In search of the real Savarkar

(Published in Open Magazine, October 07 2019)

On the morning of 8 July 1910 when VD Savarkar jumped through a ship’s porthole into the Mediterranean Sea, what he set off was not merely a quest for personal liberty, but also a diplomatic spat between two sovereign countries. Savarkar was on the way to India in shackles after extradition proceedings in London, when a little after 6.30am that morning he asked to use the toilet. Even as two constables kept watch at the door, their prisoner managed to wiggle out of the narrow window, swimming swiftly to the quay at Marseilles harbor. Just as quickly, though, he was apprehended and marched back to his cell—the vessel sailed off, and the Indian revolutionary’s attempt to escape was confirmed, ultimately, as a sensational flop.

But it was a flop that managed to leave his captors with a political headache. For by stepping on foreign soil, Sarvarkar had complicated the whole affair. International law came into play, for instance, and the press was up in arms on whether the sovereignty of France, as well as the prisoner’s right to asylum, had been violated. In London, Home Secretary Winston Churchill was in favour of upholding the “law of nations”: “The petty annoyance,” he dryly announced, “of a criminal escaping may have to be borne.” But the India Office was vehemently opposed to the proposal that Savarkar be shipped back to Europe, into the embrace of French authorities. They had gone through several legal hoops to have the man extradited in the first place and had no plans to let international sentiments get in their way at this advanced stage.

In the end, after months of debate between the two governments, the matter was referred to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Britain won the argument, and in any case Savarkar had, by then, already been tried and sentenced to serve 50 years in prison. His crimes varied from ‘waging of war against the King’ to ‘abetment to murder’ and–in something Indians remain familiar with–sedition. Before he knew it, his property was seized, he was packed off to the most notorious prison in the subcontinent, to top all of which his university cancelled his hard-earned degree. He had been, till that time, a dangerous revolutionary—now the colonial state would do everything in its power to try and ensure he became a complete nonentity: an effort that was also, as things turned out, a historic flop.

The diplomatic quarrel Savarkar provoked in 1910 is one of the most interesting sections of the first volume of Vikram Sampath’s two-part biography of Savarkar, a book that unpacks the foundations of a highly charged, eventful life. Titled Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past: 1883-1924 (Viking; Rs999; 724 pages) Sampath’s hefty offering is meticulously researched. Material has been unearthed from many archives in India and abroad, as well as from books, private papers, press clippings, memoirs, and more. In a country where Savarkar’s ideas are in political ascendance, and have long incited intellectual protest, it is an irony that there aren’t more biographies of this father of Hindutva. What is available is either dated, hagiographic, or simply inadequate. Sampath’s book fills this gap creditably, and while several conclusions will be challenged, the accumulation of research presented means rejoinders will also require methodical depth.

The strength of the book lies in detailing Savarkar’s formative years. The future revolutionary came from a community that nursed considerable resentment against the Raj. Chitpawan Brahmins in Maharashtra held much power till the Peshwas were defeated by the British, and this loss was still felt when Savarkar was born. He grew up motherless, and despite death, debt, and other family calamities (or perhaps because of it), developed a sense of destiny. A compelling speaker, a leader among his peers, and a sharp, even shrewd young man, he could have become a formidable lawyer. But revolution captured his imagination—helped along by tales of caste and family glory—and in his teens, his brother and he, with their friends, launched Mitra Mela (later Abhinav Bharat). Ostensibly a cultural group, it was actually a network of proto revolutionaries who were interested less in the ongoing politics of petitions and editorials, and more in bombs and bullets.

Savarkar’s credentials as a revolutionary in the inaugural phase of his career are impressive. As a 23-year-old, he was already making speeches that caused officials enough anxiety for them to post undercover policemen in attendance. At one event, Savarkar welcomed them coolly, before proceeding to tell everyone that they must shed blood, not tears for freedom. Months after arriving in London, he was translating the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini’s autobiography into Marathi, and by 25, was ready with a revisionist account of the Great Rebellion of 1857, cast now as the First War of Independence. The book was banned before it was published in India, and a personage as senior as the Viceroy was issuing directives to prevent it from reaching the country. In a mark of the Savarkar brothers’ determination, the manuscript, after peregrinations in Europe, was published and smuggled into India at not a little expense. So too from London, Savarkar ensured a bomb manual reached his brother, very likely also having weapons delivered to Abhinav Bharat comrades.

Reading Sampath’s carefully reconstructed account of this period, in fact, one is left wondering what might have happened if Savakar’s story had ended in 1911—if the colonial state had given him the noose instead of prison, would we today venerate Savarkar as we do Bhagat Singh? After all, the antipathy he arouses now is due largely to his subsequent philosophies, born at a later stage. In 1911,on the other hand, the press lauded him as a hero; an influential network of Indians abroad held him in esteem; and Savarkar himself was proactively in favour of Hindu-Muslim unity. India, he declared in 1906, “belongs to whoever is born there”. While his violent methods as a young man never went down well with Congress, judged by his early career, Savarkar could readily have found a place in the pantheon of revolutionaries we celebrate. Instead his later life eclipsed this initial phase, and his mercy petitions and revised thinking came to define the totality of Savarkar’s tale. To this Sampath offers a necessary corrective.

