The Sangh Parivar has, after long years of public silence on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar — the originator of the concept of “Hindutva”, a “freedom fighter” who repeatedly gave undertakings and apologies to the British Raj to get out of harsh incarceration, and a conspirator in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination— brought him out of the closet as one of its heroes, as the original “Hindu nationalist”. On February 26, 2003, at the instance of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and in the face of Opposition protest, Savarkar’s portrait was unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament by the President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Ten months earlier, on May 4, 2002, Union Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, was in the Andaman Islands to rename the Port Blair airport as the Veer Savarkar Airport. Frontline columnist A.G. Noorani is the author of the illuminating, meticulously documented, definitive book, Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection, published in 2002 by LeftWord Books, Delhi. Frontline’s Editor N. Ram invited the author to contribute an article on Savarkar and Gandhi in the context of the former’s portrait being unveiled in Parliament.
WOULD one shake hands with a person who was acquitted of the charge of conspiracy to murder one’s friend solely because the approver’s evidence, though trustworthy otherwise, lacked independent corroboration as the law required? Gandhi was no ordinary mortal. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who had a track record of complicity in at least two murders, was acquitted of the charge of conspiracy to Gandhi’s murder only because the approver, Digambar Badge’s evidence lacked independent corroboration; a common flaw in conspiracy cases. But Judge Atma Charan accepted Badge as a truthful witness. “He gave his version of the facts in a direct and straight-forward manner. He did not evade cross-examination or attempt to evade or fence with any question.”
Badge’s version was that on January 17, he went with the assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, and their accomplice, Narayan Apte, to Savarkar’s home and that he heard Savarkar, while bidding them farewell, say, “ Yashasvi houn ya ” (Be successful and come back). On the way back, Apte told Badge that Savarkar had predicted that “Gandhiji’s 100 years were over—there was no doubt that would be successfully finished.”
The verdict of acquittal was sound in law. However, Union Home Minister Sardar Patel had “kept myself almost in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu’s assassination case. I devote a large part of my evening to discussing with Sanjevi (the top police officer) the day’s progress and giving instructions to him on any points that arise”. His conclusion was characteristically clear: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through” (emphasis added, throughout).
When persons charged with the murder of its president Deen Dayal Upadhyaya were acquitted, the Jan Sangh demanded that a Commission of Inquiry be appointed to unravel “the whole truth”. (The Chandrachud Commission rejected the Sangh’s charges against political opponents of complicity in that murder.)
By the same token, the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi, which was set up in 1965, deserves greater weight than the verdict of the Sessions Court. It was headed by Justice Jivanlal Kapur of the Supreme Court and was provided with evidence not produced in the court ; especially the testimony of two of Savarkar’ close aides— Appa Ramachandra Kasar, his bodyguard, and Gajanan Vishnu Damle, his secretary .
Had they testified in court, Savarkar would have been convicted. There was none of the ambiguity surrounding Godse and Apte’s visits to Savarkar on January 14 and 17, 1948. Kasar told the Kapur Commission that they visited him on or about January 23 or 24, which was when they returned from Delhi after the bomb incident. Damle deposed that Godse and Apte saw Savarkar “in the middle of January and sat with him (Savarkar) in his garden”. Justice Kapur’ findings are all too clear. He concluded: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”
In his crime report No.1, the main police investigating officer, Jimmy Nagarvala, had stated that “Savarkar was at the back of the conspiracy and that he was feigning illness.” Nagarvala’s letter of January 31, 1948, the day after the assassination, mentioned, on the strength of what Kasar and Damle disclosed to him, that Savarkar, Godse and Apte met for 40 minutes “on the eve of their departure to Delhi” and that these two had access to the house of Savarkar without any restriction. In short, Godse and Apte met Savarkar again , in the absence of Badge, and in addition to their meetings on January 14 and 17.
