhi considered “untouchability” to be a curse. Yet, he continued to believe in an ambiguous form of caste system. Consider this statement, for instance:-

“The position that I really long for is that of the Bhangi. How sacred is this work of cleanliness! That work can be done only by a Brahmin or by a Bhangi. The Brahmin may do it in his wisdom, the Bhangi in ignorance.I respect, I adore both of them. If either of the two disappears from Hinduism, Hinduism itself would disappear. And it is because seva-dharma (self-service) is dear to my heart that the Bhangi is dear to me. I may even sit at my meals with a Bhangi by my side, but 1 do not ask you to align yourselves with them by inter-caste dinners and marriages.” (Navajivan,18 Jan 1925)

This aligns perfectly with traditional ideas of caste system. The implication is quite clear. By stating that both Bhangis and Brahmins are necessary for the existence of Hinduism, he is saying that there is no problem with the existence of these categories as such. Lest you have any doubt, Gandhi makes it clear below:-

The vast organization of caste answered not only to the religious wants of the community but it answered to its political needs. The villagers managed their internal affairs through the caste system and through it they dealt with any oppression from the ruling power or powers. It is not possible to deny the organizing ability of a nation that was capable of producing from the caste system its wonderful power of organization.(Vol. 15)

Gandhi considered Varnashram to be a “rational scientific fact” (his words, italics mine). He regarded Varnashram as a “healthy division of work based on birth”. In his view, it is possible for a Shudra to become a Vaisya or a Brahman. But there’s one problem. He can only become a Brahmin in his next incarnation. “A translartion from one varna to another in the present incarnation must result in a great deal of fraud” write Gandhi(Young India, 23–4–1925)

It comes as no surprise that when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar launched the Mahad Satyagraha to ensure that untouchables use water from public tank, Gandhi opposed it. Ambedkar writes:- The Untouchables were not without hope of getting the moral support of Mr Gandhi. Indeed they had very good ground for getting it. For the weapon of satyagraha — the essence of which is to melt the heart of the opponent by suffering — was the weapon which was forged by M r Gandhi, and who had led the Congress to practise it against the British Government for winning swaraj. Naturally the Untouchables expected full support from Mr Gandhi to their satyagraha against the Hindus the object of which was to establish their right to take water from public wells and to enter public Hindu temples. Mr Gandhi however did not give his support to the satyagraha. Not only did he not give his support, he condemned it in strong terms(What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables)

However, one of the leaders who did support it was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Savarkar, unlike Gandhi, continues to be one of the most polarizing figures in Indian politics. He is responsible for popularizing the term “Hindutva”(which we’ll discuss in the next section). He considered caste system to be a “harmful vestige”. To him, scriptures were man made “which needed to be discarded as and when society evolves”. He writes:- “Thus, I reverentially bow my head to the vast, Himalayan corpus of Sanskrit literature of the Shrutis , Smritis , Puranas, Itihasas as they have shaped our Hindu mind over centuries. But I will not allow them to become fetters in my feet and retard my progress towards modernity, but instead draw inspiration from them to move ahead on modern, scientific terms.”(Savarkar Samagra, Vol 7. Translation by Vikram Sampath)

Savarkar actively advocated for disrupting the status quo. He cited the examples of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad as social reformers who were mocked by their contemporaries for questioning the status quo. He writes “So, reformers who disturb the status quo, who become unpopular, who disturb the social equilibrium, who hurt religious sentiments, who turn their back on majority opinion, who think rationally have had to face the inevitable consequences of their actions”. (Ibid)

Ironically, Savarkar’s opinion on cow protection might startle the so called violent “gau rakshaks” of today. This is what he said about holy cows:- “Have horses and dogs not been man’s most trusted companions from time immemorial? A dog offers total and unconditional love to its master, aids man in his hunting expeditions, guards homes and is loyal till his last breath. Yet, we use the term ‘dog’ pejoratively for people we dislike! Why do we not worship a dog too and why be partial only towards a cow, only because she gives us milk? Is the utility of a dog or a horse any less, if that is the only yardstick for worshiping them? Horses, mules and donkeys have played such an important role in major battles against our nation’s worst enemies. Do we then begin a series of worship for these creatures as well, or would it suffice to assiduously undertake a protection mechanism for them?”(Ibid)

Savarkar’s views on science and modernity are far more relevant today than that of Gandhi’s. In fact, many of Gandhi’s beliefs were laughably superstitious. For example, Gandhi had blamed the Bihar Earthquake of 1934 as God’s punishment for the sin of untouchability. This led Rabindranath Tagore to call him out. Savarkar, on the other hand, thought scientific temper would lead to prosperity in India.

