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How Savarkar fought for a casteless society

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, whose died 56 years ago on February 26, was a man who moved from the notion of social justice and embraced the ideals of social cohesion. Social cohesion is about connectedness, inter-dependence, accord and cultural assimilation among communities. It not only encompasses ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty, but marches towards social harmony. In the Indian sociological context, it can be better understood as “samajik samarasta”, which is a philosophical idea deeply embedded in the social fabric of this country and has a broader meaning than social justice. The word “samarasta” is an amalgamation of “sa” for “samata” (equity), “ma” for “mamata” (dignity), “ra” for “ramata” (sincerity), “sa” for “samanata” (equality) and “ta” for “tartamyata” (continuity). It is a continuous process of bringing about and achieving an equitable society by providing dignified ways and means to all strata. Despite being born and brought up in the orthodox and religious Chitpavan Brahmin community, Savarkar refused to accept the evil practices of Hinduism. He mocked the idea that eating a certain kind of food corrupts one’s religion. He said, “Religion rests in one’s heart and not in the stomach.”

When Savarkar met Gandhi for the first time in 1906 in London, the former had just cooked a sumptuous meal of prawns. He offered some to Gandhi, who scoffed at the idea of a Chitpavan Brahmin eating meat. Being a staunch vegetarian himself, Gandhi refused to partake of the meal. Savarkar joked, “Well, if you cannot eat with us, how on earth are you going to work with us? Moreover, this is just boiled fish, while we want people who are ready to eat the British alive.”

He had imagined a nation free of malevolent social evils such as caste cruelty, untouchability, and injustice towards women. He advocated a casteless society based on notions of social justice coupled with social cohesion. He wanted to uproot the diversity of the caste system and build a nation based on Hindu unity, where Dalits could live with dignity and happiness. In a letter sent to his younger brother from the Andamans, he wrote that the caste system has been destructive to the country and should be eradicated. In another 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 the foreign occupation of India.” He said that the workers of the Hindu Mahasabha should work to destroy the caste system and stand with people who have suffered because of it.

In his essay, “Seven Shackles of the Hindu Society”, published in 1931, Savarkar wrote that using heredity as a determinant of talent and intellect was wrong and that an individual’s character and conduct was shaped by his environment. He spoke out against scriptural injunctions that advocated caste, such as the Manusmriti. According to Savarkar, these scriptures are often the tools of those in power, used to control social structure and maintain their supremacy. He saw caste as a weapon with the potential to destroy Hindu society. Savarkar did not just preach ending untouchability and creating a casteless society, but applied it in every possible way. He built the Patit Pavan Mandir in Ratnagiri district which allowed entry to all Hindus, including Dalits, in order to demonstrate that castelessness is possible. He opposed the seven indigenous restrictions – the “sapta bedya” or seven fetters of Hindu society – just as much as he strove to overthrow the British.

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B R Ambedkar praised Savarkar’s initiatives: “I wish to take this opportunity of conveying to you my appreciation of the work you are doing in the field of social reform. If the Untouchables are to be part of the Hindu society, then it is not enough to remove untouchability; for that matter you should destroy ‘Chaturvarna’. I am glad that you are one of the very few leaders who have realised this”

Savarkar was deeply moved and inspired by human values. On the debate about social reformation and political independence, he had said, “If we get freedom and independence without social reform, it will not last even three days. “ He thus underlined his passion for equality and equity. There are several aspects of Savarkar which demand greater attention. Being an ideologue of Hindu philosophy was just one aspect of his life. He should be remembered as a man of vision, a freedom fighter, social reformer, writer, poet, historian, political leader, and philosopher who believed in an Indian society that is free of untouchability and injustice.

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The writer is assistant professor, Maitreyi College and founder of DAPSA (Dalit Aadivasi Professors and Scholars Association)

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