Editor’s note: This is the third reported piece in an 18-part series on the contemporary history of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The series features interviews, videos, archival material and oral histories gathered over a period of four months. Read other articles of the series here
The year 1915 is significant in Indian political history because it was then that the word ‘Hindu’ was used and accepted as a political term to define those who were not Muslim, Christian, Jain, Sikh or Buddhist. Until the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha was formed, the Arya Samajis, for instance, referred to themselves as ‘Aryans’, the followers of the ancient Vedic faith. The Brahmo Samajists called themselves Brahmo and the followers of Sanatana Dharma identified themselves by their castes and sects.
What was compelling enough to bring these factions together?
The early 20th Century witnessed the shoots of democracy springing in Colonial India, with the introduction of the Minto-Morley reforms that allowed Indians to hold elected office. The reforms were the starting point for the emergence of a unifying Hindu nationalist discourse, where the Muslim was identified as the enemy.
As part of these reforms, the British had granted the Muslim minority separate electorates to ensure that they were sufficiently represented in a legislature against the Hindu majority.
This was instantly viewed by the ruling caste Hindus as a British measure to give Muslims an advantage over them in electoral politics. It created a great urgency among competing Hindu groups to come together under one umbrella to counter the influence of organisations such as the Muslim League and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
In the early 1900s, there were three major Hindu formations in the North: the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj and a loose collection of orthodox traditionalists who believed in Sanatana (ancient) Dharma.
Their activities fell within the realm of the slowly emerging construct of ‘Hindu nationalism’, promulgated mostly by Brahmins, the first of them being Raja Ram Mohan Roy from Calcutta. Roy was a Hindu reformist who argued that ancient Vedic religion was superior to others including Christianity and that oppressive practises were newer additions. He opposed conversions of lowered castes on this ground. After him came Dayanand Saraswati who founded the Arya Samaj. Saraswati argued that “Aryas” formed Bharat and were spiritually, socially and culturally superior. Rather than reform, a revival was in order to restore ‘Bharat’ to its erstwhile glory. He was the first person to justify the caste system as an egalitarian ‘merit based division of labour’. The Arya Samajist’s blamed recent happenings like foreign invasion, be it British or Muslim rulers, and colonialism for degradation of ‘Bharat’.
Other than the reformists and revivalists, there was a third group of the Sanatanists, who were opposed to reforms and viewed them as British interventions into existent practises and weren’t pro-British, like the Arya Samajists were.
The reformists, revivalists and sanatanists articulated differently but it all came down to the same point — it started at reform and swung to the revival of a “glorious Vedic past”. They put their differences aside in great haste and came together in 1915 as the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha at a mega convention in Hardwar in present-day Uttar Pradesh.
This was also a time when Indian Muslims were beginning to see themselves as a part of the global Islamic consciousness that ultimately led them to break out in support of the Khilafat movement in 1921 which was led by Islamic clerics such as the Ali brothers.
The Mahasabha and its leadership, whose idea of India was rooted in the Vedic consciousness, saw Muslim support of the Ottoman Empire and the Khilafat movement as an ‘anti-national’ activity. This further entrenched the Hindu-Muslim binary in the political discourse of large parts of North India.
Meanwhile, in Coastal Karnataka the Hindu movement was still finding its feet, with the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj focussed mainly on the threat that Christian conversions posed to the supremacy of the various Brahmin castes — Havyaks, Kotas, Saraswat Brahmins, Shivalli Madhavas.
The reigning political force in coastal Karnataka at the time was the Indian National Congress. In 1921, Gandhi visited Kasargod and Mangalore accompanied by the most prominent leader of the Khilafat Movement, Moulana Shoukhat Ali who he referred to as his “blood brother”. The visit was part of Gandhi’s national tour to mobilise support for his twin movements: Khilafat and Non-cooperation.
The Khilafat movement’s invocation of a pan-Islamic consciousness meant little to the Beary Muslims who attended Gandhi’s rally by the thousands in 1921.
