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HVK Archives: Far from heroism - The tale of 'Veer Savarkar'; and a response

Far from heroism - The tale of 'Veer Savarkar'; and a response - Frontline

Krishnan Dubey and Venkitesh Ramakrishnan ()
7 April 1996

Title : Far from heroism - The tale of `Veer Savarkar'
Author : Krishnan Dubey and Venkitesh Ramakrishnan
Publication : Frontline
Date : April 7, 1996

This article is from an earlier data. It is being sent to
indicate the thinking of the author at that time.

Bhaskar Ghorpade, a London-based Indian barrister, is one
who has done Indian archaeology an important service. It
was his efforts that were mainly responsible in getting
the invaluable 12th century bronze idol of Sivapuram
Nataraja back to India. In July 1994, Ghorpade, who
considers himself a historian of sorts, announced he had
unearthed an important document that would throw light on
a particular chapter of India's pre-Independence history.

The document was the minutes of an inquiry held at Lon-
don's Gray's Inn in 1909 and related to the "anti-British
activities of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar", who was one of
the founders of the Hindu Mahasabha and is considered to
be the father of the anti-Muslim Hindutva ideology
aggressively propagated by the Sangh Parivar. According
to Ghorpade it was this 15-day inquiry which resulted in
the denial of barristership to Savarkar; the minutes of
the inquiry, he says, reaffirm "the great revolutionary
qualities of Savarkar."

Savarkar, born on May 28, 1883 in Maharashtra's Nasik
district, went to London in June 1906 to pursue studies
to become a barrister, on a scholarship provided by the
famous revolutionary Shyamji Krishna Verma. But he ended
up forming an organisation called "Free India Society,"
committed to overthrowing this and engaging in other
anti-British activities Savarkar was not called to the
bar. He appealed to the authorities of Gray's Inn to
reconsider the decision. The inquiry took place on this
appeal. Ghorpade says the minutes reveal Savarkar was
offered a call to the bar if he gave an undertaking not
to participate in politics. But Savarkar rejected the

For admirers of Savarkar this revelation underlines the
"heroism and dedication" of their hero. Mahant Avaidya-
nath, the Hindu Mahasabha member of Parliament from
Gorakhpur, says this recent, important finding also
proves that nothing, neither blandishments nor threats,
could shake Savarkar from the path he had chosen, that of
sacrificing himself totally for his motherland. "If he
had accepted the inquiry committee's offer and given up
political activity, he would have become one of the most
famous advocates in British India. He could have amassed
wealth and led a comfortable life. But Savarkarji was
made of different stuff. He had no concern other than
Bharat and its glory. Political activity leading to
freedom was his life breath. Other incidents of his life
also prove this. He is the greatest revolutionary Bharat
has seen: greater than Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and all
others put together," Avaidyanath told Frontline.

But was Savarkar such a great, dedicated revolutionary
throughout his life? Was he wedded to political life and
the freedom struggle inseparably as it is made out by the
advocates of Hindutva? A closer look at Savarkar's life
and at documents relating to his life reveals that at
many points in his life, he had subjugated himself to the
British empire, thus attracting the charge of inconsis-
tency. Material that was available, but was kept under
cover for nearly eight decades, shows Savarkar's true

What is clear from a study of these documents, many of
them available with the National Archives, New Delhi, is
that Savarkar sought his release from British prisons not
merely by giving an undertaking not to engage in politi-
cal activity but also by acknowledging that he had a fair
trial and a just sentence. It was this undertaking and
the unheroic assurance that he had a fair trial that
finally led to his release on January 6, 1924. The day
marked the end of Savarkar's life in British prisons,
including the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, Presidency
Jail in Calcutta and Yerwada Jail in Pune. Altogether he
had spent 13 years in British prisons, starting from
January 30, 1911.

Savarkar was sentenced to jail for a total of 50 years on
the basis of two cases. One of them related to the kill-
ing of Jackson, the Collector of Nasik who was murdered
on December 21, 1909 by Kishor Kanhare of the Abinav
Bharat, an organisation founded by Savarkar. The assassi-
nation was a reprisal for Jackson referring
V.D.Savarkar's case of sedition to the sessions judge who
sentenced him to life imprisonment on June 9, 1909 Thirty
others were sentence to various terms of imprisonment,
including transportation for life.

Investigations had shown that the revolver used to kill
Jackson was from a consignment of arms and ammunition
sent by Savarkar from London. Though Savarkar escaped the
police dragnet during the hearing of the case, the Brit-
ish police caught up with him on March 13, 1910, and
shipped him to Bombay on July 1, 1910. On the way, when
the ship was about to dock at Marsailles, Savarkar jumped
into the sea in a bid to escape. But his escort, with the
help of the French police, captured him.

