Murderer, quarrelsome, pity hunter, these are some of the labels many scholars have conferred on noteworthy writer, thinker, and freedom fighter, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Of course they are countered with statements made by those who hail him as Valiant or Veer Savarkar. But both sides have failed to clasp a key point: not everything is black or white; there is always a grey space, that grey space being occupied by Savarkar. While the Savarkar fans fail to realize that too much idolizing makes Savarkar an irksome figure the detractors need to recognize that pointless demonizing does not reduce an icon’s fame. Hence one must take a reflective angle with diverging characters like Savarkar.
My own opinion is simple: I disagree with some of Savarkar’s thoughts while I agree with some all together. At any rate I find ridiculous the opinion held by some researchers who compare Savarkar with the likes of Benedict Arnold and Adolf Hitler. While certain accusations against Savarkar (like his link with Gandhi’s Assassin Nathuram Godse and seeking clemency from the British) are hotly debated I attempt to explain some of his opinions with a brief sketch of his memorable life as I offer my respects to him in his forty-ninth barsi.
Early Life 1883-1905:
Born at this very day one-thirty years back in a village called Bhagur in Nashik, Maharashtra. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar came from a recognized Chitpavan family. From a very young age while considered having flair in oratory, he contemporarily had the first accusation of being communal. According to his detractors when Savarkar was just 12 years old he and his friends pelted a mosque to react against the fragmentary Hindu-Muslim riots in North & Central India. One can just go through the works related to the Bengal Renaissance scholars Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Rajnarayan Basu, Nabagopal Mitra along with that of the Arya Samajis and even the Tabligh Jamaat in North-West India to discover that Hindus and Muslims did not often live in perpetual harmony. And the detractor’s source i.e. Savarkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer mentions how the Muslim boys were no saints and clashed fiercely with Savarkar’s group with the latter emerging victorious. Following that communal controversy Savarkar initiated all his classmates into one aspirant rebel group aimed to upheaval the British occupiers to unshackle India. The members of this group were made to go through mock fights so that they can fight the Empire when the time comes.
The turning point in Savarkar’s life occurred in the summer of 1897 when due to the mishandling of the plague crisis in Maharashtra, one Damodar Chapekar shot British officer W.C Rand and was executed by the Raj. After that incident those young rag tags under Savarkar’s leadership formed a resilient group called ‘Mitra Mela’ in order to increase their activities for the impending revolution.
The members used to take part in community occasions like Ganesh Puja or Shivaji Memorials to spread their ideals and gain more followers. In 1901 Vinayak was wedded to Yamunabai whose father paid for his higher studies (worth mentioning Savarkar’s parents passed away during his teens) in Fergusson College, Pune. It is here that the organizer in Savarkar was properly shaped as he gathered his college friends to form an ordered front: “Abhinav Bharat” with the aim of creating freedom fighters. As leader of the Abhinav Bharat, Savarkar spent sizable time gathering and reading books related to law, history and philosophy along with training himself in local gymkhanas. Besides these activities Savarkar also paid sporadic visits to well-known Statesman Lokmanya Tilak to discuss the course of action for the freedom of India.
Due to these doings of Savarkar, the Fergusson authorities saw him as the bad apple in their blooming tree. The unhealthy trait of this apple clearly surfaced during the viceroy’s decision in 1905 to split Bengal as Savarkar led the Abhinav Bharat members into a bonfire of British garments and asked Indian youngsters to reject use of British goods; at that time this move was censured by Mahatma Gandhi although he used the same method years later. The University dismissed Vinayak but pressure from other students as well as Tilak aided Savarkar to complete his BA examinations with splendid grades. After graduation Tilak referred Savarkar to England based nationalist Shyamji Krishnaverma who was offering scholarships to Indian students. Hence Savarkar sailed for London to study Bar-At-Law. As a parting gift the British authorities in India sent a file to their counterparts back home to keep a close eye on this young agitator.
