Savarkar had equal respect for all the religious beliefs. But what he found unacceptable was the efforts of Muslim and Christian missionaries to convert by dubious means. In his criticism of the widespread attempts to convert Hindus to other religions, his view was similar to Vivekananda who severely criticised the Christian missionaries for resorting to conversion through enticement, coercion and bribes.
Savarkar was conscious of the fact that the basic weakness of Hinduism lay in its caste system. He rejected any mechanism of evolutionary change retaining the four-fold division of the caste system. He, like Ambedkar, advocated its total banishment. In his attempt to unite all Hindus, he was against all divisive attempts and movements like the Andhra Sabha. When the First World War started in 1914, he was happy that thousands of Indians volunteered to join the army which showed their manliness.
When the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms were being proposed, Savarkar was contacted in jail for his views. It was a move to win over the revolutionaries to the constitutional method of struggle. Savarkar’s reply, similar to BC Pal’s views, had both an immediate concern as well as a projection of a future commonwealth. In the immediate context, he welcomed the proposal for constitutional advancement and accepted it with a reminder that his past revolutionary acts were directed towards the same end.
He wrote “I have rejoiced to hear that the Government has changed their angle of vision and meant to make it possible for India to advance constitutionally on the path of freedom and strength and fulness of life”. For him it was an “honourable truce” and he expected many other revolutionaries to accept it.
About the ideal he remarked “I can consciously cooperate with any attempt to found a commonwealth which would be neither British nor Indian but which may, till a better name be devised, be styled as an Aryan commonwealth”.
During 1920 and 1921, there was increasing demand for the release of the political prisoners. Vithalbhai Patel in the central legislative Assembly demanded the release both the Savarkar brothers. Tilak wrote a letter to Montagu for releasing Savarkar. But the government denied any amnesty to them. Significantly in May 1920, Gandhi in Young India pleaded for the release of Savarkar brothers arguing that since no act of violence had been proved against them and in the present context “the cult of violence” did not exist in India, their release would not prove to be dangerous to the state.
Bhai Parmananda demanded their release. CF Andrews also called for the release for all the political prisoners. Meanwhile momentous changes were taking place on the national scene. With the sudden demise of Tilak, Gandhi’s leadership was assured and Gandhi along with the Ali Brothers started the Non-Cooperation and the Khilafat Movements. Gandhi promised Swaraj within a year.
When Savarkar came to know about these developments he predicted that Khilafat would be a ‘calamity’. He was suspicious of Gandhi’s advocacy of truth and non-violence. He also reflected on the application of co-operation and non-cooperation in the political arena. Rejecting both, he commented that politics “always hinged on responsive cooperation, the goal of humanity was mutual cooperation”.
By August 1921, as a direct consequence of the Khilafat movement that had led to the massacre of thousands of Hindus in Malabar, it had taken four months to bring back some semblance of order. There was also large scale forced conversions. Gandhi did not go to Malabar nor did he organize any relief measures. He did not even condemn the Muslim atrocities. Instead, he described them as “God fearing Muslims”.
Savarkar who was in Ratnagiri jail came to know about these developments. He took it upon himself to provide for a blueprint for Hindu nationalism. Savarkar came in contact with many Gandhian prisoners in the jail and he was surprised that they were totally ignorant of the sufferings of the revolutionaries and heroic tales of their sacrifice for attaining India’s freedom.
He narrated these selfless sacrifices. He was also involved in attempts to stop conversion of prisoners and used the Shuddhi doctrines to reconvert a Christian officer to Hinduism. Savarkar was released with conditions that he would stay in Ratnagiri district and would not participate in any political activities. These severe restrictions seriously impeded his efforts to propagate his political views.
This was of crucial significance as he could not meet the challenge of Gandhi on an equal level playing field. Savarkar faced a totally altered situation after his long confinement when Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement had already failed and the distrust between Hindus and Muslims had widened. Savarkar watched these momentous changes in the nationalist movement.
He perceived quite correctly that his earlier association with the revolutionary movements had become outdated and in the altered situation an open ideological struggle was preferable. His mercy petition was not an act of cowardice to get relief but to actively participate in the movements which he perceived to be the right course of action in the altered situation.
By 1919, it became clear that the British would not hold on to the Indian empire forever and the debate was more about whether to demand immediate independence or dominion status. Savarkar, with his basic disagreement and distrust of the Gandhian movement thought it would be better to fight it out openly within the political space provided by the British so that the nationalist movement could take the correct course leading to a free united India.
The title Veer Savarkar remains unblemished. The rationalism of a rationalist Savarkar prevailed. Savarkar has to be understood in the same yardstick that is used to evaluate Gandhi, a firm believer in the Empire initially but subsequently became one of its greatest critics. A revolutionary Savarkar did a course correction in the altered situation but there was no departure from his fundamental commitment.
(The writers are, respectively, a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi and an Associate Professor of Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi)