Essay

Savarkar & the BJP

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Senior BJP leader L.K. Advani paying homage to Savarkar on his birth anniversary in Parliament House in New Delhi on May 28, 2014. Also seen is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Savarkar’s prison cell at the Cellular Jail, also known as Kala Pani, in Port Blair. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

May 27, 1948: At the trial of those accused of participation and complicity in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Seated in front (left): Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte. Savarkar, wearing a black cap and glasses, is in the last row. Photo: Photo Division, Government of India

What was Savarkar’s record in his 83 years to hail him as a hero? Six abject apologies to the British rulers, an unprecedented record in the entire history of any country’s freedom movement. Add to them four murders which he conspired in from 1909 to 1948, the last being Gandhi’s.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been ceaselessly proclaiming its devotion to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and the ideology and the term he propounded in his essay Hindutva in 1923. It was, he rightly asserted, a new term that he had coined in order to distinguish it from Hinduism, a great and noble faith. It is time we asked when did the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (or RSS, formed in 1925) and its political outfits, the Jana Sangh (formed in 1951) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (formed in 1980), fall in love with this hero and his ideology.

Certainly not since their respective births, as their profuse claims would have us believe. The attachment is of a far, far later origin, and it is purely opportunistic. When the Jana Sangh split from the Janata Party in 1980 on the issue of dual membership of the RSS, it did not revive the Jana Sangh, which sheer honesty demanded. Instead, the new outfit adopted two titles, both directly opposed to Savarkar and his Hindutva. One was the deceptive title Bharatiya Janata Party, as if it was the real Janata Party, a creation of Jayaprakash Narayan. Another was its adoption of “Gandhian socialism” as its ideology. Not a word about Savarkar or his Hindutva. Hindutva was adopted by the BJP around 1989-90 when it also adopted the acquisition of the Babri Masjid as its goal in the Palampur resolution of June 11, 1989, on the eve of the general election. Gandhian socialism was abandoned in 1985 by the BJP’s national executive. The national council restored it but along with its bogus “intellectual” Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s “integral humanism”. That, too, was dropped in favour of Hindutva. The BJP is a political chameleon.

L.K. Advani launched his “chariot procession” on September 25, 1990. But it was at Port Blair in the Andamans that he nailed his colours to the mast on May 4, 2002: “There is no reason to fight shy of… Hindutva propounded at great length by Veer Savarkar”; a tacit admission that he was adopting a malodorous character as his guru. “It is an all-encompassing ideology with its roots in the country’s heritage.” Why then did it take Advani so long to discover that heritage?

It is strange that none in the freedom movement acknowledged Savarkar’s role as they did, for example, Bhagat Singh’s role. Was the Sangh’s great “hero” ever invited to any of the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress? Lala Lajpat Rai belonged to the Congress as well as the Hindu Mahasabha. A man of character and integrity, he was a scholar. His outlook stands in contrast to Savarkar’s, as the scholar Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav notes: “In his 1918 book, The Problem of National Education, Lajpat Rai insisted that ‘we modern Indians can be as well proud of a Hali, an Iqbal, a Mohani as of Tagore, Roy and Harishchandra. We are proud of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan as of Ram Mohun Roy and Dayanand.’ Similarly, he insisted that ‘the admiration from the religious, philosophic, and epic literature of India, just as the educated Hindu reckons the Taj and Fatehpur Sikri among the glories, not of Muslim but of Indian architecture’” (“The Inclusive Nationalist”, The Indian Express, January 29, 2019 ).

Only the 1998 election manifesto of the BJP was explicit: “The cultural nationalism of India… is the core of Hindutva” and “Shri Ram lies at the core of India’s consciousness”. The two were linked. The manifesto of 1996 was more equivocal.

Savarkar was born on May 28, 1883, and died on February 26, 1966. What was his record in those 83 years to hail him as a hero? Six abject apologies to the British rulers, an unprecedented record in the entire history of any country’s freedom movement. Add to them four murders which he conspired in from 1909 to 1948, the last being Gandhi’s.

One-time nationalist

He began as an Indian nationalist and ended up as a Hindu nationalist. His first book deserves high praise—The Indian War of Independence 1857. It was free from communal hate, the work of a true nationalist. He wrote: “What were they that Moulvis preached them, learned Brahmins blessed them, that for their success prayers went up to Heaven from the Mosques of Delhi and the Temples of Benares? The great principles were Swadharma and Swaraj. In the thundering roar of ‘Din, Din,’ which rose to protect religion, when there were evident signs of a cunning, dangerous and destructive attack on religion dearer than life.”

In this book, “Hindusthan” is used very much in the same sense as was used by the great Muhammad Iqbal in his famous poem: “Saare jahan se accha Hindostan hamara” (“Our Hindostan is the best among all the countries of the world”).

Savarkar had generous praise for the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and, most of all, for “that patriot Moulvie Ahmad Shah, whose sacred name has cast a halo round Hindusthan.… As soon as the news of his death reached England, the relieved Englishmen felt that the most formidable enemy of the British in Northern India was no more.” In support of this assertion, he cited Thomas Rice Holmes’ A History of the Indian Mutiny (page 539).

The claims to greatness of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan were not overlooked either. “The danger to the Independence of India was first perceived by Nana Fadnavis of Poona and Hyder Sahib of Mysore.… The Gadi of Tanjore, the Masnad of Mysore, the Raigarh of Sahyadri, the Dewan-I-Khas of Delhi were among the select actors” in the drama that was unfolding in India.” (pages 13-14).

The Indian War of Independence 1857 was written by a man proud of his religious and cultural heritage, proud of Maharashtra’s past, and yet someone who sought to blend regional and religious loyalties together in an overarching loyalty to the Indian nation. Interestingly, there is an entire chapter devoted to Ayodhya. This chapter, however, contains none of the falsehoods retailed by his political heirs of today. The message, throughout, is one of national unity.

“So, now, the antagonism between the Hindus and the Mahomedans might be consigned to the past. Their present relation was one not of rulers and ruled, foreigner and native, but simply that of brothers, with the one difference between them of religion alone. For, they were both children of the soil of Hindusthan. Their names were different, but they were all children of the same Mother. India, therefore, being the common mother of these two, they were brothers by blood. Nana Sahib, Bahadur Shah of Delhi, Moulvi Ahmad Shah, Khan Bahadur Khan, and other leaders of 1857 felt this relationship to some extent and, so, gathered round the flag of Swadesh leaving aside their enmity, now so unreasonable and stupid. In short, the broad of features of the policy of Nana Sahib and Azimullah were that the Hindus and the Mahomedans should unite and fight shoulder to shoulder for the independence of their country and that, when freedom was gained, the United States of India should be formed under the Indian rulers and princes.”

He keeps returning to this theme of unity between Hindus and Muslims and keeps emphasising that in the struggle for independence the two must act as brothers. “These five days [in Delhi] will be ever memorable in the history of Hindusthan for yet another reason. Because these five days proclaimed by beat of drum the end, for the time being at any rate, of the continuous fight between the Hindus and Mahomedans dating from the invasion of Mohammed of Ghazni. It was proclaimed first that the Hindus and the Mahomedans are not rivals, not conquerors and the conquered, but brethren: Bharatmata (Mother India) who was, in times past, freed from Mahomedan yoke by Shivaji, Pratap Singh, Chattrasal, Pratapaditya, Guru Gobind Singh, and Mahadji Scindia—that Bharatmata gave the sacred mandate that day. Henceforward you are equal and brothers, I am equally the mother of you both! The five days during which Hindus and Mahomedans proclaimed that India was their country and that they were all brethren, the days during which Hindus and Mahomedans unanimously raised the flag of national freedom at Delhi. Be those grand days ever memorable in the history of Hindusthan” (pages 99-100).

