The Strange Irony of Roping in Mahatma Gandhi To Establish Savarkar’s Nationalist Credentials - IAMC

The Strange Irony of Roping in Mahatma Gandhi To Establish Savarkar’s Nationalist Credentials

Historical record not only debunks Union defence minister Rajnath Singh’s claim that Savarkar filed mercy petitions at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi, it establishes that the two men had nothing in common.

By Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan

On October 13, 2021, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh claimed, “A lot of falsehood was spread against Savarkar. It was repeatedly said that he filed multiple mercy petitions before the British government. The truth is he did not file these petitions for his release. Generally, a prisoner has right to file a mercy petition. Mahatma Gandhi had asked that you file a mercy petition. It was on Gandhi’s suggestion that he filed a mercy petition. And Mahatma Gandhi had appealed that Savarkar ji should be released. He had said the way we are running movement for freedom peacefully, so would Savarkar.”

Singh also said, “You can have differences of opinion, but to see him condescendingly is not right. The act of demeaning his national contribution will not be tolerated.”

Note the threat; setting up Godse temples and worshipping him as a hero can be tolerated, but no criticism of Savarkar.

What are the facts?

Rajnath Singh’s statement is presumably based on certain documents from the year 1920: a letter from N.D. Savarkar, brother of V.D. and Ganesh Savarkar, to Gandhi; Gandhi’s reply and an article Gandhi wrote in Young India.

The facts are somewhat at variance with Singh’s claims. The first mercy petition was filed by Savarkar nine years prior, in 1911 itself, within six months of his conviction. Numerous other petitions followed in subsequent years, without any evidence or claim of it being at Gandhi’s suggestion.

To quote from one such petition for his release, submitted personally to the British official Reginald Craddock when he visited the Andamans jail in 1913, offering loyalty to the British government: “If the Government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the strongest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress. I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?” [Emphasis added].

Further, as G.S. Khoparde testified, a Savarkar supporter’s question in the Imperial Legislative Council on March 22, 1920, read, “Mr. Savarkar and his brother had once in 1915 and at another time in 1918 submitted petitions to Government stating that they would, during the continuance of war, serve the Empire by enlisting in the Army, if released, and would, after the passing of the Reforms Bill, try to make the Act a success and would stand by law and order (sic)”.

In his reply, British official William Vincent, said, “Two petitions were received from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – one in 1914 and another in 1917 – through the Superintendent, Port Blair. In the former he offered his services to Government during the war in any capacity and prayed that a general amnesty be granted to all political prisoners. The second petition was confined to the latter proposal”.

Thus, it is very clear that Savarkar had submitted numerous petitions between 1911 and 1920, without any advice or prompting from Gandhi, offering loyalty to the British government and expressing his willingness to serve them in any capacity. Therefore, Singh’s statement that Savarkar only filed mercy petitions at the behest of the Mahatma is not borne out of the actual historical record.

So where does Gandhi come into the story? Only in 1920, when N.D. Savarkar, the younger brother of the two Savarkars in jail, wrote to Gandhi seeking his advice when he found that the list of prisoners being released under the Royal Proclamation of Clemency did not include his brothers’ names. Gandhi replied saying that it was difficult to give advice, but suggested that he might draft a brief petition.

In addition, Gandhi wrote an article in Young India on May 26, 1920, titled ‘Savarkar Brothers’ where he referred to the Royal Proclamation of Clemency and noted that, while many other political prisoners had been released under this, the Savarkar brothers had not.

He wrote, “Both the brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas and that if they were set free they would like to work under the Reform Act…”

“They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British,” Gandhi continued.

It is to be noted that nowhere in Gandhi’s article is there an appeal for Savarkar’s release, as Singh claimed. “…Mahatma Gandhi had appealed that Savarkar ji should be released,” Singh was quoted as saying.

Gandhi questioned the government’s decision not to release them as they appeared to pose no danger to “public safety” or to “the state”, but never appealed to the British. Neither did he say anywhere in his article, as claimed by Singh, that “…the way we are running movement for freedom peacefully, so would Savarkar.” On the contrary, Gandhi emphasised that the Savarkar brothers did not want independence and they wanted to work under the Reform Act.

There is a strange irony in this entire episode; that Mahatma Gandhi is being roped in to establish Savarkar’s nationalist credentials, that too on such flimsy grounds.

The attempt is to create a picture in the minds of the public that Gandhi and Savarkar had a close relationship to the extent that the latter took Gandhi’s advice on such crucial issues as mercy petitions and that Gandhi appealed for his release. It is a clear attempt to try and normalise Savarkar’s begging for mercy, even as numerous other nationalists refused to do so; even as Gandhi demanded the severest punishment for himself.