Time Overseas 1906-1910:
Upon his arrival in London Savarkar found accommodation in Shyamji’s India house which sheltered other young Indian students. Here Savarkar became cordial with the likes of Virendra Chatterji, Niranjan Pal, PM Bapat, MPT Acharya, Lala Hardayal and soon to be famous Madanlal Dhingra inducting all of them in Abhinav Bharat. Even senior patriots like Shyamji Krishnaverma, Madam Cama and Bipin Pal praised Savarkar’s headship of the Abhinav Bharat. Besides these young rebels, Krishnaverma’s non-Indian coworkers Guy Aldred ,Hugh Swinney and David Garnett became conversant with Savarkar. Their writings, most of which still survives in British archives show how they were captivated by Savarkar’s far-reaching fervor to free India. Between his time in England Vinayak made time to visit Paris and Marseilles where one of his heroes Mazzini took asylum (Savarkar modeled Abhinav Bharat after Mazzini’s Young Italy).
During his stay abroad Savarkar engrossed himself in the works of Herbert Spencer, August Comte, and Mazzini to sculpt Abhinav Bharat’s dogma properly. Besides attaining knowledge and preparing for bar exams Savarkar continued his physical training as well. As leader of the Abhinav Bharat Vinayak would arrange weekly meetings chaired by himself with senior leaders like Bipin Pal, Madam Cama and occasionally joined by senior Indian Statesman like Lajpat Rai. They would speak about their visions of a free India. Aldred, Swinney, Garnett who would attend these meetings with other British well-wishers wrote about how Savarkar intensely stated his ideas besides repeating the works of Spencer -Mazzini. It is in England that Savarkar wrote a Marathi Translation of Mazzini’s biography along with splendid poems like ‘Priyakar Hindusthan’ and ‘Sagara Pran Talmala’. However his most notable work would be the writing of the 1857 revolt as First War of Independence which was banned by the British officials before it even came out. Krishnaverma and Savarkar had the routine of organizing functions that would celebrate the lives of Indian patriots like Shivaji, Guru Govind Singh, Tatiya Tope to instill patriotic passion in the hearts of India House residents.
From then on Abhinav Bharat members, besides physical exercises and studies, also learned the skills of shooting and bomb-making, the latter with the help of a handbook PM Bapat received from a Russian rebel in Paris. It is also said that the founder of Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin and Sinn Fein leader Eamon De Valera met Savarkar during the latter’s stay in London. One notable incident would also be Vinayak’s refusal to take oath of a Barrister even after passing the exams since he didn’t concede the Crown’s hegemony over India. It is also a fact that he helped Madam Cama in her design of the first Flag of Free India which she unfurled at the Global Socialist Conference in Stuttgart (1907).
His global revolution grid was broken in 1 July of 1909 when one of his close comrades Madanlal Dhingra shot Sir Curzon Wylie, who was responsible for the censure on Savarkar’s movement and who praised the British repression in Punjab. Dhingra was immediately arrested and executed on 13 March of 1910. During that time a delegate of pro-British Indians held a meeting to denounce Dhingra (even the Mahatma expressed his displeasure on the assassination but that was hugely because of his non-violent ideology). As the delegate moved a motion to deplore Madanlal Dhingra, Savarkar with his comrades rose up and chided their opinion. After Dhingra’s execution Savarkar moved to Paris where the already persecuted Krishnaverma and Hardayal took refuge. During this time Anant Kanhare, an Abhinav Bharat member from Nashik shot another British official Jackson for banning Savarkar’s works and jailing Kanhare’s colleagues. Hence Savarkar was accused of conspiring in these two murders and when he reached England in late 1910 the police detained him.
During his stay abroad Savarkar engrossed himself in the works of Herbert Spencer, August Comte, and Mazzini to sculpt Abhinav Bharat’s dogma properly.
