Ideologically on the opposite sides, Savarkar and Gandhi had one thing in common – they were in harmony with regard to the fundamental nature of India’s cultural unity.
In the old media establishment as well as academia, a particular version of Mohandas Gandhi-Veer Savarkar encounter in London is often cited. For pop-social psychologists like Ashis Nandy, the event shows the Indian-ness of a gentle vegetarian Gandhi against the meat-eating rude Savarkar, imitating the Westerners. The event has been narrated with a great flourish in many academic papers as well as media articles. Just a few months after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, The Economist in its Christmas special print edition ran a story titled "Savarkar, Modi’s mentor: The man who thought Gandhi a sissy”. It narrated the incident thus:
In 1906, in a lodging house for Indian students in Highgate, a pleasant area of north London, a young lawyer called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi dropped in on a law student called Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who happened to be frying prawns at the time. Savarkar offered Gandhi some of his meal; Gandhi, a vegetarian, refused. Savarkar allegedly retorted that only a fool would attempt to resist the British without being fortified by animal protein.
The event is also told by known Hindutva baiters like Jyotirmaya Sharma and a host of others. The event is told for a single reason – to differentiate between a Western-influenced meat-eating Savarkar bullying a tender Indic vegetarian Gandhi. So it starts with frying prawns and ends with Savarkar ‘taunting’ Gandhi.
The source for this event comes from the well-researched work of Dr Harindra Srivastava. In this, the real nature of the encounter was more jovial than a taunting one:
Gandhi in his usual nervous manner, regretted that he was a vegetarian. Savarkar retorted though jocularly, ‘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...’ (ellipses in the original)Harindra Srivastava, Five stormy years: Savarkar in London, June 1906-June 1911, 1983
A jocular retort becomes a taunt and then is transformed into Savarkar calling Gandhi a sissy. To achieve this, the narration has to leave out a more significant sequel to this episode. It is the Vijayadashami-Dussehra celebration organised by Savarkar and his band of radical students from India House London in 1909.
The year 1909 was particularly stormy one for the inmates of India House. Madan Lal Dhingra (1883-1909) had assassinated Curzon Wiley. It was well known that Dhingra’s inspiration was Savarkar. It was the first political murder of the British by Indian resistance outside of India. Savarkar openly supported the act of Dhingra and visited him in jail. Dhingra was executed in August 1909.
In October, the same year, the students at ‘India House’ whose leader was Savarkar had decided to celebrate Vijayadasami. They invited Bipin Chandra Pal to the event. To the shock of Pal, they informed him that there would be no toast to the British emperor, rather they would offer floral tributes to Sri Rama and Bharat Mata – Mother India. With the British intelligence already monitoring India House activities, Pal decided it would be prudent on his part to decline the invitation. The same year, between 10 July and 13 November, Gandhi, not yet very popular, was in London, trying to garner support for his movement in South Africa.
Lieutenant of Savarkar, the famous Vraganeri Venkatesa Subramaniya Iyer or V V S Iyer (1881-1925), set out to search for Gandhi.
Fortunately for us, both V V S Iyer and another Tamil associate of Savarkar, Dr Tiruvengimalai Sesha Sundara Rajan or Dr T S S Rajan (1880-1953) had documented what happened. V V S Iyer initially looked at all the prominent hotels, where eminent Indian leaders used to come and stay in London. After much search he discovered where Gandhi was living – it was in the house of an Indian, who was running a small restaurant. It was located in a lane that was too narrow for cabs to enter. He was living in a room, which had a few old chairs, a torn carpet and a bed. He had come to London to sensitise general public as well as leaders about his new form of fighting in South Africa.
Next day, V V S Iyer came with Savarkar.
The following three days, Savarkar, Iyer and Gandhi spent hours discussing strategies to achieve freedom. Savarkar and Gandhi had one major difference – Gandhi insisted on ahimsa (non-violence). Both V V S Iyer and Dr Rajan found the Hind Swaraj of Gandhi which was published later as a result of these intense interaction.
Despite this cardinal difference, Savarkar and Iyer insisted that Gandhi should preside over the Dussehra celebrations. Gandhi accepted on one condition. He was not interested in gathering together in some hotel and pay for their meals, talk and disperse. Instead, this was an Indian festival and should be celebrated in an Indian way. So vegetarian Indian food should be prepared. Savarkar and Iyer agreed to this condition.
On the day, at the venue of the event, the preparations for food which now had to be done by volunteers had started by 1pm. A team of six volunteers under Dr Rajan were preparing the food. Dr Rajan found that a middle-aged person, who looked not so strong came and volunteered with others. But he turned out to be the most enthusiastic one. Iyer, who happened to visit the place where the food was being prepared, saw the new volunteer, and was shocked. It was none other than Gandhi. Iyer reprimanded Dr Rajan and asked Gandhi to forgive them. Gandhi laughed and said it was he who should be forgiven for he was the first culprit.
