History revisited

History revisited: Was Veer Savarkar really all that brave?

Savarkar was chargesheeted in the assassination of Gandhi but exonerated, largely because no corroborative evidence of his involvement was furnished.

On May 28, India will commemorate the 133rd birth anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was born on this day in 1883. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders will recall his valour, because of which he has been given the honorific, Veer.

But, really how veer, or brave, was Veer Savarkar?

Savarkar died in 1966. During his 83 years, he was involved in the political murder of three British officials. From the nationalist perspective, these murders have been cited as examples of Savarkar’s revolutionary zeal to violently uproot British rule, unmindful of the consequences.

Savarkar was also chargesheeted in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi but was subsequently exonerated, largely because no corroborative evidence of his involvement was furnished. It has helped perpetuate the myth of Savarkar the brave.

But this myth has been shattered because of the new evidence gathered over the years. He manipulated his followers to assassinate British officials, yet took care to conceal his links to the crimes he conceived. He did not hesitate to betray his acolytes, as he did Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi.

His famed fortitude was rarely on display during his years of imprisonment in the Andamans. He tendered craven apologies to the British, willing to bargain for his own freedom, not the country’s.

Political Murder No. 1

On July 1, 1909, Madanlal Dhingra shot dead Sir William Curzon Wyllie, political aide-de-camp at the India Office, London. Earlier, Dhingra had planned to assassinate former Viceroy Lord Curzon and former governor of Bengal, Bramfield Fuller, at a function they were to attend. But Dhingra was woefully late for the meeting, by which time Curzon and Fuller had left the venue.

Dhingra was arrested, tried and hanged for killing Wyllie. The British suspected Savarkar’s involvement, but had no concrete evidence against him. The evidence surfaced months after Savarkar died in 1966, courtesy Savarkar’s biographer.

Following Savarkar’s death, Dhananjay Keer reissued his 1950 publication, Savarkar and His Times, as Veer Savarkar. Keer wrote that the new edition contained a “plethora of new material”, which was made available to him by Savarkar himself.

In the 1966 edition, Keer said that Savarkar gave Dhingra a nickel-plated revolver on the morning of Wyllie’s assassination and told him, “Don’t show me your face if you fail this time.” Keer also confided in Robert Payne, author of Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, that Savarkar had trained Dhingra for months, and often mocked him for having missed the opportunity to assassinate Lord Curzon and Fuller.

These new details in Keer’s 1966 edition prompted the lawyer and historian AG Noorani to note wryly in his seminal work, Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection:

“One wonders whether Savarkar also stipulated that they [the new contentions] should be published only after his death. The interval of sixteen years between the two editions is inexplicable on any other assumption.”

Political Murder No. 2

Before leaving for England to study law, Savarkar had been a member of a secret society, Mitra Mela, which was subsequently renamed Abhinav Bharat. Its goal was to overthrow the British through violent methods.

Savarkar’s older brother, Ganesh, alias Babarao, was an Abhinav Bharat member too. The police nabbed Ganesh Savarkar and stumbled upon a stockpile of bombs. Ganesh Savarkar was sentenced to transportation for life on June 8, 1909.

His comrades decided to retaliate. On December 29, 1909, Anant Kanhere shot dead AMT Jackson, district magistrate of Nasik, as he was watching a Marathi play, Sharada, in a theatre. Jackson had committed Ganesh Savarkar to trial, but was not the judge who had banished him to the Andamans.

From Kanhere’s accomplices, whom the police arrested, were discovered Savarkar’s letters. The Browning pistol used in the assassination was linked to Savarkar, who was accused of sending 20 such weapons to India from England. A telegraphic warrant of arrest was sent to London, and Savarkar surrendered to the police on March 13, 1910. He was brought to India.

For his role in the assassination of Jackson and for waging war against the King, Savarkar was sentenced to transportation – for two terms of 50 years each – to the Andamans. He arrived in Port Blair on July 4, 1911.

Savarkar’s apologies

The condition in the Cellular Jail in Andaman Islands was undoubtedly horrific. For instance, Savarkar was yoked to the oil mill. Quite understandably, his revolutionary fervour fizzled out. It must, however, be pointed out that he wasn’t the only person singled out for barbaric punishment.

In 1911 itself, Savarkar petitioned the authorities for clemency. The text of the 1911 petition hasn’t been found. But Savarkar referred to it in his petition to the British on November 14, 1913, seeking mercy and requesting a transfer to a jail in India. He wrote:

“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?” 