The Beary Muslims are primarily a trading community. The Western Coast has been a hub of trade activity for centuries, with the major trading communities dominating these waters being Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and Muslims. Arab traders were prominent across port cities on the West like Barkur, Basrur, Calicut, Cannanore and Mangalore. Inter-marriage between local Tulu-speaking women and Arab traders is attributed to the emergence of the local ‘Beary’ speaking Muslim community. Beary, in Tulu, translates to a trader. The community is called ‘Bearys’ and the language they speak is also called Beary. It is believed that the community emerged as early as the 7th Century. Twelfth-Century accounts of ‘Hanjamanas’ — recognised trade guilds of Muslim foreign merchants — trace the presence of Arab traders on the Western coast.
The focus of the Beary community in the early 20 Century was on education and trade, not political Islam. But the widespread support for the Khilafat in the North, created the ideological base from which the Muslim league finally raised its demand for a separate Pakistan in 1940.
These conditions also led to the emergence of one modern Hindutva’s most influential thinkers, Vinayak Damodardas Savarkar, a Chitpavan Brahmin from Maharashtra. Savarkar as a student took inspiration from the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, another Chitpavan Brahmin who is accredited for designing the roadmap for culturally mobilising under the banner of ‘Hindu’ in Maharashtra. In 1909, while Savarkar was pursuing a degree in law at Gray’s Inn in England, he was imprisoned on charges of murdering a British official as part of the agitations against the Minto-Morley reforms.
In his years in jail, Savarkar morphed from an anti-British to an anti-Muslim activist. He wrote a series of mercy petitions to the British authorities between 1911 and 1920, seeking clemency and promising loyalty to the Crown.
In 1920, he wrote ‘Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?’ as a counter to the mobilisation of Muslims in India around the issues of separate electorates and the Ottoman Khilafat. The Hindu right considers this book as its foundational text to this day. It is Savarkar who can be credited for transforming a movement steeped in the scriptures into a modern ideology which was at once defined by religion yet not limited to it.
He was the first to define ‘Hindu Rashtra’ as ‘Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan’ — a geographical territory of Hindustan where the majority Hindu community resides. This idea was so influential that it was instantly accepted as a rallying cry by the organisations rushing under the Hindu Mahasabha’s umbrella. The forefathers of this community, he said, were Vedic Aryans. The Hindus were bound by their cultural identity which stemmed from immersion in Vedic Sanskritic codes.
He went on to say that before the invasion of Muslims and forcible conversions to Islam, Hindustan existed as a “glorious” nation. All Indian Muslims and Christians he said were originally Hindu, their conversion had changed their allegiance to Mecca or Palestine. He declared himself an atheist. Savarkar said ‘Hindutva’ is deeper than just Hinduism which he felt was just ‘a set of religious practices’.
After he was pardoned and released by the British, Savarkar was quarantined in Ratnagiri where he was barred from political activity. In 1937, when he was finally allowed to leave Ratnagiri, he moved to Bombay and was elected President of the Hindu Mahasabha. When World War II broke out, he honoured his pledge of loyalty to the British by organising his cadre to join the allied army.
In 1933, the Akhila Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha organised its first mass meeting in South Kanara at Mundajje village 70 km from Mangalore.
The chief guest was RG Bhide. He was the chief editor of Kesari, the newspaper founded by Tilak and the general secretary of the Akhila Bharatha Hindu Mahasabha. A sense of how profoundly Savarkar’s ideas in his book ‘Hindutva: Who is a Hindu’ had shaped the thinking of the Hindu leaders of the time can be assessed from the speech Bhide delivered at Mundajje. The speech not only marked the inauguration of the Mahasabha in South Kanara but also set the tone for the development of the movement into the present day.
