New Delhi: As one looks back at the legacy of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (better known as Veer Savarkar) on his 137th birth anniversary, it is interesting to note that he was not at loggerheads with Mahatma Gandhi, as the common perception holds. Both of them enjoyed such a good rapport that Gandhi referred to him as “bhai (brother)”.
One of the most prominent ideologues of Hindutva in the 20th century, Savarkar was born on 28 May 1883 in Maharashtra. He was a revolutionary, author and social reformer, and remains a revered figure for those who believe in the philosophy of Hindutva. He passed away on 26 February 1966.
Mahatma Gandhi addressed Savarkar as “bhai” in a letter he wrote from Sevagram, Maharashtra, on 22 March 1945 (Collected Works of Gandhi, e-book, Publication Division, GOI, Volume 86, Page 86), after the death of the latter’s brother. Here is the text of the letter:
“BHAI SAVARKAR, I write this after reading the news of the death of your brother. I had done a little bit for his release and ever since I had been taking an interest in him. Where is the need to condole with you? We are ourselves in the jaws of death. I hope his family are all right. Yours, M.K. GANDHI.”
In another letter (Collected Works of Gandhi, Volume 38, page 138), Gandhi said, “I shall try to do whatever I can for political prisoners. It has never happened that I kept quiet out of fear. Even with regard to political prisoners, I would consider it improper to do anything for those who are in prison for crimes of murder. I shall not argue the point. I shall of course do my utmost for Bhai Vinayak Savarkar.”
It all started with the efforts to take the Savarkar brothers out of the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. Gandhi was a vocal votary of getting both the Savarkar brothers released immediately. He was all praise for their sacrifice and spirit of nationalism.
Referring to a royal proclamation issued in December 1919 that had led to the release of many political prisoners except the Savarkar brothers, Gandhi wrote in Young India on 26 may 1920 (Mahatma Gandhi: Collected Works, e-book, Publication Division, GOI, Volume 20, page 368-371):
“Thanks to the action of the Government of India and the Provincial Governments, many of those who were undergoing imprisonment at the time have received the benefit of the Royal clemency. But there are some notable ‘political offenders’ who have not yet been discharged. Among these I count the Savarkar brothers.
“They are political offenders in the same sense as men, for instance, who have been discharged in the Punjab. And yet these two brothers have not received their liberty although five months have gone by after the publication of the Proclamation.”
‘Suffered long enough’ in jail
Defending V.D. Savarkar’s elder brother, Gandhi wrote, “Mr Ganesh Damodar Savarkar, the elder of the two, was born in 1879, and received an ordinary education. He took a prominent part in the swadeshi movement at Nasik in 1908. He was sentenced to transportation for life with confiscation of property under Sections 121, 121A, 124A and 153A on the 9th day of June, 1909, and is now serving his sentence in the Andamans. He has therefore had eleven years of imprisonment.
“Section 121 is the famous section which was utilised during the Punjab trials and refers to ‘waging war against the King’. The minimum penalty is transportation for life with forfeiture of property. 121A is a similar section. 124A relates to sedition. 153A relates to promotion of enmity between classes ‘by words either spoken or written’ or ‘otherwise’. It is clear therefore that all the offences charged against Mr Savarkar (senior) were of a public nature. He had done no violence. He was married, had two daughters who are dead, and his wife died about eighteen months ago.”
About V.D. Savarkar, Gandhi said, “The other brother was born in 1884 (sic), and is better known for his career in London. His sensational attempt to escape the custody of the police and his jumping through a porthole in French waters, are still fresh in the public mind. He was educated at the Fergusson College, finished off in London and became a barrister. He is the author of the proscribed history of the Sepoy Revolt of 1857. He was tried in 1910, and received the same sentence as his brother on 24th December, 1910.
“He was charged also in 1911 with abetment of murder. No act of violence was proved against him either. He too is married, had a son in 1909. His wife is still alive.”
Gandhi said the viceroy was bound to give the brothers “their liberty” unless there is absolute proof that their discharge “can be proved to be a danger to the State”.