Savarkar is mostly remembered today for his philosophy of Hindutva. In 1923, he wrote his seminal pamphlet titled Hindutva:Who is a Hindu?

According to him, a “Hindu” is one who accepts India as his/her (i) motherland (ii) fatherland and (iii) holyland. This is, by definition, an exclusionary definition. Savarkar explicitly excludes “Mohammedans” and Christians. He writes:- “But can we, who here are concerned with investigating into facts as they are and not as they should be, recognise these Mohammedans as Hindus? Many a Mohammedan community in Kashmir and other parts of India as well as the Christians in South India observe our caste rules to such an extent as to marry within the pale of their castes alone; yet, it is clear that though their Hindu blood is thus almost unaffected by alien adulteration, yet they cannot be called Hindus in the sense in which that term is actually understood, because we Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood which courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections warm, but also by the tie of common homage we pay to our great civilisation — our Hindu culture, which could not be better rendered than by the word Sanskriti suggestive as it is of that language, Sanskrit, which has been the chosen means of expression and preservation of that culture, of all that was best and worth preserving in the history of our race.”

Muslims and Christians, by this definition, are potential traitors since their holylands are outside India. Their loyalties are to be doubted. They remain here only as guests. MS Golwalkar expanded this by stating that “foreign races”(by which he meant Muslims and Christians) don’t even deserve citizen rights. The only way for them to be included into the national fold is by accepting Hindu language and religion.

Savarkar further elaborated on Hindu nation(rashtra) in his book “Six glorious epochs of Indian history”. In it, he described religious tolerance practiced by a large majority of Hindus as a “suicidal creed”. He wonders why Hindus conferred legal rights on Muslims who “fell in their hands completely vanquished and utterly helpless” instead of massacring en masse the hundreds and thousands of Muslims(Yes, that’s a direct quote). He calls these Hindus “cow-faced”.

The worst is yet to come. He advocates rape as a weapon of war. He wonders why Shivaji and Chimaji Appa didn’t remember the rapes perpetrated by Muslim invaders while treating the Muslim women honorably. He considers this to be a result of “ suicidal Hindu idea of chivalry to women”.

He makes it more explicit through these lines:-

“If in the cattle-herds the number of oxen grows in excess of the cows, the herds do not grow numerically in a rapid manner. But on the other hand, the number of animals in the herds, with the excess of cows over the oxen, grows in mathematical progression. The same is true of man, for at the core man is essentially an animal. Even in the pre-historic times the so-called wild tribes of the forest-dwellers knew this law quite well. The African wild tribes of to-day kill only the males from amongst their enemies, whenever there are tribal wars, but not the females, who are eventually distributed by the victor tribes among themselves. To obtain from them future progeny to increase their numbers is considered by these tribes to be their sacred duty!”

I almost feel the urge to talk about why many of Gandhi’s ideas continue to be relevant today. However, I assume the reader has already been exposed to it enough. Gandhi’s method of non violent resistance served as an inspiration to many in the world, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. The reason most of us aren’t aware of his faults is because he has been elevated to the status of a saint. A hero. An idol. Almost Godlike. Thus, the only ones who criticize him are either those who hate him due to ideological possession or those who take time to actually study him. History is not black and white.

In his satire on Indian Freedom struggle “The Great Indian novel”, Dr. Shashi Tharoor wrote “This story, like that of our country, is a story of betrayed expectations, yours as much as our characters. There is no story and too many stories, there are no heroes and too many heroes. What is left out matters almost as much as what is said.”

We tend to see history as a consequence of significant actions and revolutions of great men. We assume, for instance, that Gandhi was almost solely responsible for giving us freedom. That World War 2 happened due to Hitler. And so on. Thomas Carlyle called this the “Great man theory”. Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, argued that this is merely an illusion. That significant changes in history wouldn’t have been possible without small actions of multitudes of individuals whose names are not inscribed in gold. Yet, all of us fall prey to the “Great man theory”. All of us create a binary when there is none.

Savarkar or Gandhi? The truth is that these were flawed individuals. The individuals who led us to freedom. The individuals who wrote our constitution weren’t perfect. They were products of their own time and circumstances. These weren’t the perfect idols we consider them to be. They contradicted themselves. One can recognize their flaws and still appreciate their contributions. It is time for political parties to stop their ahistorical one sided narrative and concentrate instead on things that matter:- the economy, eradication of disease, poverty and the well being of all.

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