The real Sarvarkar

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The various political stances Vinayak Damodar Savarkar took after his arrest and deportation to the Andamans prove the hollowness of the claims equating him to martyrs like Bhagat Singh.

VEER SAVARKAR or, more correctly, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is being remembered again in the context of the Port Blair Airport being named after him. Fittingly enough, it was another controversial 'hero' (L.K. Advani) who did the honours in the Andamans on May 4. Speaking on the occasion, Advani claimed that Savarkar's contribution to the Indian freedom movement is as great as that of, among others, Bhagat Singh. In the light of Advani's observation, it is worth examining Savarkar's views and his actions in and out of jail and bringing out the persona behind the public face.

In May 1904, Savarkar started the Abhinav Bharat (Young India) Society drawing inspiration from Giuseppe Mazzini's Giovanni Italia (Young Italy) Society. While in England, he founded the Free Indian Society with a commitment to overthrowing British rule in India. It was in England that Savarkar composed his magnum opus on the 1857 uprising, The Indian War of Independence. He exhorts his countrymen thus: "The real glory belongs to those heroes who thoroughly understood that foreign domination is worse than Swaraj - Swaraj, democratic or monarchial, or even anarchial - and thus came out to fight for independence... Those who understood this principle, those who fulfilled their duty to their religion and to their country... let their names be remembered, pronounced with reverence! Those who did not join them in the holy war, through indifference or hesitation, may their names never be remembered by their country. And, as for those who actually joined the enemy and fought against their own countrymen, may their names be for ever crushed."1

V.D. Savarkar (front row, fourth from left) at the working committee meeting of the Hindu Mahasabha in New Delhi.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

After a member of the Free Indian Society killed an official in India Office (London), Savarkar was arrested and transported to the Andamans for life imprisonment. He reached the Andamans in 1910. He appealed for clemency in 1911, and again in 1913 during Sir Reginald Craddock's visit.

In a letter dated November 14, 1913, Savarkar said: "...if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress... Moreover, my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide... 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?"2

Conditions in the prison were no doubt harsh, but a few of the prisoners did face them courageously. Savarkar was not one of them. A brief account of these long-forgotten heroes is in order:

Nand Gopal, Editor of Swaraj (Allahabad), was sentenced to life for seditious writing. His successful passive resistance to the punishment of working the oil mill led to the first strike of the political prisoners. At about the same time, Hotilal, also associated with Swaraj, successfully smuggled to India his letter detailing the atrocities on them. This letter, published by Surendranath Banerjee in The Bengali, gave a glimpse of the prison life in the Andamans and created an uproar in the country.

There was another general strike in the prison during which 16-year-old Nanigopal, among others, risked caning and death to continue with a hunger strike. Ultimately, Savarkar started a hunger strike to force Nanigopal to back off. Savarkar's advice to Nanigopal revealed his mindset : "Do not die like a woman; if you must needs die, die fighting like a hero. Kill your enemy and then take leave of this world."3

Two strikes in quick succession and rumours about a bomb factory in the Andamans prompted Sir Craddock's visit. Unlike Savarkar, who in his petition pleaded only for himself, Nand Gopal pleaded for humane treatment of all the political prisoners. He said: "If the religious martyrdom practised by the enemies of Christianity against Christianity has not destroyed Christianity from the face of the globe, surely, political martyrdom shall not extirpate Indian nationalism from the holy soil of Bharatvarsha."4

Trailokya Nath Chakravarthi, who was transported to the Andamans as a prisoner in 1916, gives an interesting account of the reluctance of the Savarkar brothers (and a few other senior leaders) to join them in their civil disobedience movement. They were reluctant, according to Chakravarthi, because "they had wrung some concessions and privileges after a hard fight". Justifying his behaviour, Savarkar said: "And now to be put again in chains and solitary confinement, to go back to bad food and expose ourselves to caning, was to expect too much from us... The last and the most important reasons (sic) for my abstaining from it was that I would have forfeited thereby my right of sending a letter to India."5 and his various appeals for clemency suggest a possible breakdown of his resolve.

