Savarkar & His Critics: Why Both Ambedkar and the Upper Castes Opposed Him

Book Excerpt | 'Ambedkar’s denunciation of Hinduism contradicted Savarkar’s pan-Hindu unity programme.'

6 min read
Hindi Female

(This is an edited extract from Vinayak Chaturvedi’s 'Hindutva and Violence: V.D. Savarkar and the Politics of History' (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2022). The book tells the story of the place of history in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s political thought. It examines Savarkar’s central claim that “Hindutva is not a word but a history”. )

VD Savarkar appeared to situate his writings in historiographical debates and provided critiques of sources of his earlier work as a development in his writing on itihaas. This was an attempt to rethink the writing of Hindu history by turning to the methodological innovations of disciplinary history. Yet, Savarkar was not in fact consistent in this approach in Saha Soneri Pane: he violated the basic protocols of what he had identified as “today’s research”.

Savarkar had long been concerned about biased, partial, and distorted histories; he had pointed out these in multiple texts, including The Indian War of Independence of 1857 and Hindu Pad Padashahi. In Saha Soneri Pane, he articulated these distortions as the “perverted sense of virtue” adopted by historians. What did this mean? Ultimately, if an interpretation of the past did not prioritise the Hindu subject as defined by Savarkar, it was dismissed in scathing terms: “And such a country like India . . . is derided by some half-crazy jealous historians, foreign as well as Indian, or by some Hindu-haters like Dr [BR] Ambedkar or by some quite ignorant writers.” This tension exists throughout the book as Savarkar advocates the writing of Hindu history within the parameters of what he considers contemporary research – while also being committed to his idea of a history in full.

Book Excerpt | 'Ambedkar’s denunciation of Hinduism contradicted Savarkar’s pan-Hindu unity programme.'

Book cover of 'Hindutva and Violence: V.D. Savarkar and the Politics of History'


Savarkar's Interpretation of History

Savarkar cites Ambedkar only a few times in the book, and specifically objects to one of Ambedkar’s statements: “Indian history from the beginning is a history of a slavish people, sunk deep into foreign bondage and constantly trampled under foreign heels.” He says Ambedkar provided “vulgar” and “hateful” comments about Hindus that were antithetical to his, ie, Savarkar’s, interpretations.

It is clear that having espoused the need to use modern historical research, Savarkar has pushed himself into a methodological corner. This becomes clear because when evaluating multiple texts as a way to write itihaas, Savarkar accepts the interpretations of Western Orientalists or English historians when it suits his objectives, even as he dismisses those he finds critical of Hindu history. The fact that Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism in 1956 along with several hundred thousand “untouchables” as a way to reject Hinduism likely had an impact on Savarkar. As noted earlier, during the late 1920s and the 1930s, Savarkar had embarked on an anti-caste programme demanding both temple entry and normalised interdining with “untouchables” in Ratnagiri District.

Ambedkar’s denunciation of Hinduism contradicted Savarkar’s pan-Hindu unity programme, which sought to widen the frame of Hindu dharma

In 1929, W Gilligan, the district magistrate of Ratnagiri, had noted in a confidential report that Savarkar’s agenda could create conflict and interfere with the work of Ambedkar in the region.

Savarkar had travelled throughout Ratnagiri district delivering lectures on the problems of the caste system, while also demanding the removal of restrictions against “untouchables”.


'Sanatanis' Opposed Him Fiercely

Based on the reports of the press and government officials, it seems these events had been attended by hundreds and sometimes thousands. Little is known about how Savarkar’s messages were actually interpreted, but Gilligan offered a partial answer when saying, “The Brahmins dislike him on account of his interests in the Mahar classes.” Brahmins had raised the strongest objections, asserting that Savarkar’s demands for “untouchable” rights were damaging to the sentiments of orthodox Hindus. Savarkar’s argument that he was working towards a unified Hindu identity naturally cut no ice with the powerful upper castes.

