Rahul Gandhi’s selective quoting of Savarkar’s prison petition is intellectually disingenuous.
The recent outburst by Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the midst of an election rally in Chhattisgarh, allegedly saying that freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had apologised to the British to be released from jail, has led to expected counter-reactions. While Savarkar’s grandnephew Ranjeet Savarkar filed a police complaint in Mumbai, the political class and television channels got a new subject for mudslinging and noisy debates. As a historian, I find it disturbing when national heroes are vilified for petty political ends.
In the five years that Savarkar spent in London as a law student, he galvanised the revolutionary movement that sought total and complete freedom from British rule. From India to Europe, and even America, a network of bravehearts guided by him, made contacts with Irish, French, Italian, Russian and American leaders, revolutionaries and the press to bring British India to the forefront of global discourse. No doubt, the British government categorised him as one of the most dangerous seditionists. Under an unfair Fugitive Offenders Act (FOA) of 1881 that did not apply to him because he was a bonafide student in London and not a fugitive, Savarkar was deported to India and tried with no right to appeal or defence. He was slapped with two life imprisonments, totalling 50 years, to rot in the Cellular Jail of the Andamans along with his elder brother Ganesh Damodar Savarkar. The British documents speak of how petrified they were of his very presence and hence wanted him as far away from the Indian mainland as possible.
In the Cellular Jail, he was meted the worst kind of punishments. Fettered in chains, flogged, condemned to six months of solitary confinement, made to extract oil all day being tied to the mill like a bullock, punished with standing handcuffs for days on end, lack of the most basic human needs such as toilets or water and fed with foul food that had pieces of insects and reptiles – it was truly a devil’s island.
By 1913, Savarkar and several other prisoners began hunger strikes and non-cooperation in jail to protest against this inhuman treatment. The rest of India was blissfully unaware of the tortures their compatriots faced in Kaala Pani. Hence, articles were leaked out for publication in Indian newspapers. Savarkar’s clandestine attempts to start bomb manufacturing in Port Blair alarmed the authorities. Finally, in October 1913, Sir Reginald H. Craddock, home member of the government of India, decided to visit the Cellular Jail and interview some of the political prisoners to ascertain their grievances. Savarkar and other political prisoners- Barin Ghose, Nand Gopal, Hrishikesh Kanjilal, and Sudhir Kumar Sarkar were interviewed and allowed to submit petitions. This process was a legitimate tool available for all political prisoners in British India, just like the opportunity of defending oneself in court through the agency of a lawyer was. As a barrister, Savarkar knew the law and wished to utilise all provisions under it to free himself or alleviate his situation in prison. Savarkar often advised other political prisoners too that the primary duty of a revolutionary was to free himself from the British clutches so as to return to the freedom struggle and in service of the motherland.
In his petition dated 14 November 1913 to Craddock, Savarkar argued that while common convicts of rape, murder, theft and other crimes were given promotions on the basis of their good conduct or let out into the settlement for work after 6-18 months, such provisions were not available for him as he was a ‘special class prisoner’. But when he asked for better food or treatment, he was denied those on the basis of being an ‘ordinary convict’. Had he been a political prisoner in an Indian jail, he would have earned remission or could write more than just the single annual letter and meeting with his family that he was allowed. This dichotomy disadvantaged him on both fronts.
By 1909, the Morley-Minto Reforms brought in a slew of greater opportunities for Indians to participate in councils and education. Hence, Savarkar alludes in his petition that the need to pick up the gun no longer remained and he was happy to join mainstream politics and work with the government towards greater constitutional participation for Indians.
“I am not asking for any preferential treatment,” he said, “though I believe as a political prisoner even that could have been expected in any civilised administration in the Independent nations of the world; but only for the concessions and favour that are shown even to the most depraved of convicts and habitual criminals?” It was almost an indirect mockery of British India being uncivilised.
Ironically those who castigate Savarkar for the petitions are the same human rights activists who advocate the cause of the likes of Kasab, Yakub Memon, and the Naxals and their intellectual fountainheads. The last line of this petition that draws controversy is open to interpretation: “The mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?” Being a Biblical reference, it can well be said that he was appealing to the religious sentiments of his incarcerators. Selective quoting of just a few lines of this petition, without looking at it completely or in context, is intellectually disingenuous.
Interestingly, on his way back to India, Craddock wrote his report onboard the ship where he said that Savarkar “cannot be said to express any regret or repentance” for whatever he did. “So important a leader is he,” Craddock noted, “that the European section of the Indian anarchists would plot for his escape which would before long be organised. If he were allowed outside the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, his escape would be certain. His friends could easily charter a steamer to lie off one of the islands and a little money distributed locally would do the rest.” The government obviously rejected his petition and nothing changed for Savarkar.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Savarkar filed another petition in October 1914 offering to “volunteer to do any service in the present War, that the Indian government think fit to demand”. In the same petition, he also requested a general release of “all those prisoners who had been convicted for committing political offences in India”. This was being done in many British colonies.