A clemency appeal per se does not make him any less of a hero. Maybe he was trying to trick the British into releasing him so that he could once again actively devote himself to the freedom movement, just as one of his heroes, Chatrapathi Sivaji, tricked his enemy. Such hopes were squashed in October 1939, when he made a stunning volte-face during his meeting with Lord Linlithgow: "But now that our interests were so closely bound together the essential thing was for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends; and the old antagonism was no longer necessary. The Hindu Mahasabha, he went on to say, favoured an unambiguous undertaking of Dominion Status at the end of the war."6 Thus, his excuse for not participating in the struggle of the political prisoners - to protect himself so that he could participate in the freedom struggle after his release from prison - falls flat on its face. For reasons best known to him, he vowed in one of his petitions that he would make the Montague Chelmsford proposals of 1919, which fell short of the demands of the nationalists, "a success insofar as I may be allowed to do so in future"7. In 1942, after the launch of the Quit India movement, when Gandhiji asked people to renounce their government jobs, Savarkar ordered: "I issue this definite instruction to all Hindu Sanghatanists in general holding any post or position of vantage in the government services, should stick to them and continue to perform their regular duties."8

Worse still was his support to the Nazis. In August 1938, he spoke thus to a crowd of 20,000 in Pune: "Germany has every right to resort to Nazism and Italy to Fascism and events have justified that those isms and forms of governments were imperative and beneficial to them under the conditions that obtained there... But it should be made clear to the German, Italian, or Japanese public that crores of Hindu Sanghatanists in India whom neither Pandit Nehru or nor the Congress represents, cherish no ill-will towards Germany or Italy or Japan or any other country in the world simply because they had chosen a form of government or constitutional policy which they thought suited best and contributed most to their National solidarity and strength." And in March 1939, he said: "Only a few socialists headed by Pandit J. Nehru have created a bubble of resentment against the present Government of Germany, but their activities are far from having any significance in India. The vain imprecations of Mahatma Gandhi against Germany's indispensable vigour in matters of internal policy obtain but little regard insofar as they are uttered by a man who has always betrayed and confused the country with an affected mysticism."

Unlike Savarkar, whose love of the Nazis was born out of his obsession with the idea of "dictatorship of the majority", Subhas Chandra Bose allied with the Axis powers solely because of his nationalistic fervour. When asked how he could ally with the Nazis, he said: "It is dreadful, but it must be done. It is our only way out. India must gain her independence, cost what it may. Have you any idea, Mr. and Mrs. Kurti, of the despair, the misery, the humiliation of India? Can you imagine her suffering and indignation? British imperialism there can be just as intolerable as your Nazism here."9 There was never any convergence of views between the Nazis and Netaji. Believed as he did in armed struggle, circumstances forced him to ally with the more amenable imperialists.

THERE has been a lot of controversy regarding Savarkar's position on the two-nation theory. In October 1938, he dropped strong hints about the impossibility of the coexistence of Hindus and Muslims: "A nation is formed by a majority living therein. What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in minority were driven out from Germany." And in July 1939, he said: "Nationality did not depend so much on a common geographical area as on unity of thought, religion, language and culture. For this reason the Germans and the Jews could not be regarded as a nation." Later that year, in the 21st session of the Hindu Mahasabha, he laid all doubts to rest with his comment: "The Indian Muslims are on the whole more inclined to identify themselves and their interests with Muslims outside India than Hindus who live next door, like Jews in Germany." He justified his assertion when he said:"But besides culture the tie of common holyland has at times proved stronger than the chains of a Motherland. Look at the Mohammedans... Mecca to them is a stronger reality than Delhi or Agra. Some of them do not make any secret of being bound to sacrifice all India if that be to the glory of Islam or could save the city of their Prophet... History is too full of examples of such desertions... The crusades again attest to the wonderful influence that a common holyland exercises over peoples widely separated in race, nationality and language, to bind and hold them together."10

