Savarkar (Part 2): A Contested Legacy, 1924-1966. Vikram Sampath. Penguin Viking. 712 pages. Rs. 729 (Hard cover)
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has always been an enigma for history.
To his admirers, he is almost a deity, and to his haters, he is very much the devil incarnate.
Even after Independence, his life was not well known outside the circle of Hindutvaites.
Fortunately, Dhananjay Keer, a master chronicler of biographies wrote the biography of Savarkar. Keer himself was partly a Savarkarite and often his work — extremely well researched, given the constraints of the age and political atmosphere then — is considered as a hagiography.
Now, we have the two-volume biography of Savarkar written by Vikram Sampath. The first volume dealt with the period 1883 to 1924 and the second volume deals with an even more complicated and controversial part of the life of this freedom fighter, from 1924 to his death in 1966.
Vikram Sampath builds on Keer, but goes further and searches for the source material and does not hesitate to address the contentious aspects.
The book brings out the burden of being a selfless fighter for one’s people and the personality of a cold, objective, rational visionary, who was forced to witness his people marching towards doom and a promised deliverance simultaneously.
A man standing amidst the waves of cataclysms and pushed by his own people to the margins and yet, still trying to protect them — that is the picture of Savarkar that largely emerges from the second volume.
The book answers for the calumnies heaped on Savarkar and looks into the related claims and counter-claims.
For example, there is an Azad Hind radio broadcast dated 25 June 1944 that Keer mentions in his Savarkar biography.
Many have quoted it (including this writer) as proof of Savarkar having the latent and strategic revolutionary in him and despite his assurance to the British, he had actually envisioned the INA situation and propelled Bose towards that end.
However, subsequent research by Bose scholars could not authenticate this speech. Vikram Sampath highlights some important evidence which points to the possibility of this being factual.
In 1946, the Free Hindustan newspaper did refer to this broadcast. But more importantly, Sampath points to surfacing of new evidence that ‘portray a picture that is similar to possibly what Keer was trying to build a case for.’
Kapil Kumar, former professor at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), going through the letters of the INA Trials and Military Intelligence Reports, came across a letter dated 31 May 1946 written by a former INA soldier to Sardar Patel.
The INA soldier, K.N. Rao Sirai, wrote that 'there are men who have I.N.A. at heart and worshipping ‘Netaji’ as their God, and waiting for the order, who joined the Army by the advice of Barrister Savarkar in 1942.'
The book also throws light on the controversy of Savarkar’s name being dragged into the Gandhi murder trial. The revolutionary tendencies in Savarkar make many easily accept Savarkar’s role in Gandhi's murder.
After all, was not Savarkar a person who killed the British for political differences? But the book reveals that Savarkar, even during his hot-headed revolutionary days, was against shedding the blood of Indians because of political disagreement.
Savarkar condemned strongly some early revolutionaries who wanted to kill Gokhale. Also, Vikram Sampath should be congratulated for brilliantly pointing out the flaws and inconsistent arguments in the Kapur Commission report, which, without any evidence, blames Savarkar as a co-conspirer in Gandhi’s murder. For example, while throughout blaming the ‘Savarkarites’, the report suddenly jumps to Savarkar himself without evidence. Then, Savarkar himself was not there to defend himself.
Another strong aspect of Savarkar the book brings out is his fight against social discrimination — particularly untouchability and also birth-based notions of varna.
Here, he rubs shoulders with Dr. Ambedkar, who, while admiring Savarkar’s work, openly kept a distance from him ‘for reasons best known to him’, says Sampath.
Yet, there was an instance when Savarkar and Ambedkar made a joint declaration.
On the eve of the Second World War, as Gandhi and the Congress spoke to the Viceroy as the representative of all Indian people, seven Indian leaders issued a statement questioning this claim and calling it 'fascist'.
Savarkar and Ambedkar were among these seven signatories. Savarkar was one of the very few leaders to support the Mahad Satyagraha of Ambedkar wholeheartedly.
The book highlights from Keer’s biography the advice Savarkar gave to N.S. Kajrolkar, a member of the Backward Classes Commission constituted by the Government of India in 1953 when the latter asked for the views of Savarkar.
The below passage, when read in the present context, provides a fresh understanding of Savarkar:
Abolition of untouchability should be enforced by a very ruthless law... to refuse to give treatment of equality to members of the Scheduled Castes should be declared by Parliament a cognizable offence. If they did so, then all the states would be bound by it. The police would then be authorized to take legal action against the offenders and bring them to book. Police protection should be given to members of the Scheduled Castes... the Scheduled Castes should abolish untouchability among themselves, as between Mahars and Mangs and others... the backward classes should be given assistance on the basis of their poverty and illiteracy.
On the whole, the book is a treat for history enthusiasts as well as students of political science, who want to understand Savarkar in the proper context.
Many of the visions of Savarkar have today borne fruit. He was a misunderstood patriot, but a patriot nonetheless. He said things as he saw them and as he saw them coming. He was concerned for the future of Hindus, but was marginalised. The book vividly portrays the agony of this scenario.
Even amidst all this agony, Savarkar, the revolutionary, was also a strong believer of democracy at heart. His revolutionary violence was only targeted at the British, but with respect to his fellow countrymen, he was democratic to a fault.
He did sulk, get irritated when his views were contradicted, but gave space when he knew he was in a minority.
The relation between him and his successor president to the Hindu Mahasabha, Syama Prasad Mookerjee is a case in point.
If one compares here the way Gandhi took the defeat of his candidate at the hands of S. C. Bose, then one has to admit that Savarkar emerges as more democratic than Gandhi.
In the final tragic irony of 1950, Savarkar, who was then 67 and who had suffered already two heart attacks, was arrested in Stalinist fashion by the Nehruvian government for no crime but only to stifle his voice. His son had to apply for a habeas corpus. Sampath minces no words when he says:
The charges had no substance or proof but were merely the paranoia of Nehru and his government. It was a clear attempt to completely eliminate political opposition, especially in the wake of the upcoming first general elections that the country was to witness in 1951.
Finally, Savarkar was made by the Government of free India to give the same assurance that the colonial government asked him to give — not to indulge in any politics.
The occasion was Nehru signing the notorious Nehru–Liaquat Pact that would make Bengali Hindus in East Pakistan the sitting ducks for the coming of the ‘Final Solution’ in 1971.
The book is a rich and commendable continuation of the legacy of Dhananjay Keer, adding more data and context to the life of a glorious patriot and a visionary who agonised over the vision of the future he saw for his people.
But Savarkar is a topic that is not yet exhausted and there are more dimensions in him to seek and bring out.
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