In return, Savarkar offered to serve the “government in any capacity” as it thought fit. He declared he no longer believed in violence, justifying his conversion to constitutionalism because of the reforms the British government had introduced.

Savarkar said his 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 [emphasis added]”. In one stroke, the Indian revolutionary movement was disowned.

The British government was not convinced, but his cringing petition did help alleviate his plight. He was made a foreman. Noorani points out, “Few revolutionaries would have accepted this ‘honour’ from their captives who were also rulers of their captive land.”

Savarkar’s trait of encouraging others to take the precipitous course without joining them was evident in the Andamans as well. Historian RC Majumdar quotes Trailokya Nath Chakravarti, an inmate of the Cellular Jail, saying that Savarkar encouraged him and others to go on hunger strike but neither he nor his brother joined it. Even inmates older than Savarkar participated in the strike.

Savarkar justified his decision saying he would have been put back in solitary confinement and denied the right to send an annual letter to India. Savarkar does seem a leader who endorsed revolutionary action as long as he wasn’t required to pay the price.

Return to the mainland

In May 1921, Savarkar was transferred from the Andamans to the Indian mainland. Three years later, the government put forth conditions to Savarkar for his release from the Yerwada Jail in Pune.

These conditions were: Savarkar was to reside in Ratnagiri district; he could not go beyond the district’s limits without the government’s approval; he was not to engage in political activities publicly or privately; these restrictions were for five years, subject to renewal at the expiry of this period.

Savarkar accepted these terms, shattering the myth spun around his much-serenaded bravery. But there was also a humiliating coda to these conditions, not known until Frontline magazine published, in 1995, an additional undertaking Savarkar agreed to give the government.

Savarkar declared he had a fair trial and just punishment. He also wrote: “I heartily abhor methods of violence resorted to in days gone by, and I feel myself duty bound to uphold Law and the constitution…”

For sure, Savarkar was no Nelson Mandela.

In 1925, there was a Hindu-Muslim riot over Rangeela Rasool, a scurrilous booklet on Prophet Mohammad. The communal conflagration soon spread to parts of Punjab. Savarkar wrote an inflammatory article in the English newspaper, Mahratta, in March 1925.

The government communicated to Savarkar that any such writing in the future could lead to a reconsideration of his release. The warning had Savarkar foreswear that he would have no truck with the idea of Swaraj.

Political Murder No. 3

During the period of conditional freedom, Savarkar is said to have inspired yet another assassination attempt. On July 22, 1931, VB Gogate fired two shots at acting Governor of Bombay Sir Ernest Hotson during his visit to Ferguson College, Pune. But Hotson survived miraculously.

Nobody suspected Savarkar’s role. However, Keer in the 1966 edition of Veer Savarkar disclosed that Gogate had been a staunch Savarkarite and had met him days before the assassination. Was Keer suggesting that Savarkar had inspired the failed assassination attempt on Hotson?

Savarkar’s role in Gandhi’s assassination

When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948, Savarkar was taken into police custody on February 5. Seventeen days later, he wrote a letter to Bombay’s Commissioner of Police:

“I shall refrain from taking part in any communal or political activity for any period the government may require in case I am released on that condition.”

It was this gratuitous offer, which had the government suspect him of having a central role in the assassination of Gandhi. But his role could not be proved in court. It subsequently came to light because of the depositions his aides made, years later, after Savarkar’s death.

There were two attempts made on Gandhi in January 1948. The first was made on January 20 – it was a botched up affair for which a Punjabi refugee, Madanlal Pahwa, was arrested. The second attempt was successful – Nathuram Godse shot Gandhi dead on January 30, 1948.

There were eight accused in the Gandhi assassination case – Nathuram Godse and Gopal Godse, his brother, Narayan D Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Madanlal Pahwa, Shankar Kistayya, VD Savarkar, and Dattaraya Parchure. The ninth member of the group – Digambar R Badge – turned approver. It was his testimony to the court that linked Savarkar to Gandhi’s assassination.

Badge gave a detailed account of the two visits he, Godse and Apte made to Bombay’s Savarkar Sadan, on the second floor of which their mentor resided. The first visit was made on January 14, which was the day on which Badge had handed over to Godse and Apte two gun-cotton slabs, five hand-grenades and detonators.

Badge, however, did not enter the Sadan. Apte later confided in Badge that he and Godse had met Savarkar, who told them that Gandhi and Nehru should be “finished” and had “entrusted that work to them.”