In all of Karnataka, the most inflammatory of speeches come from leaders of the Sangh in coastal Karnataka, so much so, that the top BJP leaders of the state disassociate themselves with what is said in this region. At a vigil to condemn the killing of an RSS worker, the reigning Member of Parliament of Dakshin Kannada Nalin Kumar Kateel threatened to burn down the entire district and alleged that the police are colluding with the Muslims (in their attacks on the Hindu community).
An FIR was registered against Kateel for making inflammatory statements. Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat is another famous cardholder of the ‘inflammatory speeches club’ of Dakshin Kannada. This speech of Bhide is perhaps a good introduction to the legacy of this club.
Excerpts from the speech follow:
Muslims are anti-national, their interests lie with Turkey
“The Hindu Mahasabha is not a caste institution with a narrow vision. It is an organisation fighting for goals with a larger vision. The selfish nature of Hindus is not the cause for the formation of the Hindu Mahasabha. It is the anti-Hindu, anti-national behaviour and attitude of other communities, especially Muslims and disregard for national freedom which is the reason for it.
When it comes to the issue of freedom, irrespective of caste and community, people are expected to stand shoulder to shoulder under the nationalist flag and fight. But it appears like our Muslim friends have forgotten this or have deliberately insulted (the idea). In Afghanistan, there are a few Hindus. There are many Christians in Japan. But the Hindus of Afghan are Afghanis, Japan’s Christians are Japanese. But our Muslim brethren are not Hindus. Their religious fanaticism has scuffled their love for the nation and has made Turkey their fatherland.
It is the hard work of Hindus which is the sole reason for the creation of our only prominent political organisation which is the Hindu Mahasabha. The people who nurtured it and brought it to the current level are also Hindu leaders. The number of loyal Muslims to the Mahasabha is zero.
When the national leaders were brainstorming about the eradication of common sorrows of both Hindus and Muslims and the restoration of stolen freedom, these so-called patriotic Muslims had merged in envisioning there Dream Empire of a Global Muslim nation! To substantiate this, they distributed the handbills and books describing the future era of “Pakistan” to the joint Parliamentary committee of the British Parliament.
Bhide’s interpretation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s support to the Khilafat Movement
The famous Mahtamaji of Hindustan started his great movement to unite Hindus-Muslims. He closed his eyes to what the world had never witnessed in history. He ignored the barbaric genocide of Punjab and empathised with the problems of Muslims in Turkey and played the Khilafat trumpet. Thousands of youth, mesmerised by the sound of it, believed that the injustice meted out to Muslims is indeed on us too! And followed Gandhiji.
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I was also a volunteer then. I, too, had collected one lakh rupees and joined the Choir of Allah ho Akbar. What was the result of all these sacrifices? What happened to the money collected? Everything of Hindus was destroyed in your neighbouring region Malabar! Hindu women were raped, Hindus were slaughtered! Pandit Malaviya and Devdhar came from afar and saw it for themselves, and instead helped the Muslims who were being hounded by the government.
Then in Guwahati, Muslims committed atrocities on Hindus and set a model for their fanatic brethren’s in Saharanpur. Hindus had to live in a pathetic condition in Saharanpur. Finally, the worshipper of peace, Muslim-hugger Gandhiji too got tired and formed enquiry committee in collaboration with Maulana Shaukat Ali. But Gandhi go to know the conspiracy hatched by Maulana to tutor the witnesses for giving evidence. The Mahatma walked away from the committee.
Last year’s incident in Firozabad, where on the day of Ramanavami some Muslims displayed their love for blood, must have been in his mind too. The house of the President of the Firozabad chapter of Rashtreeya Sabha (he trumpeters of Hindu Muslim unity) was burnt with the patients who had come for treatment. Did the Congress wake up from its slumber with this devilish act? No. In Karachi, too, something similar happened.
The book, criticising Koran written by a Muslim who converted to Christianity, was translated by Pandith Nathuram. He was awarded six months’ prison term. Though he appealed to the higher court, the court was filled with Muslims and only one position was vacant and Nathuram came and deposed himself. With security around in front of the British lord of justice, an accused, helpless Hindu was stabbed by a Muslim!
