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Don’t implicate Gandhi in Savarkar mercy petition. Archives don’t back the claim

Gandhi’s efforts for the freedom of the Savarkar brothers were questioned when he did not sign the petition to release Savarkar from jail in 1937.

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Defence Minister Rajnath Singh created a row when he claimed “Lies are spread about Savarkar repeatedly. It was spread that he filed many mercy petitions seeking his release from jails…. It was Mahatma Gandhi who asked him to file the mercy petitions…” The defence minister’s fierce defence of V.D. Savarkar came at an event to release a book on the freedom fighter. But it was the unkindest cut to drag Gandhi and hold him responsible for Savarkar’s petitions.

It has always been an issue for the Right-wing propaganda — how to accommodate Savarkar’s petitions with the prefix ‘Veer’. The mention of petitions by Savarkar was completely omitted for a long time despite enough evidence available. Veer Savarkar, a biography written by Dhananjay Keer and published in 1950, when Savarkar was still around, finds no mention of these petitions. Historian R.C. Majumdar has noted details about Savarkar’s petitions in his book Penal Settlements in Andamans (Education and Social Welfare Ministry, Government of India, New Delhi, 1975, Page 211-213). But Sadhana, a Gujarati magazine affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) omitted any reference of the petitions in its special issue on Savarkar dated 15 August 1983.

The petitions are presented with a comforting story lately by the ruling dispensation to defend Savarkar and, more importantly, further leverage his political legacy. And Rajnath Singh has added a new twist to it by claiming that it was Gandhi who asked him to file mercy petitions. As noted by many people on social media and rightly so, the first two petitions by Savarkar were made in 1911 and 1913 when Gandhi was still in South Africa. No record of correspondence between the two has been found.

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Gandhi on Savarkar’s incarceration…

Surely, Gandhi respected Savarkar brothers—Ganesh and Vinayak—for their revolutionary past and efforts towards the freedom of India, though he had fundamental ideological differences with them. He also wanted them to be free from the Cellular Jail of Andamans. When Ganesh Savarkar passed away in 1945, Gandhi wrote to V.D. 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 you? We are ourselves in the jaws of death…” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 79, Page 287)

Gandhi thought the Savarkar brothers, as political prisoners, should get clemency under the Royal Proclamation of December 1919, under which sentences of political prisoners were waived. In an article titled Savarkar Brothers in his weekly Young India (26 May 1919), Gandhi quoted a part of Royal Proclamation and wrote: “Both these brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas and that if they were set free they would like to work under the Reforms Act, for they consider that the Reforms enable one to work thereunder so as to achieve political responsibility for India. They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British…” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 17, Page 460-462)

Five months before this article was published, Dr. Narayan D. Savarkar, the third brother who was not in jail, wrote to Gandhi about the government’s decision to not release his brothers under Royal Proclamation. He narrated the perilous condition of his brothers in the letter and wrote, “Please let me hear from you as to how to proceed in such circumstances…I hope that you will let me know what you mean to do in this matter.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 16, Page 507)

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…and what he really said

Gandhi’s reply is not known but a handwritten draft is available.

Gandhi wrote in the draft, “…It is difficult to advise you. I suggest, however, your framing a brief petition setting forth the facts of the case bringing out in clear relief the fact that the offense committed by your brother was purely political. I suggest this in order that it would be possible to concentrate public attention in the case. Meanwhile as I have said to you in an earlier letter I am moving in the matter in my way.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 16, Page 507)

Gandhi wanted the emphasis on Savarkar brothers’ status as political prisoners because the Royal Proclamation was solely meant for political prisoners. To interpret it as Gandhi’s advice to file a mercy petition is a travesty of truth and height of thanklessness, to say the least. Gandhi’s efforts for the freedom of the Savarkar brothers were questioned when he did not sign the petition to release V.D. Savarkar from jail in 1937. In a letter to Shankerrao Deo, the president of Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, Gandhi wrote: “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. [Narayan] 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 [Vinayak 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.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 65, Page 421)

It is not befitting for a defence minister to falsely implicate Gandhi to absolve Savarkar from the ignominy of mercy petitions. But it is hardly surprising for a government that is unperturbed by Godse’s praise by some of its party members and Godse hashtag trending on Twitter on Gandhi Jayanti.

Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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