No government with any sense of decency would unveil such a person’s portrait in the hallowed premises of Parliament—there, to face the portrait of the very man he had, as Patel and Kapur found, conspired to murder. Another person familiar with police investigations was the Home Minister of the Bombay Province, Morarji Desai. He had assigned his best police officers to the investigation. Desai’s carefully worded judgment on Savarkar in the Bombay Legislative Council on April 3, 1948, when R.N. Mandlik referred to “the past services of the Savarkar brothers,” is relevant. Morarji Desai’s retort was devastatingly brief: “May I say, Sir, that the past services are more than offset by the present disservice?”
The verdict of acquittal of Savarkar pronounced by Judge Atma Charan was sound in law, given the evidence before him. The evidence that surfaced thereafter impels a different verdict at the bar of history, which is, surely, more weighty morally. This is especially so in the light of Savarkar’s own conduct in two significant respects.
First, arrested on suspicion of complicity in Gandhi’s murder, he wrote this in a demeaning letter to the Commissioner of Police, Bombay, on February 22, 1948: “Consequently, in order to disarm all suspicion and to back up the above heart to heart 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.” It was contemptuously rejected.
Secondly, Savarkar lied in court about his proximity to the assassin Godse and accomplice Apte. “Pandit Godse and Narayan Apte got themselves introduced to me as Hindu Mahasabha workers at Nagar and Poona and later on came to be personally acquainted with me.” After Savarkar’s death, Godse’s brother, Gopal, revealed the closeness of the relationship in his Marathi book Gandhi Hatya, Ani Me (“Gandhi’s Murder and I”), published in 1967. An English translation was published later. Gopal Godse’s revelations about their relationship totally belie Savarkar’s version. It was much more than an “acquaintance”. Once Savarkar was set free in 1937, “Nathuram started going about with Veer Savarkar everywhere. ”
Savarkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer wrote: “In his early youth Godse was a worker of the RSS and later, he was a prominent member of the All India Committee of the Hindu Mahasabha. He was a well-known journalist in Maharashtra and the editor of a Marathi daily, the Agrani —the Leader—changed to a new name, the Hindu Rashtra at a later stage. Better known as Pandit Nathuram Godse, this editor was a staunch Savarkarite, and was fairly known as the vanguard and lieutenant of Savarkar.” Would Savarkar have lied thus if he were innocent of the charge?
The letter to the Commissioner of Police is only the fourth in a series of abject apologies and undertakings. An earlier one in 1925 was first exposed in Frontline (“Far from Heroism” by Krishnan Dubey and Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, April 7, 1995). To secure release from jail, Savarkar undertook “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.”
The government resolution, which recorded the undertaking, continued: “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 insofar as I may be allowed to do in future’ .” This was a reference to the Montford Reforms of 1918, which fell short of Indian expectations.
It is disingenuous of apologists to argue that ill-treatment in the Andamans led to a collapse of his health and broke his spirit; hence the apologies. This is untrue.
Savarkar was brought to the Andamans on July 4, 1911. Before the year ended, he sent his first petition for clemency. He was in perfectly good health. It is referred to in the second petition of November 24, 1913, in which he wrote: “In the end 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 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. 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? Hoping your honour will kindly take into notion these points.” Mark the words “loyalty to the English government”.
Which other freedom fighter has so sustained a record of abject apologies and undertakings? They were given in 1911, 1913, 1925, 1948 and 1950. The last was given in the Bombay High Court on July 13, 1950 to secure release from preventive detention. Advocate-General L.K. Daphtary, who had prosecuted him in the Gandhi murder case, told 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, government would agree to his release”. Savarkar’s lawyer gave the undertaking on his behalf.
It took the Sangh Parivar long to own up Savarkar. The Jan Sangh never spoke of him or of Hindutva from 1951 to 1977. The BJP, formed in 1980, took up Hindutva only in 1990 and Savarkar in 2000, through Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His Deputy, L.K. Advani, spoke of Savarkar in the Andamans on May 4, 2002. He admitted his intellectual debt to Savarkar and his essay Hindutva . Advani said: “Today, Hindutva is considered an offensive word. But we must remember that the pioneers of Hindutva like Veer Savarkar and RSS founder Hedgewar kindled fierce, nationalistic spirit that contributed to India’s liberation.”