On the second meeting of January 17, Badge entered the Sadan. Godse and Apte went to the second floor. After 10 minutes or so, they came down the flight of stairs, followed by Savarkar. Badge testified that he heard Savarkar tell Godse and Apte, in Marathi, “Be successful and return.” However, Badge did not see Savarkar.

The trial court judge, Justice Atma Charan thought Badge was a “truthful witness”, but exonerated Savarkar only because there was no corroborative evidence in support of the approver’s deposition.

This was also because Godse and others did their best to ensure their mentor wasn’t implicated in the assassination case. For instance, Godse made out that his relationship with Savarkar wasn’t beyond what a leader has with followers.

Godse said that he and others decided in 1947 to “bid goodbye to Veer Savarkar’s lead and cease to consult him in our future policy and programme… I re-assert that it is not true that Veer Savarkar had any knowledge of my activities which ultimately led me to fire shots at Gandhiji.”

The prosecution had harped on Godse and Apte’s devotion to Savarkar. Savarkar, as was his habit, disowned them:

“Many criminals cherish high respect to the Gurus and guides of their religious sects… But could ever the complicity of the Guru or guide in the crimes of those of his followers be inferred and held proved only on the ground of the professions of loyalty and respect to their Gurus of those criminals?”

Savarkar’s deposition deeply hurt Godse, a fact testified to by lawyer PL Inamdar, who had defended Gopal Godse. In his account of the trial, Inamdar wrote:

“How Nathuram yearned for a touch of Tatyarao’s [Savarkar’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…”

The new evidence

On the release of Gopal Godse from prison in October 1964, a felicitation ceremony was organised for him on November 11, 1964. On that occasion former editor GV Ketkar claimed that Nathuram would often discuss with him the advantages of killing Gandhi.

It created a furore in Parliament, prompting the setting up of a commission of inquiry under Justice JL Kapur in March 1965. The commission was to ascertain whether there had existed prior information to assassinate Gandhi and whether or not it was communicated to the government.

Months later, in February 1966, Savarkar voluntarily courted death, by stopping all consumption of food and water. He said it was better for a person to die willingly at the end of his life mission. But did Savarkar take this decision because he wanted to evade the prospect of the commission inflicting ignominy on him late in life?

That question cannot be answered. But it did perhaps free Savarkar’s bodyguard, Appa Ramachandra Kasar, and his secretary, Vishnu Damle, to depose before the commission. They testified to the close relationship Savarkar had with Godse and Apte, even travelling together for Hindu Mahasabha meetings. They also said, quite damningly, that Vishnu Karkare had brought a Punjabi refugee boy (Pahwa) in the first week of January to Savarkar for an interview that lasted 30-45 minutes.

In 1967, Gopal Godse published Gandhi Hatya, Ani Mee (Gandhi’s murder and I), in which he said Nathuram Godse came to know Savarkar way back in 1929 in Ratnagiri and had daily personal contact with Savarkar.

The new depositions prompted Justice Kapur to summarise: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

Is it possible that despite their deep relationship with Savarkar, Godse and Apte might not have confided in their mentor their plan to kill Gandhi? Perhaps the answer to it lies in History & the Making of a Modern Hindu Self, published in 2011.

Its author, Aparna Devare, cites personal communication she had with her great-uncle, Dr Achyut Phadke, whom Narayan Apte had taught physics in high school. Phadke told Devare that Apte would openly talk of his and Godse’s plan to assassinate Gandhi. It does seem incredible that Apte wouldn’t confide in Savarkar about what he openly spoke to schoolchildren.

BJP’s love for Savarkar

Savarkar is the progenitor of the political philosophy of Hindutva, which the Sangh Parivar adheres to. It is this that has made them perpetuate the myth of Savarkar’s bravery, and ignore his betrayal of his diehard followers and his entreaties to the British government.

But what really symbolises a breakdown in consensus over the ethical norms in the country is that we dedicate public buildings to the Father of the Nation as we do to Savarkar, who mentored the killers of Gandhi if not directly guided them.

Worryingly, the cult of Savarkar persists. Lt Col Shrikant Purohit formed Abhinav Bharat, which has been accused of bombing Malegaon, the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad and the Samjhauta Express. The underground outfit to which Savarkar belonged was also called Abhinav Bharat. It does suggest a more than 100 years of continuity of a violent ideology.

This is the first article in a two-part series on VD Savarkar. You can read the second part here.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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