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Book Review: Vikram Sampath’s two volume series on Veer Savarkar

Author: Abhijit Kothiwale
Publication: Myind.net
Date: August 31, 2021
URL:       https://www.myind.net/Home/viewArticle/vikram-sampaths-two-volume-series-on-veer-savarkar/

History belongs to those who document it. The winners get to document it their own way but in situations where there are no winners or losers, left in the absence of a struggle, it should ideally be documented to cover all aspects of the story with its characters. Indians have been relatively less energetic in documenting their own history which meant their story was told by others with their own slant. The story of India’s freedom movement was written by Indians but due to the dominance of a certain set of political actors’ post-independence; the tale of several heroes from that era was never told.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar or Veer Savarkar was one such titan of the Indian freedom struggle who had not really got his due as his story was never told in full. In the absence of all facts about his life and deeds coming out in the public domain, what was known about him was limited to tropes like the so-called apology, Hindutva or the Gandhi murder – all tools for a vilification agenda.

Vikram Sampath’s two-volume book on Savarkar is a much-needed corrective towards filling this gap in the telling of the complete story about India and its famous children. The first volume called “Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924” was released in 2019 and the second volume “Savarkar (Part 2): A Contested Legacy, 1924-1966” has just released in July 2021. This review takes a comprehensive view on both the books by highlighting the key lookouts and takeaways for a reader.

The first volume documents the history from his birth to his release from the life transportation in the Andaman jails into a district confinement at Ratnagiri in 1924. The early years of struggle that his family went through; his attempts to mobilize the revolutionary activities through his organization, Abhinav Bharat, which established a nationwide profile very quickly between 1900-1905; his travel to London for completing his law studies in 1906; the attempts at inspiring and facilitating the revolution in Britain and India via smuggling arms and thoughts into India (from 1906 to 1910); his prodigious scholarship and penmanship that created some of the most memorable poems in Marathi as well as books on the Italian revolutionary Mazzini and the iconic book on the 1857 Rebel Uprising, which he termed the First War of Independence, have been documented with great detail.

The lesser-known aspects of the Independence struggle carried out abroad by the likes of Madam Cama, Shyamji Verma, Lala Hardayal and many others who lobbied support in Europe and America for the Indian revolutionaries have also been brought out in the first volume. Savarkar’s arrest in Britain in 1910; the attention with which Winston Churchill, the then Home Secretary, directed his arrest and deportation to India; Savarkar’s dramatic escape attempt by jumping out of the porthole of the ship he was being carried on off the coast of Marseilles before being arrested by the French police are mind boggling stories. There is also a lesser-known story about the months of wrangling over his case in International Court as his revolutionary friends tried to stop his deportation from France to India on the grounds of human rights which has been documented perhaps for the first time in public knowledge.

Savarkar’s trial in India, the 50-year life imprisonment sentence in Andaman and those years of severe hardship at Andaman along with his brother, Babarao, make for painful reading. Horrible food, regular beatings, random punishments were compounded by grinding work like beating coconut husk and carrying the “Kolhu”, a cross bar that had to be pulled around in circles and the coconut or mustard was to be ground to make oil. These years crippled the health of the Savarkar brothers for the rest of their lives. His attempts to maintain morale in fellow prisoners, the authorship of books and poems in his head, teaching fellow inmates by scribbling on the cell walls for the next inmate to learn and lead movements within the prison for better conditions all testify to a never-say-die spirit and leadership skills.

The issue of the mercy petitions has been examined in detail in these chapters and laid to rest. Savarkar was released from Andaman prison into normal prisons in 1921, spending time at Nasik, Pune and Mumbai before being released into district confinement in Ratnagiri in 1924, where the volume ends. The genesis of his thought process that led to the Hindutva philosophy has been documented in detail. This was largely based on his experiences at Andaman where he witnessed the collusion between the British authorities and the Jamadars (wardens) of the prison, who were Pathans, in converting Hindu prisoners to Islam by carrot and stick methods. Savarkar counter mobilized the prisoners and carried out re-conversion or shuddhi methods for such converted Hindus, often at risk of personal harm.

