How ‘Veer’ Was Veer Savarkar?

For generations, the followers of Hindutva have venerated Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as Swatantrya Veer Savarkar. Prime Minister Modi has referred to Savarkar as the “true son of Mother India” while the Shiv Sena has demanded that the honour of Bharat Ratna be conferred upon him. Today, Savarkar is often regarded as the father of Hindutva. Let us take a look at the events that led to this title being conferred upon him.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was born in 1883 in the Nashik, Maharashtra. Savarkar’s political life and ideologies can almost be divided into two separate eras: before and after his imprisonment in the cellular jails of Andaman.

Veer-Savarkar-Madras-Courier-10

Before immersing his mind in Hindutva, Savarkar wrote his famous First War of Indian Independence on the revolt of 1857, where he spoke of a united front of Indians, who fought their British oppressors. He was an atheist and a rationalist who disapproved of orthodox beliefs and traditions in all religions. He was a prolific writer and orator, displaying an unusual command of the Marathi language. His two songs Sagara Pran Talmala (Oh Great Sea, My Heart Aches for My Motherland) and Jayostute (In Praise of Freedom) have been sung by the Mangeshkar siblings and have become immortal in Maharashtra.

In 1899, Savarkar and his brother set up the Mitra Mandal, a society that believed in overthrowing the British through armed rebellion. This society was later renamed by him as Abhinav Bharat, after which Savarkar went to London to study law. In London, Savarkar also studied and translated the writings of the Italian revolutionary Mazzini on guerrilla warfare. He asked Indians in London to prepare to fight for complete independence through a revolution. He also circulated pamphlets on making bombs among his friends. These thoughts and actions show that it cannot be disputed that Savarkar was a patriot.

One of Savarkar’s associates, Madan Lal Dhingra was arrested and hanged for assassinating Sir William Curzon Wyllie. Savarkar had inspired Dhingra to do the act and while several other Indian leaders condemned Dhingra’s actions, Savarkar hailed him as a hero and a martyr. Following this, a pistol which killed Jackson, the Collector of Nashik was traced back to Savarkar. He was arrested in London and brought to India. While Savarkar was being transported to India in a ship, he jumped in the sea through a porthole and swam to France. However, he was captured and brought back. What he had done was undoubtedly daring. Savarkar was sentenced to 50 years of imprisonment in the awful cellular jails of Andaman.

Andaman_Cellular_Jail
Cellular Jail, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

This is where we start seeing Savarkar act different from the young, patriotic revolutionary he was. Two years into his imprisonment, Savarkar wrote a plea for mercy asking the British government to let “the prodigal son return to the parental doors of the government.” Four such mercy petitions were filed by Savarkar during his imprisonment at Andaman. In these petitions, he promised to convert to the “constitutional line and bring back all the misled men in India who looked up to him as a leader.” He further added that if the government were to release him, he would become the staunchest advocate of loyalty to the English government. After spending ten years in the Cellular Jail, Savarkar, was shifted to a prison in Ratnagiri in 1921, before his subsequent release in 1924 on the condition of the confinement of his movements to the Ratnagiri district and his non participation in political activities. These restrictions were lifted only in 1937.

Mercy Petition
Correspondence between Savarkar and British officials for one of his mercy petitions

In his last years of imprisonment, Savarkar wrote the book Essentials of Hindutva in which he argues that “Mohammedans and Christians do not look upon India as their Holyland and hence cannot be included under Hindutva.” The British government allowed Savarkar to meet K.B. Hedgewar who founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which, not unlike Savarkar, remained largely subservient to the British Government.

In 1937, Savarkar was elected as the president of the Hindu Mahasabha. As president, he encouraged Hindu men to enlist in the British armies. While Bose, with the help of Japan, prepared the INA for an attack on British armies in India, Savarkar said that Hindus must enter the British forces as fast as possible to prepare for an attack by Britain’s enemies. In response to the Quit India Movement, Savarkar asked all members of the Hindu Sabha to stick to their government posts and enlist cadre to fight the INA. When the leaders of the Congress were arrested, Savarkar didn’t hesitate to enter into a coalition with the Muslim League to run governments in Sindh and Bengal. Savarkar justified this move as “practical politics.” The rebel had become the willing pawn of Britain’s ‘Divide and Rule’ policy.

Savarkar
A cartoon in a Hindu nationalist newspaper from 1945 depicting Savarkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee as “Ram” (good) and other Indian leaders as “Raavan” (evil)

There are many followers and admirers of Savarkar who maintain that he wrote those mercy petitions only to ‘fool’ the British into trusting him. However his actions following his release suggest otherwise. While one who has not faced the horrors of the notorious Andaman cells cannot pass judgment on Savarkar’s bravery (or the lack of), the promises and subsequent actions of supporting the British Raj are probably something that stains his persona as a patriot, nationalist or a ‘Veer’.

By Niranjan Jahagirdar

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