Savarkar's big mistake and what Indian Muslims and American Catholics have in common

Omair Ahmad
Omair AhmadMay 26, 2015 | 16:16

Savarkar's big mistake and what Indian Muslims and American Catholics have in common

A critical mistake

Countries have struggled with the idea of dealing with religious minorities ever since the idea of the nation state itself was born in the wars of post-Reformation Europe. Two new nations, the United States and modern India, came about as a reaction, in part, to wars and colonialism of European empires, but they were both deeply shaped by the ideas of the nation-state system.


In the United States, poor Catholics bore the brunt of anti-minority sentiment, while in India it is Indian Muslims that are often depicted as a potential fifth column. These attitudes have not only stayed because of the paranoia of those in positions of power, but also primarily because we choose to remain ignorant about the role of religion in the lives of people, both historically and today.

The Know Nothings of America

If you travel to the United States and visit the Washington Memorial, the towering 554-foot obelisk, you are sure to notice that the stones are of slightly different colours at about 150 feet up the structure. Its construction was halted in 1854 as two rival political parties fought for control over who would build the monument. Then the Civil War intervened, and the construction was restarted only in 1877.

The party who could be accused of creating the original delay was originally called the Native American Party and made up of Anglo-Saxons of European descent, who bitterly resented the arrival of German and Irish Catholics. In 1855, they changed their name to the American Party, but they are generally only referred to as the "Know Nothing" Party. They had secret planning meetings but, when confronted about their activities, would claim that they "knew nothing".


The party was stridently anti-Catholic and thought that somehow the Vatican would, in some way, try to strangle the young American Republic. When, in 1852, Pope Pius IX, like most other world leaders sent a stone to be part of the Washington Monument, the Know Nothing Party exploded into a flurry of conspiracy theories of how the inscription on the stone, which read "From Rome to America", was a treacherous way of capturing the mind and psyche of America. By the time the stone arrived in 1854, the Know Nothing Party was in feverish hysteria, and one night in March 1854, the storehouse where the tablet was kept amongst others was broken in to. The people took the stone in a boat, far out on the Potomac River and sank it.

The ensuing scandal ended the public contributions that were responsible for the building of the monument - many of them from American Catholics, or just from people who did not wish to follow the Know Nothing Party.

From the vantage point of distance and history the story seems quaint, even amusing. It is hard to imagine a nation like the United States terrified of being taken over by the Vatican, or even a small minority of them believing something like this and reacting in such a ridiculous fashion. But this was not an isolated phenomenon, as late as 1875 the respected and powerful "liberal" magazine, Harper's Weekly of New York, carried a cartoon by Thomas Nast showing Catholic priests looking like crocodiles rising out to consume the children of America. (The cartoon is titled "The American River Ganges", apparently referring to crocodile worship alongside the banks of the Ganga. Why insult only one community if you can do two?) And it is interesting to note that the US has had only one Catholic President since 1776, John F Kennedy, and he was assassinated.


Savarkar and Pitrabhu versus Punyabhu

The Americans were not the only ones irrationally afraid of the divided loyalties of religious minorities. It has been a staple of anti-Semitism to accuse Jews of being manipulated by some cabal of Zionist elders. And, of course in India, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar wrote in his 1923 pamphlet "Who is a Hindu", "Aasindhu sindhu paryantaa Yasya Bharata Bhoomika/ Pitrubhu Punyabhuchaiva Tavai Hinduriti Smritah," which basically translates into, "Those who acknowledge the land of Bharata from the Sindhu [Indus] River to the Sindhu [Indian] Ocean as their fatherland and their holy land are called Hindus." The thing left unsaid was, of course, what of people who do not consider the land between the Indus and the Indian Ocean as both fatherland and holy land. Much ink (and a great deal of blood) has been spilt over trying to understand this statement, but it has rarely been addressed.

Both people who support it or condemn it take its "truth" for granted: that there is a difference between fatherland and holy land, and that religious minorities can be manipulated from great distances by some religious leaders in these "holy lands".

Much of this paranoia comes from the European idea of the nation state that was birthed in the Protestant-Catholic wars of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the scramble of colonialism. In the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the parties reiterated that the Peace of Augsburg, 1555, which stated that the prince of a country had the right to determine the official religion of the country, and while religious minorities could practice privately, the public practice of religious minorities was restricted.

In the American context, with its Constitution explicitly separating church and state - largely in response to the bitter religious wars of Europe - this idea of the nation state deciding the religion of its people is ridiculous.In the Indian context, where the Constitution promises equal rights to practise (or not practise) religion, it is even more so. Nevertheless Savarkar was writing before the Constitution was framed, so let us examine his claim in the light of whether Muslims - the largest religious minority in India - had their holy lands out of the region and what impact they had on their conduct.