I knew very well how tough it is to prepare such an Indian feast in London. Yet I feel so happy that such youthful volunteers are here accomplishing it. If anyone is to ask for forgiveness it is me.Gandhi
Gandhi also took it upon himself to serve the food to all the guests and insisted that he would be the last to eat.
Gandhian author and publisher Pramod Kapoor, whose years of painstaking research produced Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography (2016), points out an important aspect of the speech made by Savarkar during the event. Here, Savarkar had expressed his conceptualisation of India which would later become the kernel of Hindutva as espoused by him. Savarkar said: "Hindus are the heart of Hindustan". He further added that "just as the beauty of the rainbow is enhanced by its varied hues, Hindustan will appear more beautiful if it assimilated all that was best in Muslim, Parsi, Jewish and other communities". According to Kapoor, "Gandhi agreed with his views”.
Savarkar continued with his oration, but little did he know that both his Tamil colleagues had been transformed by Gandhi. They would later join Gandhi. But the relation between them and Savarkar always remained warm so much so that when the news of the tragic death of Iyer reached Savarkar, though he knew Iyer had become a Gandian, Savarkar burst into tears.
Gandhi himself seemed to have been influenced by Savarkar’s views, particularly on the nature of the Indian nation. At the same time, he also differed vitally from Savarkar with respect to the road to freedom and also how the assimilation should happen, and also industrialisation.
Perhaps Hind Swaraj should be re-read taking into consideration this historical context. Gandhi enters into conversation with two strands of thought there. One is that of a person, who had accepted the idea that India itself was the creation of a benign British rule. Here, Gandhi stands with Savarkar, perhaps also influenced by Savarkar, and points to the thousands of years of cultural unity that makes India a nation (we Indians are one as no two Englishmen are). Then in his dialogue with the nationalist radicals, he rejects their idea of using violence as a means and their aim of making India an industrialised nation by aping the then imperial West.
So, the event supposed to display the Westernised and negative nature of Savarkar juxtaposed with the Indic-rooted gentle Gandhi, when taken as a whole actually shows a Savarkar who had formulated his positive conception of Hindu nationhood and a very democratic leader, who respects and values the perspective of the other person.
Savarkar would, in later years, attack Gandhi bitterly because of his appeasement of Muslim separatists. In this, Savarkar was not alone. Dr B R Ambedkar also expressed views, which echoed those of Savarkar’s. Dr Ambedkar, who was also critical of Savarkar’s alternative to Pakistan, reserved an elaborate and the most trenchant criticism as well as a warning, with regard to the approach of Gandhi which he characterised as ‘giving blank cheque’ to Islamist aggressors. Dr Ambedkar observed that ‘the policy of concession’ practised by Gandhi had only ‘increased Muslim aggressiveness’ and that it was interpreted not as large-hearted action but "as a sign of defeatism on the part of the Hindus and the absence of the will to resist”. Then he warned Hindus:
This policy of appeasement will involve the Hindus in the same fearful situation in which the Allies found themselves as a result of the policy of appeasement which they adopted towards Hitler.Thoughts on Pakistan, 1941
To Dr Ambedkar, it was just "another malaise, no less acute than the malaise of social stagnation”. In 1939, Savarkar and Ambedkar, along with five other leaders, would declare that Gandhi’s claim of Congress representing all Indians was a fascist one. Those intemperate utterances as well as harsh criticisms of Gandhi’s politics were the result of political rivalry.
The attitude of Savarkar towards Gandhi can be brought out by one incident that happened during the later years when both were political rivals. Gandhi had started a hunger strike on 10 February 1943 against his incarceration in Aga Khan palace. The British did not relent and nor did Gandhi. On 19 February, Savarkar, extremely worried about the life of Gandhi wired liberal leader Tej Bahadur Sapru "to issue a national appeal to Gandhi himself to break his fast in the interest of the nation”. What he wrote shows what he really thought of Gandhi:
We must all turn our faces from the alien and unsympathetic doors of the Viceregal Lodge to the bedside of Gandhi, and entreat him to break his fast in the national interest to serve which he must have undertaken it. ...His life, Gandhi himself may realize by such a national appeal, is not so much his own as it is a national asset, a national property.
At the same time, Savarkar rejected the proposal to single out the release of Gandhi on account of his fast. He demanded that all leaders including Sarat Chandra Bose should be released. Savarkar was not a man to lose sight of what he considered as the larger interests of the nation over his own personal admiration, however great the latter might be.
Yet, we see Savarkar and Gandhi in harmony with regard to the fundamental nature of India's cultural unity, on the question of religious conversion etc. In fact, for all the acknowledged founding fathers of modern Indian state, the cultural nationalism that united the people of India has always been axiomatic.