There was praise for “the Crescent of the Islamites” as much as for “the spears of the Mahrattas” (page 78). So, “in the truer sense, we said that the raising of Bahadur Shah to the throne of India was no restoration at all. But rather it was the declaration that the long-standing war between the Hindu and the Mahomedan had ended, that tyranny had ceased.… Let, then, Hindus and Mahomedans send forth their hearty, conscientious, and most loyal homage to this elected or freely accepted Emperor of their native soil on the 11th May 1857!” (pages 225-26).

Not only Muslim personalities but Muslim masses, indeed even “the mullahs”, receive high praise: “Also among the vast Mussalman population of the town, the Mullahs were very busy. Thousands of Mussalmans were only awaiting the signal with a firm determination to offer their blood on the battlefield in the cause of country and religion.”

Savarkar was writing of the past. But his admonitions were clearly meant for the future: “The Englishmen will try now also their old work of deception, they will try to incite the Hindus to rise against Mussalmans, and the Mahomedans to rise against the Hindus. But, Hindu Brethren! Do not fall into their nets. It is hardly necessary to tell our clever Hindu Brethren that the English never keep their promises….

“Mussalmans, if you revere the Koran, and Hindus, if you revere the cow-mother, forget now your minor differences and unite together in this sacred war! Jump into the battlefield fighting under one banner, and wash away the name of the English from India in streams of blood! If the Hindus will join hands with the Mahomedans in this war, if they will also take the field for the freedom of our country, then, as a reward for their patriotism, the killing of cows will be put a stop to” (pages 140-41). This, however, is not the Savarkar the BJP extols.

A different ‘history’

In the evening of his life, Savarkar wrote an altogether different “history”. But it was laced with the emotion of revenge. Six Glorious Epochs was on India’s independence from British rule. It makes for sad reading. Tipu Sultan is dubbed “The Savage”. Names for the rest can be easily imagined. Referring to his book The Indian War of Independence 1857, he wrote: “In it I have reviewed that war from the standpoint of the Hindu nation”; the role of the Muslims in the revolt is suppressed.

The other nationalistic act of his was his escape through a porthole of S.S. Morea on July 8, 1910, when it anchored at Marseilles. His immediate capture on French soil lent an aura of romance to his fame as a revolutionary. He was brought to Mumbai on July 22, 1910, and was tried by a special tribunal comprising the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Sir Basil Scott, Justice Sir N.C. Chandavarkar and Justice Sir John Heaton. A formidable defence team was led by Joseph Baptista. The tribunal sat on three trials from September 15, 1910, onwards. The first involved 38 accused, including Savarkar. The second involved Savarkar and a co-accused in the first case, Gopalrao Patankar. In the last, Savarkar was the sole accused. He was alleged to have sent 20 Browning pistols to his associates in India.

The hearings lasted for 69 days. On December 24, 1910, Savarkar was sentenced to transportation for life and forfeiture of all his property, in the first case. The second trial for abetment in A.M.T. Jackson’s murder opened on January 23, 1911. A week later, he was sentenced to another term of transportation for life—50 years—in the Andamans. The government rejected a very reasonable plea of Savarkar that the two sentences run concurrently, as is normally the case. He was brought to the Cellular Jail at Port Blair in the Andamans on July 4, 1911. He died in 1966. These intervening 55 years have an altogether different story to tell. As Morarji Desai, then Home Minister of Bombay, said in the Legislative Council on April 3, 1948: “[Savarkar’s] past services are more than offset by the present disservice” (Debates, Volume 14, Part 10, Column 314).

The apologies

1. Savarkar was brought to the Andamans on July 4, 1911. Within the next six months, he shot off a letter of apology to the British. Its text is not traceable. But it is referred to in the apology of 1913.