Interestingly, the Indian National Congress openly supported Britain during this crucial period. When the War broke out, Mahatma Gandhi was in England where he began organising a medical corps similar to the force he had led in aid of the British during the Boer War and even won a gold medal for loyalty. In a circular dated 22 September 1914, he called for recruitment to his Field Ambulance Training Corps. On his return to India in January 1915, Gandhi ji offered unconditional support for British efforts in the War and believed that it was not a good time to embarrass Britain or take advantage of her troubled situation to further the Indian liberation cause.
“England’s need,” he said, “should not be turned into our opportunity and that it was more becoming and far-sighted not to press our demands while the war lasted.” Marching from village to village in Gujarat, he recruited volunteers to assist the British in the War. How was this any different from Savarkar’s 1914 petition then?
In his next petition on 5 October 1917 to secretary of state to India Edwin Samuel Montagu, Savarkar referred to the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms that were on the anvil promising limited self-government and a bicameral legislature to Indians. He strongly advocated the grant of home rule to India and her becoming an autonomous partner of the Commonwealth. “When there was no Constitution”, he postulated, “it seemed a mockery to talk of constitutional movements. But now if a Constitution exists, and Home Rule is decidedly such, then so much political, social, economic, and educational work is to be done and could be constitutionally done that the Government, may securely rest satisfied that none of the political prisoners would choose to face untold suffering by resorting to underground methods for sheer amusement.” Invoking international precedents in Russia, France, Ireland, Transvaal and Austria where amnesty was becoming the general principle, he argued his case like a good lawyer.
Most importantly, in this petition he explicitly stated that, “if the Government thinks that it is only to effect my own release that I pen this; or if my name constitutes the chief obstacle in the granting of such an amnesty; then let the Government omit my name in their amnesty and release all the rest; that would give me as great a satisfaction as my own release would do.”
Can these be the words of a coward or an opportunist British stooge?
With the end of the War, Emperor George V’s royal proclamation granted a wholesale amnesty to all political prisoners lodged across India and the Andamans. Barin Ghose, Trailokya Nath Chakravarti, Hemachandra Das, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Parmanand and others in Cellular Jail, were released with a pledge to not participate in politics for a stipulated time. Congress workers who had been arrested after the non-cooperation movement of 1919 were also released on this principle. However, the same benefits were not accrued to Savarkar and his elder brother. Sachindra Nath Sanyal in his memoirs talks about sending an identical petition as Savarkar and being released while the latter was still imprisoned since the government feared that their release would rekindle the fizzled revolutionary movement in Maharashtra that they had spearheaded through their secret organisation – Abhinav Bharat.
Naturally, Savarkar appealed against this injustice through his petition dated 20 March 1920. In none of these petitions does he ever say he was apologetic of his revolutionary past.
It was only when the Cellular Jail was about to be closed that the British decided to deport Savarkar to the Ratnagiri Prison in May 1921. By then Savarkar had managed to accomplish significant prison reforms at Port Blair—from setting up a library, to education for convicts and stopping all forcible conversions. To his horror, he discovered that these benefits that he strove to get in the Andamans were all stripped off him at Ratnagiri and he was back to where he began his prison journey. This broke his will and he wrote unabashedly in his memoirs, My Transportation for Life, that this was the third time (the first two being in Port Blair) that he seriously contemplated suicide as he found his situation hopeless. It was immense resilience and inner strength that he drew to nip those thoughts, unlike several other political prisoners who hanged themselves to the ceilings of their tiny cells or went insane. In such a state of mind, his petition of 19 August 1921 indicates the spirit of a broken and dejected man, considering even political renunciation.
It was three years later on 6 January 1924 that Savarkar was released from prison but kept under strict surveillance within the frontiers of Ratnagiri district and debarred from political activity. He spent the next 13 years of his life this way. But it did not stop him from beginning a series of social reforms in Ratnagiri to break the caste system. Long before the Harijan movement or B.R. Ambedkar’s clarion call, Savarkar championed inter-caste dining and also built a Patit Pavan temple in Ratnagiri that allowed entry to all castes.
An objective assessment of a much-maligned Vinayak Damodar Savarkar calls for many questions.
Did future events in his long and distinguished political career actually validate the allegation of his willingness to acquiesce to the British? An assessment has seldom been made to find out if his opposition to some of the measures of the mass movement led by Mahatma Gandhi was favourable for the country or harmed the cause of freedom itself. Did the British actually trust his alleged loyalty or even buy his so-called willingness to yield or were they forever suspicious of the dangers he posed to them till the very end? These are the litmus questions by which one must evaluate Savarkar’s long continuum of petitions, and here the scales of history do tilt considerably in his favour.
The author is an writer/historian and Senior Research Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and has an upcoming biography of Savarkar.
Check out My543, our comprehensive report card of all Lok Sabha MPs.