This is a brazen falsehood. Savarkar met the arch imperialist Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, in Bombay on October 9, 1939—the month 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.”
It was a clear offer of collaboration with the British to suppress the Congress’ movement. Savarkar’s colleague in the Hindu Mahasabha and founder of the Jan Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, was Finance Minister in the Bengal Ministry headed by Fazlul Haq. Mahasabhites were members of the Muslim League Ministry in Sind. On July 26, 1949, Mookerjee wrote to Governor John Herbert renewing this offer in these explicit terms:
“I have been thinking over the questions which we discussed at some length at the last Cabinet Meeting, specially arising out of the threatened Congress movement. It is of utmost importance that there should be complete understanding between you, as Governor, and your colleagues during the present critical period....
“Let me now refer to the situation that may be created in the province as a result of any widespread movement launched by the Congress. Anybody who, during the war, plans to stir up mass feelings, resulting in internal disturbances or insecurity, must be resisted by any government that may function for the time being.”
Such, if Advani is to be believed, is the “fierce nationalistic spirit that contributed to India’s liberation”. Why, then, are Advani & Co. so eager to honour Savarkar? It is because the Sangh Parivar was never part of the freedom movement led by Gandhi. It needs a “national” hero, one who reflects its communal credo in opposition to the nationalist credo. Savarkar is the obvious choice.
He pronounced the two-nation theory, first, in 1923 in his essay Hindutva and next in 1937 in his presidential address to the Mahasabha. In 1923 he wrote: “We Hindus are bound together not only by the love we bear to a common fatherland and by the blood that courses through our veins... but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilisation — our Hindu culture... we are one because we are a nation, a race and own a common Sanskriti (civilisation).”
As soon as Savarkar was free from the humiliating undertaking he had given to the British in 1925 not to engage in “political activities”, he presided over the Ahmedabad session of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937 when he said: “I warn the Hindus that the Mohammedans are likely to prove dangerous to our Hindu Nation.... India cannot be assumed today to be a Unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems in India.” A year later, in 1938, at the Nagpur Session, he went one better. He rejected the concept of Indian nationalism on which the entire freedom movement led by the Congress was based:
“The original political sin, which our Hindu Congressites... committed at the beginning of the Indian National Congress movement and are persistently committing still of running after the mirage of a territorial Indian Nation and of seeking to kill as an impediment in that fruitless pursuit the life growth of an organic Hindu Nation.... We Hindus are a Nation by ourselves because religious, racial, cultural and historical affinities bind us intimately into a homogenous nation.” This is the concept of “cultural nationalism” as opposed to “territorial nationalism”, which the RSS boss M.S. Golwalkar derided in his Bunch of Thoughts (Chapter X). Everyone born in India does not belong to “the nation”. He must also accept the credo of Hindutva, “cultural nationalism”. As Savarkar put it: “The Hindus are the nation in India—in Hindusthan, and the Moslem minority a community.”
Now read these lines: “Our nationalist vision is not merely bound by the geographical or political identity of India, but defined by our ancient cultural heritage. From this belief flows our faith in ‘cultural nationalism’, which is the core of Hindutva. That, we believe, is the identity of our ancient nation—Bharatvarsha. Hindutva is a unifying principle which alone can preserve the unity and integrity of our nation.”
They occur in the BJP’s election manifesto of 1996 under the section, significantly, on Ayodhya. The formulations are repeated in the 1998 manifesto under the heading “Our national identity, cultural nationalism”. Advocacy of Hindutva ends with the explanation: “It is with such integrative ideas in mind, the BJP joined the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.”
Advani’s falsification of history conveyed a strong political message. The installation of Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament buttresses it. The BJP regime is out to promote its agenda. It will fight the elections on the Hindutva plank. The unveiling of Savarkar’s portrait shows that it is prepared to stoop very low in order to accomplish its sordid ends. It will replace the national ideology of secularism with Hindutva and the national hero Gandhi as the Father of the Nation with Savarkar who, Justice Kapur found, had conspired to kill him.