2. Petition of November 14, 1913: “In the end may I remind your honour to be so good as to go through the petition for clemency that I had sent in 1911 and to sanction it for being forwarded to the Indian Government? The latest development of the Indian Politics and the conciliating policy of the Government have thrown open the constitutional line once more. Now no man having the good of India and Humanity at Heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which, in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-1907, beguiled us from the path of peace and progress. Therefore if the Government in their manifold beneficence and merely 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. As long as we are in jails, there cannot be real happiness and joy in hundreds and thousands of homes of His Majesty’s loyal subjects in India, for blood is thicker than water; but if we be released the people will instinctively raise a shout of joy and gratitude to the Government, who knows how to forgive and correct, more than how to chastise and avenge. 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, I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. By keeping me in jail nothing can be got in comparison to what would be otherwise. 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?”

3. Government of Bombay’s Order for his release on January 5, 1924: “The conditions attached to the release are these: (1) ‘That the said Vinayak Damodar Savarkar will reside within the territories administered by the Governor of Bombay in Council and within the Ratnagiri District within the said territories, and will not go beyond the limits of that district without the permission of the Government, or in case of urgency of the District Magistrate. (2) That he will not engage publicly or privately in any manner of political activities without the consent of the Government for a period of five years, such restriction being renewable at the discretion of Government at the expiry of the said term.’

“Mr Savarkar has already indicated his acceptance of these terms. He has also, though it was explained to him that it was in no way made condition of his release, submitted the following statement:‘I hereby acknowledge that I had a fair trial and just sentence. I heartily abhor methods of violence resorted to in days gone by, and I feel myself duty-bound to uphold Law and the constitution to the best of my powers and am willing to make the Reform a success in so far as I may be allowed to do in future” (see “Savarkar and Gandhi”, Frontline, March 28, 2003).

4. Letter to the Commissioner of Police dated February 22, 1948, after Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948. “Consequently, in order to disarm all suspicion and to back up the above heard representation I wish to express my willingness to give an undertaking to the Government that I shall refrain from taking part in any communal or political public activity for any period the Government may require in case I am released on that condition.”

5. The 1950 Undertaking. Savarkar, along with other Mahasabha leaders, was detained on April 4, 1950, under the Preventive Detention Act, 1950. He wrote to the State government on April 26, 1950, pleading for his release from prison. Savarkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer records: “But in case Government was not inclined to grant the request for unconditional release, Savarkar urged that he should be released under the condition that he would not take part in current politics for any period Government might lay down…. Savarkar added that it was a matter of public knowledge that he had been already contemplating to retire shortly from the political field.

“The Government of Bombay rejected Savarkar’s offer. His son Vishwas filed a habeas corpus application in the Bombay High Court. When it came up for hearing before the Chief Justice M.C. Chagla and Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar, the Advocate General, C.K. Daphtary, asked for a day’s time to take instructions from the Government. On July 13, he informed the court that he was authorised to state that if Savarkar would give an undertaking that he would not participate in political activities and would remain at his own house in Bombay, the government would agree to his release. Their Lordships made the order of release on July 13 on an undertaking given by K.N. Dharap, who appeared on behalf of Savarkar, that Savarkar would not take any part whatever in political activity and would remain in his house in Bombay. This undertaking was to last a period of one year or up to the next general elections in India or in case of India being involved in any war, whichever event took place first.”

Savarkar said on July 20, 1950, that “in view of the restrictions imposed on me by [the] Government… preventing me from taking part in politics for a specified period, I must inevitably resign even the primary membership of the Hindu Mahasabha.”

6. On October 9, 1939, Savarkar met the arch-imperialist Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, in Bombay—the month the Congress asked its ministers in the Provinces to resign—and pledged his enthusiastic cooperation to the British. Linlithgow reported to Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India: “The situation he [Savarkar] said, was that His Majesty’s Government must now turn to the Hindus and work with their support. After all, though we and the Hindus have had a good deal of difficulty with one another in the past that was equally true of the relations between Great Britain and the French and, as recent events had shown, of relations between Russia and Germany. Our interests were now the same and we must therefore work together. Even though now the most moderate of men, he had himself been in the past an adherent of a revolutionary party, as possibly, I might be aware. (I confirmed that I was.) 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.”