Volume 2 of the book documents Savarkar’s journey from his release in 1924 to district confinement, till his death in 1967. These years can be divided into three phases: the social reformer and Hindutva ideologue from 1924 to 1937 when he became a fully free man with his sentence commuted; the political leader who brought the Hindu Mahasabha to prominence as independence and the political future of India was being negotiated; and the twilight years post the murder of Gandhi and Savarkar’s trial in that connection.

Ratnagiri became the laboratory for Savarkar’s bold experiments in social reform of Hinduism when he was confined to that district in 1924. He wrote and spoke a great deal on the need to abolish the caste system, leading initiatives like temple entry for the Dalits; dining together events of all castes and a unification of Hindus across the board. He faced significant flak from the Conservatives in the community but the initiatives succeeded beyond measure. Savarkar was in regular touch Ambedkar on the anti-caste initiative with regular correspondence between them.

The other project of Savarkar during this time was firming up the ideology behind the Hindutva movement; the strengthening of the Hindu response to aggression from political Islam as the demand for a separate nation for Muslims grew post the Khilafat movement of 1921 and the subsequent communal riots that took place across India in frequent succession. Savarkar became an ideological opponent of Mahatma Gandhi and his policies of Muslim appeasement and constant soft peddling of Muslim aggression.

After Savarkar’s release from the transportation sentence in 1937, he took up the post of President of a fledgling Hindu Mahasabha party and conducted a whirlwind campaign across India for years to grow the presence and strength of the political party. By 1942, the Mahasabha was the third pole of Indian politics alongside the Congress and the Muslim League. They were running a joint government in Bengal along with Fazl-Ul-Haq and had legislators in many provinces who kept a check on the Congress and League governments with strong interventions. Through this time, Savarkar remained a vocal critic of the League and their demand for a separate nation, constantly opposing the demand for Pakistan.

Another important and unknown aspect of the Mahasabha’s contribution to modern India, documented well in this book, is their definitive efforts for the re-militarization of the Hindu Society. They had observed that due to the “Martial Races” based recruitment of the British, the proportion of Muslims in the Indian Army was very high (between 30-50%). The Mahasabha and its leaders focused on encouraging the Hindu youth to recruit into the Army in large numbers, the process having accelerated after the outbreak of the Second World War. The idea was that the Hindus be ready in large numbers, trained and equipped to carry the defence of the nation when freedom came.

The provincial elections of 1946 wiped out the non-Congress and League parties from the political map which completely side lined the Mahasabha, rendering them impotent to prevent India’s partition. A further blow came to the Mahasabha’s prestige when Gandhi was murdered in 1948 with zealots who were Mahasabha members at one point. Savarkar was arrested and tried for this act, though exonerated at the end of it. From here on, with the ascent and complete domination of Nehru over the political canvas of India, Savarkar faded into twilight, though continuing to promulgate his thoughts in print and speech.

If the first volume fills one with awe and praise at the courage, resilience, and scholarship of Savarkar as witness to his efforts and struggles during the revolutionary days and those of the Andaman horror; the second volume fills one with sadness at the way in which his warnings on Islamic aggression and the upcoming partition were ignored and he was side lined from public life. The books build a balanced portrayal of Savarkar, especially in volume 2 where his failings as an organization man are outlined; illustrated in the fact that the Hindu Mahasabha fell apart when Savarkar left the scene. The RSS, which was a progeny of the Hindu Mahasabha movement, and with who, Savarkar fell apart eventually, was much more successful in building a sustainable movement which was driven by an ideology, not personality.

To summarize, at more than 1200 pages combined, the two volumes of this prodigious work by Vikram Sampath touch every aspect of Savarkar’s life, works and thoughts. There is a lot to learn from them, a lot to get inspired from and at least some of his ruminations on defence, foreign policy, society, science is worth enshrining in government thought. With his ideological successors currently dominant in India’s political sphere, we can hope to see policies and steps that take India to its deserved place in the sun on the world’s stage.

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