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BJP’s rise has turned Vinayak Damodar Savarkar into a political pariah: Vikram Sampath

Author: Utpal Kumar
Publication: Firstpost.com
Date: October 3, 2021
URL:      https://www.firstpost.com/india/bjps-rise-has-turned-vinayak-damodar-savarkar-into-a-political-pariah-vikram-sampath-10020441.html/amp?__twitter_impression=true&s=03

Historian and author Vikram Sampath explains why Savarkar has been wrongfully targeted on the issue of clemency and Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, and how he has become a casualty of contemporary politics

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar means many things to many people. He was a strong, fiery revolutionary who fought for the freedom of the country and underwent one of the most rigorous tortures in the Kalapani Jail of the Andamans, while at the same time he was accused of being a stooge of the British and even linked with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He was a political ideologue and a philosopher who advocated Hindutva and guided Hindu Mahasabha during the difficult years leading up to Partition, while at the same time the rationalist in him made him call for the complete annihilation of the caste system. He was a sensitive poet and writer who stood for the purification of a language, and also he was an amateur historian who wrote his own biography and gave himself the epithet of “Veer”.

All these, often contradicting, narratives co-exist, making Savarkar a very complex figure. Historian Vikram Sampath, who has just come up with Savarkar: A Contested Legacy, decodes the revolutionary in an exclusive interview with Firstpost. Excerpts:

There is a lot of controversy regarding his so-called clemency plea. As you argue in the two-volume Savarkar books, it was not unusual for someone to write that kind of letter to the British government, and that many others had also done so. Can you put light on this?

Savarkar’s plea is often called a mercy petition, which is not true. It was a normal legal recourse available to political prisoners of that time. As part of the royal amnesty during the war era, several political convicts were let out as a goodwill measure by the British not only in India but across colonies in the world. It was not a special provision only given to Savarkar. Also, nowhere in the letter was he apologetic about what he had done. The letter was more the handiwork of an adroit lawyer who was arguing his case; he was also the spokesperson for other political prisoners whose cause he was representing, seeking clarifications about the nature of their punishment and their rights in prison.

The British too didn't trust these petitions. Sachindra Nath Sanyal had written a similar petition claiming that he would abstain from politics, but after coming out of jail he formed the Hindustan Republican Association; Sanyal was again sent to the Cellular Jail after the Kakori episode. People like Lokmanya Tilak filed petitions. Even the founder of the CPI, Shripad Amrit Dange, filed a petition. Likewise, MM Malaviya filed petitions on behalf of the Kakori case convicts. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi himself filed a petition on behalf of the Savarkar brothers in 1920. So, it was a routine affair.
BJPs rise has turned Vinayak Damodar Savarkar into a political pariah Vikram Sampath

One is made to believe that Savarkar had written the letter secretly, in collaboration with the British. Far from it, he openly mentioned it in his Marathi memoir, Mazi Janmathep (My Transportation for Life), and also in Echoes from the Andamans, which had all his letters to his younger brother Narayan Rao. Also, had there been any secret understanding between Savarkar and the British government, the former would not have been told to abstain from politics for five years, which later got extended to 13 years.

Savarkar often said that a sacrifice that doesn’t lead to success is suicidal. Do you think this explains his clemency move?

Savarkar faced life imprisonment for two terms; that is, 50 years. So, instead of rotting in jail and being of no use to the country, it was a better option for him to come out of the prison. In fact, he would oppose other prisoners whenever they went on a hunger strike. He would instead tell them to eat more, become fat at the expense of the British resources, and attack them!

Savarkar was a very unusual Hindutva leader. He sought the total eradication of the caste system, worked for untouchables, and often in his lifetime faced the ire of orthodoxy. Can you elaborate?

That’s the other paradox about Savarkar. All the time Hindutva is equated with the caste system, but here was its most ardent advocate who actually pushed for a casteless society and complete annihilation of the varna system. In fact, Savarkar went a step ahead of Ambedkar when he said that not just the upper castes are exploiting the lower castes, even among the lower castes there are sub-castes like Mahars who victmise those below them in social hierarchy. This explains why he introduced inter-caste marriages, inter-dining among different castes, temple entry for all castes, a temple with an untouchable priest where Brahmins and others went to take blessings, schools for children of all castes, etc. Savarkar would insist on interning at the end of any event he was invited as a guest. These fascinating aspects have been so willfully suppressed. Interestingly, Gandhi had acknowledged the relevance of the varna system and defended it.

Even the constitution of the Hindu Mahasabha, made by Savarkar, is an eye-opener. It promised Hindu Rashtra, but envisioned a truly secular India.

All the leaders of the nationalist movement understood that there is an intrinsic difference between the Indic and the Abrahamic religions. The Abrahamic faith always espouses the fact that there’s just one God, one Book and one Messenger, and anybody who doesn’t belong to that fold is a heretic or an infidel. The Indic religions, on the other hand, espouse the fact that truth is one and there are multiple paths to reach there. When these two very different theologies collided, the country witnessed violence. Our political leaders belonging to different ideological sides attempted in their own ways to deal with these two theologies. For Gandhi, Hindu-Muslim unity was the way forward. The very fact that he had to strive and work hard for Hindu-Muslim unity showed that something was lacking. Ambedkar, on the other hand, believed that there was no common ground between Islam and Hinduism and thus advocated the complete separation of the two communities.

