The ghost of Veer Savarkar is back to intrude in contemporary politics — this time in the electoral fight in Maharashtra, even as the clamour for a Bharat Ratna for him grows.
While the Shiv Sena has always ardently supported the conferment of India’s highest civilian award on Savarkar, the BJP too has put its weight behind the claim, with even Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocating for it. This has left the Congress in more disarray than it normally finds itself in, with extreme reactions from leaders like Digvijay Singh and Manish Tewari to a more tempered reaction from former PM Manmohan Singh.
Those in the Congress abusing Savarkar are well-advised to take a leaf out of their tall leader Indira Gandhi’s book. After Savarkar’s demise, she had said: “His name was a byword for daring and patriotism. Mr. Savarkar was cast in the mould of a classical revolutionary and countless people drew inspiration from him.” A stamp was issued in his honour by then government; Indira Gandhi also donated Rs 11,000 for a memorial fund and sanctioned the making of a documentary film on him. Rahul Gandhi needs to then mull over whether his grandmother was eulogising a ‘traitor’, ‘coward’ and a man complicit in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder.
While the decision on the Bharat Ratna is left to the realm of both politics and speculation, it is a symbolic gesture of acknowledging those alternative voices of our freedom struggle that have been suppressed for the longest time in the zeal to create a monochromatic narrative.
As a young man, Savarkar established the country’s first secret society of revolutionaries—the Mitra Mela (that later became Abhinav Bharat) and facilitated a fantastic network of revolutionaries across India. Way back in 1905, during the Partition of Bengal, he gave a call for complete freedom (something the Congress did only by 1930), and organised the first bonfire of foreign clothes as a student of Poona’s Fergusson College for which he was rusticated by the authorities.
Later, as a student of law at the Gray’s Inn, Savarkar became the nucleus of a vast inter-continental, anti-colonial armed struggle to free India. With several luminaries such as Shyamaji Krishnavarma, Madame Bhikaji Cama, Sardar Singh Rana, Madan Lal Dhingra, V.V.S. Aiyar, Niranjan Pal, Virendranath Chattopadhyay, Lala Hardayal, M.P.T. Acharya and others, he spearheaded many revolutionary acts ranging from procuring and smuggling bombs, pistols and bomb manuals to orchestrating political assassinations of the British. He created a vast intellectual corpus for the revolutionary movement by writing the biography of Italian revolutionary Joseph Mazzini and his magnum opus on the 1857 uprising.
In fact, it was Savarkar who coined the phrase ‘The First War of Indian Independence’ and wrote on it after extensive research at the British archives from an Indian perspective —possibly why Home Minister Amit Shah credited him with keeping the memory of 1857 alive.
No British stooge
The British were petrified by Savarkar’s activities and he was classified as a “D” or Dangerous Criminal. They wanted him extradited to India at all costs and did not mind going the whole hog, even getting into a dispute with France at the International Court of Justice in Hague just to secure his capture. He was given an unfair trial with no jury or appeal and slapped the highest punishment of two transportations of life amounting to 50 long years in the dreaded Cellular Jail in the Andamans.
The inhuman and barbaric tortures that he and several other political prisoners underwent there is a matter of historical record. The bogey of the clemency that he sought is often invoked to discredit him. But these petitions were a normal route available to all political prisoners (including the likes of Barin Ghose or Sachindranath Sanyal who availed the same).
Savarkar was also acting as a spokesperson for other prisoners in his petitions, and several of them talk about seeking a general amnesty for all, especially after the First World War. British officials like Sir Reginald Craddock who interviewed Savarkar said that he “cannot be said to express any regret or repentance” for whatever he did. Mahatma Gandhi himself advised Savarkar’s younger brother Narayanrao to file a petition seeking the release of his elder brothers and built a strong case for them. His letter was also published in Young India dated 26 May 1920, titled ‘Savarkar Brothers’.
