There are few characters of the past that intrude into contemporary political discourse in the manner that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar does. In the run-up to the Maharashtra elections, Savarkar was catapulted to national consciousness yet again with a clamour for posthumous conferment of the Bharat Ratna on him. In all due credit to the party, the Shiv Sena has all along been an ardent proponent of this demand. In fact, at this writer’s book launch event, Sena president Uddhav Thackeray vociferously reiterated the same call. Not to be left too far behind, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too jumped on the bandwagon and none less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself invoked Savarkar repeatedly in election rallies across Maharashtra.
For the longest time, civilian awards such as the Bharat Ratna have been the preserve of a few –those belonging to a particular ideology, political orientation, or worse a certain family. Nothing else can explain the shameful delay in even stalwarts of the nation such as Sardar Patel or Dr BR Ambedkar receiving the Bharat Ratna so many decades after their demise. To that extent, an award to Savarkar would send out a strong message of a dismantling of status quo, and of an alternative voice of our freedom struggle being heard and acknowledged. For far too long there has been a mono-narrative of the freedom movement that has been indoctrinated into the minds of people, and the time for the stories of those suppressed to be heard seems to have finally come.
Savarkar was a firebrand revolutionary all through his youth. He organised the country’s first secret society, inspired by Italian revolutionaries Mazzini and Garibaldi. This was named the Mitra Mela, that later became the Abhinav Bharat. Regular coordination among revolutionaries in Maharashtra, Bengal and Punjab were facilitated and drawing from the model of the 1857 uprising, a simultaneous revolt in the British army was seen as the means to achieve total freedom. Savarkar organised the first bonfire of foreign clothes while he was a student at the Fergusson College in Poona in 1905 and gave a clarion call for total and complete independence. As a student of law in London, he became a linchpin for the revolutionary movement for India’s freedom that spanned across Europe. The India House where he lived became a hotbed for ‘sedition’ with bombs being manufactured, arms and pistols being smuggled back to India and political assassinations being planned. Alongside, Savarkar produced a vast corpus of intellectual content for the Indian revolution by writing a biography of Giuseppe Mazzini and also his magnum opus, The Indian War of Independence 1857. This was the first time the events of 1857 had been analysed from an Indian perspective and not derided as a mere “sepoy mutiny” as the British did. The book served as an inspiration for several decades for men like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rash Behari Bose and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
The British were petrified by this man’s activities. They got him classified as a “D” or dangerous criminal, slapped an unfair Fugitive Offenders Act, extradited him to India and served him two life sentences amounting to 50 long years. His degrees were all snatched away from him. His family was left in the lurch as all their properties were confiscated. His elder brother Ganesh Damodar or Babarao and he were packed off to the hellhole of the Cellular Jail in the Kala Pani of the Andamans.
What then besmirches the image of such a patriot, one might wonder. The oft-repeated allegation of him capitulating to the inhuman tortures at Cellular Jail and pleading for release are quoted to discredit Savarkar. But in reality, a petition seeking amnesty was normal agency available to several political prisoners not only in India but across several British colonies. Along with Savarkar, other revolutionaries holed up there such as Barin Ghose, Nand Gopal, Hrishikesh Kanjilal, Sudhir Kumar Sarkar and later Sachindra Nath Sanyal and others submitted petitions. As a spokesperson for several other prisoners, Savarkar sought a general amnesty and release for all of them, in addition to himself. Interestingly, Mahatma Gandhi submitted a petition on behalf of the Savarkar brothers seeking their release in 1920. Moreover, in the petitions, Savarkar argued like a true lawyer and sought to know the rights of a political prisoner in the Andaman jail. British Home Department official Sir Reginald Craddock who came to interview him mentioned that, “he cannot be said to express any regret or repentance”.
After being conditionally released in 1924, Savarkar was kept under confinement in Ratnagiri for 13 years. This is where he implemented the Hindutva ideology that he had conceived in jail. He strove hard for the empowerment of Dalits and championed inter-caste dining, inter-caste marriage, temple entry for all and a total dismemberment of the caste system, being an opponent of the varnashram system. His activities there won him the praise and camaraderie of Dr BR Ambedkar.
After taking to active politics in 1937, Savarkar decided not to join the Congress as he felt it had gone too far in its policy of Muslim appeasement. He became the voice of the Hindu community as the president of the All India Hindu Mahasabha. But his concept of a Hindu Rashtra was not one where religious minorities were to be persecuted or treated any less. No one was to get any special privileges—majority or minority, and everyone was to be equal in the eyes of the law. “We want to relieve our non-Hindu countrymen,” said Savarkar, “of even a ghost of suspicion that legitimate rights of minorities with regard to their culture, religion and language will be expressly guaranteed.” The bogey of him being a mirror image of Jinnah is completely false as Savarkar was totally opposed to the idea and creation of Pakistan.
The long shadow of being complicit in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi is yet another problematic legacy for Savarkar. But the courts in their supreme wisdom perused all the evidence at hand in the Red Fort Trials of 1948 and Savarkar was honourably exonerated. Nathuram Godse’s own dying declaration explicitly mentions that he was disillusioned with Savarkar and the latter had no idea about the murder. The Kapur Commission set up in the 1960s exceeded its terms of reference and without even questioning important witnesses, including Savarkar’s bodyguard and personal assistant, went on to make, in what appears as a political move, sweeping statements on his complicity. By then Savarkar had died and the Congress governments did not see any need to take action on the report.
This troubled legacy of this Hindutva icon is what continues to raise so many hackles to this day. But, given the rational thinker, the pragmatist, the fierce nationalist and revolutionary patriot that he was, the amount of calumny heaped on him is indeed unfortunate. A Bharat Ratna might just be a very small way of correcting this major historical wrong.
(Dr Vikram Sampath is a historian and author of Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. Views expressed are personal.)