Sampath shows convincingly also how the sufferings the Savarkar family endured were real. The sister-in-law who raised Vinayak died without being granted a chance to see her husband. The latter, Savarkar’s brother, Ganesh, served years in prison and was so emaciated at the time of his release (which was permitted so he would not die in custody), that he had to be carried out on a stretcher. The prison horrors they withstood are corroborated by Barin Ghose’s memoirs: everything from the food, the suicides around them, the rigours of the labour, the tyranny of unsupervised guards, and even toilet conditions show that for all his early appetite for revolution, Savarkar was made to pay. Prison records reveal the drastic drop in his weight in this early period—a simple detail that reveals the shock of the experience. Whatever one’s feelings about Savarkar today, that he suffered for his country, and lost his youth in the process, cannot be doubted—a point Sampath makes persuasively.

The book does, however, run into some serious methodological trouble. Too often, for instance, reliance is placed on Savarkar’s memoirs and reminiscences, some of it written decades later. While his revolutionary activities and the legal tangles that followed are excellently constructed, Sampath’s depiction of Savarkar’s character depends a little too much on the man’s own later recollections. In the book we are told, without hesitation, how on his way to London, Savarkar pooh-poohed fellow Indians who comically aped the British. It was, he tells a passenger, “sheer cowardice to eschew our culture and traditions merely because some ignorant and arrogant Europeans laugh at it. I feel our turbans look colourful and aesthetic, unlike their hats that seem to me like dustbins.” This anecdote, drawn from his autobiography, is taken at face value, when in fact it should have provoked the question as to why, if he was so convinced about this point, Savarkar in England also westernised his appearance, preferring the dustbin aesthetic to that of the turban.

Similarly, we read about how, when his sadistic prison master was about to retire, he came to Savarkar, asking if he should fear assassination from former prisoners. The latter replies: “I don’t think so. They don’t waste their bombs in killing crows and sparrows. I don’t think there is such a fool among terrorists there who would waste his powder on these poor birds when he can kill a tiger with it.” A heroic, confident answer, but again drawn from Savarkar’s account written much later. A line where Sampath tells how Savarkar’s ‘life was saved on many occasions’ when poison was deployed against him, meanwhile, has no citation at all. While the author is not mindlessly worshipful of his subject, there are yet choices of words that suggest he has not always maintained a cautious distance. For instance, when the schoolboy Savarkar writes an editorial for a paper, it is described as ‘fantastic’; when the teenaged Savarkar speaks, it is always ‘inspiring’. Both may have been true, but in the writing of biographies, it is the gap one maintains from buying into the person’s myth that forms the line between sober analysis and a celebratory eulogy.

The infamous mercy petitions Savarkar wrote appear towards the end of the book. As Sampath writes, ‘it is but natural for a man incarcerated for life to explore every available legitimate option to first and foremost release himself.’ Certainly, it is petty to judge Savarkar as a coward for his petitions. However, Sampath too easily accepts the suggestion that this was a shrewd plot to get out and resume work—like Shivaji, who when under house arrest in Agra, wrote obsequious letters to Aurangzeb. This is problematic, because it does not add up with Savarkar’s own actions, even when he was sentenced. Savarkar questioned the legitimacy of the court, and declared that he was ‘prepared to face ungrudgingly the extreme penalty of yours laws’. If the petitions were a shrewd design to get the British to lower their guard and set him free, that process ought to have started in court before he went to prison at all. The flourish in court suggests a brash youthful conviction, while the claim of shrewd strategy seems to have come later, when Savarkar was older and chronicling his life for posterity’s judgment.

The Shivaji-Aurangzeb analogy also does not quite work for another reason. Shivaji escaped and not only did he resume his activities against the Mughals, he went on to crown himself formally as king of the Marathas. Savarkar, on the other hand, eschewed revolutionary work, accepted British terms, and stuck to them for years even after his release: he justified this as “responsive cooperation”, but to lionise him as a 20th century Shivaji does not quite work. That he made great sacrifices and lost the best years of his life is to Savarkar’s credit—but there is also no shame in admitting that the horrors of prison were bad enough for him to seek, from the very authorities he proclaimed as illegitimate, clemency and understanding. Indeed, the very fact that he gave up the gun and took up the pen due to these experiences is a remarkable twist in his tale, given how that pen produced writing that proved to be far more potent and resilient than anything Savarkar did as a student preaching armed rebellion.

In an otherwise strong effort that lends perspective and adds nuance to our understanding of Savarkar, Sampath’s uncritical acceptance of the man’s recapitulation of his life is the big flaw that weakens the book’s effect. In his desire to show how Savarkar has not been understood well, this does a disservice to that very project, when a more confident appraisal of the latter’s changes of heart and contradictions would have enriched the narrative. But one can live with this, because the book remains a significant contribution. As for the more controversial aspects of Savarkar’s life—featuring the Hindu Mahasabha, his later dealings with the Raj, and his alleged role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi—we will have to wait and read the second volume of Sampath’s biography. Hopefully some of the infirmities in the first will be rectified, and we will see Savarkar for everything he was: brave revolutionary, suffering prisoner, formidable ideologue, but also a man of capable of a good deal of whitewashing.