Savarkar was conditionally released in 1924, but confined to the district of Ratnagiri and prevented from taking part in politics—initially for five years, later extended to 13 years. If he had turned a British collaborator, there would have been absolutely no reason for him to be under the strictest surveillance where every move of his was tracked.
The plethora of British intelligence reports of the time testify how his speeches and actions were monitored closely. To dodge this and also to put into practice the ideology of Hindutva that he envisioned as a response to the pernicious and communal Khilafat movement that Gandhi had launched, Savarkar embarked on massive social reforms and unification of the Hindu society.
Inter-caste dining, inter-caste marriages, temple entry, complete abolition of the caste system and untouchability were his pet projects at Ratnagiri. Yet, his work inspired revolutionaries all through.
Durgadas Khanna who later became the chairman of the Punjab Legislative Council was an associate of Bhagat Singh and revealed in an interview that while being recruited to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev had asked him if he had read the works of Veer Savarkar. Bhagat Singh even got the 1857 book’s second edition published. Decades later, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Rash Behari Bose got Japanese editions published. Tamil versions of the book were found during the Indian National Army (INA) raids.
In 1937, after being released, Savarkar took over as the president of the All India Hindu Mahasabha. On the one hand, he countered the Congress’ abject appeasement policy and on the other, the divisive politics of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League. The Constitution of free India, according to Savarkar was to be one where equal rights and obligations were conferred on all people irrespective of caste, creed, race and religion. He said: “The conception of this Hindu Nation is in no way inconsistent with the development of a common Indian Nation…in which all sects and sections, races and religions, castes and creeds, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Anglo-Indians could be harmoniously welded together into a political state on terms of perfect equality. We want to relieve our non-Hindu countrymen of even a ghost of suspicion that legitimate rights of minorities with regard to their culture, religion and language will be expressly guaranteed.” (Savarkar, Hindu Rashtra Darshan)
It is a false narrative that he propagated the two-nation theory and was a mirror image of Jinnah. Savarkar opposed the militant groups within the Muslim community and alluded that given the imagination of a pan-Islamic ummah under a common Caliph, many Muslims did think of themselves as being a separate entity. But he opposed the creation of Pakistan or a nation within a nation on religious terms.
During the Quit India Movement that he was opposed to, he encouraged young Indians to enlist in the British Army and get trained so that they can then defect over to Netaji’s INA. Netaji, in a broadcast on 25 June 1944 on the Azad Hind Radio, said: “When due to misguided political whims and lack of vision, almost all the leaders of the Congress party have been decrying the soldiers in the Indian army as mercenaries, it is heartening to know that Veer Savarkar is fearlessly exhorting the youths of India to enlist in the armed forces. These enlisted youths themselves provide us with trained men and soldiers for our INA.” Rash Behari Bose called Savarkar “A Rising Leader of New India” in a Japanese magazine Dai Ajia Shugi, March-April 1939. It is a known fact that the Naval Mutiny of 1946 is what accelerated India’s freedom and not so much the 1942 agitations.
The long shadow of Gandhiji’s murder holds on Savarkar despite him being exonerated by the court after due consideration of all the evidence in front of it.
Nathuram Godse in his dying declaration expressly mentioned: “It is not true that Veer Savarkar had any knowledge of my activities which ultimately led me to fire shots at Gandhiji.” Godse, in fact, spoke about getting disillusioned with Savarkar’s pacifism after 1945 and decided to break away from him. Interestingly, the Jawaharlal Nehru government did not appeal against Savarkar’s acquittal. The J.L. Kapur Commission that gave its verdict indicting Savarkar posthumously has been challenged by several people, including historians such as Sheshrao More, of being a politically fixed report that did not even take into consideration several important witnesses.
It is this troubled legacy of Savarkar that haunts India even today— especially with his ideological successors being in the political ascendant. Hopefully, the Bharat Ratna would finally lay to rest the soul of this much-maligned and misunderstood leader of India.
The author is a historian and author of Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past and a Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Views are personal.