What are the facts we are expected to forget?

In January 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated, Savarkar was arrested under suspicion of being the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Sardar Patel, who was overseeing the whole case as the home minister, being a fine criminal lawyer, was personally convinced of Savarkar’s guilt. He would not have agreed to put him up for trial otherwise. He told the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in unambiguous terms, “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through’. (Durga Das, Sardar Patel Correspondence, 1945–50, Vol. VI,  p. 56.)

In response to the Hindu Mahasabha’s disclaimer, Patel wrote to one of its leaders, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, on May 6, 1948, saying, “…we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets…. Further, militant communalism, which was preached until only a few months ago by many spokesmen of the Mahasabha, including men like Mahant Digbijoy Nath, Prof. Ram Singh and Deshpande, could not but be regarded as a danger to public security. The same would apply to the RSS, with the additional danger inherent in an organization run in secret on military or semi-military lines.” (Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. VI, p. 66.)

Shyama Prasad Mookerji. Photo: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Patel further pointed out to Mookerjee, ‘The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the state.” (18 July 1948, Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. 6, p. 323.)

The then chief minister of Bombay, B.G. Kher, explained the political situation in Maharashtra to Patel. ‘The atmosphere of hatred against the Congress and Mahatma sought to be created by the Hindu Mahasabha culminated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of a few Maharashtrians,’ Kher said. (B.G. Kher to Patel, 26 May 1948, ibid., Vol. VI, pp. 77–78.)

Savarkar was eventually not convicted in the Gandhi murder trial due to a technical point of criminal law: a lack of independent evidence to corroborate the testimony of the approver.

However, the commission of inquiry set up in 1965 under Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, got access to a lot of evidence that was not available to the trial judge. After Savarkar’s death, two of his close associates who had not testified at the trial – A.P. Kasar and G.V. Damle – spoke up before the Kapur Commission and corroborated the approver’s statements.

It is possible that, if they had testified at the trial, Savarkar would have been proven guilty. In fact, the Kapur Commission came to a very similar conclusion to Sardar Patel’s: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group” (Report of Commission of Inquiry into Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi, 1970, p.303, para 25.106.)

Immediately after Gandhi’s assassination, the government of India with Sardar Patel as deputy prime minister and home minister banned the RSS and put around 25,000 of its members in jail. The Hindu Mahasabha chose to dissolve itself when confronted with the ban. Tainted by its link to Gandhi’s murder, the Hindu Mahasabha beat a tactical retreat and Mookerjee, its main leader, founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951. This was to be the main political vehicle of Hindu communal articulation from then onwards; its frontline political party, till it merged with the Janata Party after the Emergency and was then replaced by the BJP.

It is, indeed, ironic that the political forces which claim to be the most ardent nationalists today played no role whatsoever in India’s actual freedom struggle. Savarkar, after his release from prison in 1924, never took part in any anti-British politics. In fact, he was the originator of the ideology of Hindutva, which defined “authentic Indians” as those whose fatherland and holy lands – pitribhumi and punyabhumi – were in India, thereby excluding Muslims and Christians, whose holy lands were outside India.

The Hindu Mahasabha also became increasingly loyal to the British in the 1930s and 40s. Though this loyalist tendency existed earlier as well, some of its leaders had initially participated in Congress-led movements. However, from 1937 onwards, when Savarkar became its president and undisputed leader, the Mahasabha joined the Muslim League in competing for the crumbs thrown from the imperial table.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought the differences among the nationalist forces out into the open. While the Congress’s provincial ministries resigned in protest against the British government’s decision to make India a party to the War without her consent, Hindu Mahasabha leaders cooperated with the British and advocated that Indians participate in the war effort and join the Army. Savarkar, as president of the Mahasabha, appealed to the Hindus to “participate in all war efforts of the British government” and to not listen to “some fools” who “condemn” the policy as “cooperation with Imperialism”( Savarkar, Hindu Rashtra Darshan, pp. 203ff.)

In private, Savarkar told the viceroy in October 1939 that the Hindus and the British should be friends and offered to have the Hindu Mahasabha replace the Congress if the latter ministries resigned from office. (Linlithgow, Viceroy, to Zetland, Secretary of State, October 7, 1939,  Zetland Papers, Volume 18, Reel No. 6.)