Savarkar saw it differently. For him, there was a thing called sacred geography. Every part of this land, for him, was sacred. So, carving it out in the name of religion was not an option. This explains why he, while working for Hindu Rashtra, wanted people of all faiths to live together under a secular, constitutional framework. Savarkar publicly said on many occasions that minorities should not have any doubt in their minds that Hindu Rashtra would infringe on their legitimate legal, cultural, linguistic and religious rights.

Savarkar and Ambedkar share an interesting relationship. Can you tell us about them?

Ambedkar was very favourably inclined towards Savarkar’s social reforms in Ratnagiri. He wrote several times complimenting that Savarkar alone understood that the varna system was at the core of caste malaise. But strangely, they never shared the public stage, maybe because Savarkar was such a persona non grata that even being seen with him would have jeopardised a person’s life, livelihood and career.

Savarkar on the other hand constantly invoked Ambedkar’s scholarship. He actively campaigned for Ambedkar’s inclusion into the Viceroy’s Council. And much later, when Savarkar was implicated in the Gandhi assassination case, Ambedkar, who was law minister then, called up Savarkar’s lawyer. While driving the car himself, Ambedkar told the lawyer that as the law minister, he was quite sure that there was no case against Savarkar and the latter would go scot-free. Ambedkar said that the orders to implicate Savarkar had come from the top.

The book tells us that Subhas Chandra Bose actually got the idea of seeking help from abroad to gain India’s Independence from Savarkar. What’s the story?

There is an interesting character called Savitri Devi, a woman of Greek-French descent who came to India, embraced Hinduism, and married Asit Krishna Mukherji, who was a double agent of the Nazis working with the British in Calcutta. There was a lot of correspondence between Savitri Devi and Savarkar brothers. It is said that Savitri Devi and her husband were the ones who made Savarkar and Netaji meet in 1940. Ousted from the Congress and somewhat isolated, Netaji was looking for support to start his own civil disobedience movement. Savarkar seemed to have advised Netaji that the opportunity was ripe to look abroad for support as Britain was in trouble due to World War II. He advised Netaji to capitalise on that by taking the help of Britain’s enemies. The connecting dots are fascinating: Sachindra Nath Sanyal and Savarkar were together in the Cellular Jail. Sanyal helped bring Savarkar and Rash Behari Bose together. Then Savarkar helped Netaji connect with Rash Behari Bose. Of course, there were Savitri Devi and Asit Mukherji who too played their roles.

Savarkar also pushed for the militarisation of Hindus. How important was that?

Not just Savarkar, even Ambedkar was worried about the large presence of Muslims in the armed forces, asking if there was an invasion from Afghanistan, would these soldiers fight for the country or side with their co-religionists. It was primarily due to Savarkar’s efforts that the communal composition of the Indian Army was restored by the time of Independence. In 1947, Hindus and Gurkhas comprised almost 50 percent of the total number, while Muslims had 30 percent presence. In the wake of Partition, this demographic rebalance was important for India.

As you write in the book, Savarkar faced the most difficult phase of his life when his name was dragged into Gandhi’s assassination. Can you tell us more about that?

The Gandhi murder case ended in 1949 after the Red Fort trial. Of all the nine accused, Savarkar alone was exonerated and acquitted. Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were executed, while others like Gopal Godse, Vishnu Karkare and Madan Lal Pahwa were given about 15 years of imprisonment. So, when the latter came out of jail in 1964-65, they were given a huge public reception in Pune. At that time, GV Ketkar, the then editor of Keshri, made a stunning statement that he had the knowledge of Gandhi’s murder much before it had happened and that he conveyed the same to the Maharashtra government and the Centre. It created a huge ruckus and the Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission was set up to look into Ketkar’s allegations.

There is no doubt that Godse and Apte were Savarakrite, a powerful clique in the Hindu Mahasabha. The Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission erred in equating Savarakrite with Savarkar when it said that because of the involvement of Godse and Apte, belonging to the Savarakrite group, there’s no doubt that Savarkar was behind the conspiracy. This was an extrapolation and there was no corroborative evidence to back this assumption.

I have also mentioned in the book how recently Dr Pankaj Phadnis filed a petition in the Supreme Court, which appointed an amicus curia and went over the trial papers and the Kapur Commission report. After one-and-a-half years, in March 2018, the apex court order said, “The submission of the petitioner that Savarkar has been held guilty for the murder of Gandhiji is misplaced.” Over and over again, Savarkar has been given a clean chit, but due to political pettiness and one-upmanship his name continues to be dragged in the assassination case.

You mention in the book that there was greater acceptance of Savarkar in the 1970s when Indira Gandhi called him “the remarkable son of India”. You go on to add that Savarkar’s demonisation began in a big way in the late 1990s. What happened then?

In the 1970s, Hindu nationalist parties were hardly a threat to the Congress. So, it was okay to be generous with some of the leaders on the other side of the ideological spectrum. But towards the late 1990s, when the first BJP-led NDA government came to power and it proactively started venerating Savarkar—having his portrait installed in the Central Hall of Parliament or the plaque in his honour at the Cellular Jail—the old generosity towards Savarkar started dissipating. More so after 2014 when it became clear that it was not a natural right for one ideology, party or family to rule this country and there were other claimants to power. This led to the demonisation of historical icons like Savarkar, who became a casualty of contemporary politics and his legacy turned highly contested.
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