Author Sampath writes about the much-discussed mercy petitions which Savarkar presented to the British authorities to secure release from the Cellular prison.
Author Vikram Sampath’s recently-released biographical work on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar should set to rest many flawed impressions that people entertain about this freedom-fighter and thinker. It is not a hagiographical account, nor does it cover his entire life; Savarkar: Echoes From a Forgotten Past, deals with the period of his life between 1883 and 1924. It would be difficult even for the most ardent critic of the Hindutva icon to fault the author because Sampath delves deep into historical accounts to present a holistic picture of his subject. He does not go overboard in his praise for Savarkar, nor does he condemn Savarkar to sound secular and find a place for himself in the Left-liberal space.
We are introduced to many facets of the man who spent years in the dreaded Cellular Jail in the Andamans, unlike many other freedom-fighters who were fortunate enough to be incarcerated in prisons that offered them various liberties, including home-made food and an environment where they could write best-selling books and frequently meet family, friends and political colleagues. We learn of his sharp intellect on a variety of subjects, including international relations; his poetic abilities; his clarity of thought on the road ahead for a free India; and, how that freedom was to be gained. Having read the book, one comes around to believing that, here was a man whose ideas and philosophy came to define contemporary India in ways that have remained downplayed or worse, ignored in the decades since independence.
The book proceeds to offer graphic accounts of the inhuman conditions that the likes of Savarkar were subjected to in the jail and the fact that most Hindu prisoners were under the charge of Muslim employees who took special delight in torturing and humiliating the inmates.
The book also refers to the feeble attempts that were made by ‘mainstream’ political leaders, especially belonging to the Congress party, to take up Savarkar’s cause. Even Mahatma Gandhi extended just symbolic support to the campaign to get him released. This despite the fact that the entire trail leading to his conviction was a series of “farcical” plays, in the author’s words. As he set sail in a ship bound from Madras to the Andamans, Savarkar noted: “Climbing into that steamer to be transported for life was like putting a live man in his own coffin… if but one a single one out of these my compatriots were to tell me, ‘Go, my brother, go, I and others like me swear that we shall make India free and fulfil your vows’, I would have felt my funeral bier as soft as a bed strewn with flowers.”
In prison, he was sought to be initially befriended by the chief jailor David Barrie, who had heard of his reputation as being an intellectual. The book refers to one of the conversations which demonstrated both Savarkar’s resolve and his deep understanding of global issues. Barrie presented his Irish nationality as an ice-breaker, but Savarkar said, “But I would not have hated you for being an Englishman. I have spent the best years of my life in England and I am an admirer of the virtues that characterise an Englishman.” Barrie then changed track and warned him that “murders are murders and they will bring independence.” Sarkar’s retort stumped the jailor: “Of course I know it, but may I ask you, why don’t you convey this to the Sinfeiners in Ireland? Besides, who told you that I have favoured murders?”
The book proceeds to offer graphic accounts of the inhuman conditions that the likes of Savarkar were subjected to in the jail and the fact that most Hindu prisoners were under the charge of Muslim employees who took special delight in torturing and humiliating the inmates. There were set timings for demands of nature, and if an inmate had an urgent need, he had to relieve himself within his cell. When inmates fell sick from serious ailments, the doctors would give a ‘fit’ certificate so that those jailed could not be excused from the hard labour they were supposed to perform. There is more in the book that would enrage the reader, and leave him wondering how people like Savarkar managed to retain their sanity even after years of living there or did not end up committing suicide.
Barrie was a devil incarnate for the prisoners. When the time came for him to leave, it seemed like the curses of the inmates had had their impact; he was sick to the bone and terrified that he may be killed by some revolutionary once out of the safety of prison walls where he was king. He related his fears to Savarkar who retorted that revolutionaries did not waste their bombs and bullets on crows and sparrows!
While author Sampath does not take a position, he observes that Savarkar should be judged by the yardsticks of his time and the context in which he operated.
Author Sampath writes about the much-discussed mercy petitions which Savarkar presented to the British authorities to secure release from the Cellular prison. He points out that the “process of petitioning the government was a legitimate tool available to political prisoners in British India, similar to defending oneself in court through the agency of a lawyer.” It was not only Savarkar but several inmates at Andaman who petitioned the government for release. The author notes that Savarkar had often expressed an opinion that the primary duty of a revolutionary was to free himself from the clutches of the British in order to return to the freedom struggle. Savarkar had said in of such petitions that, if freed, he would abide by the constitutional process and express loyalty to the English government. This has been seen by his critics as caving in abjectly to the British, and by admirers as a tactical ploy to get out and resume his anti-British fight. While author Sampath does not take a position, he observes that Savarkar should be judged by the yardsticks of his time and the context in which he operated. “Most often, those inimical to Vinayak quote these petitions partially and almost never in a historical and situational context, framing an argument around them to suit a contemporary political narrative which is plainly historically disingenuous.”
Besides, as the author relevantly points out, the British never trusted Savarkar’s loyalty. Perhaps they knew he was feigning. “If he had indeed become their pawn, why did the British treat him with suspicion and as one of India’s most dangerous men for nearly a decade and a half thereafter (after his 1913 petition)?” The fact that his various appeals for release had been rejected have been sought to be brushed aside by his critics. But they contain the most critical information. British authorities refused to release him because he was far too dangerous to be trusted. A senior British official once said, according to the book, “So important a leader is he that the European section of the Indian anarchists would plot for his escape which would before long be organised. If he were allowed outside Cellular Jail in the Andamans, his escape would be certain.”
In any case, it is a matter of history that, on his eventual release, Savarkar hardly retreated to the caves. He continued to oppose the British, rally round the Hindu population against the colonial masters, the appeasement politics of the Congress and the growing belligerence of the Muslim population which had aligned itself with rabble-rousers wanting a separate nation on the basis of Islam. He predicted doom over Mahatma Gandhi’s ill-considered decision to back the Khilafat movement, which was supposed to extend support to Muslims in faraway Turkey to continue having their caliphate. The irony was that Muslims in turkey were fed up with the religious rulers and wanted democracy. Eventually, the Khilafat movement collapsed. Savarkar had termed it an “aafat” (trouble). It neither brought the Muslims closer to the Congress nor did it make Muslims socially more cohesive with the Hindu population. The Mopla massacre in the Malabar, where hundreds of Hindus were butchered and their women raped, effectively ended any pretence that all was well between the two communities.
Vikram Sampath’s book draws its material from archival sources within the country and abroad, some of them are original in nature. No serious understanding of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar can be complete without it.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.