India’s Supreme Court saw a rather curious petition filed last week. Pankaj Phadnis, the founder of Abhinav Bharat, a far-right Hindutva organisation whose members have been accused in terror bombings in the country, asked the court to reopen the investigation into the 1948 assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Rather than dismiss the petition – which depends on conspiracy theories to make its case and refers to a matter that has already seen deep investigation – the court appointed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, to examine the documents related to the assassination.

Phadnis’ petition laid out his reason for resurrecting this seven-decade-old case: he argued that the blame on Vinayak Savarkar “for being the cause of the death has no basis in law and facts”. This is not a coincidence. Attempts to mainstream Savarkar, the founder of the ideology of Hindutva, have gathered force in the past two decades as the Bharatiya Janata Party has risen to political prominence. BJP veteran LK Advani acknowledges Savarkar as a mentor as does his protégé-turned-adversary Narendra Modi.

BJP President Amit Shah's residence proudly displays a photo of Vinayak Savarkar. (Credit: Reuben Singh/HT ).
BJP President Amit Shah's residence proudly displays a photo of Vinayak Savarkar. (Credit: Reuben Singh/HT ).

However, attempting to establish that Savarkar had no role to play in the events of Gandhi’s assassination might be tough. While the trial into the murder let off Savarkar on a legal technicality, it still uncovered damning evidence against him – a process that was taken to its logical conclusion in 1969 with the Justice Kapur Commission, which conclusively found that Savarkar was indeed involved in the assassination plot.

Conspiracy theories

That the petition was admitted by the Supreme Court perhaps shows how far India has come in mainstreaming Savarkar. Earlier, the same plea had been rejected by the Bombay High Court. Through his petition, Phadnis has not only attempted to open a case closed decades ago, he uses tinfoil theories to make his case.

In an interview to the Times of India, Phadnis claims that it was actually “Force 136” a “British subversive unit in World War II” that not only killed Gandhi but also took care to “engineer the horrific Partition riots”.

Phadnis also floated another contentious claim. “Actually, the biggest cover-up is that Gandhi was a British subject in law when he was murdered – not the Father of a Free Sovereign State as we have been led to believe,” stated Phadnis.

As the Supreme Court starts its investigations into Phadnis’ plea, it is perhaps time to recount the mountains of evidence brought up over the past decades detailing Savarkar’s role in Gandhi’s assassination.

Killing Gandhi

There were a total of six attempts on Gandhi’s life. The final two, in January 1948, involved a small group of far-right Hindu nationalists. Three members of this group belonged to the Hindu Mahasabha: Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte and Digambar Badge. Two others – Madanlal Pahwa and Vishnu Karkare – were refugees displaced during the Partition of the Punjab.

The first attempt by Godse and his accomplices was on January 20, 1948, in New Delhi. Pahwa set off a bomb during Gandhi’s prayer meeting, but the attempt failed and the police caught Pahwa even as the other conspirators ran away.

Questioning revealed that Pahwa was no lone wolf – that the attempt was part of an organised conspiracy. It also revealed that there was a connection with Savarkar – Pahwa boasted that he had met the Hindu Mahasabha leader just a few days back. The Bombay Police asked Morarji Desai – then the home minister of Bombay – if he could arrest Savarkar. “Are you mad?” said Desai, refusing. “Do you think I want this whole province to go up in smoke?”

Despite capturing Pahwa and learning about plans to assassinate Gandhi, the police in Delhi displayed incredible ineptitude. Ten days after the first assassination attempt, Godse fired three shots into Gandhi at point-blank range killing him immediately. Almost immediately, in Bombay, Savarkar was placed under house arrest.

Savarkar in the dock

As the trial for Gandhi’s murder commenced, Badge turned approver. Savarkar claimed that he had been unwell for nearly a year before the assassination and had not met Godse or Apte during that time. But Badge contradicted this statement. Badge claimed that Savarkar met both Godse and Apte on January 14 as well as on January 17 that year.

On January 14, Godse and Apte met Savarkar with the weapons that were to be used in the assassination, claimed Badge. The next day, Apte told Badge that Gandhi had to be killed and that Savarkar had assigned him to the task. On January 17, Savarkar met Apte and Godse again. According to Badge, Savarkar told Apte and Godse in Marathi, “Yashasvi houn ya”. Be successful and come back. On leaving, Apte told Badge: “Gandhiji’s hundred years were over – there was no doubt that their work would be successfully finished.”

This was damning for Savarkar – made all the more grim by the fact that Badge was seen by the court to be a sterling witness. The judge wrote:

“There was thus an ample opportunity to observe his demeanour and the manner of his giving evidence. He gave his version of the facts in a direct and straightforward manner. He did not evade cross-examination or attempt to evade or fence with any question. It would not have been possible for anyone to have given evidence so unfalteringly stretching over such a long period and with such particularity in regard to the facts which had never taken place. It is difficult to conceive of anyone memorising so long and so detailed a story if altogether without foundation….”

Legal technicalities

However, there was a legal hitch. While Badge’s testimony was flawless, it did not have any corroboration. The judge stuck to the law and concluded: “It would thus be unsafe to base any conclusions on the approver’s [Badge] story given above as against Vinayak D. Savarkar”.

While Savarkar was let off on this technicality, quite a few insiders at the time were convinced of his guilt. Principal amongst them was Central Home Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel. On February 27, 1948, Patel wrote: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through”.

Jamshed Nagarvala, Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of the Bombay Criminal Investigation Department, stated, “Savarkar was at the back of the conspiracy and that he was feigning illness.”

Narendra Modi pays tribute to Vinayak Savarkar on his death anniversary in 2015.
Narendra Modi pays tribute to Vinayak Savarkar on his death anniversary in 2015.

The vital corroboration

While the lack of evidence had let off Savarkar, the passage of time would prove both Sardar Patel and Nagarvala right. In 1969, a judicial commission was set up under Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur to look at fresh evidence connected to Gandhi’s assassination. This unearthed the crucial corroboration to Badge’s testimony linking Savarkar to the conspiracy.

Appa Ramchandra Kasar, Savarkar’s bodyguard, confirmed that Savarkar’s claim that he had not met Godse and Apte before Gandhi’s assassination was false. The Kapur Commission report on Kasar’s testimony read:

“On or about 13th or 14th January [1948], Karkare came to Savarkar with a Punjabi youth and they had an interview with Savarkar for about 15 or 20 minutes. On or about 15th or 16th Apte and Godse had an interview with Savarkar at 9-30 p.m. After about a week or so, may be 23rd or 24th January, Apte and Godse again came to Savarkar and had a talk with him at about 10 or 10-30 a.m. for about half an hour….”

Moreover, these visits were corroborated again by Gajanan Vishnu Damle, Savarkar’s secretary.

This was the crucial corroboration to Badge’s testimony the court was looking for in 1948.

“Had the bodyguard and the secretary but testified in court, Savarkar would have been convicted,” wrote historian AG Noorani.

The Kapur Commission was convinced of Savarkar’s guilt: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group”.

But all this was too late. Savarkar had died in 1966 ­ three years before the Kapur Commission was set up.

Note: An earlier version of this article had incorrectly identified Morarji Desai as the Chief Minister of Bombay state. He was the home minister. The error has been rectified.