In accordance with this pro-British policy, when the Quit India movement was going on in 1942 and the entire nationalist Congress leadership, including Gandhi, was in jail, Mookerjee was a minister in the Fazlul Haq administration in Bengal. The Hindu Mahasabha also formed coalition governments with the Muslim League in Sind and the NWFP. It is another matter that all this loyalism could not get them electoral success and they suffered a rout in the 1946 elections.

The RSS, too, as an organisation did not participate in any of the major battles for freedom from colonial rule. The RSS was founded in 1925 and apart from the Simon Commission Boycott in 1928, at least two major movements – the Civil Disobedience movement from 1930–34 and the Quit India Movement of 1942 – were launched by the Congress after that date. The RSS played no part in any of these movements.

K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, did go to jail in his individual capacity in 1930, but he kept the organisation and its members away from the Civil Disobedience movement. The government was very clear that it had nothing to fear from the RSS. A home department note on the RSS reported that, “At meetings of the Sangh during the Congress disturbances (1942), speakers urged the members to keep aloof from the Congress movement and these instructions were generally observed.”

It is, of course, legitimate to ask why the RSS and Jan Sangh-BJP camps were silent about Savarkar for four or five decades after Gandhi’s murder. Was it because it was simply not palatable to mention Savarkar since he was associated, in the public consciousness, with Gandhi’s murder? And then, after enough time had elapsed, could it be assumed that public memory was short and Savarkar could be resurrected?

With the new public emphasis on Hindutva as part of the BJP’s new, aggressive phase, it was difficult to ignore the original creator of the concept. Further, for a party claiming to be nationalist, it is a little embarrassing not to have any freedom fighters to show. Therefore, in a desperate effort to discover nationalist icons, Savarkar was sought to be cast in that mould.

A nationalist veil is being drawn over Savarkar’s communalism by remembering him as a Krantiveer; the Andamans revolutionary. That Savarkar shamed the revolutionaries by repeatedly asking for pardon in the Andamans; that he never took part in any nationalist activity after his release in accordance with his promise to the British government, is sought to be forgotten.

In 2003, when the BJP-led NDA government was in power, Savarkar’s portrait was installed in Parliament despite considerable opposition. One would imagine that, even if there is a whiff of suspicion about Savarkar, this should not have happened. And now, the latest effort to legitimise Savarkar is being done by normalising his embarrassing mercy petitions as being sanctioned by the Mahatma.

Then President APJ Abdul Kalam and others visit the Savarkar portrait in Parliament. Credit: Rajya Sabha website.

The aim is also to project a close, friendly relationship between the two and to thus hide the fact that they had nothing in common. Savarkar, as the ideologue of Hindutva and leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, was a consistent and vehement critic of Gandhiji, especially of his non-violence and inclusive attitude towards the Muslims. There could not be a sharper contrast between their ideas of who India belongs to.

Savarkar clearly says, “India must be a Hindu land, reserved for the Hindus.” He unambiguously asserts that Hindus should be “masters in our own house, Hindusthan, the land of the Hindus”. (Hindu Rashtra Darshan, pp 92, 63). Gandhiji, on the other hand, in his famous speech in Bombay in August 1942 where he called for the British to quit India, declared unequivocally: “Those Hindus who, like Dr. Moonje and Shri Savarkar, believe in the doctrine of the sword may seek to keep the Mussalmans under Hindu domination. I do not represent that section. I represent the Congress. The Congress does not believe in the domination of any group or any community. It believes in democracy which includes in its orbit Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Jews –every one of the communities inhabiting this vast country….Millions of Mussalmans in this country come from Hindu stock. How can their homeland be any other than India?”

One cannot help but think of the contrast between Savarkar and his men and revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, who prided themselves on never asking for clemency; on choosing to suffer all punishment, including death. In fact, from the very early days, Indian nationalists had evolved the practice of bravely accepting responsibility for committing anti-British acts, facing trials and using those trials to further propagate nationalist goals and then willingly accept imprisonment, exile or even death as punishment.

It is pertinent to note that Savarkar’s habit of petitioning the government for his release from internment and making promises of good behaviour did not end with his release from British jails in 1924. Within three weeks of his arrest in connection with Gandhiji’s murder, on February 22, 1948, he made a representation to the police commissioner of Arthur Road prison expressing his “willingness to give an undertaking to the Government that … [he would] refrain from taking part in any communal or political public activity for any period the government may require in case I am released on that condition”.

Even the most brilliant advocate would find it difficult to prove that this, too, was on Gandhi’s advice. Unless, of course, the bond between the two was so strong that the atheist Savarkar could claim communion with Gandhi’s spirit!

This article first appeared in The Wire