Savarkar was tried in Nasik for his involvement in the
Jackson murder and in Bombay in a case alleging "efforts
to overthrow the legally formed government of the coun-
try." In the Bombay case he was sentenced for life on
December 24, 1910. Twentyfive others were sentenced to
various terms. The special tribunal for the Nasik con-
spiracy case sentenced him on January 30, 1911, to trans-
portation for life.

According to one of his biographers, Dr. Bhawan Singh
Rana, these two sentences were to run separately and were
for a minimum term of 50 years. In his book Veer Savarkar
in Hindi he quotes from the judgment of the Special
Judge, Basil Scott: "A dangerous criminal like Savarkar
should undergo two sentences for transportation for life,
i.e., 50 years in Andamans." Fifty years later, on
November 15, 1961, the anniversary of this sentences was
celebrated by the Hindu Mahasabha as "Mritunjay

The greater part of Savarkar's jail term was spent in the
Cellular Jail. Life in the Cellular Jail - Savarkar
vividly described the wretched conditions in his
autobiography written in Marathi - seems to have broken
his spirit completely and it was this that led to his
conditional release which signified nothing short of
abject surrender. As a matter of fact, Savarkar and his
family had started negotiating with the British
authorities as early as 1920 even while the Congress and
other organisations fighting for Independence were
agitating for his unconditional release.

It was in 1922 that Savarkar's family first approached
the Bombay Presidency Government, under whose provincial
jurisdiction he was convicted, for his release. This
request was rejected. Throughout 1923, he and his family
members pursued the objective relentlessly. Throughout
these operations, Savarkar and his family displayed an
increasing tendency to mollify the British authorities.
The release order and other related documents make this
clear beyond and doubt. The release order issued by the
Governor exercising the power conferred on him by Section
401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, reads as
follows: "(1) That the said Vinayak Damodar Savarkar will
reside within the territories administered by the
Governor of Bombay in Council and within the Ratnagiri
District within the said territories, and will not go
beyond the limits of that district without the permission
of Government, or in case of urgency, of the District
Magistrate. (2) That he will not engage publicly or
privately in any manner of political activities4s without
the consent of Government for a period of five years,
such restriction being renewable at the discretion of
Government at the expiry of the said term."

Savarkar accepted these conditions without any
compunction. But this was not all. Seeing his spirit
broken and will power completely shattered, the
Government suggested that he should state that his trial
was fair and the sentence awarded was just. At the same
time, it told him this was "in no way made a condition
of his release". Yet, he went ahead and made this
statement: "I hereby acknowledge that I had a fair trial
and just sentence. I heartily abhor methods of violence
resorted to in days gone by, and I feel myself duty bound
to uphold Law and the constitution to the best of my
powers and am willing to make the Reform a success
insofar as I may be allowed to do so in future."

The reference to the Reform here is to the Montagu-
Chelmsford proposals of 1919 which fell woefully short of
Indian hopes and expectations and were rejected by all
sections of Indians. Here Savarkar went out of his way in
offering his mite to make then a success. Soon after his
release, Dr. K. B. Hedgewar, the founder of the Rashtriya
Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), came to meet Savarkar in
Ratnagiri; he is said to have obtained Savarkar's
wholehearted support to the founding of the RSS, which
was inaugurated on Vijayadasami day, 1925.

The story of Savarkar's surrender to British imperialism
does not end here. In February 1925, serious communal
trouble broke out in Kohat town of the North-West
Frontier Province (NWFP). Jivan Das of Kohat had written
a booklet, Rangila Rasool, portraying Prophet Mohammed in

bad light. This caused communal riots in Kohat, in other
towns in the NWFP and in the western parts of the then
Punjab. As rumours spread throughout the country,
Savarkar felt so agitated he wrote an article in the
Mahratta of Pune on March 1, 1925.

The Government did not take to this kindly. He was warned
the "any future writings of a similar character will be
regarded by Government a sufficient justification for
reconsidering the question of his release". Post-haste,
despite his having very strong view on the Kohat
incidents, Savarkar sent a longish explanation at the end
of which he thanked the Government for having given him
an opportunity to explain himself and hoped that in
future too they would be pleased to be as kindly disposed
towards him. In this letter, dated April 6, he made it
clear he would have no truck with the idea of Swaraj:
"The only place where the word Swaraj occurs is at the
end of the third paragraph and there it is obvious that a
reference is not at all to show or indicate what I or
other people think of Swaraj but in what exaggerated
terms Mr, Gandhi thinks of Khilafat."