I telegraphed Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel to condemn the incident, only Gandhi responded. He said the Muslim leaders should condemn it. So, the same thing was written to all Muslim leaders of Hindustan. Instead of responding in a public meeting in Karachi in the chairmanship of a Muslim leader of Sindh who was also a member of Bombay legislative council, a resolution was passed demanding the abolition of the sections of Indian Penal Code which penalises religious murders. To save the murderer, all Muslims, from Fakir to Mohammed Yakub, raised funds. The lawyer of the accused praised his courage and valour in the court.
Same voices from Bengal too. When the law to whip the criminals, who kidnap and rape women, came up in Bengal legislature, most of the Muslim electorates opposed it being aware that majority of the rowdies involved in the kidnapping were Muslims.
In this Islamic Dharmaabhimaana from Ghaznavi, Yakoob to the so-called nationalist Muslims like Dr Ansari, are all beads of the same rosary. When I raised this in a public meet with all the evidence, Doctor Saheb couldn’t answer! Today, when Hinduism is fractured from all sides, what should the Hindus do?
Plan for Hindu Mahasabha to challenge Muslim domination
Hindu Mahasabha will answer this. We don’t say that the Muslims should be paid in the same coin. Once Hindus become strong, become the people of valour, no other person will have the courage to look at the face of a Hindu. Only when Hindus match the strength of Muslims, the unity of Hindus and Muslims is possible. Now, the concept of unity by Muslims is strange — if all the Hindus convert to Islam, total unity is achieved. This, too, is unity.
Because of this understanding, Muslims, who were 1,900 out of 10,000 in the year 1881, became 22,000 in 1931 and reduced Hindus from 71,000 to 6,824 with the help of Christians. If this continues, after three generations Hindu community could be found only in graveyards. And what is the point in living as a Hindu if the abla naris are insulted through kidnapping?
I somehow feel it is better for the Hindu community to go to the graveyard than remain in the current situation.
Hindus, if they want to live can’t exist like cats and dogs, they should live like brave humans, like the mighty Rajputs and like the nation-loving courageous Maratha Bhakts. Some intelligent people claim that without Hindu-Muslim unity, there cannot be Swaraj. These are the animals are trapped in some kind of witchery.
There are 20 crore Hindus, if all of them are patriotic and strong-willed, our country will improve. We are working towards that in Maharashtra. There are 25,000 brave men who’ve donned a single uniform and are waiting to serve their nation’. In Pune, there are 1,000 youths who are ever ready to work.
Our vision is for a strong ‘Hindu Rashtra’ to materialise.
Every Muslim is a soldier of his religion. In the same way, every Hindu should be a missionary of his religion and should be willing to sacrifice the self towards the pursuit of this goal.
Just because you are doing well in your region, you think that is sufficient? Do you think the Hindu faces of Bengal, Punjab and Sindh aren’t yours? This thought process is very anti-national. Your Hindu brothers are looking at you with hope. If you do not meet their expectation as a Hindu, the possibility of a strong Hindu Rashtra will be impossible. This is the first step towards Swaraj.
Our message to Muslims or desh drohis from other religions is this — we will not interfere in your religious, cultural and linguistic practices. But if we’ve to converge at a common point, that would be at nationalism. First, you have to accept that Hindustan is your nation. Discard the selfish and communal concept of a Pakistan. Only if you work towards the betterment of a Hindu Rashtra can we be friends.
What do you think would be their reply to this?
There should only be one language for Hindus; that is the national language. Let all the Hindus become nationalists. Every village should have a garadi (gym) to produce strong youth for the seva of the world. Only the Arya dharma organisation of Hindu society envision betterment of the world and talks of a ‘Vishwa-dharma’. Bharat Mata wants to break her chains with our help and emerge as a Mahamata. To fulfil this wish is the prerogative and responsibility of every Hindu.”