V.D. Savarkar: A least understood and most criticized in the contemporary India

In this essay…

Indian national movement witnessed various different means to obtain a common objective i.e., freedom from the British Raj. Some of the leaders (E.g. Surendra Nath Banerjee) were moderates in their mean. Some of them adopted extreme ideology. For example, LAL-BAL-PAL (Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Bipin Chandra Pal) were known for extreme mean. While others were revolutionaries – For example, Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekar Azad. Apart from these, there were some leaders who have either retired from active politics (E.g. Aurobindo Ghosh) or formed a government in exile (E.g. Raja Mahendra Pratap), outside Indian territory.

Some of the leaders worked for a very short period – For example, Aurobindo’s political career lasted only four years, from 1906 to 1910. There were another set of leaders who had changed their means. For example – Mahatma Gandhi who earlier supported the British in the Boer war but later adopted Gramscian means to defeat the British. Savarkar belonged to a revolutionary class with the only difference being that later, he became vocal for majoritarian rights. Hegel’s unity of opposite suggests that the emergence of Hindu Mahasabha and Savarkar were inevitable vis-a-vis the Muslim league and Md. Ali Jinnah.

Process of building negative character

Vijay Sitapati in his book “Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi” sketched the context of the movement. In 1885, Indian National Congress (INC) was formed by A.O. Hume. It was seen through the prism of ‘safety valve hypothesis’ or ‘Lightening conductor hypothesis.’ The essence of this hypothesis claims that INC was formed in the interest of the British government to release the pressure of the mass movement through this platform. This created a confrontation between moderates and extremists that was witnessed in Surat Session 1907.

In the meanwhile, the British government has regenerated the communal equations. During the same period, Muslim League was established in 1906 with the false promises made by the British. The British government offered a separate electorate in the government of India act 1909 to appease the Muslim population. Till then, V.D. Savarkar was associated with secret societies. But the Muslim appeasement started by the British government in the first decade of the 20th century created political consciousness in Savarkar to get electoral benefits for the Hindu population. In the line of this, Savarkar gave conception of Hindu Rashtra and ‘Hindu Maha Sabha’ was founded in 1915.

Jugalbandi between Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim league resonated till the independence. In the 1946 election, apart from INC, the Muslims League, Hindu Mahasabha, and Scheduled Castes Federation (Dr. Ambedkar’s party) fought election. Dr. Ambedkar’s party and Hindu Mahasabha got ZERO seats in the election. Muslim league won 113 seats out of 119 in Bengal, 54 out of 64 Muslim seats in the United Provinces, and 34 of Bihar’s 40 Muslim seats. Partition and bloodshed again revived the relevance of Hindu Mahasabha but the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi put a full stop to the political journey of Hindu Mahasabha.

Justice Jivanlal Kapur was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the conspiracy to murder Mahatma Gandhi in 1966. Later, Nine people including VD Savarkar were accused of the assassination. Savarkar was acquitted. Evidence proves that he was not just innocent, but had even opposed the anarchist ways of Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte. In spite of his acquittal, he is still deemed as the culprit because for some of the intellects, if the decision doesn’t come as per their wishes then Judiciary becomes ‘not infallible’ and ‘corrupt.’

The myth of “mercy petition”

Extensive research on Savarkar has been done by Vikram Sampath. First, Vikram Sampath in his book, “Savarkar (Part 1): Echoes from the forgotten past” claims that there was nothing like a ‘normal’ petition and “mercy” petition those days. There was a petition where people claim to write a letter to come out of jail. That was the format of the letter. For example, pundit Nehru used to write a letter to Mr. Atlee with the prefix “Dear.” It should not be taken in the literal sense that Atlee was the dearest one to Pundit Nehru.

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Second, Sachin Sanyal and Ram Prasad Bismil, and Ashfaqullah Khan have also filed the same petition. Sachin Sanyal in his book “Bandi Jeevan” writes that on the advice of Savarkar, he had also filed the same petition. He was acquitted very soon but Savarkar and his brother Baba Rao didn’t get acquittal soon. Sanyal also gives a reason in his book that British Government had kept him in the “D” category (Means Dangerous category). They believed that if he was acquitted then, nationalism could increase in Bombay’s presidency.

Third, Savarkar’s in his book “Majhi Janmthep” – Mentions all petitions. How can one self-incriminate against oneself if it was an act of traitor? Fourth, In 1913, Reginald H. Craddock, secretary of home ministry under the British Government visited the Cellular Jail and interview some of the political prisoners – included Vinayak, Hrishikesh Kanjilal, Barin Ghose, Nand Gopal, and Sudhir Kumar Sarkar. In his official zotting, he wrote that Savarkar has no remorse on his work – “He asserted that several of Vinayak’s followers still swore by him and planned secret societies and revolutionary activities in India, Europe, and even America.”