Mecca and Indian Muslims

Probably the most sacred shrine for Muslims, globally, is the Ka'aba in Mecca, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is one of the five pillars of their faith. And yet, from the 12th Century to the 19th Century, rarely did a Muslim ruler from the many major kingdoms across South Asia visit Mecca. None of the Mughals did, and in fact Bairam Khan, who served as regent of Akbar when the Mughal Emperor was still an adolescent, and one of the most powerful ministers in his court, was sent to Mecca as a form of punishment, and exile from power. In fact, many of the rulers used the suggestion of sending powerful, unruly men on Hajj as a way to get rid of them. The journey to Arabia was incredibly difficult and many perished on the way there, or on the way back.

The Mongols and Huns had gutted the great empires based out of Baghdad, and travel between South Asia and West Asia between the 15th Century to the 19th Century was virtually a death sentence. Even in the 19th Century, when travel by large sea ships made it somewhat easier, most people who left to go on Hajj saw it as a last act, analogous to taking sanyas from which the chances of return were slight. Some of those who travelled gave up halfway.

In my hometown of Gorakhpur, people used to travel by way of the Rapti River to the Ghaghara, to the Ganges, and via that great river, to Calcutta. From Calcutta, the great seaships would take a month or longer across the unreliable seas to Arabia. In Calcutta, often enough, the traveller's spirit gave way, or maybe temptation led them astray - either way they would spend a few months there before trundling back. These people came to be called, derisively, as "Kalkatta wale Haji".

Furthermore, Mecca was a city ruled by a clan of Sharifs who were (in)famous for exploiting pilgrims, while the city produced nothing, emperors from far away endowed it with great riches. Mansa Mausa, or Musa I of Mali, possibly the richest ruler in history because of the gold mines of his land, gifted so much gold on his Hajj in 1324 that the price of gold fell worldwide. This was not the case with South Asian rulers, who contributed almost nothing, and thus South Asians were treated very badly.

Nawab Sikandar Begum of Bhopal, who ruled from 1844 to 1868, was one of the few South Asian rulers to ever go on a Hajj during their reign. Her Hajj diary is full of complaint about the ill treatment meted out to her retinue (her person, of course, was sacrosanct, but her servants could be ill-treated). Throughout the rule of the British, Mecca served as a place for people to run away. It was too far for the British to chase, and the British knew that, at that distance, the people could have no influence on the politics of South Asia.

The shrines of South Asia

But people do not live without their shrines or their holy places, so what did most Muslims of South Asia do? Well they built their holy places right where they lived. Far more Indian Muslims (and Hindus and Sikhs) will visit Kaliyar Sharif, the shrine to the 13th Century saint Alauddin Ali Ahmed Sabir Kalyari, than will visit Mecca. The annual urs celebration has a million visitors at the minimum, while the number of people travelling on Hajj has peaked at about 1,70,000. And this is one shrine, there is Chrar-e-Sharif in Kashmir, Ajmer in Rajasthan, or the shrine of Ghiyazuddin in Hoja in Assam. Quite often in India, you will find stickers in auto-rickshaws that show a number of shrines. Although Mecca and Medina have places of prominence, the ones that the chap in the auto-rickshaw is likely to visit is the one in Nizamuddin or Ajmer, just because he or she can.

Some people have interpreted this to mean that Muslims following the Sufi traditions qualify as "Hindus", or "Hindu Muslims", as Savarkar might say that their Pitrabhu and Punyabhu, their fatherland and holy land, are in "Bharata". This would be a shallow reading, because the critical mistake that lies in Savarkar's definition is the role of religion itself. Of course, Savarkar was a self-described atheist, and maybe that explains his ignorance, but it is hardly an excuse for those that continue to follow his line.

For people like Savarkar and for religious conservatives of all stripes, it is a comforting idea that religion is a series of rules, with an institution and a clearly defined leadership that can tell people how to live their lives. But rules are only a part of what religion is about. Most self-defined religious people neither know the sum of the rules of their religion, nor do they follow them. Instead, the faith is upheld by its followers because it allows them to make sense of their lives. It is a living reality, not a dead set of rules formulated many centuries ago in a completely different socio-economic-political reality. Therefore a religion will always have local leaders, and the main issues it addressed will be local.

The real role of religion

This reality is distasteful for both Muslim and Hindu conservatives. It is distasteful for Muslim conservatives because it undermines the basis of their authority - that they have the "perfect solution" in a book, and repeating that is all that is needed, not real thought and action to deal with the deplorable conditions that their co-believers find themselves in.

It is distasteful for Hindu conservatives because it forces them to realise that people who convert to other religions do so because they believe it will give them a better-lived reality. Instead of acknowledging that humans of all stripes in India live in terribly difficult conditions, and at times turn to religion to make sense of their lives, conservatives are happy to carp and cavil on who is a citizen, and who is not, what is fatherland and what is holy land.

They forget that the land in which a human being achieves his or her fullest potential, a land where people are content, industrious and at peace, is the promise of both secular and holy law, and we are very far away from achieving any of that.

Last updated: May 28, 2018 | 13:17
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