Savarkar: What’s in a Name?

By Ashwin Tombat
30 December 2019 16:22 IST

The name ‘Savarkar’ is controversial once more, thanks to former Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Addressing an election rally in Jharkhand on Thursday 12 December, Mr Gandhi said: “Narendra Modi ne kaha tha 'Make in India'... par ab aap jahan bhi dekho, make in India nahi, ab hai ‘Rape in India’...” [Narendra Modi had talked of 'Make in India' but today everywhere we see 'Rape in India'].

The comment was in poor taste.

The next day, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh demanded an apology. Later, speaking at the Congress’s Bharat Bachao (Save India) Rally in New Delhi’s Ram Leela Maidan, Rahul Gandhi doubled down, saying his name was “not ‘Rahul Savarkar’ to apologise for speaking the truth”.

This has reawakened the debate. Mr Gandhi’s unflattering words referred to the claim of some historians that ‘Veer’ Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – in his clemency petitions to the British colonial authorities – apologised for his actions, renounced the freedom struggle and pledged loyalty to the colonial British government to secure his release from the notorious Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands, where he was incarcerated between 1911 and 1921.

Is this true?

It is a fact that Savarkar wrote several clemency petitions during his years in jail. In many of them, he did state that owing to reforms by the British Government, his views had changed, that he had renounced revolutionary activism and would adopt peaceful methods. It is also a fact that in some petitions, he pledged “loyalty to the English Government” if he were released.

But in not a single petition did he ever apologise for his actions.

Savarkar’s promise of ‘loyalty’ might raise eyebrows. But it was a common tactic of the revolutionaries in those days to promise such things in exchange for release from the prison. Others like the Chaphekar brothers, Mahadev Vinayak Ranade, Rajendranath Lahiri, Nand Gopal, Barindra Ghosh (brother of Aurobindo), Sudhir Sarkar, Ram Prasad Bismil and Sachindranath Sanyal also wrote similar petitions.

Even the great Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, imprisoned in the Central Jail of Mandalay, Burma, wrote a clemency petition in 1912.

Sachindranath Sanyal after his release co-founded the Hindustan Republican Association with Ram Prasad Bismil. He was a mentor to young revolutionaries like Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, and was caught and sent back to the Cellular Jail because of his activities. Sanyal wrote in his memoirs (original in Hindi): “Why was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar not released but I was, although I wrote almost the same petition as him?”

But despite all the petitions he wrote, the British government resolutely refused to release both V D Savarkar and his brother Ganesh.

Following World War I, in December 1919, with the passing of the Government of India Bill, the British Government ordered a general release of political prisoners. However, the Savarkar brothers were classified as ‘determined and dangerous conspirators’, and the government decided that they would not be released under the ‘Royal Amnesty’.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote an article in ‘Young India’ titled ‘Savarkar Brothers’ on 29 May 1920, complaining that the two brothers had not received their liberty although five months had gone by after the proclamation of Amnesty. Tilak’s English newspaper ‘Mahratta’ had earlier written an editorial on 25 January 1920, condemning the government’s decision to exclude the Savarkar brothers from the Royal Amnesty.

It was only when the Cardew Committee surveyed the conditions of the Cellular Jail and a decision was taken to shut it down, that Savarkar was moved from there. But he was not released. On 2 May 1921, he was moved, first to the Alipore Jail in Bengal and then to the Ratnagiri Jail in Maharashtra. V D Savarkar was finally released on 6 January 1924, on condition that he would not leave Ratnagiri district, where he remained interned till 1937.

V D Savarkar coined the term ‘Hindutva’, as a political philosophy distinct from the religion. He was rabidly anti-Muslim. He believed Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations, but wanted the Muslim ‘nation’ to stay under subjugation in an undivided Hindu India.

But he also was the first to write that the so-called ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857 was actually the first Indian War of Independence. He was an atheist, and did not believe in the caste system. While interned in Ratnagiri he set up the Patit Pawan Mandir, a temple open to all including ‘untouchable’ castes, with a Dalit priest. He staunchly opposed the worship of the cow, and did not favour any ban on the eating of beef.

His early writings inspired a young Bhagat Singh. India’s foremost revolutionary didn’t agree with Savarkar’s views, but he never, ever, thought of him as a British stooge or a traitor.

Even though his vision of India was flawed, Savarkar was a freedom fighter. The Rahul Gandhis of this world need to do their homework before passing summary judgement.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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Previous Comments

Brilliantly analysed ashwin

We can disagree with savarkar , but we can never doubt his patriotism

Spending years and years in solitary confinement is no laughing matter

His sacrifices must be respected

Maybe it would be a good idea for Rahul to try spending one month in solitary confinement just for the experience.

It's quite another story that the current bjp government is exactly like the erstwhile British and also throw people in jails for years on end for their political beliefs

- Oscar rebelo, Goa | 30 th December 2019 13:52


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