Fifth, On 5 October 1917, VD Savarkar sent his petition to Montagu outlining his thoughts on the subject. He refers to his 1914 petition when Lord Hardinge had stated that it was ‘impossible to grant him any mercy. In this petition he stated – “if my name constitutes the chief obstacle in the granting of such an amnesty then let the Government omit my name in their amnesty and release all the rest; that would give me as great a satisfaction as my own release would do” (Mentioned in Vikram Sampath’s book)

Sixth, Vikram Sampath in his book on Savarkar writes “…In 1920 Gandhiji advised Savarkar brothers to file a petition and even made a case for his release through an essay in Young India 26 May 1920”.  In an article published in Young India, Mahatma Gandhi fiercely argued why ‘Royal Clemency’ should be given to Veer Savarkar and his ‘talent should be utilized for public welfare. It also shows that this was not an abnormal thing in that time and space. If it was, then, probably Mahatma Gandhi would not have recommended the same even in the late 1920s.

Comparative analysis of Savarkar: A test of nationalism

As I stated above that it was not abnormal. For a moment, let’s agree with the proposed notion that it was not normal. Then, we have to go for a comparative analysis of contemporary leaders. The purpose of comparative analysis is not to demean any of the leaders but to sketch the case to understand the history in a given time and space. One of the leaders should not be cherry-picked and evaluated in today’s context. The roles of all leaders should be assessed in the given time, space, and context.

First, Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of AMU, was loyal to the British and critique of Indian National Congress. Syed Ahmad Khan expressed his loyalty through his article “Loyal Muhammedans of India.” He got the prefix “Sir” from the British government. He wrote “Asbab-i-Badawi” (Meaning – Causes for the revolt of 1857) to clarify that Muslims were not responsible for the 1857 revolt. He even cited the examples where Muslims have helped the British. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was successful in getting help from the British for the establishment of “Mohammadans Anglo-Oriental College” which later became “Aligarh Muslim University.” He formed United Patriotic Organization that aimed to develop close ties between the Muslim community and the British Raj.

Second, The first Muslim organization in Bengal was the Mohammedan Association, or the Anjuman-I-Islam, in 1855. Thus, the essentials of Muslim politics had taken shape in Bengal even before the more well-known Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s movement was started in UP. It was also Loyal to the British government. Third, Mahatma Gandhi actively supported the British government in South African (Boer) War (1899-1902). He raised an ambulance corps of 1,100 volunteers, out of whom 300 were free Indians and the rest indentured laborers. For this, he got the Kaiser-e-hind medal.

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Fourth, For Jyotiba Phule, British rule provided an opportunity for the masses to get themselves liberated from the slavery of the Brahmins. Dr. Ambedkar has opposed the Gandhian movement including Quit India Movement 1942. Fifth, In 1939, the ‘Day of Deliverance’ Celebration on the resignation of all provincial Congress Ministries of British India. E. V. Ramasami Naicker and Dr. Ambedkar have also celebrated it. Sixth, Shekhar Bandyopadhyay in his book “Plassey to Partition” writes that Justice Party launched an active campaign against non-cooperation programs and rallied in support of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms.

Seventh, the Communist party did also not participate in the Quit India Movement in 1942 similar to Hindu Mahasabha. But the communist party doesn’t attract criticism in the same fashion. People from the left propose a very weak argument ‘against fascism’ instead of unveiling the truth. If they were true on this argument, then what is their stand on S.C. Bose who openly supported Axis power? Another counterargument can be proposed that how could support for Khilafat was in the favour of national movement and support for Axis power was not? (SC Bose wanted alignment with Axis power)

Eighth, What would one say for Mahatma Gandhi who gave the title of “Quaid-e-Azam” (Great Leader) to Mohammed Ali Jinnah? Does this pass the test of nationalism as proposed against Savarkar? Gandhi Ji insisted on Individual or Limited Satyagraha because he would not like to see Great Britain embarrassed by such a situation. This view was conveyed to Lord Linlithgow by Gandhi when he met him on September 27, 1940.

False baggage of partition of India

In 2020, Shashi Tharoor claimed that Savarkar was the first to advocate the two-nation theory. According to him, Veer Savarkar was the first to come up with the two-nation theory, three years before the Muslim League passed the Pakistan resolution. It is again an attempt to divert the core theme of partition. Similar kinds of assertions are even made today. After the Mumbai attack as well as the Pulwama attack, an attempt was made to shift the baggage of terrorism to the Hindu Nationalists. However, Mr. Tharoor’s argument is very weak even in the context of Savarkar and partition.

First, the Muslim League passed the Pakistan resolution in 1940 but the seeds of partition were sown a long ago, after the first war of independence in 1857. According to Syed Ahmed Khan, Hindus and Muslims can’t coexist together. The major conflict was related to the Hindi-Urdu controversy. There was a demand to replace Urdu in Persian script with Hindi in Devanagari script as the official language because by this time Hindi has become the language of the masses. He is also considered as one of the originators of the two-nation theory. He believed that the differences between Hindus and Muslims in the future are going to increase manifold.