Members of the Sanatan Dharma – the Sanatanis – were especially vocal in their opposition to Savarkar. Upper-caste Hindu protesters confronted him at many events, demanding that he stop his work with “untouchables”. The government received letters of protest demanding that Savarkar not be allowed to present his ideas on temple entry and interdining in Ratnagiri. In a petition to the governor of Bombay, the inamdar of Malwan Anant Dattatraya Sabhale argued that Savarkar was delivering “immoral and irreligious preachings” that “hurt the feelings of Sanatani Hindus”. For Sabhale, the government’s role in allowing Savarkar to speak about untouchability was a violation of what he called the “Government’s neutrality in religious matters as guaranteed by . . . the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858”.

Another individual, Ramchandra Mahadev Soni, organised a petition on parallel grounds claiming that Savarkar was “wounding the feelings of orthodox Hindus” by promoting activities that are “opposed to the tenets of the Sanathan Hindu religion.”

He pleaded that the government needed to “protect the people” from Savarkar’s ideas by removing him from Ratnagiri altogether. The result was that Sanatanis organised boycotts of these events, which were also marked by numerous incidents of violence that included the hurling of rocks and chappals at Savarkar’s supporters. Local officials interrogated Savarkar, fearing that he may have instigated the attacks. His house was searched for arms and seditious materials.


Two Different Approaches

When he was interviewed about his activities in May 1934 by Sardar Muhammad, the district magistrate, Savarkar stated: “I have been conducting the removal of untouchability movement in such an open and definite fashion that hundreds of lectures [were] delivered by me and which had been regularly reported to Government.” As Savarkar was not allowed to participate in political activities at the time, he had been given permission to work on social reform; he had taken the opportunity to put forward his arguments from Essentials of Hindutva and Hindu Pad Padashahi for pan-Hindu unity.

After Savarkar’s election to the presidency of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, his agenda had expanded to harness support among what Ambedkar had called the “Depressed Classes” for his programme to spread the essentials of Hindutva.

Whereas Savarkar had provided an extensive discussion of Hindu blood in Essentials of Hindutva – to try moving away from the casteist argument that some Hindu bodies were polluted at birth – Ambedkar had successfully created a mass movement in which “untouchables” had left the Hindu fold en masse.

The direction of Ambedkar’s trenchant critiques of Brahminism led him towards what he saw as the more egalitarian ethos of Buddhism.

Ambedkar had argued for a number of years that Buddhism had provided the main resistance to Brahminism. The most significant religious battle that defined the history of India was the “mortal conflict” between Buddhism and Brahminism, and in this lay the roots of resistance by “untouchables” against oppression and discrimination.


How Ambedkar Revised the Narrative

What Savarkar did not discuss – though perhaps it was implicit in his book – was that Ambedkar was also involved in a revisionist history project to rewrite the history of India starting in antiquity. In many ways, it was a parallel project to Savarkar’s Hindu history, except that Ambedkar rejected the centrality of Aryans – and Hindus – in the making of history. He began by revising the narrative of the successful invasion of India by Aryan tribes and offering an alternative: “The political history of India begins with the rise of a non-Aryan people called Nagas, who were a powerful people, whom the Aryans were unable to conquer, and whom the Aryans were compelled to recognise as their equals.”

For Ambedkar, the Nagas were essential because of their role in resisting the Aryans and their religion, culture, and social system of Brahminism, which was responsible for oppressing India’s population, including the “untouchables”. The Nagas had made India “great” and “glorious”, not – as Savarkar had argued – the Aryans, who had dominated the existing narratives of India’s ancient history. Ambedkar argued that the Nagas not only remained autonomous in the period of Aryan expansion but they proved to be the descendants of the greatest Buddhist ruler of India: Ashoka. While Buddhism reigned supreme for nearly 140 years, Ambedkar noted that its decline witnessed campaigns of persecution and the oppression of its followers by those who adopted Brahminism.

Ambedkar’s project remained incomplete due to his death on 6 December 1956, but its ambition and scope served as a counter-narrative to Savarkar’s.

(Vinayak Chaturvedi is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. This is an edited book excerpt. Paragraph breaks, blurbs and subheadings have been added by The Quint for the readers’ ease.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from lifestyle and books

Topics:  Hindutva   Savarkar   Ambedkar 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More