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Don’t malign Savarkar for petty political gains

Ironically those who castigate Savarkar for the petitions advocate human rights and mercy petitions of Ajmal Kasab, Yakub Memon, Afzal Guru, and the Maoists and their intellectual fountainheads. While “heat of the moment” comments amid political campaigning are understandable, repeatedly maligning those who have shed their sweat and blood for this country’s freedom is disgusting.

columns Updated: May 17, 2019 12:26 IST
Vikram Sampath
Vikram Sampath
Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, in her message on Savarkar’s death in 1966 said: “It removes from our midst a great figure of contemporary India. His name was a byword for daring and patriotism. Mr Savarkar was cast in the mould of a classical revolutionary and countless people drew inspiration from him.” (HT Photo)

The 2019 election season has been acrimonious. But when national heroes are vilified for petty political gains, it is detestable. For example, Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, repeatedly mocked freedom fighter, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, by saying that the freedom fighter had apologised to the British to get out of jail. This narrative of mocking Savarkar is a recent phenomenon and not grounded in historical truth. Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, in her message on Savarkar’s death in 1966 said: “It removes from our midst a great figure of contemporary India. His name was a byword for daring and patriotism. Mr Savarkar was cast in the mould of a classical revolutionary and countless people drew inspiration from him.”

So are Rahul Gandhi and the Congress blaming their former PM of endorsing a “coward”?

After five stormy years in London as a law student, Savarkar galvanised the Indian revolutionary movement across Europe. The British feared him and invoked the Fugitive and Offenders Act (FOA) of 1881 that did not apply to him, slapped an unfair trial where he had no jury or appeal. He was given two life imprisonments (50 years) at the dreaded Cellular Jail in Port Blair in 1911. Savarkar was meted out the worst and most inhuman punishment for nearly 11 long years inside the jail. He did not even get basic amenities such as food, medical care, and a toilet.

Following hunger strikes by him and other political prisoners and rumours of bomb manufacturing by Savarkar at the Andaman Settlement, home member of the Government of India, Reginald H Craddock, visited and interviewed political prisoners — Savarkar, Barin Ghose, Nand Gopal, Hrishikesh Kanjilal, and Sudhir Kumar Sarkar — in 1913 to ascertain their grievances. They were asked to submit petitions for their release, which was a legitimate tool available for political prisoners.

Being a barrister, Savarkar knew the law and obviously wanted to use every means available to free himself. He advised fellow revolutionary prisoners to promise whatever the British asked them to, gain freedom and then continue with their work after their release. Among those who followed Savarkar’s advice included the revolutionary, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, who too signed identical petitions to eschew political activity but restarted revolutionary activities after he was freed from jail. Sanyal was the brain in the Kakori case and the formation of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

In fact, when Savarkar’s younger brother, Narayanrao, approached Mahatma Gandhi for his intervention in 1920, the latter advised him to submit a petition for release to the government and agreed to put in his recommendation.

In the petitions that he submitted from 1914 to 1924, Savarkar maintained that when common convicts of rape, theft or murder were let out into the Settlement for work after six months, he and other political prisoners were not allowed similar facility since they were “Special Class prisoners”. But when they asked for privileges befitting the status — such as meeting one’s family, writing regular letters or reading books — they were denied by the authorities, who termed them “ordinary convicts”.

This double disadvantage was unfair, he argued. In his 1914 petition, Savarkar wrote: “I am not asking for any preferential treatment, though I believe as a political prisoner even that could have been expected in any civilised administration in the Independent nations of the world.” The last line of this 1914 petition that gets quoted often is: “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?” Being a Biblical reference, one can argue that he was appealing to the religious sentiments of his incarcerators. Such selective and out-of-context quoting is intellectually disingenuous. Craddock, in his report after meeting Savarkar, stated that he was defiant in the interview and “cannot be said to express any regret or repentance” for his revolutionary acts.

In his 1917 petition, Savarkar states: “If the Government thinks that it is only to effect my own release that I pen this; or if my name constitutes the chief obstacle in the granting of such an amnesty; then let the Government omit my name in their amnesty and release all the rest; that would give me as great a satisfaction as my own release would do.”

Do these sound like words of a coward or a British stooge?

After the First World War and Emperor George V’s Royal Proclamation, political prisoners were granted unconditional amnesty, except Savarkar and his elder brother, Babarao. The government had categorised them as “D” (dangerous criminals) whose release would reignite the revolutionary movement in the Bombay Presidency.

After being shifted to Ratnagiri and Yerwada prisons, Savarkar was conditionally released on January 6, 1924. He was put under surveillance and had to abstain from politics for five years. This house arrest went on for 13 years and he could join mainstream politics again only in 1937 — 27 years after his first arrest in London in 1910.

Ironically, those who castigate Savarkar for the petitions advocate human rights and mercy petitions of Ajmal Kasab, Yakub Memon, Afzal Guru, and the Maoists and their intellectual fountainheads. While “heat of the moment” comments amid political campaigning are understandable, repeatedly maligning those who have shed their sweat and blood for this country’s freedom is disgusting.

One hopes our historical figures are not dragged into contemporary political mudslinging in this manner.

Vikram Sampath is an author/historian and senior research fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and author of a forthcoming biography of Savarkar

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 17, 2019 12:21 IST