Second, The first Muslim organization in Bengal was the Mohammedan Association, or the Anjuman-I-Islam, in 1855. Muslim league was formed by Aga Khan and others in 1906 on a religious basis. Subsequently, Hindu Mahasabha was formed in 1915 and Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. Third, Any event doesn’t occur on a particular date. But it is developed over a period of time. Thus, it would be wrong to claim that this thesis took place in the late decade of the 1940s.

Savarkar: A modernist before pundit Nehru

If a comparative analysis is done between V.D. Savarkar and Mahatma Gandhi, then we will find that Mahatma Gandhi was a traditionalist in his thinking while Savarkar was modernist in his views. First, On Hinduism, Mahatma Gandhi was spiritual but Savarkar used Hinduism for political empowerment of Hindus. Savarkar’s notion of Hinduism was limited to electoral politics. For e.g., When Mahatma Gandhi visited V.D. Savarkar in Indian House, London, he saw that Savarkar was frying fish. He suggested Mahatma Gandhi eat non-veg in order to fight against British Raj.

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Second, Mahatma Gandhi was an idealist and spiritual but Savarkar belongs to offensive realism. For example, “Gandhi talked about Lord Ram as selfless and conciliatory, Savarkar spoke about Goddess Durga as the epitome of “Vinashkari” (destroyer), someone who killed the evil”. Third, Mahatma Gandhi and Savarkar both opposed untouchability but supported the Varna theory. Both of them justified the division of labor. Fourth, V.D. Savarkar and Mahatma Gandhi both were proponents of Hindi as a common language for the unification of India.

Fifth, Mahatma Gandhi was more assertive where he described himself as a Sanatani Hindu and cow worshipper. But Savarkar was more progressive in his approach where he was averse to the ritualistic aspects of Hinduism. Savarkar was against the notion of cow worshipping. Sixth, Mahatma Gandhi dreamed for Ram Rajya – an ideal state where equality and justice. For Savarkar, it was the Hindu Rashtra (NOT in a theocratic sense) in which anyone born in his/her motherland and has love and affection for their country is Hindu irrespective of their religion. For him, Hinduism is not sectarian but a cultural identity emanating from the shared history.

Seventh, There was once a period in the 1930s – “when Sanatanis in Maharashtra decided to stage protests against Savarkar’s call for temple entry for, and inter-dining with, ‘Untouchables’. Petitions were circulated to British officials demanding that Savarkar be prevented from speaking because it was believed he posed a threat to social order, that he was hurting the sentiments of Hindus.” Eight, In Essentials of Hindutva, published in 1923, he begins by clarifying that “Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva”. He declared Hinduism as one of the many “isms” that had plagued modernity, by calling it a “spiritual or religious dogma or system”.

In conclusion

However, there are certain views of Savarkar on which I don’t agree. For example, he never acknowledged women’s role as independent agents in the public sphere almost similar to Mahatma Gandhi. However, to some extent, Gandhi Ji acknowledged that women can venture into the public domain but only for nationalist purposes. Another point where one could disagree with Savarkar on the notion of “Punya Bhumi.” There is no issue in “Matra Bhumi” but “Punya Bhumi” of different religions could be different.

Thus, he was one of the greatest leaders of his time. Mahatma Gandhi called Savarkar ‘a faithful son of Bharat… brave, clever and frankly, a revolutionary’. Gandhi Ji also admired Savarkar as a ‘lover of truth’, addressed him as “Bhai”. In 1924, an article, “Vishwa Prem” written by Bhagat Singh considered Savarkar as – “The one who loves this world is that Braveheart, whom we don’t feel ashamed to call as a fierce insurgent and a fanatic anarchist – this is the Veer (brave) Savarkar,” After Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged in Lahore, Savarkar penned a poem for them mourning their death and bowing to their valor and courage.

Even after independence, Indira Gandhi praised Savarkar as a ‘remarkable son of India‘ and issues a commemorative postage stamp to honor Veer Savarkar. But, still, his right place in Indian history is still awaited.

Footnotes

  1. Book | Jugalbandi – The BJP Before Modi by Vinay Sitapati 
  2. Firstpost | Wrong to link Savarkar with Gandhi’s assassination
  3. Book: Savarkar (Part 1) | Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883–1924 
  4. The New Indian Express | When Mahatma Gandhi met Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
  5. The Daily Star | Muslim identity in subcontinental politics
  6. Book | From Plassey To Partition And After by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay
  7. The New Indian Express | When Mahatma Gandhi met Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
  8. The Indian Express | Gandhi and Savarkar shared goal of independence, differed on means 
  9. Scroll.in | Was the Hindutva icon actually Hinduphobic?
  10. The Print | ‘Braveheart, fanatic anarchist’ – Bhagat Singh wrote
  11. The Tribune | Indira Gandhi called Savarkar ‘remarkable son of India’
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