If the Sanātani community was anxious about cow slaughter or leery of holding intermixed haḷadī-kuṅkūṁs in private homes, it was outraged at the thought of Dalits entering a temple. So intractable was the community on this issue that it prohibited Dalits from even walking on the streets on which temples were located. The Hindu temple was and is a material representation of Brahmin power, not just to organize the fundamental rituals of Hindu religious practice but to establish the ritual order of caste groups and who could be included in that caste order. Anupama Rao has called the temple “the locus of Brahminical authority” and the “most potent site of Dalits denigration by caste Hindus.”

Accordingly, those fighting for caste equality in the 1920s – from EV Ramaswamy Naicker in the south to BR Ambedkar in western India to Gandhi on a national stage – made temple entry a major plank of their calls for reform. The INC led two major satyagrahas specifically on temple entry in 1924 and 1932, but as Dilip Menon has pointed out, they were aimed at and led by upper castes and intended to reform Hinduism. As Nicholas Dirks suggests, “Although social reform agendas . . . often focused on Brahmanic practices, with only a few exceptions . . . they worked to assert the primary importance of Brahman customs for the definition of the Hindu community.”

Although Dalit-led satyagrahas were less about being “allowed” to enter a temple and more about equal access to public property as a fundamental right, Ambedkar soon grew frustrated by temple entry as a political objective for Dalits, as for that matter did Naicker for non-Brahmans in southern India Savarkar also took on the issue of temple entry. I present here two poems he wrote on untouchability. In 1925 he composed a song for the Akhil Hindu gathering from Shirgaon titled “Hindūzcē ēkatāgān” (“The Unity of Hindus”). It was sung, according to his editor, by Brahmins, Sudras, Mahars, and Mangs alike at gatherings up and down Maharashtra.

You and us, we are Hindu! Brothers alike
To that Mahadev our father let us bow
Brahmin or Kshatriya whatever we are
Whatever our visage or color
Whether Mahar or Mang
To our common mother the Hindu jati we bow

We belong to the same beloved country
Our lives are composed in the same meter
We belong to the same faith
These are all part of the Ganges, each of us an equal drop

The devotee of Ramachandra or Govind
Those who worship the Gita
They sit in the ship of Hindu Dharma
And cross the eternal ocean

Everyone should forgive the faults of each other
The tradition of ill treatment should be let go
For the sake of our mother we should mingle with each other
Forgive past oppression and come together in love

We are children of this Hindujati
For our Hindu dharma, all efforts
We will defend with our life
Let us under this flag remember our common ancestor

It is possible that a few members of the Mahar, Mang, and Sudra communities sang a poem extolling Hindu dharma and Hindujati, and the Gita, Ramchandra, and Govind, but that is secondary. It is less likely that lines such as “our lives are composed in the same meter” or “everyone should forgive the faults of each other” would not have come across as Brahmin condescension and hypocrisy. For a community oppressed for millennia by Brahmins, the suggestion that it should “forgive past oppression and come together in love” was insulting. But the real point is the cultural work the poem does.

By opposing caste with the term “Hindu,” Savarkar assures those who agree with him that to be Hindu rather than Brahmin, Kayastha, Saraswat, Iyer, or Mahar was to be progressive (even if his sense of being Hindu and being Brahmin were effectively interchangeable). In other words, he was telling communities who had been denied a voice and who were doing political work on behalf of their caste that they should give up that caste identity to be called Hindu. Caste was regressive, ethnic nationalism progressive.

In Ratnagiri, Savarkar wrote that part of the Konkan was considered “backward” relative to other parts of Maharashtra, and, because of his efforts, “Kshatriya, Vaisya, Kumbar, Chambhar, Teli, Brahmin, Nhavi, etc.” assembled together in the main hall of the Vitthal temple and sang the poem he composed, “Tumhī āmhī sakala Hindu bandhu bandhu.” Around the same time in Pune, considered the heart of progressive and forward-thinking Maharashtra, 3,000 “Mambājībuvās āṇi Rāmēśvarabhaṭtas” (Charlatans and Brahmins) violently prevented a few members of the Mahar-Chambhar community from entering the Parvati temple. This prompted Savarkar to write a satirical piece, in which he declared that, like the Theosophists, he would call forth the spirit of the dead Mambajibua to get his “Sanātani” statement on why the Parvati satyagraha was such a travesty. Savarkar terms this “Mambājībuvāzcē vaktavya (kaifiyata).” (Mambajibua’s statement – a kaifiyat.)