In the entire history of mankind, is there any precedent for apologies to an alien ruler so abject and so frequent?

The four murders

Savarkar never wielded the gun himself. He bullied a follower into doing so.

1. In 1909, Colonel Sir William Curzon Wylie, political aide-de-camp (ADC) at the India Office in London, was killed by Madanlal Dhingra on the night of July 1, 1909. So was Dr Cawas Lalkaka, who tried to save his life. Dhingra was a devotee of Savarkar. After Savarkar’s death, Dhananjay Keer confided to Robert Payne, author of The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi (The Bodley Head, 1969, pages 206-7): “In 1909 he [Savarkar] had shown that he was perfectly capable of ordering a young Indian to murder Sir Curzon Wylie. To his biographer Dhananjay Keer, he claimed full credit for the murder. He had given Madanlal Dhingra a nickel-plated revolver, saying curtly, ‘Don’t show me your face if you fail this time.’ Dhingra had acted like an automaton, blindly obedient to him, convinced that he was sacrificing himself on the altar of India’s freedom and throughout the trial Savarkar continually encouraged him in the belief that he was a martyr whose name would be remembered for centuries. The London police strongly suspected Savarkar of complicity in the crime, but there was never enough evidence to convict him. He was finally convicted of complicity in the murder of Mr Jackson at the Nasik Conspiracy Trial and sentenced to transportation for life.” Dhingra felt guilty that he had failed to kill Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, as well.

2. In the same year, on December 29, 1909, the District Magistrate and Collector of Nasik District, A.M.T. Jackson, was shot dead at a theatre. The assassin, Anant Kanhere, was arrested. Jackson, however, did not try Ganesh Savarkar [elder brother of V.D. Savarkar]. He merely committed him to trial by the Sessions Court. There is a particular poignancy about this murder, as Dr M.R. Jayakar noted: “Collector Jackson was a reputed Sanskrit scholar and, it was believed, a great admirer of Indians, their language and literature.”

3. Sir Ernest Hotson, the acting Governor, was making an informal visit to Ferguson College, Poona, on July 22, 1931, when a student, Vasudev Balavant Gogate, suddenly took out a revolver and fired two shots at him. The first bullet was deflected by the stud of a notebook in His Excellency’s pocket and the second went wide. Sir Ernest was not hurt and immediately tackled and secured his assailant with the help of his ADC who found another revolver on Gogate.

In the second edition of his book in 1966, Keer acknowledged that “Gogate was a staunch Savarkarite and had met Savarkar in Ratnagiri some days before he shot the hot-headed Hotson”. Again, this is something Keer suppressed in the first edition.

Now read what K.M. Munshi, Home Minister of Bombay Presidency (1937-39), a Congressman with pronounced sympathies for the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, had to say of Gogate: “Another instance in which the Governor had unwillingly to accept my advice related to the release of V.B. Gogate, a young college student and a disciple of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.... The Governor Lord Brabourne would not accept my advice. He said: Attempts at assassinating a Governor are a serious matter. I did not press the issue on the occasion. However, I immediately wrote a letter to Sir Ernest Hotson, who happened to be my friend, asking him to help me in the matter by agreeing to release Gogate. The gesture, I pointed out, would help the new Ministry. A few days later, Lord Brabourne called me. He was annoyed that I should have written to Hotson directly about Gogate’s matter. He had received a communication from the Viceroy that Hotson had no objection to his accepting my advice.” It is unlikely that Munshi would have exerted himself thus for a Muslim communalist and terrorist. Munshi was a founder member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1964.

4. Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 (see box).