Savarkar defines a Hindu as one "who regards this land of Bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the Seas as his Father-Land as well as his Holy-Land that is the cradle land of his religion"11. He said: "So with the Hindus, they being the people, whose past, present and future are most closely bound with the soil of Hindusthan as Pitribhu (fatherland), as Punyabhu (holyland), they constitute the foundation, the bedrock, the reserved forces of the Indian state. Therefore even from the point of Indian nationality, must ye, O Hindus, consolidate and strengthen Hindu nationality; not to give wanton offence to any of our non-Hindu compatriots, in fact to any one in the world but in just and urgent defence of our race and land; to render it impossible for others to betray her to or subject her to unprovoked attack by any of those 'Pan-isms' that are struggling forth from continent to continent."12 The obvious conclusions are:

1. Since Muslims and Hindus do not possess "unity of thought, religion, language and culture", they cannot coexist.

2. Muslims' allegiance to India is weaker than their allegiance to their holyland (which lies outside of India), and so their patriotism is suspect.

3. Being the minority, Muslims need to be at the mercy of Hindus.

Getting rid of Muslims is also justified, for that was what the Germans did to the Jews.

Savarkar's support for the two-nation theory is confirmed by his assertion: "I have no quarrel with Mr Jinnah's two-nation theory. We, Hindus, are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations."13 This position is easy to understand for Savarkar maintained that India bereft of Muslims was relatively inert to sabotage from within. Savarkar's obsession with the dictatorship of the majority is evident from what he proclaimed in favour of a Jewish state despite his support to the Holocaust. He said, "If the Zionists' dreams are ever realised - if Palestine becomes a Jewish state and it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends."14

Bhagat Singh's life provides a study in contrast. His commitment to his principles and his comrades was unwavering, as is evident from this letter to his father: "My life is not so precious, at least to me, as you may probably think it to be. It is not at all worth buying at the cost of my principles. There are other comrades of mine whose case is as serious as that of mine. We had adopted a common policy and we shall stand to the last, no matter how dearly we have to pay individually for it." In his last letter, he wrote: "According to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to be shot dead, and not hanged."

To summarise, Savarkar started out as a large-hearted revolutionary, abjectly renounced his principles in the Andamans, refused to join his fellow prisoners in their struggle there, stayed away from all anti-British activities after his release from prison, and, with his virulent anti-Muslim campaign, ended up helping the British in their policy of 'divide and rule'.

Savarkar was the embodiment of traits that one could do without, and needs to be remembered if only to serve as a caution to succeeding generations. How then should one treat him? As if to help one out of this predicament, he said, in his speech aimed at the Princes of India: "But anyone who might have actively betrayed the trust of the people, disowned his fathers, and debased his blood, by arraying himself against the Mother - he shall be crushed to dust and ashes, and shall be looked upon as a helot, a bastard, and a renegade."15

If the renaming of the Port Blair Airport was to acknowledge the sufferings of the political prisoners in the Andamans, a more apt name would have been that of Nand Gopal or Nani Gopal or Hotilal or Chakravarthi or one of the other unsung heroes. Coming as it did soon after the Gujarat pogrom, the renaming sends wrong signals to Muslims. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh recently declared: "Let Muslims understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority." This is an indication of Savarkar's continuing influence on the Hindutva brigade. Eulogising Savarkar, thus, only makes so much sense as eulogising Mahmud of Gazni.

Ra. Ravishankar is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States.


1. V.D. Savarkar, The Indian War of Independence, page 544. 2. R.C. Majumdar, Penal Settlement in Andamans, pages 211-214, 3. V.D. Savarkar, My Transportation for Life, page 255. 4. Same as Reference 2, pages 208-211. 5. Same as Reference 3, page 390. 6. This quote and all unacknowledged quotes following it are taken from Marzia Casolari's essay, "Hindutva's foreign tie-up in the 1930s". 7. Facsimile of Savarkar's letter, Frontline, April 7, 1995, page 88. 8. A.G. Noorani, "The collaborators", Frontline, December 1, 1995. 9. K. Kurti, Subhas Chandra Bose as I knew him, page 11. 10. V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva, pages 135-136. 11. Ibid., page 116. 12. Ibid., page 140. 13. Ibid. 14. Indian Annual Register, 1943, Volume II. 15. Savarkar Commemoration Volume, page 82.

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