While imprisoned Savarkar hatched his escape plan when he heard that the ship SS Morea deporting him back to India would go through Marseilles, where the French government could shelter him from the British law. So when the time came, Vinayak asked to use the restroom, and while there, unscrewed the porthole leaped into the sea,quickly swam to the docks and then ran for the streets before being caught by the Marseilles police. Regrettably since Savarkar didn’t speak French the cops handed him back to the British authorities, who deported him to India.
This incident caught the press’s attention and articles were written about him by Guy Aldred in The Herald, and his feats were covered by the French newspapers L’Humanite and Le Petit Provencial. Notable advocate and Karl Marx’s grandson Jean Longuet readily went to The Hague to question Vinayak’s arrest in France by Britain which became known as La Affaire Savarkar, which by far is the only case in Hague regarding an Indian insurgent. But the British legal system in Bombay made a ridicule of justice when Savarkar was put on trial with an empty jury and even while Longuet argued the case in The Hague, the court quickly passed the judgment of transportation for life in the Andamans (ill-advisedly The Hague ruled in Britain’s favor). He was sent to Port Blair prison in the Andamans in 1911 to start his 50 year sentence. Besides Longuet and other critics in Europe this decision was condemned by Russian writer Maxim Gorky.
In the Andaman Jail, Vinayak underwent merciless torture at the hands of the jail management which included solitary confinement, whipping, standing continuously for days handcuffed and forced to extract coconut oil by propelling a heavy apparatus which strained one’s body while given meagre food. It was at this moment that the critics say Savarkar lost his will and petitioned the government to secure his release due to his inability to suffer further torture.
Unlike other rebels who fasted till death, Savarkar is said to have broken it mid-way, acting like a chicken. I have decided to examine this issue in a separate segment. Anyways even with all this happening Vinayak managed to write his literary works in the solitary cell; some said he at times used pebbles to write on the prison walls. His works from this time include Mopla, Kamla, and the influential ideological pamphlet Essentials of Hindutva. After years of sufferings, Savarkar was released after some politicization (which the anti-Savarkarites say was actually Savarkar’s promise to join forces with the British). Nonetheless in 1924 Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was released from prison by the authorities on two conditions: Not to indulge in political activities and to stay put in Ratnagiri.
Ratnagiri stage 1924-1937:
After releasing Savarkar the British authorities ordered him to reside in Ratnagiri which was cut off from the rest of India. He would sit slothful for a period before penning down his jail time works on paper (he memorized all his poems and writings from his jail time which in itself is a great feat). It must have been difficult for an active rebel like Savarkar to sit in Ratnagiri and do nothing; hence came his decision to put an end to the brutish caste arrangement as practiced by Hindus at that time. The incident that motivated Savarkar to take up this cause was when he noticed several children sitting outside the local school, who told him it was because of their so-called untouchable position that the privileged caste parents and teachers made this rule. Savarkar was incensed and asked school authorities to fully integrate these supposed untouchables with their upper-caste classmates. Due to his high standing the authorities agreed, but many also stood against him. Despite such hostilities Savarkar invited all the untouchable families in his house and dined with them during festivals like Diwali and started to take steps that would take down the baseless caste oddity.
The founder of Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin and Sinn Fein leader Eamon De Valera met Savarkar during the latter’s stay in London.
On 19 May of 1927, Savarkar presided over the conference of untouchables held in Malvan. Mr Rajbhoj, editor of the paper ‘Dalitbandhu’, said, “Savarkar is sincere in his efforts for securing a better life for us”. On 9 December of 1930, Times of India reported, “Mr Gandhi and in the Congress Party believe in Chaturvarnya and castes based on birth. But the reformers in Ratnagiri believe that castes based on birth are hurtful and have started dining together with the untouchables, and it is astonishing that Mr V D Savarkar is their source of inspiration.”