In his memoir of the case, The Story of the Red Fort Trial 1948-49 (Popular Prakashan, 1979), P.L. Inamdar, a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, made these revealing comments about Savarkar and the judge who was lenient with him. “During the whole of the trial, I never saw Savarkar turning his head towards even Nathuram, who used to sit by him, in fact next to him, much less speak with him. While the other accused freely talked to each other changing notes or banter, Savarkar sat there sphinx-like in silence, completely ignoring his co-accused in the dock, in an unerringly disciplined manner. He did not talk to me in Court during the whole of the trial, except once. He had, I thought, perhaps resolved to act in court, his defence against the charge of conspiracy with Nathuram or with any one of the accused and, in fact, to perform his role demonstratively, even with respect to the counsels of the other accused!…

“During the various talks I had with Nathuram, he told me that he was deeply hurt by this—Tatyarao’s calculated, demonstrative non-association with him either in court or in the Red Fort Jail during all the days of the Red Fort Trial. How Nathuram yearned for a touch of Tatyarao’s hand, a word of sympathy, or at least a look of compassion in the secluded confines of the cells! Nathuram referred to his hurt feelings in this regard even during my last meeting with him at the Simla High Court…

“Savarkar was very nervous and was getting more and more agitated as the trial progressed. In the second week of September 1948, I received word from our senior, Bhopatkar, to say that Savarkar wanted to see me and that he had sought the permission of the Court, allowing me to visit the Jail for that purpose.…

“As I reached the durree, led by him, I bowed low and touched his feet and mumbled my deep sense of humility, elation and good fortune. As Savarkar sat down, he said, ‘Mr Inamdar, I am glad to have you with me. Please sit down.’ After a few words of explanation as to why he had called me, and warding off my humble protest for being called upon to interfere in the work of my seniors, he said, ‘I have very much liked your terse and correct expression. Your cross-examination of witnesses is by far the best. Yes, all of you are working and doing your best. But you! I am really impressed by your work. I want your opinion and assistance. I hope you do not mind.’

“‘Oh! It will be my proud privilege,’ I said, and we proceeded to discuss the case, against him in particular, and also in general. I found him well posted with the details of the case against him; they were very few. He talked about them in thoroughly learned and elaborate legal jargon using such expressions as hearsay evidence of the first degree, second degree, etc. All that I had to do was, either express my approval of the line of argument, or suggest a few variations, which he made a note of. He repeatedly asked me if he would be acquitted and wanted me to assure him sincerely. What I noted was that he did not ask me a single question about the case against my clients. Dr Parchure and Gopal Godse or about any of the other accused including Nathuram, nor any question about me personally. I spent nearly three hours with him. He thanked me when I took his leave, again bowing low and touching his feet.…”

On January 10, 1949, the judgment was delivered. “Death by hanging for Nathuram and Apte, life imprisonment for Karkare, Madanlal, Shankar Kistayya, Gopal Godse and Dr Parchure! Surprisingly, I do not remember even today, when and how Atma Charan read out the operative portion of the order of acquittal of Savarkar! All I remember even today is that I had tried to look hard at Atma Charan, asking myself if he was the same Atma Charan who had one day said to me: ‘Believe me, I shall do full justice to the case which you have so ably put up!’ I angrily told myself, ‘Yes, this is Atma Charan’s answer to the last paragraph of the summing up of the case!’”

In Inamdar’s eyes Savarkar’s acquittal was wrong. In the evening of May 31, 2019, shortly after the results of his stunning victory in the Lok Sabha election were out, Prime Minister Narendra Modi exulted that in the preceding last five years none had uttered the word secularism (see this writer’s article, “India’s fascist challenge”, Frontline, July 19, 2019).

The last fortnight should teach him and his cohorts a lesson which not politicians but the youth of the entire country have taught him and the entire nation—that secularism is very much alive and that Gandhi did not die in vain. Nor did Nehru. His articulation of secularism has entered the nation’s psyche deeply; as indeed, has the Congress’ traditional outlook since its very birth. The RSS and the BJP are no part of either.

The RSS and the BJP claimed Gandhi belatedly. Advani put up Savarkar’s portrait in front of that of Gandhi whom he had conspired to kill. Hindutva is now on it deathbed. As for Savarkar, the RSS-BJP combo and Savarkar deserve each other. The entire nationwide movement is led by youth, not by politicians. They are the standard bearers of secularism.

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