The Government was not mollified even by this. It told
him curtly on May 6, 1925 it considered his explanation
far from satisfactory. "....it should have been obvious
to you that an article of the nature which you published
in the issue of Mahratta of the 1st March, 1925 was bound
to inflame the feelings and increase the tension between
Hindus and Muhammadans and was contrary to your
undertaking not to engage in any manner in political
activities without the consent of Government."

This letter was received by Savarkar on May 8 through the
District Magistrate. It so unnerved him that the very
next day he wrote back to D. O' Flynn, Acting Deputy
Secretary to the Government of Bombay, Home Department,
thus: "....I most humbly beg to request inasmuch as this
order came to my hand on the 8th of May, all my writings
and speeches prior to that date should not be subjected
to that interpretation as they were guided by the first
or direct interpretation I naturally put on the meaning
of terms of my conditions of release."

Savarkar took fright that the Government might resort to
some severe action against him for some of the writings
and speeches made between March and May 8. One warning
from the Government, and his concern for the so-called
welfare of Hindus had disappeared into thin air.

The period of the conditions attached to his release was
extended by two years after the expiry of five years in
1929; it was extended again in 1931, 1933 and 1935. In
view of the elections and the impending takeover of the
reins of the government by elected representatives, the
Government left the matter to be decided by the new
government, which, in May 1937, removed the conditions
completely. Immediately thereafter Savarkar became the
president of the Hindu Mahasabha and started heaping
abuse on Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress.

It is not as though the hagiographers of Savarkar did not
know about this act of surrender which in a sense undid
all the revolutionary feats attributed to him and made
him a legend. But they camouflaged it in such a way that
the facts were not made public. Veer Savarkar, written by

Dhananjay Keer and considered by many to be the most
authentic biography of Savarkar, relates the incidents
leading to his conditional release thus: Now helpful
winds began to blow in his direction. Sir Rufus Issacs,
now Lord Reading, who as Solicitor-General had led for
the crown in Savarkar's extradition trial in England was
Governor-General of India. He must have felt sympathy for
Savarkar. His Excellency Sir George Lloyd, the Governor
of Bombay, came with his councillors to interview
Savarkar. Lt. Col. J. H. Murray, I.M.S., who was the
jail Superintendent in the Cellular Jail was now at
Yerwada as the jail Superintendent. The conditions for
release were prepared in the light of the discussions
held between Savarkar and the Governor who was
accompanied by A. Montgomerie, the then Home member.
After substituting a few words, Savarkar accepted the
conditions and signed the terms on December 27, 1923. On
January 4, 1924 Dr. Savarkar (V. D. Savarkar's brother)
was informed that his brother would be released on
January 6 and he was allowed to make arrangements for his
brother's stay in Ratnagiri in consultation with him."

In the paragraph preceding this the biographer did refer
to the demands for Savarkar's unconditional release made
in many forums including the Kakinada session of the
Indian National Congress. However, Savarkar's decision to
accept a highly conditional release is explained away as
"helpful winds blowing in his direction". Anand
Vidyasagar. Ramachandra Rao and Harindra Srivastva, who
wrote Savarkar. A Study in the Evolution of Indian
Nationalism, Vande Mataram and Five Stormy Years:
Savarkar in London respectively, do not refer to the
statement that the "hero" added to the release conditions
and the loyalty he expressed to the British laws and

As for the followers of Savarkar and his ideology such as
Avaidyanath, this ignoble chapter of Savarkar's life does
not exist at all. Avaidyanath questioned the very
existence of Savarkar's statement that he had a fair
trial. "It is not possible that he gave a statement like
that," Avaidyanath insisted. But these documents
necessitate a reappraisal of Savarkar's contribution to
the freedom struggle and raise important questions
regarding the genesis of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Is it possible that the British Government was using
Savarkar to create an anti-Congress outfit, discovering
in him a Hindu Jinnah to help them effectively implement
their divide-and-rule policy? Nobody had ridiculed and
castigated Mahatma Gandhi, the unquestioned leader of the
Congress and the Indian masses, in the 1920s and 1930s as
Savarkar did Jinnah was to do it much later but in a much
milder and cultured style.

Although Savarkar's conditional release was not much of a
secret at the time when it occurred - it was criticised
by sections of the press at that time - it was cleverly
covered up by the Hindutva combine which conferred on him
the title of "Veer Savarkar". The inconsistencies in his
involvement in the freedom struggle were swept under the
carpet and he was glorified as a person who gave a new
direction to India's modern self-realisation.

This refers to the article under the caption 'Far from
heroism : The tale of Veer Savarkar, written by Messrs
Dubey and Ramakrishnan, which appeared in tile column
`Reappraisal' of Frontline dated April 7, 1995.

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