But the sole standing symbol of Savarkar’s reforms of the Hindu society would be the Patit Pavan Mandir. This Mandir was opened on 22 February of 1931 by Bhagoji Keer a ‘pariah’ merchant with active support from Savarkar. This temple was a rare one as it allowed Hindus of all caste to worship freely without any barriers, where a pariah boy was given the charge to sing devotional songs, and notably the chief priest was chosen by Bhagoji Keer himself. In the same month the sixth annual conference of the Bombay Province Association for Removal of Untouchability was held in Ratnagiri where the envoys commended the vast social changes brought about by Savarkar.
Savarkar went one step forward by founding a Pan-Hindu canteen where inter-caste dining was mandatory. On April of that very year a group of 710 Somvansh Mahars (a former untouchable caste) convened their conference in Patit Pavan Mandir in Savarkar presence. This group again conducted their conference in Ratnagiri two years later where, the participants resolved that they will remain Hindus and will not change their religion.
Finally on 10 May of 1937 the Colonial Government removed the restrictions on his movement and allowed him to join politics. Later that year Savarkar was elected to be the president of the Hindu Mahasabha.
Hindu Mahasabha and Death 1937-1966:
Right after becoming president of the Mahasabha Savarkar travelled throughout the nation calling for the entire Hindu community to come together and counter Muslim League’s unjust demands for partition along with molding his visions of a unified renewed Hindu society. On 3 September of 1939 Britain in alliance with the Soviet Union and France went to war with ‘Germany-Italy-Japan’ axis. Savarkar without hesitation called for all the Hindus to join the military. He also asked the British government for arranging schools that would militarize the Hindus. Most scholars say it was his past activities as the Abhinav Bharat leader that Savarkar took this stand in contrast to Mahatma Gandhi led Congress’s Quit India Movement.
On 1 February 1966 Savarkar renounced medicines, food and water which he termed as atmaarpan (fast until death). Before his death he had written an article titled “Atmahatya nahi Atmaarpan” in which he argued that when one’s life mission is over and he loses the ability to serve the society, it is better to end the life at will rather than waiting for death.
Post World War the Hindu Mahasabha like the Muslim League and Congress held talks with Cripps Mission about the exit of the British authorities to have a Free India. In the March of 1942 the British Government sent Sir Stafford Cripps Mission to India whose scheme according to some sources was far more dangerous than the partition being demanded by Muslim League. Savarkar’s open dispute with Cripps was praised even by his rival Jawaharlal Nehru at that time in his paper, the National Herald.
Freedom finally came at 15 August of 1947 with the brutal baggage of partition. The loss of lives pained Savarkar but he was optimistic about the prospects of the newly independent nation of India. A year later on the 2 January of 1948 Savarkar’s reputation was tarnished as one of his former associate Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.
Savarkar was one of the prime accused but the prosecutors were unable to find any incriminating evidence leading to Savarkar’s acquittal. Following that incident Savarkar spent a quiet life occasionally penning his thoughts. On 8 November 1963 Savarkar’s wife Yamuna passed away. Three years later on 1 February 1966 Savarkar renounced medicines, food and water which he termed as atmaarpan (fast until death). Before his death he had written an article titled “Atmahatya nahi Atmaarpan” in which he argued that when one’s life mission is over and he loses the ability to serve the society, it is better to end the life at will rather than waiting for death. He died on 26 February 1966 at the age of 83.
Though Savarkar has been called a crass communalist, his eminent critics forget his role as a reformer. I believe India would have profited a lot if the critics had taken the load to read and disseminate Savarkar’s articles on social rearrangement since some of them are very much applicable even in present times. Along with being a reformer, his standing as a writer is highly creditable; the critics could just read his play Ushap where he condemned the orthodox views on caste, widow’s isolation, among others. But it is his poem on Independent India Jayastute Jayastute meaning “Hail to Goddess of Liberty” that is my personal favorite and hence I show my respect for this reformer and writer by ending with these two words: Jayastute Jayastute.