Savarkar apologises in this article to the MaharChambhar-Mang communities, assures them they were all Hindu, encourages them to fight a hundred times for every temple in India, and implores them not to convert, not to call

the very enemies of your parents your parents because if you change your caste, if Chambhars become Christians and Mahars become Muslims your very own ancestors will spit on you for having changed their caste – I know that the language of turning to a foreign faith is the result of Mambajibua’s hypocritical tradition. For that very reason don’t contaminate yourselves any further.

In 1929 Savarkar composed another poem, this one called “Sutaka Yugāzcē Phiṭalēṁ” (“An Aeon of Mourning Is Over”) celebrating the Shri Vitthal Ratnagiri temple opening its doors to the Dalit community. In a prefatory note, the editor of his poetry collection noted that a young man named Shivu Bhangi sang it climbing up each step of the temple, with the permission of a gathered assembly, and as he climbed the last step of the temple was met with applause that resounded into the heavens. The concept of sutak is suffused with Brahmin doublespeak. Meaning temporary impurity and untouchability, it is observed as a period of impurity and mourning by family members of the deceased. Brahmins recover from this impurity in ten days; other castes take longer. Sutaka fitne or sutaka sutane refers to the return to normalcy in two ways – getting past the prescribed grieving period and regaining touchability. The rules about mourning and bereavement were codified in the Manusmati and were maintained by Brahmin priests; meanwhile, the speaker in the poem is a grateful Dalit.

I have italicised each time in the poem that this fictional Dalit is self-abnegating and grateful for Brahmin beneficence. If the first poem was condescending, this one was full of Brahmin noblesse oblige.

You allowed us entrance to God’s door
A great favor you have bestowed
By touching this unclean forehead and bestowed a boon
You have sullied your pure hands

You cleansed our impure feet
and cleansed our Destiny imprinted on our forehead
You are the Sun of Dharma, how may I describe you
I touch your shadow

you brought into the fold an impure village
and out you went into villages
You Hindus have brought us a-Hindus close
The aeon of cosmic impurity is undone
And the contamination enshrined through Destiny (vidhi-likhit)
is undone

An age of quarrel has ended
The enemy’s trap has been broken
We who have been slaves for centuries are now colleagues
You have bestowed a great favour

The editor of the collection containing this poem must have known that the phrase “ābhāra jāhalē bhārī” (“a great favour you have bestowed”), which suggests that upper castes had benevolently bestowed favor on the Dalits, might make some readers uneasy since he added a note saying that the core of the poem is the injustice the Dalits suffered. Perhaps, but it is a measure of Savarkar’s tone-deafness that he wrote so patronising a poem.

Savarkar influenced Bhagoji Sheth Keer, a Ratnagiri philanthropist, to build a new temple in 1931, the Patitpavan temple. Patitpavan means purifying the impure or fallen; using it as a name for a temple speaks as much about Brahmin largesse as the poem above. The new temple was inaugurated by the Shankaracharya (head of the Karveer-peeth monastery) and social reformer Dr Kurtakoti. Keer invited intellectuals and other Brahmins from Kashi, Bombay, and Nashik to the installation of the deity in the new temple, plunging the Ratnagiri community into its own Vedokta controversy. These Brahmins opposed not just the temple but the interdining Savarkar proposed.

Savarkar started a project of inter-dining; people of all castes came to eat. But Mahars would not sit next to Chambhars who would not sit next to Bhangis who would not sit next to Dhors. They wanted to sit with their own jati. Savarkar realised this. He said to them all “if Brahmins have to inter-dine with untouchables, they must sit next to a Chambhar. But untouchables too have to give up their insistence on sitting only next to their own jati.”

Again and again, Savarkar suggests that Brahmins and Dalits were equally prejudiced in their desire to dine only with their own communities. While it is true that casteism is not restricted to upper-caste communities, there is no equivalence between the positions of Brahmans and Dalits on such caste questions. Savarkar places the onus on the Dalit community to show that it is not prejudiced, instead of recognising that jati distinctions proliferated from the top down.

Excerpted with permission from Savarkar and the Making of Hindutva, Janaki Bakhle, Princeton University Press.