“Now, the only reason for still further restricting the liberty of the two brothers can be ‘danger to public safety”, for the Viceroy has been charged by His Majesty to exercise the Royal clemency to political offenders in the fullest manner which in his judgment is compatible with public safety. I hold therefore that unless there is absolute proof that the discharge of the two brothers who have already suffered long enough terms of imprisonment, who have lost considerably in body-weight and who have declared their political opinions, can be proved to be a danger to the State, the Viceroy is bound to give them their liberty.
“The obligation to discharge them, on the one condition of public safety being fulfilled, is, in the Viceroy’s political capacity, just as imperative as it was for the Judges in their judicial capacity to impose on the two brothers the minimum penalty allowed by law. If they are to be kept under detention any longer, a full statement justifying it is due to the public.”
The public, he said, “are entitled to know the precise grounds upon which the liberty of the brothers is being restrained…”
“There is no question about the brothers being political offenders. And so far the public are aware there is no danger to public safety,” he added.
In another letter to freedom fighter Shankarrao Deo dated 20 July 1937 (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume 72, Page 50-51), Gandhi wrote, “About Shri Savarkar, I did refuse to sign the memorial for, as I told those who came to me, it was wholly unnecessary as Shri Savarkar was bound to be released after the coming into force of the new Act, no matter who the Ministers were. And that is what has happened. The Savarkar Brothers, at least, know that whatever the differences between us as to certain fundamentals, I could never contemplate with equanimity their incarceration.
“Perhaps, Dr Savarkar will bear me out when I say that I did whatever was in my power after my own way to secure their release. And the barrister (Veer Savarkar) will perhaps recall the pleasant relations that existed between us when we met for the first time in London and how, when nobody was forthcoming, I presided at the meeting that was held in his honour in London.
‘Has done very good social work’
In a letter to freedom fighter M.R. Jayakar dated 25 February 1933 (Volume 59, page 384), Gandhi wrote, “I wonder if you were able to pass on my letter about the opening ceremony (of two temples in Ratnagiri) to Vinayakrao. He has certainly done very good social work in Ratnagiri.”
When the Bihar government banned the annual session of the Hindu Mahasabha (Savarkar was the president of the Hindu Mahasabha at the time) from being held between 1 December 1941 and 10 January 1942, Gandhi came out openly in the latter’s defence.
In a press statement he issued from Bardoli, Gujarat, on 27 December 1941 (Volume 81, page-391-392), he said: “The action of the Bihar Government in banning the meeting of the Hindu Mahasabha has always appeared to me to be inexplicable. … I see that Vir Savarkar had accommodated the Bihar authorities to the extent of postponing the session with a view to coming to an understanding. When all attempts at a settlement failed, civil resistance was the only remedy open to the suppressed Hindu Mahasabha. And I must confess it fills me with delight to find Vir Savarkar, Dr Moonje and other leaders being arrested in their attempt to assert the very primary and very fundamental right of holding an orderly meeting subject to all reasonable restrictions about the preservation of the public peace.
“I congratulate the leaders of the Sabha on their dignified and peaceful protest against the utterly arbitrary action of the Bihar Government. ….I hope that there will be only one end to this Bihar episode, viz., lifting of the ban on the Hindu Mahasabha and the men who are imprisoned today holding their session without let or hindrance.”
Mahadev Desai, an associate of Gandhi, offered an interesting account in his ‘Weekly Letter’ in Young India on 17 March 1927, about a meeting between Veer Savarkar and Gandhi at Ratnagiri, Maharashtra.
On 1 March 1927, Mahatma Gandhi visited Savarkar, who wasn’t keeping well at the time, to enquire about his health. Following his release from jail in 1924, Savarkar had been barred from travelling outside Ratnagiri.
Desai wrote, “… Savarkar asked Gandhiji to clear his attitude about untouchability and shuddhi. Gandhiji cleared some of the misrepresentations and said: ‘We cannot have long talk today, but you know my regard for you as a lover of truth and as one who would lay down his life for the sake of truth. Besides, our goal is ultimately one and I would like you to correspond with me as regards all points of difference between us. And more. I know that you cannot go out of Ratnagiri and I would not mind finding out two or three days to come and stay with you if necessary to discuss these things to our satisfaction (Collected Works of Gandhi: Volume 38, Page 176-180).”
The writer is CEO of Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra, an RSS affiliate, and author of two books on the RSS.